In the Spotlight

Thor Steingraber, the new head of the Valley Performing Arts Center, takes center stage, vowing to bring big acts and audiences to the state-of-the-art venue and to make Northridge a destination.

After a challenging first three years, high hopes are being placed on Valley Performing Arts Center’s new executive director, Thor Steingraber. With a resume that includes directing theatre and opera, the native Chicagoan has a well-known reputation of being a capable executive and creative programmer at venues like Philadephia’s Kimmel Center and LA’s Music Center. 

Here he opens up to Ventura Blvd editor, Linda Grasso, on his monster mandate, the inherent challenges in putting a new venue on the map and his own personal goals, which include bringing musicians like Dave Grohl to the Northridge stage.  

As VP of the Music Center, you opened Grand Park, which was apparently quite a feat.

We did what many thought was impossible. We created a safe, clean, family-friendly outdoor program space in DTLA. Grand Park sealed the deal—downtown’s transformation would stick. And we did it overnight. In spring Grand Park was a construction site; by fall we were hosting thousands of people for free programming of every variety.

A fair bit has been written about the challenges VPAC faced straight out of the box—from a programming standpoint. What happened there?

That may be an unfair characterization. Every new venue takes time to find its audience and its place in the market. It’s more complicated than “build it and they will come.” If the programming works, VPAC will have multiple audiences. We can’t just do one thing well.  Instead we must be doing many things for different audiences. I have a lot of programming ideas. Some will stick; some won’t. But one day VPAC will have its own identity.  

Why do you think they picked you?

VPAC is on an important and dynamic university campus with 40,000 students. I look forward to being a part of the CSUN community and integrating with the campus. But VPAC is also a professional performing arts organization. Running one of those requires intimate knowledge of all aspects of the field: fundraising, programming, marketing and more. 

Is your thumbprint on the upcoming season? 

2014–15 was already booked when I came on board last spring. I’m hard at work on the following season. I’m trying to introduce my sensibility in little ways right now, building a better customer experience from beginning to end. And I’m doing a lot of listening. I take about 30 meetings per week.  

What can we expect in terms of programming for the 2015–2016 season?

Everywhere I go, people give me programming ideas. And I agree with almost everyone because my tastes are wider than the Mississippi (you see, the Midwesterner). VPAC does have a loyal audience, and I’m grateful they have stuck by us since the beginning. I will keep them in mind for half the season. The other half? I’ve spent my life producing, so new work has to figure into the equation.

How do you want people to view VPAC  in 10 years?

Northridge is a lovely community, but it’s not a destination right now. In spite of CSUN’s astronomical ascendency and Reseda Boulevard being named to Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets initiative, we have a ways to go. VPAC should be the catalyst. It’s about building the local economy and becoming a destination. We’ll know it’s working if great restaurants open up nearby.

Any synergy between the on-campus, independent radio station KCSN and VPAC?

Sky Daniels, who oversees KCSN, overhauled the station’s format, and listeners are flocking to it. He’s a visionary guy. Fearless too. Sky and I are having an ongoing dialogue about how a venue and a radio station can partner. It’s exciting.

What if you were just programming for yourself? What acts would you most like to see?

I want Randy Newman to resurrect his role as the Devil in his musical Faust. I love the piece. It was recently revived at City Center in New York. I want Dave Grohl to produce a series of concerts based on the Sound City Studios, which was just down the street from VPAC. I want Jacques Heim’s dance company Diavolo to do his entire trilogy L’Espace du Temps on my stage.  

Pick three must-sees this season.

I’m a Chicagoan, and I remember my first night out at a club in 1983 to see The Second City. Their 55th anniversary tour is here November 13. 

I’m crazy about the Montreal company 7 Fingers and their latest show Sequence 8 on February 19. This athletic and theatrical company has redefined the mash-up, and the cool factor is very high.  

Yo-Yo Ma gala per-formance in May. I know Yo-Yo comes to LA often, but the acoustics at VPAC are the best in LA, and his solo performance will show off the venue at its best.