Scott Shiller fell in love with theatre from the very back row. Not the cheap seats … the free seats.
The Shiller family turned day trips from their small farming community in rural Missouri into theatre outings at St. Louis’ massive, 4,500-seat Fox Theatre, where the seats in the very back row are always free.
“Both of my parents were college professors, on college professors’ salaries,” said Shiller. “But they wanted me and my brother to grow up with arts and culture as part of our lives. So mom and dad would pack the family in the car with a picnic lunch and we would drive to downtown St. Louis. We would sit on the sidewalk and wait for the box office to open to get access to the free tickets.”
Young Scott Shiller saw incredible stories unfold through high-powered opera glasses. Stories like Big River, about the adventures Huckleberry Finn. “To see these stories that I grew up imagining in my mind’s eye unfold onstage changed my life,” Shiller said. “I was hooked. I was reeled-in. Theatre was in my bones. Theatre has the power to transform lives. It did for me.”
Shiller will soon be moving his theatre bones to Colorado as President and only the second CEO in the 43-year history of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Shiller has served as Executive Vice President of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami since 2007. Daniel Ritchie, who has served as both CEO and Chairman of the Board of Trustees since 2007, will continue as Chairman. Shiller starts May 1.
Shiller is a proud, admitted theatre geek. Anyone who works at a place like the Denver Center, he said, should be. He talks with childlike wonder of the time he got to sit in the orchestra pit during a touring performance of Evita, feeling the music as the horns blared in his ears and the drums rumbled right through his core. “I looked up and just behind the conductor, you could see just the noses and eyes of the people in the front row, and the glow of the stage lights off of their faces,” he said. “That was a phenomenal, transformative moment for me.”
The DCPA is the largest not-for profit theatre organization in the country, one that produces and presents Broadway, cabaret and homegrown theatre while supporting an Education Division that engages more than 68,000 students of all ages every year. And leading that organization into the next generation will be one of the nation’s youngest CEOs. At only age 39, Shiller is less than half the age of the man he is replacing.
Shiller, who was named to the prestigious “40 Under 40” by the South Florida Business Journal, never wants to forget the magic that happens to a child who sees Big River for the first time. Or a slightly more adolescent Shiller seeing The Blue Man Group for the first time – a performance that reached its crescendo with the entire theatre covered in toilet paper.
“I had never seen anything so immediate and so loud and so interesting,” he said. “By the end of this whirlwind grand finale, I found myself standing on my seat yelling at the top of my lungs. That was the visceral, immediate reaction I had to the art that was on the stage. I thought that was great, and I want everyone to be able experience that feeling.”
And he can’t wait to do it in Denver.
“What makes theatre incredibly powerful, and what makes me thrilled to be a part of creating and contributing to the national landscape of theatre, is the magic that happens when an audience comes into a space together to have a shared experience,” Shiller said. “The electricity that happens at a good night of theatre where the artists on stage are having a real communication with the audience is like lightning in a bottle. And the Denver Center gets it right more than almost anywhere else in the country.”
In his first year at the Arsht Center, Shiller led a $3.3 million turnaround with a growth in average ticket sales from 43 to 70 percent, and recorded a 76 percent increase in attendance.
How did he do it?
“It was really about tapping into the community,” he said. “It was about doing all the things that the Denver Center already does day in and day out. All the things that are baked into their DNA here.”
To turn things around in Miami, Shiller focused on tearing down any perceived barriers to entry. “For example, if language is a barrier to entry, we need to find ways to create great theatre where language is not a barrier,” he said. “If price is a barrier to entry, we need to find ways to be open to the community and to provide free and reduced-price admissions like I had available to me as a child.”
Ritchie, 83, said Shiller “joins us at a pivotal time in the DCPA’s history. “Following an extensive analysis of our priorities, our emphasis will be on deepening and enriching relationships with our entire community. And Scott’s leadership will enable me to focus on board matters and reauthorization of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in 2016.”
Shiller thinks the SCFD – a voter-approved, penny per $10 tax that funds arts organization throughout the metro area with about $50 million a year – is “forward-thinking, unprecedented and essential.”
He also said of Ritchie: “He has an incredible reputation across the country. And I have a tremendous respect for the work he has done in driving the organization forward.”
