POSTED ON JANUARY 19, 2011:
Setting the Scene
From Small Town to the Big Stage, It's All Greek to Arts Entrepreneur Ken Tracy.
Greek God. Ken Tracy founded Choregus Productions to bring unusual, avant-garde music and theater performances to Tulsa
Ken Tracy is a collector of sorts. He travels the country in search of great performances, bags them up, and brings 'em home to Tulsa, so that locals can enjoy some of the world's most inspired productions.
Tracy started his company, Choregus Productions, in 2006, and it has since become his full-time job.
Tracy is an entrepreneur who has made it his business to bring world-class performers to the belly button of the United States.
Ill and pinned in by a blizzard, Tracy was in New York City last week for a meeting with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. It's one of the largest meetings like it in the world, wherein performers and their agents meet with people like Tracy and schedule their shows.
"It's a lot of fun," he said with a nasally voice. "But after a while, your mind gets boggled. I've been watching performing companies for days now. It gets to be like, 'Who was that dance group I liked again?'"
Choregus was named after an honorary title given to citizens of ancient Greece who financed and organized plays and theatrical productions. Choregus was founded to continue the tradition of citizen-involvement in the performing arts, especially productions that otherwise might not appear on Tulsa stages. Tracy's company focuses on multicultural, avant-garde and edgy theater, dance and music. Choregus also hosts various classes, demonstrations and lectures, and sometimes visits schools and the elderly.
"This is what I do. But it's pretty bare bones," Tracy said. "I have one other paid person on staff, and the rest are volunteers."
Tracy grew up in a small town in Western Oklahoma with a population of only about 800.
"The only performing arts I saw growing up was the high school band. That was it," Tracy recalled. "One time they bussed some of us to Oklahoma City to see their symphony perform, but it wasn't until college that I saw a contemporary dance company."
Living in New York in the early '90s, Tracy finally got to see some outstanding productions, and was convinced that Tulsa needed to see them, too.
But why? What about our locally produced shows? What about Theatre Tulsa, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, among many others? Our divinely unique city is chock-full of talented performers.
Take Nightingale Theatre, for example -- a unfailingly raw theater at 1416 E. 4th St. -- that routinely shocks the city with unusual and borderline-inappropriate material, like the Christmas show by e.e. cummings or the Titillate the 918 burlesque show it staged last week. Tulsa Spotlight Theatre, 1381 Riverside Dr., is home to The Drunkard and the Olio, the longest-running play in the United States, and an impressive string of dedicated actors. We also have our own fleet of dancers, musicians, comedians and improv troupes, including some rather extraordinary ones. There is no shortage of eager performers right here.
"There are a lot of great local companies here -- Tulsa Ballet, for example. They're excellent. But there is more to ballet than what just one company has to offer," Tracy said, admitting that he's noticed a kind of tame hostility from those who would prefer to see only local shows.
"There is a feeling that if one wants to support a local company, they can't also see the productions we bring in, because somehow that's disloyal. So we're fighting that some," he said. "The thing is, there is a whole lot of other stuff out there that needs to be seen. There are a lot of great Tulsa writers, too, but no one would suggest that we should only read their material."
In fact, Tracy doesn't feel like Choregus is in a position to compete with local shows at all. "I think what we're doing is complementing the local guys, not competing. We just present a wider, deeper net," he said.
And Tracy supports local shows, too. In 2009, local actors formed Odeum Theatre Company and came to Tracy with hopes that he would present them. "They knew I had presented The Actor's Gang, the troupe Tim Robbins co-founded."
Tracy agreed to present Odeum -- that is, Chorgeus Productions pays for the performance space, covers the production expenses, and pays the actors with whatever is left over. He also handles much of the public relations and other avenues of support.
"It's been said that if you want to be a successful theater company in Tulsa, you have to do a children's show, a Christmas show, and a musical. Odeum didn't have interest in doing any of these things. They wanted to do serious dramas and smart comedies. I liked that," he said.
Since their partnership, Odeum has produced exactly what it intended. Last year, the group presented Bug and After Miss Julie, two excellent dramas filled with mature themes like lust, anger and pride. Both shows were directed by local greats -- David A. Lawrence directed Bug, and Billie Sue Thompson directed After Miss Julie -- and local audiences enjoyed great acting and impressive production values in both.
In New York City, Tracy is hoping to find more unique offers.
"Right now, I'm focusing on less music, more dance. And contemporary dance only, because nobody is really doing that in Tulsa right now," he said.
Without a background in dance, Tracy evaluates both emotion and overall entertainment to select performances to bring to Tulsa, assuming that the local audiences will judge the productions by the same factors.
"I have to rely on my own reaction to the dance. If it's truly good, the audience will respond to it, even though they may not necessarily know why," he said. "I can feel like I see amazing companies, even if I can't explain them like someone who studies dance."
In 2010, Choregus Productions brought in the Trey McIntyre Dance Project, the music of Cyrus Chestnut, Drumline Live, and partnered with Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave., in hosting the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival, in August. Choregus also presented Koresh Dance Company, a Philadelphia-based group that features original dance pieces, which also happens to be Tracy's personal favorite.
"In comparison to others, their choreography and their dancers are amazing," he said.
This winter, Choregus is staging the music of Quartet San Francisco from California (Feb. 1); Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York (Feb. 22 & 23); and the music of So Percussion from Brooklyn (March 8). In the spring, Tracy's company will present famed New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and New Jersey mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (March 29); Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (April 4 & 5); and the music of all-male a capella group Cantus (May 10).
Odeum Theatre Company will perform Reasons to be Pretty, a play about our world's obsession with physical appearances, Feb. 15-27, followed by Swimming in the Shallows, a fast-paced comedy discussing some of life's tough questions, Apr. 26- May 8, at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, a venue Tracy said he's thankful for.
"When Tulsa Performing Arts Center was built years ago, it was built with public funds, with the idea that it would support local arts, which is a great thing," he said.
There's been a lot of buzz concerning the PAC lately, particularly whether it will be privatized to offset an annual taxpayer overhead of roughly $1.6 million, and while Tracy said he hasn't been in on any behind-the-scenes discussions, his understanding was that the center wasn't built to make money.
"These things do not necessarily make money, and I thought that was understood from the beginning," he said. "Our community was trying to support the arts."
For now, Tracy is focusing on his own theatrical plans, which include setting up future seasons for Choregus, a goal that should also bring more business to Tulsa.
"Some of our major shows will bring people in from out of town. When we presented Drumline Live, I sat next to a woman who had driven in from Amarillo. Those shows also bring in work opportunities for stage hands."
The best way to support local arts?
"Buy a ticket!" Tracy said. "Come see a show!"
For more information, visit choragus.org. To order tickets by telephone, call 918-688-6112. Individual Tickets are available by calling the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Box Office at 918-596-7111 or by visiting myticketoffice.com. To suggest ideas for community classes or visiting lecturers, email email@example.com.
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