The Stage Is Set: Middlesworth talks vision as he starts programming the Pablo
After a national search with over 45 applicants, the Pablo Center at the Confluence found its new director of artistic programming right here at home. Evan Middlesworth now takes on one of the Pablo’s key positions, establishing a keen vision for the kind of entertainment that will cross those stages for years to come. Middlesworth is most well-known in the music world, having engineered and producing tons of music at his Eau Claire recording studio, Pine Hollow. But that’s the tip of the iceberg, really.
The Purdue graduate has fingerprints all over the entertainment industry having worked for LOUD Technologies, toured with The National and Big Thief as an audio engineer, stage managed the Eaux Claires and Boston Calling music festivals, performed with a bunch of bands, and composed music for theaters nationally. We recently caught up with Evan via email to talk about his new position at Pablo, the opportunities before him, and what kind of creative vision he’ll be forging ahead with.
I wanted to get just a little bit of your background in the arts before we talk Pablo. How long has it been since Pine Hollow took off? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about working with artists? What has that journey been like?
Evan Middlesworth: Pine Hollow actually started 20 years ago in my apartment at Purdue University – back then I called it BHC Recording, which is how the LLC is registered still today. The journey – man – yeah, Pine Hollow has been one single avenue of many on my journey in this business and as diverse and varied as my career has been so far it’s all connected in a matter of ways. One gig leads to the next, take a risk, say yes, fall flat, learn, build confidence and move forward. Some of the most important things I’ve learned along the way: Be a good person, listen more than you speak, admit your mistakes immediately, don’t profess to know everything, if you don’t have an answer – say so, ask for help, you’re always on a team – use “we” more often, be fair, but understand fairness is a two-way street.
Through all your adventures, you’ve no doubt made lots of big connections in that world and learned a bunch of skills outside of just recording, producing, booking shows, etc. You’re someone who really knows that stuff top to bottom. What’s the advantage of having somebody with that skill set controlling or informing the booking at Pablo?
It allows me to have an understanding of and be sensitive to all sides of the process – I can think of the crew, the artists, the agents, and the audience as equals. All involved will walk away with an experience, and oftentimes that starts with myself and the artistic team. I want it to be positive from the first point of contact and negotiation all the way up to when the crew closes the trailer doors and rolls away after the show.
Also being a local dude, maybe you have a pretty keen sense of what audiences around here are looking for? Is that something you’re thinking about? The Charlie Berens thing strikes me as a no-brainer … and there’s lots of local demand for that guy.
It’s constantly on my mind. It’s a big part of my job to understand our immediate and surrounding markets and it’s something that I’m constantly learning more and more about. I certainly don’t know everything our community will like and there is the element of the unknown. Truth be told, I didn’t know who Charlie Berens was until my co-worker Ingrid said I should check him out and look into booking him – so I did, thought he was hilarious, and sent the email to his agent to get the ball rolling. Simple as that – Ingrid gets the credit for this one!
In a broader sense, what are some of your main goals as far as programming? It’s obviously important to have successful sell-out level shows consistently, but with a space like that, some more challenging stuff could go over well, too. How do you hope to strike that balance?
Balance is a great word for it – we need to program shows that are going to sell. That’s the basics. However, it’s important to me to build a confidence in our community to the point where people come to Pablo because they know we won’t steer them wrong even if they’re not completely familiar with what’s coming in. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, but it’s something I’ll keep tracking as long as I’m in the position and hopefully establish a trust that will continue long after I’m gone.
You’re behind the Driftless Series as well, which gives the spotlight over to mostly local acts. Are you going to keep that going with Leinenkugel’s? I know local bands are very eager to be included at Pablo, but you can only do that so many ways, I’d think. How do you hope to further engage local artists and performers?
I have to wear a different hat with the Driftless Series – my aim is to keep it going, but the reality of hosting Driftless Series shows at Pablo is the same as any other performance, meaning, those shows have to sell in order to remain sustainable. Having Leinie’s on board has been huge and we have had the Trout Unlimited Chapter of Eau Claire co-sponsor funds for the S.Carey/Humbird show and towards shows for next year. I love the direction it’s going and feel positive about its future, but me being me, I’ve been working on ideas with my team to help showcase our local/regional talent through Pablo wherever the future takes us.
Professionally, I know thus far you’ve been mostly in the music world – but what energy do you hope to bring to other kinds of stage shows, theater, spoken word, dance, kids events, and whatnot? Trying anything crazy?
My intention is to apply equal amounts of focus and energy to all art forms – it’s my job to do so. However this is an area where I rely on my team, fellow staff members, and folks from the community to bring new ideas to my attention and educate me constantly. I enjoy working with others on what could be a great addition to Pablo’s programming. There are countless variables when considering any program and we discuss those at our weekly artistic team meetings, it’s one point of my work week that I enjoy most. Anything crazy? Crazy is self-defined so I can’t say for sure what people would consider is or isn’t. If anything, I look forward to testing shows out next season, understanding that I have a self-imposed small margin of error towards what does and what doesn’t work. Then we build from there.
I think with Eaux Claires Hiver and multi-faceted events like that, it felt like the space – the whole building – was being fully utilized under one singular cool thing. Any hopes to do more big stuff like that? Sometimes it feels like the possibilities could be endless ...
On that front, we do have the capacity, technology, and talent to do great things and using the entire building as a single event space is on on our minds.
Any other exciting bookings you can spill the beans on?
Got to stay tight-lipped for now!
So to wrap up: In general, what makes the Pablo a special place, and how are you feeling about everything – the building, the people, the culture – as you step into this fully?
The people are amazing. I’ve had the awesome advantage of being in an interim role for about two months prior to my interview process to get a good idea of what I was getting in to before being asked to join the gang. I feel excited, but humbled about everything – it’s no small task. Anyone who has tried to book their own band or host a show will understand the challenges – expand that out to about 250 different types of events per season, all of which have to appeal to the larger surrounding population, multiple demographics, and generate revenue to meet our financial goals. Met with the fact that for each show people are going to love or hate your decision no matter what you do. It’s a lot to carry, but I’ve always enjoyed challenges like this and as I’ve mentioned, I rely on my immediate artistic team – Rose, Sarah, and Mike along with the added guidance and input of our Pablo staff – to help steer me and the decisions we make in the best direction.
Check out pablocenter.org to browse through the full calendar of events, including Jerrika Mighelle + Hemma + The Nunnery on Feb. 21 and INY Asian Dance Theater on Feb. 29.