January 16, 2017
By Reece Ristau | Photos by Earl Neikirk | Bristol Herald Courier
BRISTOL, Tenn. – When Miles Marek first visited the Twin City two years ago, he stepped onto State Street and could feel the vibrancy of downtown Bristol.
It was a cold night in January, and Marek had flown here to interview to become the executive director of the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, a job he would start six months later in July 2015.
“Every restaurant on State Street was crowded and lit up and full of people,” Marek said. “There was a show taking place in the Paramount that night and you could feel the energy. It was unexpected.”
Marek is now a year and a half into his role helming the Paramount, and during that time, the New York City transplant has been quietly and methodically laying the groundwork to tap into that energy and make the Paramount an indispensable part of the downtown scene.
Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Paramount’s major restoration, when the community raised $1.3 million and a special act of the Legislature provided an additional $1 million, according to the Bristol Historical Association.
“Since then it’s been run very much like a close community organization,” Marek said. “The challenge is, ‘What do you do with it to make it sustainable and healthy and vibrant for the next 25 years?’”
His answer: Allow the Paramount to continue serving the community by making it more of a regional powerhouse. And Marek is brimming with ideas to make that happen.
One change is expanding the audience base. He said the theater’s advertising and social media campaigns will begin thoroughly targeting communities in a 50- to 100-mile radius of the theater.
“We’re determined to make sure that every household within driving distance—say within an hour and a half of the Paramount—knows that we’re here and what’s going on here,” he said.
Marek also wants to see more people in the community becoming members of the Paramount. He said the theater has traditionally been supported by a handful of influential people who have the finances to ensure that it stays alive. While that support is vital— a recent grant from the Massengill-Defriece Foundation is enabling the Paramount to get new curtains—Marek is gunning for community buy-in.
“What we want to do is build a broad base of support so that everybody in the community feels like they have a stake in the place and has a way to get involved and belong,” he said. “You don’t have to be an extremely wealthy person to become a member here and participate and enjoy the privileges of that membership.”
He said even a $20 donation can have an enormous impact.
Another piece of Marek’s vision for the future is about the type of shows the Paramount will produce. Economically, Marek said the 750-seat theater isn’t conducive to touring Broadway shows – most of them require 1,500- or 2,500-seat theaters to make the stop worth it.
“The predominant programming is going to be concert artists across all genres of music, but ones who are sufficiently famous to fill the place out on a regular basis,” Marek said.
Two other plans Marek has for the Paramount are to create a series of events where local artists and musicians play shows that benefit local charities, and to attract Broadway theater producers to use the Paramount as a “theater incubator” for new shows, testing hot-off-the-press musicals away from major sites such as New York City.
The reason some of Marek’s goals for the future are just sprouting, he said, is because the Paramount has had to get things in order on the business side. Since he started, he and his four-person, full-time staff have been mostly focused on behind-the-scenes infrastructure changes, updating how they manage accounting and ticketing—“the very unglamorous infrastructure things that you have to have in place before you try to expand and grow,” Marek said.
For example, Marek inherited a less-than-perfect system of keeping track of patrons and past donors. He said about 70 dusty boxes of paper were scattered throughout the Paramount, full of handwritten memos and chains of Post-it notes keeping track of donors.
Now, Marek’s IT manager, Forrest Swan III, operates a database program that keeps track of donors and donations. Marek said bringing the Paramount into the 21st century has already improved his ability to reach donors and promote shows.
“Pretty much all of that is in place now,” Marek said. “Over the next several weeks and months, people are going to start to see a broader push into the regional marketplace with what I hope they will find is much more exciting programming.
Marek was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, and grew up in Chicago. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art and theater from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After working for many years at a theater company he helped found in Fairfield, Connecticut, he was the artistic and managing director of the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in New York City. He then came to Bristol.
And now that he’s here, and the many moving parts of running a community theater are beginning to set in place, Marek is ready to enact plans he views as paramount: Elevating the Paramount to a new level.
“You don’t reach for the middle,” Marek said. “You aim high.”