It has been a big few years for Theatre Projects.
As part of a longer-term strategy, we have spent the past half-decade becoming more and more intentional in the ways we think about communities, all manner of communities, and how arts and culture can support them. Through listening, responding, imagining a diversity of organizational models and space types, and expanding services, we want to function at the forefront of larger systemic changes in ways that are adaptive and solution-oriented—making sustainable, grounded moves to empower clients for a lifetime of success.
A significant piece in that equation has been our strategy, operations, management, and planning services, spearheaded by Gena Buhler.
Since starting at Theatre Projects in 2020, Gena has shifted Strategic Planning from a service that largely supported TP’s significant design work to the firm’s fastest growing division, newly reminted as “Strategy & Operations.” Gena is now responsible for a prominent share of projects, four new hires in the past year alone, and an ambitious vision toward further growth—all centered on supporting creative and cultural venues and organizations throughout their entire lifecycle. And lately, between planes, trains, community workshops, and creative planning sessions, she’s been directing the launch of a new service area, Venue Booking and Programming.
Enter Vicki Infinito: venue innovator, community advocate, occasional backpacker, and, notably, Theatre Projects’ new head of arts and entertainment programming. From an impressive history with the likes of Seattle Theatre Group, the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown LA, and the City of Eugene’s Hult Center, Vicki is joining Gena to propel this revamped offering.
To learn more about Vicki’s expansive background, our larger vision, how booking and programming has solidified into a strong standalone service inside Strategy & Operations, and ways programming can support sustainable community development, we sat together for a visioning session, exploring what keeps Vicki and Gena most excited now that the VB&P launch has begun.
I think a good place to start is just with asking, “What inspired this expansion, and how are clients reacting?”
GB: Well, it was part of this company-wide strategic plan we’ve been developing over the past five or so years, and from my end, a lot of it comes from being on the venue side for so long and knowing that executive directors, managing directors, general managers, everyone has a ton on their plates, especially in our secondary and tertiary markets. They get excited in the operational and programming analysis phase when we say, “We have this resource. We have experts who can help your markets grow. We can help you meet your audience development goals. And we can do that without you having to having to hire someone in full-time.”
I love that. It seems like more and more we’re finding new ways to support clients throughout their full lifecycle. Just because the building is open or the report is in hand, that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to be in meaningful relationship with one another.
GB: Long-term, we want to be able to steadily listen to and support the ongoing needs of venues and organizations—to be the person in the room who knows the organization intimately and can offer practical, data-driven solutions. To be able to look at an exhausted interim GM and say, “We can find people to help.”
Our clients often just need that, some meaningful support in an unstaffed area. You need someone to help you figure out your marketing strategy and audience development goals? We can do that. You need ticketing services? We can do that. And this fits in well with services from Brant [Underwood, head of the Theatre Projects Lab]. The folks that he has on the technical direction, creative, curatorial, design-build, fabrication side are also going to have skills our venues need. We get to find new paths to success and we get to stay connected to them locally.
VI: Definitely. I mean, it’s huge. To be able to offer the big thinking of Theatre Projects inside an industry shifting so quickly. Thinking on the impact of changes in government spending, climate change (like we saw with Broadway cancelling shows in June due to wildfire smoke), and with consumer behavior during the pandemic—we can’t rely on what was done in the past. We have a really good opportunity to look at booking and programming more holistically, which I’ve been fortunate to do my whole career.
Being able to step in and help, to look at this piece of our work from a financial standpoint and also a programmatic standpoint—how you can build community with your programming—it’s something we’re good at doing, coming in and collaborating on sustainability from all sides. Venues are the places where people gather and the places where people come in and work together, and it’s so important to who we are as humans to keep that going.
GB: And it’s not just financial sustainability. It’s people and wellness sustainability. It’s environmental sustainability—what it means to be stewards to this planet and this country and being able to look back and say we helped you to make the right choices.
This connection comes up in company-wide conversations and absolutely on the strategy side of our work as well. We’re developing recommendations for all types of venues, for incubator spaces, for hubs that bring gathering, wellness, arts, and community all together. And the performing arts traditional venue is a piece of that, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. More than just acting as a shiny palace on the hill, we need spaces that engage and welcome communities. And programming ties in directly to that.
Absolutely. Tom [Bukovac, head of Theatre Projects AV] and I were just having a conversation about this idea of third spaces, how whether you’re just going to see a concert or you’re engaging in a workshop at a maker space or you’re grabbing a coffee among like-minded people, whatever it is, we desperately need these gathering spaces.
VI: Yes! And we can offer a wide lens on that because we’re watching these trends at a national and global level. I think the secondary markets and tertiary markets are also the best markets for community building. Some historic venues that haven’t embraced population and demographic and cultural shift, they don’t feel open and welcoming. You have to look at changing what you’re bringing into your venues and how programming can invite everyone into your space.
GB: And flexibility is going to be key. Flexibility for the venue design, flexibility for the operational structures, and flexibility for the programming.
Vicki, I feel like you’re uniquely poised as somebody who comes from a diversity of work experiences and venue types to advance what Theatre Projects has already accomplished. Talk about how you came here and what that relationship has been.
VI: As happens with people in this industry, I have personally known Gena and about Theatre Projects for a really long time. And then at a point, the timing was just right. I had been at the Hult Center for almost eight years. I was hired to restart programming there—and actually just found out as I left that they are at almost a hundred percent cost recovery for the first time in the Hult Center’s history, which is amazing! I’m so excited to be going out on that high note, and then now, getting to be there in a new capacity, advising from the outside and supporting their continued programming as a consultant.
But, yes, at the end of my time there, I had been thinking, you know, what are the next steps in my career—how can I make a bigger impact? And Gena’s always been a person that I can have those large, philosophical conversations with. She pitched what she’s been developing here, and I said, “What’s the catch?” And so far, I haven’t found one.
I’m excited and terrified, but at the center of that Venn diagram, that’s where all the growth happens. I’ve been so fortunate thus far. The venues I’ve gotten to work with, the people I’ve gotten to work with: they’re the best in the industry. I’ve been fortunate to have doors open for me, and when this one did, I was thrilled to walk right through.
And I wonder, you touched on this a little bit, but what does it allow you now that you’re at Theater Projects? What space does that make for you personally and professionally?
VI: I mean, personal life, not having to work shows every night is nice. It gets exhausting after 20 years of doing that. But I think what it really allows is the ability to take a step back and better understand the industry. Working these impossible weeks, you don’t get the opportunity to really zoom out very far. You’re always looking at what is happening this week or what is happening this week two years from now. There were few moments when I’d have the brain space to look at the life of a space, and I think that’s a problem a lot of venues have, and I’m happy to help support that wherever I can.
GB: And I think it’s because we’ve been in that seat as venue managers, exhausted or terrified, and that’s why we want to provide help in this market, as we’ve done with our other work for years and years. It’s a collaborative process built on conversations rather than just recommendations.
We want to take the work and the mindset that Richard Pilbrow had when he first started Theatre Projects and keep it going. The community-building, the challenging conversations, the solutions. It’s ongoing. And clients have our cell numbers. Even if we’re not there doing nightly settlements, we’re still just as invested when the show is happening as we were in meetings day-one.