After hitting a rough patch last year during its debut season, the Clermont Performing Arts Center is on a steadier course, officials say, as the city-owned building navigates a balance between entertainment venue and community resource.
"The best thing for us is when people come and say, 'That's our theater,'" said Scott Davidoff, who oversees the center as the city's parks and recreation director. "We hope we are meeting the needs of what people want."
Davidoff is gathering data on precisely what the public would like to see at the center, a former megachurch on South U.S. Highway 27 purchased by the city in 2013. This month, city residents can complete a "dinner and show" survey on Clermont's website, clermontfl.gov. It asks what types of entertainment people prefer and solicits feedback on ticket prices and other topics.
The survey also was sent to more than 1,800 ticket buyers and is available on the city and center Facebook pages.
"We are feeling out the community," Mayor Gail Ash said. "We have a tremendous age range, so it's a complicated thing to choose shows. Our interests range from Comic Con to '60s music groups."
In recent months, the center has hosted a concert by Broadway and film composer Stephen Schwartz, a play titled "Late Nite Catechism," a cabaret performance, stand-up comedy and a festival for Disney fans.
One thing the city has learned since the arts center's grand opening in September 2015: It needs to be available for more than entertainment.
"It's not just a performing-arts center, it's also the city's community center," said Davidoff, who previously was parks director in the South Florida city of Parkland, where he booked entertainment for an amphitheater as part of his job.
The Clermont facility is used frequently by the Boys and Girls Clubs and senior citizens for recreational activities, Ash said. Civic groups also like using the space for fundraisers, galas and banquets.
Many told the city during the center's first season that too much entertainment was scheduled.
"There were a lot of hurt feelings where community groups who had planned to use the space were denied access," Davidoff said. "We have to balance that. It can be a struggle at times."
The first season was managed by veteran producer Jeanie Linders, creator of the hit play "Menopause the Musical." The city always had planned to assume management of the space, though it happened sooner than expected.
"The city was not really prepared for that transition to be quite so abrupt," Davidoff said. "We had, with no real budget at that point, to make some decisions based on what had sold well and what had not."
In the aftermath of Linders' departure, the city canceled many shows, including a series of concerts by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.
These days, Davidoff aims to book two big shows each month for the main theater, which can seat about 1,200. That leaves plenty of open dates for community groups. Cabaret and comedy series use the facility's smaller hall, which seats about 250.
"We're still fine-tuning," Ash said. "It's a process that will be ongoing."
The theater program is making money, Ash said, but diversity in the programming is more important than financial rewards.
"We're not here to make a huge, giant profit," Davidoff said. "The goal is to offer high-quality entertainment at a low cost to the community."
Word is spreading beyond Clermont.
Chuck Patrick and his wife, who drove from their Davenport home to see "Late Nite Catechism," were impressed with the show and the center.
"There was plenty of parking and easy access off Highway 27," Patrick said. "There were plenty of places to eat before the show."
But Davidoff knows there's a ways to go. The center has hired a marketing firm, started advertising on billboards and improved signage at the facility.
"We still hear, 'We had no idea you were here,'" he said. "We're a new theater, and to attract people, we really have to get our brand out there."
Patrick, who has attended arts events in Sanford, Winter Garden and at the University of Central Florida, already is planning a return trip.
"I think we will do more in Clermont as we get more familiar with their schedule," he said. "We really enjoyed ourselves there."