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Musician Turns Farm Shed Into Concert Hall
What do you do if you're a musician who moves to a rural area and you have an unused tool shed on your farm property? Nick Utrie did what came natural. He opened up a mini concert hall in his backyard.
  Utrie had always wanted to create a family oriented place to play. Rather than setting up in a smoky bar, where folks come for drinking more than listening to good music, Utrie envisioned a down-home musical venue where he and others could bring their children and the musicians would find an appreciative and attentive audience.
  Thus, Utrie's Small Theater was born in a 16 by 40-ft. tool shed behind his house. In 2000, Utrie started booking musical acts first local, then regional and even national touring groups to play in his renovated shed. It's more of a hobby than a moneymaking proposition for this music lover, but he's thinking about someday expanding into a bigger building and working full time at it.
  Having been a professional musician for several years, as well as a small-scale musical promoter, Utrie settled on a simple plan to get his mini concert hall off the ground. He says anyone with an empty barn or shed could do the same.
  First, Utrie cleaned out the tool shed and built a wooden stage on one end. Then he bolted about 60 old movie theater seats to the shed's wood floor. A cast iron wood stove keeps it warm, even on chilly winter nights. The acoustics are so nice that a few bands have recorded albums in the shed. Total cost of the renovation was about $500.
  To book the talent, Utrie communicates with bands and promoters, offering a place for them to play when they're passing through his area between tour dates. He said singer-songwriter musicians or small groups will play for modest sums if you schedule them on off dates, usually Sunday through Wednesday nights, and promise an audience interested in seeing the performance. After a few years of putting on several shows a year, Utrie has gained a reputation for audience hospitality, and the musicians often work for a share of whatever he collects in good will offerings.
  "It's pass the hat,'' Utrie explains. "I make a speech at the beginning. I understand what the artist needs to make as a minimum, so I'll say something like, It's a sliding scale donation. Everyone who can drive a car, give $5, $10 or $20.' If you get $10 from 30 people, that's a great gig for a singer songwriter.''
  Utrie also often performs as a warm-up act doing music or magic. He likes to recreate an evening of Vaudeville-style entertainment, presenting two or three acts to offer variety. The music is a broad mix of jazz, folk, classical he even booked a local tuba player once. And when need be, three or four burly guys haul the piano out of his house and carry it to the shed for a performance.
  The events usually run about 7-10 p.m. to accommodate families, and there's always a campfire burning outside and a swing set nearby for the kids. Food and drink are strictly bring-your-own or pot luck, and parking is on the grass behind his house. Over the years, the Small Theater audience has grown into a good-sized list of friends and neighbors and their friends who come out several times a year. If you want to attend, you have to call and tell him you're coming.
  For folks who want to start their own backyard concert series, Utrie recommends starting by giving local performers a place to share their talents. Then start with friends, family and Facebook to build an audience.
  "People are there to hear the music, so it makes the bands feel like they're in Carnegie Hall,'' he says of the Small Theater. "All eyes are on the artist, and it makes them pull out huge performances.''
  Contact: FARM SHOW followup, Nick Utrie and Small Theater, 3240 Eaton Road, Green Bay, Wis. 54311 (ph 920 468-6696; www.thesmalltheater.com).

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2011 - Volume #35, Issue #4