How does a daughter of musicians dropped in the middle of Northeast Wisconsin by providence, impoverished yet empowered, grow up to be a leader and an advocate?
While Maria Van Laanen, president of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, may not have grown up in the Caribbean or faced a devastating hurricane, her journey is not unlike that of Alexander Hamilton, the subject of the pop culture phenomenon “Hamilton,” making its run at the PAC Oct. 1-20.
Van Laanen, who grew up in a family of musicians, was born in Green Bay and lived in poverty, facing unhealthy and dangerous conditions. She moved around Northeast Wisconsin and settled for a time in New Mexico before returning to the Green Bay area.
To rise above his circumstances, Hamilton turned to writing and education and a community that “took up a collection just to send him to the mainland.” Van Laanen’s way out came through high school teachers who saw a spark in her and nurtured it by giving her leadership opportunities. These experiences helped her build confidence and made her realize she could break the cycle.
“Growing up, art and specifically music, were always my refuge,” she says. “It was always my place where I could go.”
Finding that passion and support would be key to Van Laanen’s ascent. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and later completed the Executive Program in Leadership through the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Van Laanen began her career working with touring Broadway shows through Jujamcyn Theaters. Based in Minneapolis, her work took her to locations nationwide.
Home called in 2001 when Van Laanen heard about plans for the PAC and fell in love with its mission. She joined the staff as director of marketing that year, later becoming executive vice president before being named president in 2014. The move has brought her career full circle, to a place where she can help others, whether it’s providing cathartic entertainment or reaching kids facing the same difficult circumstances she experienced.
“Now, here at the performing arts center we get to do that for so many people in our community, provide that opportunity to maybe just escape the troubles of the day. But for others, especially our students who are at risk, it lets them see there’s another choice, there’s another path,” she says.
Story of tonight
For two years, the PAC has been fielding calls about “Hamilton” and when tickets might go on sale, says Ryan Brzozowski, director of patron sales and services for the PAC. Given all that buzz, becoming the first venue in the state to land the sensation was a coup.
In all the frenzy, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that “Hamilton” is one of 37 shows to make its Wisconsin Broadway debut at the PAC. It joins other juggernauts including “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Mamma Mia!” in playing first at the PAC.
“‘Hamilton’ is so exciting because it’s been such a phenomenon, but this is just another feather in the community’s cap,” Van Laanen says.
It may seem surprising for the Fox Cities to beat out larger cities such as Milwaukee or Madison, but Van Laanen says the PAC has developed a reputation as a place where producers want to bring their shows. As a for-profit industry, it’s first and foremost a business decision, she says, and the PAC checks important boxes. It offers a talented labor pool, affordable prices and a loyal and active audience.
The area also provides a safe, accepting, welcoming and walkable community. Producers think of their casts as family members, and they know when they send them to the Fox Cities, they’ll be well taken care of and enjoy a good quality of life, Van Laanen says.
Business leader Kathi Seifert, a member of the PAC board of trustees who helped lead efforts to bring the center to Appleton, credits Van Laanen and her leadership for the success on this front.
“Maria and her team take incredible care of all the performers,” she says. “The hospitality is very well appreciated, whether it’s a brat fry or helping them get acclimated to the community.”
As for the enthusiasm surrounding the show, Van Laanen says “Hamilton” resonates with people for many reasons. It features a diverse cast and combines musical genres including R&B, jazz and rap with spoken word to deliver crossover appeal, she says.
In addition, it takes an old story, the founding of our nation, and reminds people that we were founded by a bunch of immigrants. In a time when so many in society feel marginalized, it helps to remember that those who started “this new great experiment” were the others and the misfits who felt taken advantage of, Van Laanen says.
“To take that same premise and translate it into what today’s immigrants look like just helps it become more relevant because I think right now, our picture of what an immigrant is … is very different than what it was back then,” she says.
Room where it happens
Much goes into making the PAC a standout, from its 33 full-time staff members to its dedicated corps of 500 volunteers and 100 part-time workers who help deliver an exceptional guest experience to the physical space. The latter is a special accomplishment.
Seifert says many factors aligned to help complete the $45 million facility in an ambitious 31-month timeframe. In 1999, the then-named Aid Association for Lutherans — now Thrivent Financial — committed to getting behind the building of the PAC if it could be completed in time for the company’s 100th anniversary in 2002.
Thrivent Chairman John Gilbert gave the lead gift of $8 million, and 14 Fox Cities municipalities dedicated another $8 million through hotel and motel room taxes, with the City of Appleton contributing extra and its Redevelopment Authority committing $4.2 million to acquire and prepare the land for the facility. John Bergstrom led the fundraising charge for the remaining amount.
To help ensure an exceptional final product, leaders went around the country to visit other performing arts centers to learn what they loved about their facilities and what they would do differently if they could. Those learnings contributed to plans for the 25,000-square-foot facility. The Boldt Co. worked with Toronto-based architecture firm Zeidler to execute the vision.
The resulting creation, which includes the main 2,100-seat Thrivent Financial Hall and the smaller Kimberly-Clark Theater, delivers patrons a space that wows on multiple levels. With no pillars to obstruct views in the four-level theater and the farthest seat just 108 feet from the stage, Van Laanen says there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Built in an opera house style with seats encircling Thrivent Financial Hall’s 5,000-square-foot stage, the design lends itself to a feeling of intimacy that touches audiences and artists alike, who Van Laanen says tend to give a little more in their performances when they’re at the PAC.
Angelo Ninivaggi, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Plexus Corp. and board chairman for the PAC, hails from New York and has seen many shows both there and in Chicago. For “Hamilton” though, he’s holding out to see it at the PAC.
“I think the PAC is one of the best venues. It stands up to any performing arts center anywhere in terms of the quality of the facility and experience,” he says.
