Opera star Renee Fleming boarded one of the last planes out of New York as a snow storm was descending and squeezed between two passengers to claim her economy class seat. Fleming almost always flies first class, so sacrificing comfort to beat the storm was an unusual move, but she was determined to keep a commitment in Utah.
Fleming had agreed to perform as part of BYU’s BRAVO! series. In fact, renowned performers from all over the globe consistently write a stop at BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center into their schedules. The series holds enough weight in the entertainment industry to catch agents’ attention and bring in some pretty big names, BRAVO! producer Jeffrey Martin said.
It wasn’t always this way.
Martin came to BYU and took over as the series producer around eight years ago. It was known then as “The BYU Performing Arts Series,” mainly hosting regional talent in small performances. The first thing Martin did upon arriving was set a goal to improve the series.
“I kind of took it on as my challenge and my goal to elevate the size of the series and the caliber of the artists,” Martin said.
He planned to use those improvements to lift student experiences with the arts to a higher level, and he had been preparing his whole life to do it.
Martin said he has always enjoyed the arts. He studied theater directing at BYU after a stint at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and graduated in theater history and criticism from the University of Oklahoma. He interned with Broadway producers in New York City, and soon he was working at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in southern Utah.
Martin said his experience working with agents and managers at Tuacahn made him decide there really was no business like show business. A new opportunity opened up at BYU, and Martin decided to apply for the job. Soon he was making big plans in Provo.
It took Martin nearly six years for the BYU Performing Arts Series to reach the kind of elevated level he’d envisioned. The series soon began drawing a lot of attention, and big artists wanted to come, Martin said. He decided the 2013-2014 season was the perfect time for a rebrand, and “BRAVO!” was born.
Now Martin spends his days planning and developing shows and seasons to keep the BRAVO! series growing. Associate Dean Amy Jensen, Martin’s supervisor, said she was impressed by how much the series has changed.
“(Martin) has some of the greatest talent in the world coming to perform at BYU, which is pretty exciting,” Jensen said. “And that takes a certain degree of creativity. It takes persistence. One of the things I love about Jeff is how persistent he is.”
It often takes up to three years to develop a strong enough relationship to bring in a particular artist. Martin travels extensively, seeking out high-quality shows that fit BYU’s flavor and standards.
Sometimes he travels overseas to see a performance, only to decide to let it go. The real negotiation begins when Martin finds something he likes. After coming to an agreement with agents and managers, Martin juggles to schedule on-campus workshops and performances.
The day of the show finally arrives, and Martin usually heads to the airport to greet the performers. He picks them up, tells them all about BYU and shows them around campus.
There’s no handbook on interacting with celebrities, so Martin said he used to be more timid than he is today. Finding the balance between being social and being annoying took practice and experience, he said.
Martin also said time on the BYU campus has an interesting effect on the visiting artists.
“It’s funny to me to watch how they kind of evolve over the time they’re here,” Martin said. “A lot of the time they come because it’s just another gig. But by the time they leave, they’ve warmed up so much. I’ve never had anyone go away unhappy.”
Martin said performers are always a little mystified by what they feel on campus. They’ve said things like, “If Disney ever had a university, it would be BYU,” and “Everyone is so happy here. It’s like they’re hiding something.”
Traveling and hosting performers have become missionary experiences for Martin. He said talking about the LDS Church and representing BYU has given him an opportunity to touch hearts in a way many people do not experience.
His wife, Stacy, said the performers aren’t the only ones positively affected by his work. Both Stacy and Jeffrey said they want their children, ages 12, 10 and 7, to appreciate the arts, and Jeffrey’s job has provided a great opportunity.
“Our kids have had exposure to the arts from an early age,” Stacy said. “They all love the arts and are able to sit through full-length concerts and plays. I believe this will help them be lifelong supporters of the arts.”
Martin said he’s always seeking the best for his family, visiting artists and BYU. He also aspires to produce a Broadway play, and that’s just one extension of his desire to put together something great for audiences.
“My favorite thing is when I go into the back of a theater right before the show starts, and everyone’s anticipation is high, and they’re excited for the concert to start,” Martin said. “They came to something that I brought to them, and it’s very fulfilling. I love that. It’s my favorite moment.”