Innovation in Dayton isn’t always about airplanes

 Innovation in Dayton isn’t always about airplanes

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance gets ready to launch an incredible season

Considering all the talk in Dayton about our innovative spirit and pull yourself up by the bootstraps approach to nearly everything, it’s really no surprise that this attitude would eventually reach our performing arts organizations.

Facing major budget concerns, bad economic times and an aging donor population, Dayton’s three major performing arts organizations had a decision to make: Continue in the same-old approach to filling seats or find a new way to ensure the vitality of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Ballet and Dayton Opera. It was time to get innovative.


Enter stage right Neal Gittleman, DPO conductor, who downplays his role, but many believe was instrumental in getting the discussion started. According to Gittleman, all he did was “ask a few questions.”

“I wanted to know if we could find a better model. In Europe, various performing arts are all arms of the same organization. Why couldn’t we create a similar American model,” asked Gittleman. “Wouldn’t we be more likely to succeed if we were all in the same boat instead of paddling in different directions?”

Gittleman’s questions sparked a revolution, of sorts. Over the next two years, a team of leadership from each of the three organizations began planning the creation of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.


The task of bringing together three organizations with a combined budget of $6.5 million and 205 years of history was not easy. In this industry, there have been occasional collaborations, partnerships and mergers, but nothing quite like this.

And while there has been some success in Europe, Gittleman says they worked very hard to avoid the political infighting and nasty turf wars in Dayton.

What many believe makes the Dayton model work are the three individual artistic directors – Gittleman for the DPO, Tom Bankston for the Opera and Karen Russo Burke at the Ballet. Their ability to oversee the artistic direction of their organizations without having to deal with the administrative side of the house was one of things that attracted Bankston.

“I originally came to Dayton thanks to a collaborative performance with the Cincinnati Opera. When I decided to stay in Dayton, I was expected to handle both the artistic direction and the roles of managing the budget, promotions and donations,” says Bankston. “I was glad to hand those over in exchange for getting back to doing what I love.”


After 21 years in Dayton, Burke and her family consider Dayton home, even though this East-coast transplant wasn’t sure at first. “I have fallen in love with Dayton,” Burke says. “And so have our dancers.”

She and Bankston agree, attracting performers and staff is easier in Dayton because of the great reputation that the arts organizations have worked to forge. And the merger is helping forge that reputation even more. “Our dancers have shared that they love our diverse programming and warm community,” adds Burke.

“We have developed a welcoming reputation and artists recognize it and want to come back,” shares Bankston. “Many share that it just feels like home.”

Bankston and Burke also agree that one of the biggest assets to the Miami Valley is the Schuster Performing Arts Center. “The Mead Theatre is truly a jewel in Dayton’s crown. Our artists love the acoustics,” Bankston adds.

In fact, Kathleen Clawson, an opera stage director, who is being brought to town next April to direct “Aida” adds that the Schuster “is without a doubt one of the best venue’s I have ever had the opportunity to work in, including theatres in major metros on both coasts. And their crew is absolute star quality.”


When it comes to the DPAA and the performers, the response is also overwhelmingly positive.

“The idea behind the merger is to respectfully enhance and build upon each other’s traditions. All of the performers across the three organizations can benefit from that,” shares Jessica Hung, who has served in the DPO for five seasons as concertmaster.

According to Bankston, the Opera chorus is comprised of performers who are based in Dayton. They live, work and invest in this community and have a vested interest in making the Dayton Opera and all of the arts organizations succeed.

In addition, all of the set creators and designers, directors, crews and other staff live and work in Dayton. And they provide Dayton’s audience a unique performance. “With DPAA, we can continue to provide a whole new level of uniqueness,” he adds.

But maybe DPO Principal Horn Aaron Bryant says it best when he describs the DPAA as “a three-strand cord that is stronger together and able to sustain tough economic times.”


In celebration of the first real year of merged arts, DPAA has created a Signature Series of performances that include all three arts organizations.

Kicking off with a one-of-a-kind season open spectacular that promises to be just that and includes the new and improved “Nutcracker,” a New Years Eve event and the incredible performance of “Aida” featuring the full Opera chorus, DPO and Chorus, a full cast and the Ballet, which Clawson promises will be thrilling.

The DPAA hopes to cross-pollinate audiences. “What may be a singular passion for the opera, could grow just by showing them how amazing the orchestral performers and dancers are as well,” hopes Bankston.


The organization held its much-anticipated first annual meeting earlier this year. DPAA had an overall three percent growth in ticket sales and a 14 percent increase in contributed income, which was better than anticipated. And things can only get better. “Really, the 2012-2013 was really like our Year Zero; our reset button year. We believe the 2013-2014 season will offer even more to our audiences and patrons offering them opportunity to truly experience the benefits of our merged performances in our Signature Events,” says Gittleman.

Bankston echoes that sentiment. “The merger continues on a positive trajectory and is helping all of us flourish, but this season will really allow us to share audiences and expose them to what all of our organizations have to offer. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

And it’s that innovative thinking that built the airplane.