Curtain rises on new era at the Florida Theatre
When Numa Saisselin arrived at his office this morning, he began his second week as president of the Florida Theatre. He succeeds Erik Hart, the Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center Inc.ís only president since the renovated theater reopened in 1983.
From 2002-12, Saisselin was CEO of the Count Basie Theatre, a 1,500-seat historic theater in Red Bank, N.J. Under his leadership, the theater grew from a $1.5-million-a-year organization with a recurring annual deficit to an $8.5 million a year operation with nine consecutive years of cash surpluses. By 2002, the Count Basie Theatre hosted about 50 performances, mostly all rentals. By 2012, the venue was hosting 200 performances each year, with almost half promoted or produced by the theater itself.
Saisselin received a bachelorís in music education from the Fredonia School of Music and earned an MBA at Adelphi University.
Saisselin sat down Friday for an interview with the Daily Record. Here is some of what he said.
How did you get into the theater administration business?
I thought I was going to be a high school band director. The only two things I was good at were music and theater. When it came time to go to college, I opted for music but I worked my way through college as a stagehand. I always had these two careers going parallel.
I was a French horn major and got a degree in music. I taught school for a year and kept working in theater and I discovered that teaching school was not going to be my calling. I have tremendous respect for people who teach, but it just wasnít for me.
About the time I was figuring out I had devoted my whole life to something that was not going to work out for me, I got a call from a guy I had met a year earlier working on a show. He offered me a job in the office at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, N.Y. I was there as the business manager for two years.
I eventually went back to school and got an MBA.
Itís a strange career that I didnít know existed and then fell into accidentally.
Why are historic theaters important to a community?
The biggest asset they have is the place they have in peopleís lives. When you talk to anyone about their childhood, they will inevitably talk about the things that are gone. A building like this is still here and it holds a very special place in peopleís hearts.
The Florida Theatre reopened in 1983 after a major renovation effort. What does it mean when a community saves a historic theater?
It says that the community values its history and values its culture and values ways to come together.
What are the bigger challenges faced by historic theaters in general and the Florida Theatre in particular?
Money, money and money.
When I joined the business, it was in an era when it was still possible to find funding, when it was still possible to foot the bill for dance and opera and legitimate theater.
The funding environment is very different now. Corporate funding is a fraction of what it once was, so is government funding.
Thatís put increasing pressure on the box office. Youíve got ticket sales, merchandise, bar sales and individual contributions like The Friends of The Florida Theatre. Attendance has become critically important because that drives everything.
Whatís your opinion of the state of live theater and performance?
People have been predicting the demise of live theater and music forever. First, it was radio that was going to kill the movies and live performances; then it was television and then the Internet.
Attendance nationwide for the first half of this year is up Ė not by much Ė but itís up over the similar period last year. People still want to go out. You can watch your favorite TV show or your favorite movie on your laptop or your iPad, but thereís still nothing like sitting in a room with your friends and neighbors and seeing someone live right there on the stage in front of you.
What economic impact does a successful theater have on the community?
Every time someone goes out, they spend money here at the theater. A lot of them spend money to go to dinner, whether itís Downtown or in their neighborhood. Theyíre spending money on a baby sitter and a place to park. It benefits a lot of different people.
There has been a lot said about economic stimulus over the past few years. The arts and entertainment are economic stimulus.
How do you determine what acts and shows will be on stage at the theater?
I keep in mind that Iím not programming for myself. Iím running the theater for a much larger community. What they want to see is important and what they need to see is important.
What do you bring to the Florida Theatre? What are your goals?
In my last three jobs, each organization was in some sort of a transition. They were at the tipping point. It was going to go one way or the other. Iím pleased to say all three of them are still here and doing very well.
After 10 years at the Count Basie Theatre, I started to think it might be time to go. I thought about my previous experiences and how I didnít want to go to work again for something that was at the tipping point.
When the Florida Theatre presented itself to me, what was interesting is that itís not a do or die moment. The building functions and many people come here and things are working.
Itís a big transition because the institution has known one president for its entire life. Thatís an interesting change moment.
I bring the experience of having bailed out the lifeboat to a situation that is much more stable than that.
Weíd like to do more programming and have more shows on the stage every year.
Iím hopeful that being new, I can bring some new perspectives. Maybe we can get some new things on our stage that work that nobody would have thought about before. We have 1,900 seats in the 11th-biggest market in the country. There is a lot thatís possible.
Youíve been at your desk only a week, but what would you like to be your legacy at the Florida Theatre?
I was a Boy Scout. One of the things the scouts teach you is to leave the campsite better than you found it. When I walk out of here, whether itís next year or 20 years from now, I want to walk away thinking I left the place better than I found it.