How Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Terry Dwyer keeps audiences returning
On any given evening you’ll find Terry Dwyer enjoying a hit Broadway musical, a symphonic concert or a ballet by one of the world’s great dance companies. It’s all in a day’s work – or an evening’s, to be accurate. As president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Dwyer is on a mission to keep the center enriching Orange County, not just this week or next year, but as far ahead as he can. The perks are plenty – including meeting performers he admires – but so are the demands: Dwyer, a board of directors and a staff of 115 steer the 30-year-old center, which includes the original multipurpose house, a concert hall, an intimate cabaret theater, a black box space and a public plaza. The goal? Keep subscribers returning while finding relevance for a variety of communities. Dwyer, who lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Amy, discussed the center’s vision one quiet morning in the Center Room, the private lounge for donors.
Coast: Thirty years ago people here would drive to Los Angeles to see musicals and concerts. What was then called the Orange County Performing Arts Center helped make Orange County its own place, not reliant on L.A. Now that a whole generation has grown up with the center, what do you see as its role?
Dwyer: Back then, with great pride and ambition, there was a countywide impulse for a world-class performing arts center. At all levels people chipped in and found a way to make it happen. That sense of communitywide support has stayed with the center. We have an increasingly diversifying community that has different needs and interests. The center continues to be committed to being a world-class culture educational resource, but we are now simultaneously committed to being a great civic resource.
Coast: The center was very traditional in the beginning, leaning heavily on a large core of season subscriptions. As subscriptions have cut back here and everywhere, what have you done to reach new audiences?
Dwyer: We’ve continued the flagship programming that we’ve always done: jazz, cabaret, chamber music, Broadway, classical dance and the like, but as the community has changed, we’ve evolved. We have added-value enrichment programs – where audiences can learn more about the performance they’re about to see or go to social events that might happen after a performance. We’ve significantly expanded the free programs on the plaza, and we will soon break ground on a whole transformation of the plaza. We’ve started to do more programs out in the community.
Coast: Such as?
Dwyer: We are partnering with nine organizations, including Camp Pendleton, the Alzheimer’s Association, CHOC Hospital and various groups in Santa Ana.
Coast: Besides reaching new audiences, are there other benefits to this programming?
Dwyer: You are more likely to find potential donors to take a fresh look at you. We are engaging more people who are interested in supporting us who hadn’t been interested in supporting us before.
Coast: Let’s talk programming. There are musicals you can always count on, that you are always pleased that you can put on your schedule. What do they mean for Orange County?
Dwyer: We are an attractive venue for the blockbuster Broadway shows that are touring, like “Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Lion King.” When you have two or three of those productions in a season, then you can present other performances that may be a little more adventurous or less well-known. And plays, such as “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” coming in 2017.
Coast: Next season you have “Hamilton,” which you and I both saw and loved in New York. I’ve wondered how the center was able to get that huge hit so soon.
Dwyer: With our large house and enthusiastic audiences, Broadway shows always want to come to the Segerstrom Center. So we are one of the very few venues to see “Hamilton” in its first major touring year.
Coast: Where do you see the center in five years or beyond?
Dwyer: On the plaza we are going to be presenting 25 to 30 weekends a year of free performances. We are going to host community performances and support the works of other charities. Five or 10 years from now when someone is asked where the Segerstrom Center is, we want them to respond that the center is not just on the campus or on the plaza or in schools, but that we are everywhere.