Under Shiller, the Arsht Center’s programming continued to experience broad growth and now includes more than 500 public performances, nearly 900 ancillary events and more than 500,000 guests each year. In 2007, he bucked the national trend by launching the equivalent of the DCPA Theatre Company for the presentation and performance of homegrown theatre. He has presented 12 world premiere plays and musicals at the Arsht Center in the past eight years.
“That was both an incredible joy and a labor of love,” he said, “to be working with incredible local playwrights, national playwrights and amazing artists with the goal of creating work that is really tied to the community.”
Shiller is somewhat in awe to be taking the reins of the Denver Center, which is not only the largest non-profit theatre organization in the nation by size, it’s No. 1 in audience engagement: Last season, the Denver Center, which does $52 million in annual business, entertained nearly 800,000 visitors through 43 productions, 816 performances and 138 events.
“I am amazed at how the Denver Center stacks up against the leading organizations in this category,” Shiller said. “Think of that number: 800,000 visitors is more than the total number people who are living in Denver.” (And by more than 150,000.)
“When I look at places like Center Theatre Group (in Los Angeles), which did 19 productions last year, or the Kennedy Center (in Washington D.C.), which did 18 theatre productions – and then you see that the Denver Center did 43? That’s pretty impressive. There are very few no-for-profit arts organizations that present both Broadway and produce original theatre. I think it’s sometimes easy to forget what an incredible gem you have in your community.”
As a whole, the cultural industry had a $520.8 million economic impact on Colorado in 2013. Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released a study that put Colorado No. 1 in per-capita trips to theaters, concert halls and museums. Nearly 52 percent of all Colorado adults reported attendance at one or more live performing-arts events in 2012, far above the national average of 37.4 percent. Attendance at nonmusical plays in Colorado is roughly twice the rate of the country as a whole.
“I think that shows the audiences in Denver are incredibly sophisticated,” Shiller added. “You have an incredibly diverse audience that has clearly demonstrated with these attendance figures that they are willing to go along for the ride.”
Prior to the Arsht Center, Shiller presented and produced shows in major cities across the U.S., serving as Vice President of Programming at The Chicago Theatre and L.A.’s Kodak Theatre; Director of Programming and Engagement Manager at Boston’s On the Line Company; and as Theatre and Marketing Manager for Broadway in Boston. His Broadway credits include working on Wicked, The Graduate, Cabaret and The Diary of Anne Frank (Natalie Portman), and The Vagina Monologues (Eve Ensler). Click here to read his complete bio.
Under Shiller, the multidisciplinary Arsht Center designed programs to welcome new patrons of all ages and backgrounds — family performances, gospel Sundays and extensive partnerships through the Miami-Dade County Public School District.
Shiller is particularly proud of his Learning Through the Arts program, which has made performances of the Rock Odyssey available free to middle-school students. That is an innovative, rock opera approach to Homer’s The Odyssey that was written developed at the Walden Family Playhouse in Lakewood.
“Through Rock Odyssey, we have introduced 300,000 students to the magic of live theatre,” said Shiller, who received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emerson College in 1997 and has served as an adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
“There are so many studies that have proven that students who are introduced to the arts at a young age become lifelong learners in the arts.”
Shiller believes his lifetime of producing shows on Broadway, of bringing national tours to the cities where he has worked, and launching his new regional theatre company in Miami have all prepared him to lead the Denver Center. Shiller says his top priorities will include education, access and diversity. But he says it is too soon for him to know yet how he can best impact the organization right away.
“I am coming into an extremely healthy organization that is at the top of its game,” said Shiller, who is married to wife, Kerry. “The staff and the team members there have accomplished so much. And I think the community is really behind continuing the trend of the Denver Center becoming great. My goal will be to listen, learn, collaborate and challenge both (DCPA Broadway Director John Ekeberg and DCPA Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson) to create work that is at the top of their game.”
Asked what he hopes will be said of him a year from today, Shiller said: “That we were able to really muster our resources, and boy are we moving in the right direction with a full tank of gas and a lot of excitement.”
Scott Shiller is featured in this short documentary on the making of “Rock Odyssey” at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.The children’s musical, first developed at the Walden Family Playhouse in Lakewood, introduced 300,000 students to the magic of live theatre in Miami.
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