Blow us all away
As the vision for the PAC came into focus, organizers wanted to ensure it would be a place for people at all levels of the community, not just a select few. It’s delivered on that promise with programs for groups from students to disadvantaged individuals and families.
The PAC and Appleton Area School District are members of the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which gives teachers tools for using the arts to educate.
The organization’s PATHS program (Performing Arts Touch the Hearts of Students) reaches out to at-risk and underserved middle and high school students. A group of Appleton Central students, for example, will attend “Hamilton” and work with local artists on storytelling to develop perseverance and learn self-advocacy skills.
The Center Stage High School Musical Program allows students to engage in workshops with touring artists. Last spring, a producer from “Come from Away” came to town and talked to students about how she reached that role. The experience culminates in a community showcase in which two students are selected to go to New York and take part in the Jimmy Awards, which recognize high school musical theater programs.
While touring Broadway shows carry higher ticket prices, the PAC’s Boldt Arts Alive series showcases top talent and offers tickets that cost closer to $25 to $30. Its Broadway League’s Family First Nights partners with the Boys & Girls Club of the Fox Valley to expose families in need to the magic of Broadway.
The center’s impact also touches businesses. When employers recruit top talent to the area, the PAC is often one of their first stops. It showcases to prospective employees the chance to see premier touring artists as well as opportunities to get involved in the arts.
“We’re so proud to partner with our business community to be able to tell that story,” Van Laanen says. “We know that our business partners recognize the fact that as they are fighting this war on talent and trying to make sure they’re recruiting and retaining top talent, they see the performing arts center as playing a major role in their ability to do that.”
As for economic impact, the PAC partners with Americans for the Arts, which conducts an Arts & Economic Prosperity study. The last study, completed in 2017, showed in an average season, the PAC generates about $12 million in economic activity. Of course, this is no average season. The three-week, 24-show run of “Hamilton” alone is expected to generate more than $20 million in economic activity.
What comes next
In addition to “Hamilton,” the PAC’s 2019-20 season boasts two other Best Musical Tony Award winners, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Band’s Visit,” as well as “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville,” which will become the center’s 38th Wisconsin first. The stellar lineup has led to a huge bump in sales: Last season saw 7,000 season ticketholders; that number has grown by thousands for the upcoming season.
The buzz creates an opportunity to educate the community about all the PAC offers. Buying a ticket carries an impact. Not only do season ticket sales support the PAC’s delivery of outreach programs, they help the organization continue to draw top shows.
Van Laanen and her team plan to continue to grow the PAC’s educational programs, which engage 24,000 students annually. Nurturing programs such as Center Stage provides kids a sense of home and a place they want to return to after college, Van Laanen says.
As a nonprofit, the PAC runs as a “lean, fierce and passionate organization.” It has maintained roughly the same number of staff members throughout its 17-year history, but Van Laanen says if it continues its trend of running 400 to 500 events annually, it will look at adding more staff.
In 2018, the organization launched the Northeast Wisconsin Professional Advisory Committee. Nick Reising, director of development for the PAC, oversees the initiative, which introduces new voices and looks at how the organization can become a more effective community collaborator.
“We realized that to be a diverse organization, we wanted to make sure we had voices of all different areas of our community, and we found that this was an opportunity to bring these champions of our cause together to help celebrate what makes the PAC here special,” he says.
Ryan Downs, president of GLK Foods and a board member for the PAC, leads the N.E.W. Professional Advisory Committee. At 41, he sees himself as a bridge between the younger generation and the “old guard” who helped establish the PAC. In its first year, the group has looked at everything from programming to drawing future donors.
As one of its first actions, the committee added Crescendo to the organization’s annual Chairman’s Gala. The event, which ran as an after party for the black-tie affair, offered the community a lower-price-point way to engage with the organization’s mission. Downs says the group looks to continue to add more parties and fundraisers to support the PAC’s mission.
As it moves into the future, the PAC is focusing on diversity and inclusion work and ensuring it’s reaching deeper into marginalized community segments so that everyone feels represented, Van Laanen says.
“We can expose more people in the community to the richness that we have and the diversity of our community and really gain a greater appreciation … for how strong and vibrant that makes us if we can keep celebrating all these wonderful, different experiences that people bring to the table.”
While the easiest way to secure tickets to “Hamilton” was to become a season ticket holder prior to the 2019-20 season, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve thrown away your shot to see the show in Appleton.
Tickets to the general public went on sale in mid-August. Maria Van Laanen, president of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, says by press time for this issue, ticket availability will be extremely limited. For those still interested in purchasing tickets, the best way to check availability is to call the ticket office.
“The demand is incredibly high. It’s probably one of the most anticipated titles we’ve ever had here at the center and being the Wisconsin premiere, there’s even more of that excitement here,” says Ryan Brzozowski, director of patron sales and services for the PAC.
With this show or any, Brzozowski says buyers should know about the prevalence of fraudulent ticket sellers. Even before tickets went on sale, people were claiming they had tickets and were attempting to sell them for hundreds of dollars. The only way to ensure you have a legitimate ticket is to purchase in person at the ticket office or on the Fox Cities PAC or Ticketmaster websites, he says.
“Anything else and they run the risk of certainly paying more than what we’re charging for those tickets and potentially not having legitimate tickets,” Van Laanen says.
For more information, visit foxcitiespac.com/events-tickets/tickets/events/hamilton/hamilton.
Fox CitieS Performing ArtS Center
Year founded: 2002
Employees: 33 full-time, 100 part-time during peak season
Visitors served annually: 200,000-plus
Students reached annually: 24,000
Economic impact: $12 million annually in a typical season; $20 million projected from “Hamilton” alone