How to plan a performing arts season during a pandemic — Q&A with AcA’s Clayton Shelvin

Photo by Travis Gauthier

This week, Acadiana Center for the Arts announced its 2020 season. It’s only been a few months since the last season — the first that Clayton Shelvin booked in full — was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Eleven shows were canceled. Two were rescheduled. But the sands are constantly shifting for venue bookers everywhere. 

Taking the post of performing arts director in 2019, Shelvin, a Lafayette-area native, has worked to open AcA’s doors to new audiences — younger, yes, but also more diverse. And this season follows suit. He spoke with The Current about the challenges of planning for the unexpected and how to attack the notion of the performing arts as a “white space.” 

OK, let’s not waste any time here. What are you excited about for this upcoming season? 

We’ve really worked it to be a season of big headliners our audience had requested over the last few years. With Covid, the big names were the first people to pull out. The season was focused on award-winning artists, like The Lone Bellow. I saw them a few times in Nashville. This band had been pretty well known in the South. They’re a little bit of rock, a little bit of country. Their Tiny Desk concert is what put them in on the map. They harmonize amazingly. It’s a pretty big deal for us to have them. 

And then one that’s been requested for many many years: The Milk Carton Kids. We finally were able pull that off. [Former AcA Director] Gerd Wuestemann had tried to get them for years. 

I try to program what our audience wants and our community can connect with. But I always throw in one for myself. This band Ranky Tanky. Some people look at it as jazz, some Gospel. They focus on Gullah music. They had a huge couple of hits in 2019. They won a Grammy last year. 

We’ve also got Billy Childs. He’s the most awarded jazz artist of our time. He’s literally worked with every jazz performer and pop stars and rocks stars around the world. So when you talk about innovation and including jazz in everything we do, he’s that guy. He’s up in age, but he’s been out there protesting with the kids as they say. He’s still really active. He’s an activist. 

Last season was put on hold by the pandemic. Are you pulling anything from that schedule into this one?  

There were about 11 performances that we canceled. We’ve rescheduled two shows out of that. One was the Jillian Johnson show, which we rescheduled to February, and that was just really important to the community. I mean, it was a sold-out event.  And then the Allman-Betts show, rescheduled to September. And in January, we had already kind of had the next season set, that had all been in motion. I start planning the season in November every year. So by January, we have everything booked for the next season. So I’ve taken kind of like the 50 shows we had planned, and we’ve reduced that to about 20 shows for the next season. And yeah, we’re just trying to move forward.

Have the last few months changed  your perception about what your job is going to look like over the next few months? 

It’s such a big responsibility that’s going to cost us a lot of money to ensure the safety of people. So I think with any nonprofit organization that becomes a barrier, because there’s just a lot, man. We’re talking about spending upwards of $15,000, just to have all those things happen. We’re having our cleaning crews go in with a mister every time [the theater] is used. So that’s going to play a big effect. I mean, obviously it costs us more money to do, but we have to, to keep people safe. We’re having regular porters come in during events, to just clean while people are in there, wiping railing, cleaning bathrooms. And then we’re also looking at what we can be doing backstage. How are we going to keep our artists safe? Making sure there’s no guests back there during shows. The green room, the dressing rooms, there’s just so many spaces. 

Is there room to see what’s happening today, like in the Black Lives Matter movement, and engage it as a theater programmer? 

Absolutely. Maybe because I’m Black or maybe not, but when I first took this job, it was the first conversation I had with [AcA Executive Director] Sam [Oliver], which was, we had to really look at what’s been happening, which is 90% of our audiences [or more] are white people. And what had been done in the past, really, the programming did not reflect the opportunity to bring in people of color into that space. Like the programming was a lot of folk music, it was a lot of bluegrass, and we know traditionally what that audience was like.

If you look through our [last] season, it was probably as diverse as it’s been in the past 10 years. And even with this season, that’s been a priority for me in just planning a season. Like making sure that the season reflects all the people, and represents all the people in our community.

Do you feel an undue pressure to play that role because you’re a Black man?

Really the last few months for me, seeing what’s been going on, has now almost empowered me. I feel like I have to talk, because I’ve realized that again, in this space in Lafayette, I am, I mean, probably the only Black male in that inner circle of when we talk about the arts, when we talk about performing arts. So me not speaking is not helping the cause at all. 

Now I’m just at a point where I’ll speak to anyone that’s willing to listen, because I think that’s what this whole movement in our country right now is about. People are finally willing to listen to all the things that we’ve thought, and we’ve kept quiet for so long. I don’t want to miss this opportunity. I feel a responsibility because we all don’t want another generation, like my kids’ generation, to have to keep fighting just to be seen or heard in all of these spaces.

AcA’s 2020 season begins this fall. Check the lineup and book tickets here.