A Q&A with Tim Sauers

Overture Center’s vice president of programming and community engagement shares his love for Broadway hits and high school theater

PHOTO BY MARTHA BUSSE

Tim Sauers

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on a farm. I’m a farm boy. And I loved it. Looking back.

How did you first become interested in the theater?
I was in second grade. I was a shy, introverted kid. Everyone laughs at me now when I say that, but it’s still true. We were getting ready to do this school play and our teacher read to us every day from books. When it came time to do the play, we voted on the book we liked best and it was Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I got cast as Mr. Popper and all I remember is, when we were rehearsing it, I went home to my parents and I said, “I am going to be an actor.” And God love my parents who were raised in the country. They were like, “Fine. Whatever you want.” And from that day forward I knew what I wanted to do.

How did it flourish from there?
I did all the plays and musicals in school, whenever there were opportunities. We didn’t have many but then I would go see things—I had a thirst to go out and see as much as possible. There was a university in my hometown and I would go see their plays. And we would go all over the place to see everybody else’s high school musicals. Every school would do a musical like they do today. So when I was applying for colleges I knew I wanted to do theater. But my guidance counselor would not sign off on my college applications, saying, “You can’t make a career of it.” My mother and dad went in and said, “You can’t tell my son what he wants to do. Sign those applications.” That really was supportive.

In college [at Susquehanna University] I really got more interested in directing than performing. It was a lot of fun. We were a small liberal arts college with a small department but we worked all the time. I think that was one of the best things I could ever have done.

All my friends were from Jersey or New York. I can’t tell you how many times we’d all pile in a car and go into New York and see play after play. We’d go to Broadway, and back in those days you could go to the half price ticket booth and see a play for fifteen dollars. I don’t know how any college student affords to do that now.

After college, I went to Michigan State to get my master’s degree and at the same time I started to work professionally. I was doing summer stock up on Cape Cod and Rhode Island. In between my junior and senior years in college, I ran the box office at the fabulous Falmouth Playhouse, and it was a star circuit tour summer. Every week a new show would come in with some kind of star in it.

Shelley Winters was there in a show and Jean Stapleton was there in a show. It was the time of The Love Boat, so Bernie Kopell came and Fred Grandy. And a lot of Broadway people who would eventually go on to win Tony Awards later. That circuit doesn’t really exist anymore. It was kind of fun.

You got not just one master’s degree but two.
From Michigan I moved to Chicago, and picked up the second at Columbia College in Interdisciplinary Arts, the study of aesthetics. It was so cool and interesting. It was a group of artists: dancers, actors, writers, visual artists and musicians. And we would take all our classes together for a couple years and we would study and create work. It really set me up for the kind of work I do now. I would never have studied dance like that. I would never have gone to visual art to study and look at it and then create it. You really understood the way the works of art were created and moved.

What are five things you absolutely cannot live without?
The gym is one of them. I can’t live without that. My morning smoothie. It depends on the day but most of the time I have banana, kale and then some mixed fruit like cherries and blackberries. I have a smoothie every day. My computer, because I’m on it every day. It’s the first thing I do in the morning after I stretch. I sit down at my computer because you know I don’t read a newspaper anymore. I go to the computer to look at the news, the weather and Facebook. Facebook is another thing I can’t live without every day. And I would say music. I listen to music every day.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Cake. I don’t cook a lot but when I do on Sunday nights I cook something you can have a couple of times during the week. And I love to have a piece of cake every Sunday night.

What rules do you believe in breaking?
I don’t believe in rules. Rules are guidelines, but every situation is always different.

You were a theater critic for eleven years. How did that help form and hone what you love on the stage?
You see everything. All kinds of productions. What I loved about reviewing theater in Chicago, there’s so many shows. From the tiny storefronts that sat fifty people to touring Broadway, Goodman, Steppenwolf and all that. Your critical eye and your analysis become really sharp. If shows were exciting and interesting, you get that word out there to do the audience development piece. I never wanted to harm a company. If the show wasn’t good, I would say maybe this didn’t work and this is why it didn’t work. We want to develop audiences so that our community is successful. 

Did you ever think about going back and being a part of the New York theater scene? What kept you in the Midwest?
The work. If I’m engaged in the work, I feel satisfied and fed. A city like Chicago rivals New York. They have so many great productions and companies now. And look at all the shows that are transferred now every year from Chicago to Broadway. Steppenwolf does it. The Goodman has done it. Looking Glass has done it. When I go to New York and see shows, I see a lot of Chicago people working. It’s really exciting. Being in Madison for almost six years, I’m watching this community grow like that, too.

Overture’s 2013–14 season is the first that you programmed. What did you learn?
I’ve learned that there are a lot of venues bringing in artists, and I’m trying to think about what’s our niche. What can we bring in that nobody else can that makes our programming noncompetitive, because there’s a lot of competition for discretionary dollars. This fall we had in Jake Shimabukuro, the ukulele player. He was a sell-out. When I was booking him, I knew he had played Stoughton a couple years ago and sold those five hundred seats, but he had started to rise from those days. When I was talking with the agent, he said, I think he can fill your thousand-seat house now. And he did.

