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Backstage With Boston's Celebrity Series - What It Takes To Make A Season

06/30/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Bostonians know that one of the greatest purveyors of culture is the Celebrity Series of Boston, offering 45 events a year across 8 venues.

Yo-Yo Ma, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, David Sedaris, and new, lesser-known performers all grace Celebrity Series stages.

So how do you put together all those shows? What acts do you select? Where do you put them? How do you ensure the audience will be receptive?

Gary Dunning, the Celebrity Series' Executive Director, comes from a background in circus and ballet.

Whether it's clowns and elephants or orchestras and dancers, Dunning knows what to do.

"Mostly it all comes down to logistics," he says. "It's a big jigsaw puzzle we put together every year."

Venue is one of their larger constraints. Despite their long history and success, they don't own any theaters, but this restriction can also be a strength.

"We aren't tied to a single venue," Dunning says. "This means we can match the venue to the artist and vice versa."

Which leads to the next challenge -- booking the artists. The biggest name classical performers need to be booked out years in advance, which some jazz artists typically plan only six months into the future.

"It's even harder for foreign performers," says Dunning. "Let's say we've got a European group. We've got to wait until they announce a North American tour. Then we have to compete with other attractive offers by companies from around the country. It can easily take three years."

Though classical music represents almost half of the programs, the Celebrity Series has always offered very diverse programming.

"We want to keep our season ticket holders happy, of course," says Dunning, "but we also want to challenge audiences and introduce fresh talent to Boston. It's a financial risk to bring on acts people don't know, but we think it's worth it, to help them build audiences.

"It can take three to five years to see whether we can grow an audience for a new performer."

In addition to big names like superstar pianist Lang Lang, the Celebrity Series presents a handful of young artists that seem to come from nowhere.

"We started the Debut Series," Dunning explains, "in a smaller venue to allow us to present young artists who are wonderful, but may not be known to the Boston audience because many of them haven't toured here yet. I like the idea of presenting artists early in their career. As they develop, as they find their voices, they evolve and mature.

"This is not a business that's based on trying to make a profit off of every engagement. It's easy to forget that Yo-Yo Ma was a young, talented beginner. Now he's everybody's best friend."

Then there are the acts that don't work. Even with such an experienced booking staff bringing in some of the finest acts, sometimes a show just doesn't land like they would hope. There's always a chance the artist has an off night. Whether tired from the road or not being able to fit in enough rehearsal time or any of the many other unglamorous realities of a life of touring.

Occasionally a performer doesn't mesh well with the audience. The most important factor in preventing this is knowing the kind of performer the audience will respond to.

"Some artists are too in their own head," Dunning says. "We look for artists willing to be vulnerable, to really reveal themselves, to develop that connection with an audience. Boston is known for very knowledgeable and enthusiastic audiences. That connection with an artist is what drives transformative experiences."

With all the complex machinations of putting on a season, for Dunning, it all comes down to creating a great experience, "I think our ultimate job is, in a sense, picking the right artist, and putting them in the right venue in front of the right audience. If you do that, that's when the magic is possible."

For more about the Celebrity Series of Boston, including a complete lineup of events, click here: www.celebrityseries.org