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Business of the Arts: Artistry Takes Flight

The Aetos brings arts, education and training to Nixa

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With a flick of a wand and a flash of smoke, the Aetos Center for the Performing Arts hosted its first show – by illusionist Mike Super – one year ago, on Feb. 18, 2023.

Located on the campus of Nixa High School, the center known to locals as The Aetos – Greek for eagle, Nixa’s mascot – was built through voter support of a 2019 bond issue that brought a 41-cent levy increase. Its cost was $15.2 million.

Officials say the project doubled the size of the district’s performing arts space with an 1,100-seat auditorium, plus a set-building shop, media room, concession/ticket office and lobby. The project also included the renovation of the old auditorium and band and choral rooms into new rehearsal and performance spaces, with the theater room doubling as a black box theater space and a dressing room for traveling shows.

And just like that, Nixa had a venue that could host national touring productions but would serve first and foremost as the home of the district’s band, music and theater programs.

Zac Rantz, the school district’s chief communication officer, serves as the booking agent and marketing manager for The Aetos, in addition to his other responsibilities. Rantz said he has checked around, and he can’t find another model quite like Nixa’s, at least at the high school level.

“We’re making it up as we go,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what works. As this evolves, we’ll decide what we need to do as far as the future goes.”

According to Rantz, engaging the imagination is a familiar trait in the Nixa district.

“We say, ‘What else can we do?’ We ask that with a lot of things,” he said.

He cited two examples: the alternative high school, called SCORE, or Second Chance of Receiving an Education, a program for at-risk students that was founded in 1999, and the John Thomas School of Discovery, a magnet school focused on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.

Rantz said it’s the Nixa way to look at a project and figure out how to push it further and make it usable beyond the intended purpose.

And that’s how The Aetos, a regional arts center, was born.

Economic impact
The Aetos has already made an impact on the community, with 10 touring shows in 2023. The goal is to bring in 10-15 touring shows a year, Rantz said, and they are evaluated for their suitableness for a local audience, even as booking agents gauge Nixa and the center to make sure the venue is right for them.

In 2023, 5,467 tickets were sold to national shows, and audience members came from 17 states and Canada, Rantz said.

Citing a 2023 Forbes article that estimated audience members spend $38.40 in a community in addition to ticket prices, he said The Aetos injected $225,000 into the local economy in 2023.

Rantz said every show is a little bit different in its pricing considerations, and some shows have individual sponsors, which makes a difference. If a booking cost is $25,000 and staff costs run $5,000 – a typical arrangement – seats might be priced at $50, so selling 600 seats would be a break-even proposition.

“If we think the show is going to sell more, then I would be able to price it a little lower,” he said.

Higher prices may be offered for a VIP meet-and-greet, and lower ones may be charged for balcony seating. Rantz said the goal of the district is to break even on operations at The Aetos, and not to profit from productions in the community-funded space.

“If we can support the local economy as a school district by bringing in these types of shows, we benefit, too, as a school district,” he said. “We run it like a business, but we don’t have to run it like a for-profit business. We’re investing in the local community and the region.”

Learning opportunities
Allison Fleetwood teaches theater at Nixa High School and serves as head of operations for The Aetos.

“We’re doing something that no other school district is doing, so our expectations were really up in the air,” she said. “I am thrilled with the outcome of the past year.”

Community members have come out to support productions, she said, and in the process, the district has been able to promote its arts programs.

The center also serves as an educational laboratory for students, she said, noting high school students are hired to work backstage and on lighting and sound during the touring productions.

“They’re learning those skills, but they’re also working with different types of people,” Fleetwood said. “The stage manager for one show may have completely different expectations from the next show. How do you deal with people? That’s a life skill.”

Student Seth Coker said he has worked in multiple positions at The Aetos.

“I usually work with other students to create a flawless experience for not only the audience, but the performers as well,” he said.

Coker said he intends to pursue a theater education and career, and gaining experience at The Aetos has helped him grow as an artist.

Illyria Bogner, another student, said she has worked in various areas for touring productions, and has also run lights and audio for band and choir concerts.

“There are many benefits to working in a theater such as The Aetos,” she said. “I get hands-on experience with professional shows as a student in high school, which is an incredible opportunity. Another benefit, of course, is I get paid, which is always a bonus. But I’m also getting connected with all sorts of people in the entertainment industry. I am learning all about how professional technicians work and even how performers work.”

Bogner said she is headed to the University of Central Missouri in the fall to double major in art and theater.

Robin Nemanick, manager for illusionist Mike Super, said The Aetos is a phenomenal venue – one that she and Super were glad to be coming back to on Feb. 17, a year after their first visit.

“They’re a new venue, but they’re doing everything right,” Nemanick said. “We’re very lucky to be able to work with them.”

She noted Super enjoyed talking with students at The Aetos.

“It’s very important for Mike and our crew to help along with any questions and kind of teach some things about the industry,” she said. “They’re our future – they may be working on some of our shows one day.”

Community involvement
Nixa residents have always been good about supporting student performances, according to Craig Finger, director of bands at Nixa – and now they are rewarded with a facility that maximizes the quality of the sound of both the band and choir through a removable acoustical shell. Rantz estimated the cost of the shell was close to $240,000, but Finger said it’s a difference-maker, keeping sound from getting lost in the wings and ceiling, and focusing it toward the audience.

“I give the school district a lot of credit,” Finger said. “It took a financial commitment to do that, but it makes it the envy of many, many programs across the state.”

Emily Burcham, co-founder with husband Jeremy of Meridian Title Co. LLC, said she was delighted to become involved in The Aetos with a naming-level sponsorship for the performance hall. Rantz said the $300,000 agreement provides naming rights for five years.

“When the school talked to us about The Aetos and what was getting ready to happen, we wanted to step up to the plate and support not only the Nixa community, but the whole southwest Missouri region,” she said. “We knew it was going to be a national venue that was going to bring in a lot of great shows, and we wanted to be part of helping the arts grow. It was a great opportunity to give in a big way to really help this platform take off.”

Other donors are Bewley Custom Homes LLC, sponsoring the landing; 14 Mill Market, sponsoring the lobby; and United Plumbing LLC, sponsoring the bathrooms. Sponsorships totaled $78,000 in 2023.


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