What’s been your favorite event of the season?
We had Complexions in last week, a contemporary dance company that mixes with ballet. One of the missions of the company is complexions as a skin tone, so they’re a very multiethnic draw for dancers. It was so beautiful and the audience loved the performance. The dancing was unbelievable and I was sitting in the audience so proud to have brought them in.

What is unique about Madison audiences?
The thirst here for people to participate. This community in Madison wants to be engaged. I started this new education series around our Broadway shows called Cocktails with Tim. When I first came here, I noticed people didn’t really understand Broadway touring and how it worked. People were interested in Broadway shows but they didn’t necessarily know Broadway names. I wanted to educate them because I want to bring in these names in the future and I want to make sure there is an audience there to see them. 

What does Cocktails with Tim consist of?
A week or two before the show there’s a special evening. They come, they drink, we have the Tommy kids [local high school musical award winners] perform numbers from the show. We bring in special guests, like last year when we did West Side Story,we had a fight choreographer show them how fights were done. At the same time, we put new titles in front of them. We get their feedback as a focus group. It filled up like that [snaps fingers]. So this year we have to do two nights and that will be full, too. My vision with them was, we want to get to know you as Overture’s investors. You’re coming to Broadway. You’re buying a season packet every year and other shows as well. We want you to be satisfied, too. I want to turn our relationship from ticket buyer to friend. I look so forward to the night because they’re all my friends now. 

What’s your favorite cocktail to have at Cocktails with Tim?
We have a specialty one for each show. Like we had the “Maniac” for Flashdance. I drink the special. That’s what the majority of the people drink. They want to have a meaningful experience. It’s just so much fun.

You started the Tommy Awards in 2010 to honor excellence in high school theater. How do you think our kids in Wisconsin are doing?
They’re doing great. When we looked at developing this program, we went up to Minneapolis to see their awards, the Spotlight Awards, which is a few years older than ours. An OC staff member and I were crying because it was this vulnerable, cool experience and we were like, “We don’t even know these people and we’re moved by this.” We want it! We were driving back and planning the program and we had it named after Tom Wopat [the musical and television actor born in Lodi] by the time we landed. And I said at that time, “Well, I’ll be surprised if we have anything near the talent of Minneapolis,” but that is so not true. When we started five years ago we saw twenty-three productions at twenty-one schools. This year we’re at sixty-four productions.

The Tommy Awards has developed a community of people. It’s hard for us at the end. The reviewers nominate the awards. At the end of the show, the school gets a written combination critique of all the reviewers’ comments. Then in the spring we put it all together in a big show. Wisconsin Public Television is our partner so they broadcast highlights of that. My heart goes out when those awards are being determined because there are just so many talented students. Two years ago, our show was five hours long. It was too long but I said to the audience during the show, “What would you cut?” You can’t cut these performances. One of our reviewers said, “You have now put in a rubric in our community of what is excellence in high school theater and everyone is now striving toward that rubric.”

It’s interesting that you’re someone so well versed in the world of professional theater, and yet you are able to go and enjoy high school productions.
I sit in that audience and when that curtain is ready to go I’m excited for them. I want it to be a good show and I want them to do really, really well. A couple of years ago we had forty-four shows and I saw forty of them. I think next weekend we have four or five shows and I’m going to go to two of them and I’m going to think, what did I miss at those other shows?

Any sneak peeks you can give us from Overture’s 2014–15 season?
I’m very excited about William Shatner’s Shatner’s World, a one-man Broadway show that’s just his goofy take on the world. The other person I want to bring is Vanessa Williams. She’s touring with a big twenty-piece orchestra. I thought, how lovely would that be?

I’m excited about this guy Cameron Carpenter, an organist and young Juilliard student. He plays everything from Bach to Lady Gaga and his show is wild and crazy. He makes all his own costumes so he has the really artistic feel and look about him. And he’s going to be touring with the first touring organ, made especially for him.

I want to bring in Molly Ringwald next year. She does a jazz show. People are so excited about Molly Ringwald.

The big Broadway show is Book of Mormon. That’s one of my dream shows for Madison because it is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. It’s perfectly constructed. Has catchy great music. There’s a love story that’s beautiful at the center. They don’t make fun of the Mormons really. The Mormons have kind of embraced it.

If you could host a dinner party with any three people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
I love that question. I used to ask that question a lot when I directed shows. I would ask it of the actors. I would say Stephen Sondheim because I’m a huge fan of his musicals. Mary Chapin Carpenter, because she’s one of my favorite singers of all time and I’ve probably seen her the most in concert, probably fifteen times live. And Kathy Griffin because she would just be so much fun. I’ve seen her probably seven or eight times live. And then Joan Rivers, too! I met her when she was here a couple years ago and I wish I could’ve spent more time with her. I found her to be one of the most delightful people I’d ever met. She has such a huge heart. That persona she puts on when she performs. But backstage when she was here, she got gifts for everybody who worked on her show.   

The 2014 Tommy Awards are June 8. For more information, visit overturecenter.com/ community/tommy-awards

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