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Fox Cities PAC: 20 years and counting

The performing arts center shines spotlight on live performance arts for more than two decades

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December 16, 2022

APPLETON – For many, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (PAC) – which opened its doors in November 2002 – is seen as Northeast Wisconsin’s connection to Broadway shows.

Hosting its first – “Mamma Mia!” – in January 2003, and dozens of others since, it’s not a surprising frame of reference.

As the Fox Cities PAC – located in the heart of downtown Appleton – celebrates its 20th anniversary, President and CEO Maria Van Laanen said it’s an opportune time to reflect on the center’s regional impact, which has been possible thanks to the community.

“When you look at everything the PAC has accomplished, all of it is due to the community investing in, and dreaming with us,” Van Laanen said. “There are so many ways we have come together to make this a stronger, more compassionate and welcoming place for all.”

Quite the structure
Van Laanen said not only has the PAC made a name for itself in the realm of performing arts, it also set the bar high in terms of construction.

Built in record time, she said the $45-million facility opened its doors just 31 months after breaking ground.

A team effort between Boldt Construction Company, Grinnell Partnership Architects and Artec Consultants, the PAC (according to its website) was built using 21,000 cubic yards of concrete, 3.3 million pounds of reinforcing steel and 530 tons of structural steel.

Inside, Van Laanen said the center is composed of four different main spaces.

The largest of them – Thrivent Hall – boasts a 5,000-square-foot stage, Wisconsin’s second largest, and a 2,100-seat theater, where no seat is further than 108 feet from the stage.

The remaining spaces – the Kimberly-Clark Theater, The Founders Room and Entrance 21 – are geared toward smaller performances and gatherings.

Van Laanen said the PAC is the home of the Broadway Across America – Fox Cities series, the Boldt Arts Alive! series, the Thrivent Education Series and the Fox Valley Symphony

Community purpose
From the beginning, Van Laanen said the PAC has been a community project – with the funds to support it being raised through the private contributions of more than 2,700 local residents and businesses.

As the PAC’s second employee (joining the team in 2001), Van Laanen said it’s the center’s mission to serve as a gathering place for the entire community that first attracted her to it more than two decades ago.

In all the years since, Van Laanen said she has had the privilege of witnessing how the PAC has played a transformative role in making crucial connections and encouraging meaningful conversations, as well as hosting some fabulous productions.

“Hearing how many people have connected with family and friends or met new people, with the PAC serving as the backdrop for those stories, is such a wonderful gift,” she added. 

// Van Laanen

Van Laanen said she is most proud of how the PAC has tapped the arts as a catalyst for the purpose of meaningful conversations and social change within the community, as well as serving as a multicultural gathering place.

She said this has taken numerous forms – be it the “it gets better Residency” program promoting LGBTQ+ acceptance and allyship in the Fox Cities; “The Tamburitzans” production featuring a variety of folk dance and music representing international cultures, presented through IndUS of Fox Valley; or “Ballet Hispánico,” an evening of dances that explore the diversity of Latinx cultures.

“It’s exciting how, by collaborating with other organizations in our community, we can bring meaningful works that speak specifically to segments of our community to the PAC,” Van Laanen said. “By deepening relationships with these organizations, we are building a bigger table for more people to feel a part of this.”

Of course, she said, the larger productions – such as “Aladdin,” “WICKED,” “Hamilton” and “The Phantom of the Opera” – are what have enabled the PAC to welcome its three-millionth ticketed patron in June 2022.

Its impact, Van Laanen said, stretches far beyond the center itself – and into the classroom, helping students experience performing arts firsthand through its Amcor Education Series.

In February 2020, she said the series – which connects classroom lessons to live performing arts experiences for Northeast Wisconsin and Upper Michigan students in grades PreK-12 – impacted its 400,000th student through classroom education.

Van Laanen said the Amcor Education Series launched in December 2002 with a group of more than 2,000 elementary students who attended two performances of Franklin’s Class Concert.

She said PAC’s launch of its Center Stage High School Musical Theater Program as part of its 2016-17 season was done in a similar vein.

Van Laanen said the educational initiative is designed to celebrate and support high school musical theater by developing confidence, creativity and community.

She said both the Amcor Education Series and the Center Stage program were significantly impacted – as was the PAC as a whole – by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the programs were forced to pivot, as they say “The Show Must Go On” – and it did, Van Laanen said, with a weekly virtual series with the same name.

“The first thing we did was reach out to our educators and ask, ‘What do you need from us?’ because we knew how much they were struggling,” she said. “They resoundingly said, ‘Please continue to deliver education programs if you can find a way to do so virtually.’ We found ways to do so with an emphasis on being interactive and engaging versus merely a live performance of something virtually.”

The support extended to the educators as well, Van Laanen said, with the establishment of a group for the educators themselves.

