Monday, March 12, 2012

Gina Vernaci, a feature story

Gina Vernaci, the guiding light behind the Broadway Series and lots more

You’re sitting in the Palace Theatre in Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare district. The lights dim, the overture starts, and the curtain rises on the likes of MEMPHIS, NEXT TO NORMAL or THE MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Have you ever asked yourself how that show got on that stage or what it takes to make this local hub of professional theatre tick?

Lots of people are responsible for putting a touring Broadway show together--writers, producers, directors. They get the show ready for the tour. Locally, the person most responsible for getting that exact show, on that exact stage, at that exact time is the PHSquare’s Senior Vice President of Theater Operations.

As you can imagine, this is one massive stress-centered task! It takes one heck of a dynamo to get it done, and done well. That person is (drum roll) Gina...the petite, creative, dependable, personable Gina Vernaci.

The product of a small town just outside of St. Louis, she’s responsible for programming the shows, working with the organization’s large paid staff, coordinating 1600 volunteers, managing a 30-million dollars in gross sales, coordinating the sales, education, and marketing, dealing with the laborers who put up and take down the sets, bring in the local musicians, and even hire and supervise the people who sell the refreshments and the tickets.

She makes sure that the 21,000 Broadway series subscribers, who compose the third largest group of advance ticket buyers in the country and all the individual purchasers, get the best that Broadway touring shows have to offer. Cleveland is only outnumbered by the subscription totals of Los Angeles and Seattle.

Planning the season starts about three years out. Yes, the 2012-13 season was basically thought about in 2008, and finalized by last November. On March 27, next season’s offering will be announced. Vernaci is now working on the 2013-14 schedule.

How are the shows picked and signed? She indicates that quality of the production is the most important item. She has to know the capabilities of each of the producers since she has to work so far into the future that many of the shows aren’t yet being performed. She knows the producers personally, so many of the contacts and the deals are forged by personal interactions.

Cleveland is a very desirable market, so her phone is constantly busy. Producers want to bring their shows here. According to Vernaci the city has an unusually high ratio of subscribers relative to the market size which speaks directly to the high interest in the arts in this community. It is also accepted that the area provides discerning appreciative audiences. The physical quality of the theatres also attracts the producers. In contrast to many cities, such as Columbus and Cincinnati, which depend on outside bookers to bring in productions, PlayhouseSquare itself brings in all the Broadway series showings.

What about the other shows that appear on the 10 PhSq stages? Some are produced by resident companies such as Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland State, DanceCleveland, and Cuyahoga Community College, as well as a PhSq-Baldwin Wallace College connection.

In addition, producers of music, comedy and niche audience shows, rent theatre spaces. In total there are over 800 performances annually. This usage is a great financial boon to the area, rendering tax income, restaurant usage, and hotel occupancy, among other stimuli to the economy.

Vernaci, who is member of the Theatre Wing and Broadway League, is a voting member for the Tony Awards. (Yes, she gets to go to the ceremony.) These memberships are only granted to about 800 members on an invitation and elected basis. Her connections with Broadway movers and shakers gives her a leg up on getting prime shows here, usually early in their tours.

Gina is aware of the needs of her subscribers and ticket purchasers. She tries to answer all the emails and phone messages she gets. She listens and takes the comments into consideration. This is a woman with not only great business skills and theatre-awareness, but a people-person who knows all about the importance of relationships.

So, next time a curtain at the Palace or Ohio or State or any of the other venues goes up, think about Gina, the slightly over five-foot dynamo who is the force behind the scenes!