Bing’s 842 seats render it tiny in comparison to major concert halls nationwide. It is, however, the largest college-situated auditorium in the world.
To tap into its identity as an integral part of the university, Bing Concert Hall works with Stanford Live, which Wiley Hausam, Executive Director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall, described as “the pathway towards performing arts presenting.”
The frequent crossover between the two organizations makes it difficult to distinguish the different intentions of Bing Concert Hall and Stanford Live. On paper, the pair have parallel objectives that claim to support a broad range of performance art in engaging the entire campus – undergraduates and graduates – in addition to the surrounding community.
Stanford Live works primarily to invite professional, off campus artists to the Stanford campus, as articulated in their mission statement:“Stanford Live is a multi-disciplinary performing arts on the great campus of Stanford University. We are committed to sharing, celebrating, and advancing the art of live music, dance, theater, and opera. We unite celebrated and emerging artists with the Stanford campus and greater Bay Area communities in a broad range of experiences to engage the sense and emotions, stimulate minds, and enrich lives. We value artistic vitality, learning, and an inclusive community.”
Stanford Live’s mission statement to endorse inclusivity, support a range of performance art, and celebrate emerging artists, does not translate directly to the Bing auditorium.
Bing’s state of the art sound design constrains the range of performance it can support. “[Bing] is really a concert hall,” Hausam explains. “It’s not meant to do dance and theater, and the space is so resonant that spoken word is difficult.”
The economics behind performances at Bing explain why Stanford Live’s intention to celebrate emerging artists is difficult to apply to the specific case of the Bing space.
Though Stanford Live is headquartered at Bing and frequently sponsors performances in the space, the hall itself is a separate, self-operating non-profit with a full-time technical staff.
“Stanford Live pays significant amount of money to use Bing for its performance throughout the year,” says Hausam. If a student group wanted to perform as a main stage act, they would have to raise the estimated $20,000 nightly rental price.
“It’s an expensive facility, because the labor is professional stage hands,” Hausam explains. “Student groups reimburse us for the actual cost of operating the hall during that time: the technicians, the house staff, ticketing, and if they request food and beverage we subcontract it through residential housing and dining.”
Although Bing Auditorium purports to be engaging the entire campus in a reinvigoration of the arts, there are only so many student groups that can meet the $20,000 ticket price. This year, Hausam estimates, 70 – 80% of the performers at Bing are visiting artists.
On campus groups are precluded not only by enormous sum of funds required to rent out the hall, but also by the pressure to fill every seat.
“I’ve never been at another performing arts venue where a sold but unoccupied seat was considered to be not successful,” Hausam says. “Even when we sell out every seat, and fifty people who bought tickets don’t show up and there are fifty empty seats, because it’s in the round, you can see virtually every seat. You just find yourself counting the empty seats, and that’s perceived as not successful.”
But for student groups, perhaps the most challenging barrier is the screening process they must pass through in order to get approved at Bing.
Stanford Live relies on Nanci Howe, Associate Dean and Director at the Office of Student Activities, to vet student groups before they are approved to perform in Bing.
Many qualities factor into success, among them being acoustically appropriate for the space and having the “kind of experience putting events together that would make it likely that they would have a successful event.”
“Nanci gives us a sense of whether student groups are likely to be appropriate in Bing and will succeed,” Hausam says. “She knows them and we don’t.”
Although Bing and Stanford Live, which grew from the old Stanford Lively Arts program, are recent additions to campus, there is more than unfamiliarity preventing some student groups from performing.
Non-musical, student-led performance groups on campus – for example, student run dance, theater, and even a capella groups – struggle with the vagueness of the application process. There is neither an application on Bing’s website nor clear contact information.
Emerging artists who have no background that might be screened and no proven experience putting events together have no chance.
Two obvious counter examples highlight a more invisible barrier: a lack of trust in Stanford’s undergraduate population.
In April, the Class of 2013 put on a Senior Arts Gala at Bing, a medley of student performances spanning visual, dance, and musical art. As the first performance of its kind in the new Bing Concert Hall, the Gala acted as a guinea pig for future undergraduate classes.
As Hausman describes, the performance was a great success. “Students approached it with great seriousness and professionalism. The event was sold out, and they all dressed up.”
Despite this success, there seems to be a glass ceiling somewhere between the Office of Student Activities, Stanford Live, and the Bing Concert Hall that bars student groups from performing main stage acts: a ceiling built out of the fear that students approach performances too casually and without the correct professionalism.
The fact that student groups must have faculty support to pass through the screening process for consideration by Stanford Live is further proof of this invisible barrier.
“[Bing] is meant for students that are sponsored by academic arts departments, primarily for the music department.” Hausam explains.
Though it was not faculty sponsored, the Mendicants’ concert at Bing last Saturday fulfilled the prerequisite professionalism because alumni organized the event. The process for the Mendicant alumni to rent out the space was shockingly simple compared to that for students groups. “They just called and requested to use the space,” Hausam says. “Because they’re alumni and the group is having a major reunion, it sounded like a really good thing to do.”
For students, just calling and requesting the space is not an option, and although student-led performance groups are unlikely to get approval to appear as main-stage acts, campus groups are encouraged to perform as opening acts for professional artists.
“[Stanford Live] is also about student engagement, and often we bring students into direct contact with visiting artists,” Hausam says.
Stanford Live searches for undergraduate performers to open for professionals through a group called SLAM, Stanford Live Ambassadors. Ambassadors are hired on an annual basis, and each ambassador is paired with a performance in need of an opener.
Kasiemobi Udo-okoye, a Stanford Live Ambassador last year, was paired with the Cappella Romana concert in February. “My job was to find a student group to perform as an opening group to a professional group. Because it was an established program, [the job] was pretty easy. They had a format they wanted to work with.”
Currently, SLAM and the process of choosing student openers relies on word of mouth and on knowing someone important.
How do students become part of SLAM? “Just send an email to me,” Hausam says. “I’ll connect them with the rest of the group.”
Reaching out to student groups as opening acts relies on a similar prerequisite knowledge of the inner workings of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall.
“Even as I was reaching out to student groups, I was hearing, ‘What?’ I have never heard about this opportunity!’” Udo-okoye says. “The original complaint was that it’s only student groups that are associated with the music department that really had an avenue to performing at Bing.”
Unfortunately for aspiring student performers, Stanford Live has no economic motivation to better reach out to the undergraduate community.
Most groups cannot afford the ticket price of a night to perform at Bing, but even if Stanford Live were to offer a discount to undergraduate performance groups, the pressure on Stanford Live to fill every seat in the house combined with their distrust of amateur and emerging artists would still lead them to favor professional performers.
This article is part of a series about Bing Concert Hall’s relationship to the undergraduate community. Part 2 will discuss ticket sales and performances geared toward students.