As the group funnels through scaffolding and dusty plywood doors, Anthony Wofford keeps two steps ahead. His eyes light up every time a cavernous feature of the currently under-construction Tobin Center for the Performing Arts reveals itself, as if he, in the company of seven guests wearing hard hats, is seeing this new world unfold before his eyes for the very first time.
Wofford’s energy is contagious. Like a blueprint for the very building we walk through, he’s articulate and precise.
He talks about his plans for the smaller, 250 seat studio theater, or “black box” space, now crowded with equipment and crawling with construction workers, as though the idea for the nonprofit Convergent Theatre Company and its innovative business plan just came to him.
The idea is fresh, and so is his delivery. But make no mistake, he’s done his homework and shows no doubt about bringing his dream to life.
The performing arts industry demands innovation to woo an elusive, often distracted audience in the digital era – Gen Y is particular. With friends and connections in established theater markets in Boston, Los Angeles and New York, Wofford certainly had other options, but his faith in San Antonio’s burgeoning “creative class” market – especially in the revitalizing urban core – has kept him here.
The Tobin Center will also be home to the San Antonio Symphony, Ballet San Antonio, Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio, and Opera San Antonio, who will mainly utilize the 1,750 seat H-E-B Performance Hall – the studio theater also acts as a rehearsal space.
Convergent is selling five high-quality theater productions a year performed by ten resident actors plus contracted-in talent in a world-class performing art center, but he’s also selling an interactive experience – well, as interactive as you’d like it to be.
Box office sales are, of course, a big part of Convergent’s funding plan as are VIP, large donor, and sponsor packages. However, the unique offering of a $10-35 per month membership opens things up to people who would normally walk away before dropping more than $20 for a single show. And if you can’t make a show, for whatever reason, there are other events that Convergent has planned so members still get their money’s worth.
Social events, live music, cocktail parties, dinner with the cast, workshops, and expanded online content (blogs and videos) and volunteer opportunities will be hosted weekly.
“It’s like having different levels of a gym or a Netflix membership,” Wofford said. “You can get as much or as little as you want out of it … it’s cheap enough to skip out on for a month and not feel guilty.”
Here Wofford taps into one of the key values of his target audience: flexibility. The freedom to decide “yes” or “no” in the moment. That’s an attractive model for young professionals or low-income families with either an abundance of spontaneity or limited schedule flexibility. Diverse genre programming also scores some points in the “something for everyone” category.
“In today’s society – flexibility is much more desirable,” Wofford said of the business plan he co-wrote with President Joseph Polisi of his alma mater, the elite Julliard School in New York. “Someone young doesn’t want to pay for anything too far ahead of time.”
The design of the studio theater also lends itself to creativity – moveable seating, high ceilings, and a 14-foot wall facing the Tobin Center’s future River Walk Event Plaza that can be lifted to present the stage, actors, and audience with a view of the plaza through a glass wall.
Wofford has particular insight into his own generation, as the co-founder and chief experience officer (“CEO”), is only 26 years old. During his time at Juilliard, he spent summer and winter breaks experimenting and performing in SA with acting friends from other acting programs in other cities.
“This is how the name came about – Convergent. Then (we) produced shows Off-Broadway in New York City,” Wofford said. But now, Convergent Theatre, the first regional theatre company based in San Antonio, is a year-round full-time job for resident actors.
Wofford is hiring both local talent and bringing in people from out of town.
“It’s not about bringing celebrities here,” he said. “It’s about the quality of talent … and when you come to San Antonio (to work at Convergent), it’s pretty much required that you embrace the community … we want to be more face-to-face with our members.”
The goal isn’t to merely sell out shows every night and send people on their way – although that would be good for business. Wofford said the company is also “cultivating art enthusiasts… it’s about the journey the audience can take – they can finally be a part of the production, have dinner with the actors, talk about possible upcoming shows. Instead of throwing money and (special events) only for large donors, we’re offering everyone the opportunity to be a part of it … to turn people into (arts) advocates in the community.”
Convergent has undertaken a capital campaign to raise a six-figure startup fund. Wofford and some of his family members with their own connection into the business and artistic communities have been working for more than a year,ever since the Tobin’s leadership approved the Convergent as a tenant after a lengthy review and vetting process.
“They weren’t planning on a resident company for the (smaller) theater,” said Corine Wofford. “When Anthony heard that, he came to me and said, ‘Mom, I’ve got an idea.’ … Of course I jumped on board.”
They’ve also employed more traditional fundraising strategies and events. Tours of the construction site have been especially popular, Corine said.
“Every one wants to see what’s going in here,” she said as her son led the tour with David Green, the Tobin Center’s chief operating officer.
Corine has her own international business, communications, and marketing consultancy practice. Anthony’s father, Michael Wofford, is a local accountant. Though the company is Anthony and his co-founders’ brainchild, he happily admits that his parents have helped him rally volunteers, sponsors, and the community for Convergent Theatre. Corine also sits on the local YMCA board, so she brings valuable fundraising and business experience into the equation.
Convergent will also look to incorporate a large educational component into its programming, “elementary to executive,” said Corine. “We’re looking into relationships with other theater companies and school districts.”
The key to Convergent’s success is the success of the arts community it survives in, Corine said. “And the local artists and patrons in San Antonio have a real knack for working together … it’s been a pleasure (to become) a part of it.”
Reporter Bekah McNeel contributed to this article.