Ever wonder what it took to get that musician on that stage? It’s not as easy as choosing songs for a playlist; there’s no “drag and drop” to the concert business. Enter folks like Wolf Trap’s Sara Beesley, a lifelong fan of music who turned her passion into her profession, booking shows behind the scenes at the Northern Virginia venue as the senior director of program and production.
Her fandom for songs and musicians is easily identified by a peek inside her office, where old concert posters adorn the walls, and a Prince shrine occupies an entire row of a shelf loaded with numerous other knick-knacks from her time in the business. With summer quickly approaching, festival season comes with it, meaning Beesley’s hard work booking and negotiating is about to come to vivid fruition. Before the weather and Wolf Trap stage heat up, we got a chance to speak with her about her role at the famed national park for the performing arts.
On Tap: You’ve been on the booking and programming side of music for awhile now, but you studied music theory in college. How were you introduced to music? Did you play instruments growing up?
Sara Beesley: I grew up performing and listening to music constantly. I wanted a job after college, so I went into the music business [laughs]. But I still kept a lot of the focus on performing while I was at Manhattanville College as well. I played classical guitar all throughout college, and was in both jazz and classical guitar ensembles for four years. I was never super comfortable on the stage, so I thought it would be best for me to go into the management side of it and work behind the scenes.
OT: How much research did you do before moving from New York City to here?
SB: A good amount. I researched a lot about this venue and some other venues in the area. I had some friends down here. For me, it seemed like a really good transition. [My] previous job as associate director was also at a nonprofit music venue, Joe’s Pub. It was a performance space that was part of a larger organization that was mission-driven, and there’s only a few venues that are like that. To me, it’s something that’s important.
OT: Can you give us a quick rundown of your responsibilities at Wolf Trap?
SB: I book all of the pop shows at the Filene Center, which is 70 to 80 shows per summer in the outdoor amphitheater. I also book for the Barns, the indoor space that runs from October to April. And I oversee all of the production aspects at both venues, and the backstage catering, productions, artist relations, and all the nuts and bolts that go into the back end of a show.
OT: How do you keep a pulse on the music scene and decide who to book?
SB: A big part of my job is staying current with what’s out there. I go to a lot of festivals, and there are a lot of conferences that I attend. I live downtown, and I go to a ton of shows in DC. A big part of my job is watching the charts, the ticket sales and in a perfect world, getting an emerging artist at the right time for our venue. For example, I saw Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats at Rock & Roll Hotel, and booked them nine months later to sell out the Filene Center. I saw them, and it was packed and they were incredible. There were enough indicators that it would be a thing.
OT: How do you determine what acts make sense for Wolf Trap?
SB: I listen to a lot of college radio stations, and just pay attention to what people are listening to. I wouldn’t work in live music if I didn’t like going out to see it often. It’s a fun part of the job to keep up with it.
OT: Pop is an overarching term for a lot of genres. Are there any in particular you focus on at Wolf Trap?
SB: We try to be as diverse as possible and hit as many different genres in a season. Within that, we also want to hit different generations as well. Really, it’s a universal amphitheater, and so many kinds of music work well. We’ll have old-school R&B, classical Latin, rock and even opera.
OT: How do you keep track of who’s coming and going, and what sphere of music they operate in?
SB: Massive spreadsheets [laughs]. I have a nerdy system of keeping track of artists that I want to have here. I’ve been booking here for four years, and I have a wish list of artists that I put offers in for every year, and a list of people [who] agents suggest. It’s a big puzzle – making sure we don’t have two conflicting artists [in one] week, and keeping the genres spread out.
OT: Can you name one on your wish list?
SB: I’ve been a massive Paul McCartney fan my whole life, and I know he’s on everyone’s wish list. That would be a huge one for me. Getting [Bruce] Springsteen in here would probably be a reach, but a dream. For me personally, I’m a huge Fleetwood Mac fan and we have Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie here together this summer. I almost cried when that show confirmed.
OT: What other artists are you looking forward to this season?
SB: We have a ton of good folks this season. Mary J. Blige is kicking off this summer. She’s an artist that we had in 2000, and we’ve wanted her back for awhile. Another band that I saw at SXSW a couple of years ago that’s playing this year is St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
OT: Are there any that you thought you had this season, but fell through at the last minute?
SB: Things kind of fall apart all the time, unfortunately [laughs]. I had to learn pretty quickly to not let it faze me, because sometimes big shows happen when you don’t expect them to. We always have to have plans B, C and D ready. I’m always a little superstitious until we get a real confirmation.
OT: What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
SB: Once the show is up and we can breathe, walking outside through the lawn on a venue tour is fun. It’s a rewarding feeling to watch 7,000 people see their favorite band up on the stage, and then watching them leave happy. That’s why we do this, for that experience.
OT: Is there a target audience that you keep in mind while booking shows?
SB: We have multiple audiences. We have marketing meetings and [go through] show by show to find who the audience is for a particular show, rather than doing the overarching season as a whole. We have a baseline of Wolf Trap devotees, and then the rest are filled in with the specific fans of those artists.
OT: Is there a recent show that sticks out to you?
SB: Last year, we had Sufjan Stevens, and that was the most fun show I’ve ever seen here. For a lot of the audience, I think it was their first time at the venue, and the show was gorgeous and visually stunning. There were balloons, costumes and a video screen designed for the show. Everyone’s faces were glowing because of how fun it was.
OT: What’s the strangest thing an artist has requested?
SB: We had a show a couple of years ago [where] we received a request for an autographed and framed picture of Burt Reynolds to be in the dressing room. That’s my favorite. A lot of times, those requests are included to see if you’re paying attention. Sometimes if it’s really obscure, we’ll ask and see if they really need it.
OT: So did you guys find the Burt Reynolds photo?
SB: Yeah, we ended up having to get it. Another time a band brought an outdoor setup for their kids who were on tour with them, so we had to fill up a kiddie pool and set up chairs. Some artists bring grills and bikes, and we even had to set up a tattoo room for an artist once.
OT: What are some major differences in prepping for an outdoor versus indoor show?
SB: For the park, we partner with the National Park Service, so there’s a lot of prep with the grounds in general. The biggest challenge we have is weather, but we are rain or shine. People come out with tarps and umbrellas, because they’re out there for the long haul. But it’s fun sometimes if the artist is digging it and everyone is working through the weather.
OT: What sets Wolf Trap apart from other venues?
SB: I think the pristine setting of Wolf Trap and the national park is a big selling point. It’s a radical difference from the city. You walk in and you just see park grounds all around you. That’s something the artists and audiences see immediately, and it keeps them wanting to come back. We also allow people to bring their own food and drinks. We want it to be as accessible as possible. It’s an experience, and an overall introduction to the arts. Our audience appreciates and knows this.
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Dresses with pockets
A nearby karaoke bar
A Kitchenaid mixer
Meat and cheese plates
WOLF TRAP MUST-HAVES
A Walkie Talkie
A golf cart
Check out Wolf Trap’s summer 2017 lineup at www.wolftrap.org.
Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts: 1635 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703-255-1900; www.wolftrap.org