Now, they plan to fill the space perhaps twice a month with regional musicians and audiences that like music and conversation in an intimate space while enjoying a beer or a cup of coffee.
“Acoustically, it is a great space for music because of the brick wall and the concrete floor,” said Emily Burkland, the Empire’s executive director.
As a performance space, the backstage area can seat perhaps 60, with additional standing room. Although you can buy a beer or cocktail during a Backstage Project concert if you’re 21 or older, the venue is not a bar.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with performing in a bar,” she said. “But when you’re in a bar, it’s not about the music anymore.”
The first Backstage Concert (earlier this month) featured Jazz on Tap, one of the city’s favorite ensembles. Next up is singer, songwriter and guitarist Chase Burkhart of Fargo, who grew up in Grand Forks and will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Empire’s backstage. Admission is $5.
Empire director Burkland thinks people in Grand Forks are ready for a something like the Empire’s Backstage Project.
“A lot of people are looking for something a little more exciting, and they’re looking for something with more of a big-city feel,” she said. “I think music is a good way to do that.”
Burkland said the idea for the Backstage Project began last summer.
“One of the first things I undertook to do was to purge a little bit,” said Burkland, who became director of the Empire in June. “I wanted to get rid of things we weren’t using and one of the worst areas was the backstage area.”
The work took about two days, with two dumpsters of junk hauled away and many other items re-located to other parts of the Empire. The whole back wall of the theater had been covered to the ceiling with stuff, and as the items were taken away, “it really came to light what a cool space it is back there,” she said.
The first concert drew enough attention that Burkland hopes they are on the right track.
“That was an awesome energy to see everyone packed into that room to see Jazz on Tap,” she said. “We’ve done very little marketing. I’ve had at least five or six other groups coming out of the woodwork who want to perform and be part of it.”
Burkland said one of the reasons for the Backstage Project was to give emerging local musicians a chance to play. Groups or musicians with members younger than 21 can’t perform in bars, and the Empire wants to host a few high school groups in which the bar wouldn’t be available.
“I truly believe that the more we foster local musicians, the greater the live music scene will grow in Grand Forks,” she said.
Burkland assumed the Backstage Project would appeal to young professionals and college students, but the first concert indicated a multigenerational appeal, with audience members from high school age to retirees.
The plan is to continue the concerts through the summer every other week or so. All shows will begin at 8 p.m.; admission will be $5. The shows are open to all, but you must be 21 or older to order alcohol from the bar run by Rhombus Guys. Concessions also will be available, as well as coffee from Urban Stampede.
Upcoming performances are Rosie Savageau on May 10; Mike and Hannah Powers opening for Black Cat Abraham on May 24.
Singer/songwriter Burkhart will play the acoustic guitar Saturday night to complement his tenor voice. His original music is an acoustic fusion of folk, indie rock, R&B, and jazz, he said. He also intends to sing some jazz standards, such as “All of Me,” Burkhart said.
“I’m exited to play in Grand Forks. I’m excited to play for more than a free drink, which is typically the case, unless you’re in an established band,” he said.
Burkhart graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 2003 and from North Dakota State University in 2011 and today teaches sixth- through 12th-grade choir and band at Northern Cass School near Hunter, N.D. In addition to teaching guitar lessons and performing, he works as a direct service provider with disabled persons through Community Living Services.
Burkland hopes the Backstage Concert will continue to attract top acts and enthusiastic audiences.
“I always said, it’s either going to be two people there, or a lot of people,” she said. “For the first concert, we could not have fit more than 10 more people in there.”
IF YOU GO
• What: A Backstage Project performance featuring singer, songwriter and guitarist Chase Burkhart.
• When and where: 8 p.m. Saturday, backstage at Empire Arts Center. Use the back door.
• Admission: $5.
• About the Backstage Project: Enjoy music by regional artists, conversationS with friends, in an intimate performance space. Concessions are available, including drinks by Rhombus Guys (for those 21 and older) and coffee from Urban Stampede.
• Upcoming shows: Rosie Savageau, May 10; Mike and Hannah Powers, Black Cat Abraham, May 24.
• Backstage Project underwriters: Hal and Kathleen Gershman Family Foundation.
• Info: (701) 746-5500; www.empireartscenter.com/the-backstage-project.html.