She said each session featured a teaching artist followed by an open discussion among educators on how to work through the issues they were having in the current climate, regardless of what that entailed.

“It became a peer-to-peer platform,” she said. “We created the meeting space, and they used it to share ideas on how to keep kids engaged and keep the camera on.”

The pandemic
In 2020, as was the case for nearly all performing arts venues in the nation, Van Laanen said the PAC was forced to close its doors – turning its operations upside down.

The last live, in-person performance occurred March 12, 2020.

Van Laanen said the PAC team moved March and April shows to August and September with the expectation that COVID would run its course by then.

The closure of the physical building, she said, also required PAC staff to pivot its efforts to provide mission-based, thoughtful, interactive opportunities for the arts to the community. Among the offerings, Van Laanen said, was the nationwide screening of the John Lewis: Good Trouble documentary – which explores the Georgia representative’s 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health care reform and immigration.

In tandem with the screening, Van Laanen said the PAC hosted an interactive component with a panel hosted both by The Smithsonian, as well as a local panel focused on Lewis’ impact in the Fox Cities as he had visited the community several times. 
Van Laanen said it was also during the pandemic the PAC launched its Act 2 Fund – focused on assisting the center’s financial recovery from the pandemic.

She said fortunately, the PAC was able to tap into the endowment to sustain its team and operations during the pandemic, with the Act 2 Fund raising enough funding to replenish all funds they drew from the endowment during COVID.

“The community was so generous that we were able to completely recoup what we lost,” Van Laanen said. “It’s a great example of how much the community sees the value of our mission and their willingness to invest to make sure we can continue to deliver.”

She said the PAC team returned in-person in shifts, starting July 1, 2021, with the public re-entering the building with the launch of the 2021 Mile of Music the first week of August. 

“We stood in the lobby when we opened the doors for the first time, crying because we were so happy,” Van Laanen said.
The PAC’s first ticketed performance following the closure was Charles Ross’ One-Man Star Wars® Trilogy and One-Man Avengers: A Parody – which was in October 2021.

And on its heels followed a full-fledged, two-week production of WICKED. 

“And from there, we were rolling again,” Van Laanen said. “There were nearly 600 days between the last performance (in March 2020) and October 2021. People were (hungry) for reconnection and healing after everything they went through during the pandemic.”

Peaks and valleys
Van Laanen said the PAC has had its share of ups and downs over the years.

One peak, she said, definitely sticks out was Wisconsin premiere of “Disney’s The Lion King” for the center’s fifth anniversary season, the first time the production had played in a market or venue of the PAC’s size.

Van Laanen said the six-week run sold out, selling 88,000 tickets, and garnered the attention of so many New York producers that they began reaching out to the PAC, versus the reverse.

“In the early days, we would walk around New York meeting with producers and booking agents and bring a map to show them where Appleton was,” she said. “We definitely don’t need that map the way we used to. The day we put The Lion King tickets on sale, we got a call from the producer of WICKED saying, ‘Let’s talk about dates.’”

From providing educational opportunities, to hosting numerous community events and gatherings, to showcasing some top Broadway productions, Van Laanen said the PAC does it all.

And each aspect of the PAC’s mission, she said, brings with it its own energy and opportunity to make an impact.

Economically, Van Laanen said, that adds up to about $13 million annually with that number rising as high as $24 million to $25 million annually when the PAC hosts a multi-week Broadway show run.

More than 14,000 students from 140 schools attended virtual and in-person performing arts experiences during the 2021-22 season. Submitted Photo

She said about 60% of the PAC’s audience comes from a 30-mile radius, with another 30% from 30-60 miles away and the remaining from more than an hour’s drive.

Van Laanen said numbers shift if a PAC production is the only one in the state, versus a more localized one.

As the PAC continues its 2023 season, which launched in September, Van Laanen said she, the 34 team members and hundreds of volunteers, anticipates the return of the usual 400-450 events and the 175,0000-180,000 ticketed patrons it did pre-COVID.

Van Laanen said she’s excited about what’s to come next. 

“We recognize we have continued work to do, especially with people who do not yet feel they are a part of the community or have the same opportunities to succeed,” she said. “But we have shown repeatedly that when we come together, we can make incredible progress. At 20 years, we have the opportunity to reflect on what a point of pride we have accomplished. I get goosebumps because it has been beyond even our wildest dreams. (The PAC) is a symbol of how much this community is willing to invest in the infrastructure to provide opportunities for everyone to succeed.”

As a means of celebration of the PAC’s 20th anniversary, Van Laanen said community members may contribute to the PAC’s Year-End Giving Campaign by giving $20 or more for 20 years of live performing arts.

For more information on the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center or its fundraising campaign, contact 920-730-3782 or

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