The Aetos Center is a venue for national touring acts. It's also a high school
Since February, Nixa's new performing arts center has booked a magician, a hypnotist and an award-winning dance troupe.
"Club illuminate is popping!"
"I never want this night to end!" Scattered cheering breaks out.
"End? What do you mean end? We haven't even gotten to dance with these lovely people yet!" More cheering.
"That's right, we going all night! I need you out. Your. SEATS!" Airhorn sound effect. More cheering. Dance music.
It’s Wednesday, October 11, and the dancers of iLuminate — a touring show which once came in third on America’s Got Talent — are outfitted with LED strip lights as they perform routines to popular songs. Think the visuals of Tron to the tune of "Uptown Funk." It’s happening at the Aetos Center in Nixa, the $16 million performing arts center built into the high school and completed this year.
It’s a peculiar venue. It’s abnormally large for a high school theatre, being a 1,000-plus capacity venue that also includes a black box stage and practice space for the school band. It also has its own logo, but the most peculiar thing — for a high school venue — is that the space is hosting national touring acts like iLuminate.
Earlier, Aetos hosted Hyprov, a collaboration between a hypnotist and one of the guys from Who’s Line is it Anyway? Later, it’ll host The Grand Ol’ Christmas Show, a tour that mostly does not leave Texas, aside from one show in Eureka Springs — and now, Nixa. In April, it will hold a concert by David Archuleta, the runner-up of American Idol Season Seven.
Who is booking these shows, you might ask? Well, a lot of people are involved — there’s a whole advisory council that figures out who gets the space when — but the main point man for Aetos as a tour stop is one Zac Rantz, communication officer for Nixa Schools. He started out by asking similar community theatres how they handled the booking process, and then those folks put him in touch with booking agents.
I asked him, "Especially starting off, before people started coming to you with tours, did you ever have trouble getting acts to come to Nixa, Missouri?"
“Oh yeah.” Rantz laughed. “I will say, they know the area, just because we already have a good arts area between Branson and Springfield. They’re familiar with the region… But yeah, this is a whole new concept of “you’re at a high school?” … It’s always great to see their body language change, because they’re like “oh, okay, so this is actually happening, so let’s start looking at X, Y and Z.”
In addition to the booking challenges that come with being connected to a rural high school, Aetos also comes with logistical challenges. I spoke with iLuminate Stage Manager Melanie Davis, who was overall pretty positive about the venue.
“Pulling into the parking lot is the fun part, especially because we’re with a bus and a trailer, so there’s a lot of cars everywhere," she said. "There’s no loading dock here, but the crew definitely makes the best of a bad situation with that one. Yeah, the crew was really great, all hands on deck, we loaded in right away. Thankfully, we’re in a trailer, so that makes it really easy to get into the venue. If we had a truck, it would be a little bit more.”
But the biggest challenge, Rantz said, is getting audiences to understand what the venue is.
"Our performing arts programs are amazing, and so when a lot of people hear about a show at Aetos, they think that it’s a high school production," he said. "We know it’s going to take a while for that to happen, you know, for people to really understand what we’re doing here. It’ll take a few years. And probably even five years from now we’ll still get people who walk in and go, 'I didn’t know this was here!' "
Working with students
Though the touring acts are separate from high school productions, students can still get involved. Allison Fleetwood, theatre department head and operations manager for Aetos, said that when a show comes to town, both backstage crew and usher positions are offered to advanced drama students. While crew members are paid, ushers work on a volunteer basis.
"And a lot of our students have to have volunteer hours for different organizations — honors organizations — that they’re in. So they are happy to be part of that," Fleetwood said.
Student workers are treated as professionals, to the extent that they show up early, stay for a long time, and, in the case of Magician Mike Super’s performance, sign NDAs. At iLuminate, I spoke to Seth, one of the students. He had a positive experience in run crew (the people who wear black and move things around on stage).
"Overall, [it was] a little tense, but at the same time just fun to be helping this big, creative, artistic show," he said.
Davis, with iLuminate, had good things to say about stage managing students: "We had the student staff here with us, and they trained alongside, learned all of their cues, and were really helpful during the show. It’s a really good experience for them. It’s also really great to see the next generation of technicians being trained before they even go off to college."
Robin Nemanick, who works with the aforementioned Mike Super as a self-described "tour and media goddess," also enjoyed working with students.
"Typically, when we’re at performing arts venues, they have either a union crew or experienced lighting and sound techs that are there for us," she said. "At Aetos, they have a mixture of that and their students who are in the theatre program. So it was nice to work with students and kind of coach them along and answer questions that they had while they were helping us with load in and setup. So it was a nice dynamic that day."
Aetos is full of part-time workers. In addition to the students, management runs the venue on the side — Rantz’s main gig is communication officer. Fleetwood and her technical director, Cory Glenn, receive a stipend for their responsibilities, but that’s on top of their obligations as faculty. Rantz said that this has the benefit of lowering ticket prices.
"We're able to charge less than [if you] were traveling somewhere, just because we don’t have that overhead," he said. "And we can keep it to where [it’s] 'this is how much it costs and this is what we need to charge.' "
Aetos was one of the most expensive stops of iLuminate’s current tour, with a minimum ticket price of $50. The $50 cheapest ticket for Mike Super’s upcoming second appearance at the venue is also more expensive than most of his other shows. The Grand Ol’ Christmas show and Artrageous, however, are much cheaper, running at about the low-middle of the pack for their respective tours.
Rantz said this comes down to a few factors. Tickets have to be priced so the venue will break even, based on the number of people they expect to see at the show. But this is complicated by the fact that many contracts require a given minimum or average ticket price, and tours often need a set ticket price before they’ll agree to sign a contract.
Nemanick had only good things to say about contract negotiations with Aetos: "Part of the contracting process can be lengthy and tedious, and that went pretty smooth. Especially being that they’re tied in with a school, sometimes that can get complicated."
"Breaking even" isn’t just a matter of ticket sales, though. There’s also money coming in from local sponsorships (they projected the Meridian Title Company logo on one of the walls before iLuminate started) as well as the Aetos Guild, which offers pre-sale access, Aetos merch and other benefits to members. Season 2 membership is $100.
To an extent, expenses for Aetos as a venue for touring shows are kept separate from expenses for Aetos as a part of the high school.
Rantz explains: "There’s going to be some overlaps, because certain things are going to be needed for the high school productions and other things that we don’t need for the national shows. So there’s going to be a little bit of an overlap there. But that’s where we’re headed. And everything possible that we have to get started with, some of that upfront money will be kind of reimbursed after we bring the shows in, and all the ticket sales go to reimburse any expenses that might have come out of that general pot of money."
Supporting the idea
Ultimately, the ability of Aetos to grow as an operation is linked to community support.
"I mean, when we started talking to people, this was a concrete box…" Rantz said. "And now we’re talking about season 3, the second half of ’24 into ’25. Those conversations have changed because they see what people are coming to and they’re seeing what we’re doing, and so we’re able to start looking at some larger names, or some bigger shows, because they see that the local community is getting invested in this kind of idea that we’ve got."
Fleetwood, the theatre department head, agrees: "Nixa really is a strong supporter of the arts. That really got us to even having this facility. So, we go back to the beginning, we got where we are because of our staff, our students, but ultimately our community support."