Interview: Darren Critz (Symphony Space)

DarrenCritzAndDaughter.jpgDarren Critz is the Director of Performing Arts at New York City's Symphony Space. Their 2010-2011 "Just Kidding" season kicks off this weekend with "The Story Pirates," and it certainly doesn't end there -- it's a full season of kids music and entertainment. Because it's such a comprehensive season and because it's in New York City (a place where a lot of acts not from NYC still would like to play), I thought it'd be interesting to talk with Critz about the series, his goals for it, and what he looks for in acts. Even if you live far away from Manhattan, read on for the secret power of Alan Alda, what attracts Critz's ears, and how you hear Symphony Space shows...

What are your musical memories from childhood?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and got to see Ella Jenkins perform pretty regularly at our public library throughout the '70s. My mom adored her and was always on the lookout for her performances, so we were always at our library or any venue she played within a 50-mile radius. We were sort of to Ella Jenkins, what Dead Heads were to the Grateful Dead, with a Chevy Nova in place of the VW van (and without the psychedelics of course). “Did You Milk My Cow?” is still the greatest call-and-response song ever!

And at the risk of sounding incredibly square, Alan Alda singing “William Wants a Doll” off the Free to Be You and Me soundtrack was my favorite song as a kid, and dominated a good year and a half of my life. I’m thinking there are only a handful of people out there who list Alan Alda as a major musical influence.

How did you get into concert booking?
It was something I stumbled into. I come from a theatrical background, originally as an actor (soon realizing I had neither the love nor talent for it), then as a producer, which I was much better at. I came to Symphony Space to produce our theatre events, in addition to the music, dance, and family programs. Having a young daughter, I attend a really large number of kids’ music events both here at Symphony Space and everywhere else you can imagine. As with anything else, the more you involve yourself in any given thing, the more you learn about it; the more you learn about it, the more you appreciate those things, and the more you appreciate them, the more you want to share that appreciation with others. I’m lucky that I get to do that in this role.

Symphony Space has always had a few family shows -- what spurred the increase in frequency?
just kidding.jpgDemand more than anything else. There was a time when we offered just a few kids’ shows per year. Parents would often stop by the box office during the week to see if we had any kids’ shows happening the following weekend, and many times we didn’t. There was definitely a need and desire for more, and we set out to fill it. We went from a few shows per season to semi-regular shows, and then about five years ago, it seemed like a natural idea to expand the program further by offering something every Saturday between October and May. There is something really exciting about being able to give families the opportunity to plan their entire year in advance, or to have the freedom to wake up on any given Saturday morning and just show up knowing we’ll have something fun and interesting even if they don’t quite know what it will be until they get here.

What do you look (and listen) for in selecting musicians for the series?
A combination of the familiar and the new. There are a handful of musicians like Justin Roberts, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Morgan Taylor (Gustafer Yellowgold), who appear regularly in the series, that are really at the core of what we present. We are committed to them and their work, and our audiences look forward to their annual appearance here. I can only hope that a child’s experience at Symphony Space with these artists comes close to eliciting the same feelings that I had with Ella Jenkins at my hometown library. In addition to these core artists, I also look for the following:
-Up-and-coming artists that parents may have heard about, but probably haven’t had an opportunity to see live;
-Musicians with unique styles that explore interesting musical genres;
-Artists who really engage the audience with a great live show; and
-Musicians who are committed to expanding what kids’ music offers children and their parents.

What helps you decide to book an artist for the first time?
There can be a lot of factors at play. In most cases it’s as simple as hearing great new music and the desire to expose it to our audiences. We definitely present a lot of musicians in the “kindie” rock tradition, which is pretty beloved here in NYC, but we also strive to represent more diverse genres of music, through new artists. With our adult music program, we constantly ask ourselves questions like “how do we get our jazz audience to see our classical shows?” or “will a group that liked pop show X also like pop show Y?”

Kids’ music doesn’t face that same obstacle in many ways, and the ability to be diverse without driving away or losing audiences is what makes kids’ programming and introducing new artists so rewarding. Once we become adults, we’ve often established what we like, and it isn’t always as eclectic as we’d like it to be. A parent may love hip hop and hate traditional rock n’ roll, or love rock and dislike country. With kids, parents tend to be more comfortable breaking away from the genres they like in the spirit of exploration. Many want to expose their kids to a variety of choices, and we can’t really find that freedom in programming anywhere else. This definitely makes it easy to bring in new things, with the quality of each group’s music as the driving factor that keeps things together and consistent.

How do you hear about artists?
Lots of ways. I read kids’ music and parenting blogs, album reviews, and kid-related periodicals and newspapers; I go to kids’ entertainment conferences; I talk directly with artists who submit their materials to me; I talk extensively with parents after shows who recommend their favorite artists; musicians recommend other musicians; I swap ideas with other programmers; I have a Rhapsody subscription which has a pretty extensive selection of kids’ artists; I talk to managers and booking agents I’ve worked with previously who pitch new groups … the list really could go on and on. Your site is really an amazing resource, and I’m constantly keeping up on new things through you as well!

SymphonySpaceLogo.bmpWhat else can families expect at Symphony Space shows (besides just the music)?
We’re a multi-arts center, so the goal is to offer all the variety we offer in our adult programs to the kids. Our music program is certainly what we’re best known for with our family offerings, but we also have a pretty extensive amount of theatre and dance for kids too. Being the home of Public Radio’s Selected Shorts, we’re also pretty proud of our literature program. Thalia Kids Book Club events are these amazing gatherings where well-known authors come and read excerpts from their books, do extensive Q & A’s and work on creative writing exercises with the kids. Most of our kids’ shows are perfect for the 2-7 crowd, but because there is writing involved, these programs are for kids who are slightly older, which actually helps us reach more children in the process.

What's coming up for the series (both immediately) and in the months/years to come?
It’s a well-rounded season I think, with folk-based artists like Elizabeth Mitchell and Randy Kaplan; alt-country from Farmer Jason; indie-rock from groups like Justin Roberts, Recess Monkey, Rocknoceros, and Lunch Money, hip hop from Secret Agent 23 Skidoo; world music from Suni Paz and Los Munequitos de Matanzas; and funk from Sugar Free Allstars. I can’t name them all here, obviously, but it’s pretty exciting stuff.

The focus this year is really to highlight the national scope of the kids’ music scene by bringing in a lot of acts from across the U.S. to play at Symphony Space. The bands and artists performing this season represent 15 of the 50 U.S states, and we’re really excited about this. It’s sort of a given when you’re playing for an adult audience that at some point you’ll put together a tour and find enough venues along a route to do a regional or national tour. I think that kids’ artists should be able to have the same luxury, and I’d love for Symphony Space to be a place that aids in kick-starting a move for kids’ artists in this direction – a launching point for a tour that brings more family music to venues everywhere.

We’re also focused on getting the music heard by as many people as we can reach through the internet. We record almost all of our shows and make them available a few weeks after each performance for free via streaming audio on our website at It’s a great way to experience the artists live, even if you can’t be at the show.