Five Questions With: Kathleen Breen Combes

Kathleen Breen Combes is the executive director of Festival Ballet Providence. The dance company’s 2021 production of “The Nutcracker” was its best year on record, with 11,275 people having viewed the show, up from the 7,596 who saw the show in 2019.

Additionally, gross revenue increased by 56%. Combes spoke with Providence Business News about the success and what hope the organization has for 2022.

PBN: What would you attest as to why last year’s “Nutcracker” production brought out more people?

COMBES: We chose to take a calculated risk … [last] year that paid off. We hoped people missed their traditional holiday experiences and would want to come back to a live performance setting to celebrate the holidays.

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We invested in a brand-new “Nutcracker” production featuring new sets, costumes and choreography. We also moved to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which allowed us to double the amount of shows we put on and increase our audience capacity.

Alongside this, we rolled out a comprehensive marketing and social media campaign that featured all new branding for the production. These bold investments resulted in critical and audience acclaim, along with a 78% increase in ticket sales from 2019.

PBN: Does the increased turnout and revenue give the ballet company hope for 2022 overall?

COMBES: Absolutely. The “Nutcracker” is our bread and butter, and it provides the majority of our ticket sales income. A successful “Nutcracker” run allows our organization to commission and produce other programming for our resident company of 25 artists. It also gives us flexibility, which is essential for our art form, and allows us to grow our audience base and fund productions that are reflective of today’s society and voices.

PBN: What challenges, if any, does the ballet company still face with the ongoing pandemic?

COMBES: We are in the business of gathering people and providing a shared collective experience. The pandemic continues to cause issues for this type of assembly. We have had to continually evolve our COVID-19 response to keep both our artists and audiences as safe as possible, and we also have to deal with varying levels of comfort within our audience base.

Further, people are out of the habit of going to the theater and events. Personal experiences and connections among audiences help to build our supporters – without events or productions, it is even more challenging than normal.

PBN: How is the ballet hoping to respond to those challenges?

COMBES: I am incredibly proud of how our organization has continued to pivot over the past two years. Everyone, from our dancers to our board and administration, has shown such dedication and resiliency in the face of so many challenges. We will continue to do what we do best, which is to present world-class art right here in Rhode Island and do that in the safest way possible for our patrons.

PBN: In addition to the “Nutcracker,” what other productions are on tap for 2022?

COMBES: Our signature series “Up Close on Hope” is running Feb. 11-20, featuring both classical and bold new works in our Black Box Theatre. We have a wonderful new relationship with the Woodman Center at Moses Brown [School] and we will present an evening of contemporary dance featuring live music April 29 and 30. We are also presenting our first show in Westerly at the United Theatre on April 23. You can find more information at festivalballetprovidence.org.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.