Cody Bowen always knew he wanted to work in musical theater. He grew up in a musical family in tiny Whitewright, Texas, took voice and music lessons and acted in Sherman Community Playhouse productions.
As a young man, Bowen discovered a talent for managing the technical side of performances.
“I was determined that I would work in theater full-time” and being a technical director allowed him to do that, he said.
A committed Christian, Bowen knew the theater world was overwhelmingly secular.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way that I can be a full-time technical director and be in a Christian environment,’ ” he said.
“There are probably a handful of performing arts centers that are on Christian university campuses,” Bowen said.
Many Christian universities have performance halls, but they are for productions staged by academic theater and musical departments, not venues for touring musicians or acting companies.
In 2009, Bowen saw LeTourneau University’s ad for a Belcher Center technical director. He and his wife, Laura, lived in Durango, Colorado, and had just had their daughter, Gyllian. Both the couple’s parents live in Texas.
“I knew (the Belcher Center job) was what I wanted, so that’s why I pursued it,” Bowen said.
“God (was) leading me here. He opened up every door; everything was perfectly aligned for me,” he added.
Almost 11 years later, on Jan. 1, Bowen became senior director of the Belcher Center, achieving his 15-year-long goal to manage a performing arts venue.
‘He cares for it as much as I have’
Cynthia Hellen recently retired from the position after working with Bowen for more than a decade. He replaced her; Hellen now is director of Arts! Longview.
“I can’t imagine having been comfortable leaving the Belcher Center in anybody else’s hands. I really believe that he cares for (it) as much as I have,” she said.
“It’s important to have somebody running it who really loves it. And he does,” Hellen added.
Capable leadership is crucial during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I couldn’t just let (the season) die. … We had to continue. We have to provide hope. We have to continue forward,” Bowen said.
On March 17, he canceled all performances and events at the center. Then, this season’s “Yesterday and Today: The Interactive Beatles Experience with Billy and Matthew McGuigan” was rescheduled to April 23, 2021.
Bowen reworked the upcoming “Season 14: Heart & Soul,” moving the first production, “The Official Blues Brothers Revue: 40th Anniversary,” from October to Nov. 7. He eliminated shows with big financial risks, trimming the season to six shows, including one school-day show.
He added a clause to contracts that protects the center and LeTourneau in case governmental regulations curtail future productions. If COVID-19 mandates restrict performances, they must be rescheduled within 12 to 18 months or they will be canceled and the center’s deposit refunded, he said.
“The response has been pretty good. Everyone understands that we’re making potential plans that may not happen,” Bowen said.
While the center has developed seat maps showing 25, 50 and 75 percent occupancy as a social-distancing guide for groups renting the center, Bowen said, “We’re either open 100 percent and I’m taking a risk that you don’t buy tickets, or we’re not open,” he said.
‘Am I doing this for me?’Bowen has faced a couple of big challenges in making these decisions.
“I had to decide (if) moving forward with a season was a selfish motivation, or did I really want to provide hope for our community? Am I doing this for me, or am I doing this for God?” he said.
While revamping the season has been a lot of work, it has finally come together, Bowen said.
“I feel very confident that I have made the right decision,” he said.
“The other piece is just navigating the mountain of unknowns,” Bowen added.
He has sought insight by “talking with pros,” he said. Besides Hellen, they include Anne T. Black, executive director of Texas A&M’s OPAS, a student organization that presents professional theatre, music and dance performances; Carolyn Franks, director of the Whatley Center for Performing Arts at Northeast Texas Community College; and Maureen M. Patton, executive director of The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston.
Bowen has a master’s in business administration with a concentration in management from LeTourneau. He has a bachelor’s in musical theater and acting and directing from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, where he met his wife, Laura. They married their senior year.
Then the couple was off to New York.
“When you’re right out of college and in theater you think Broadway is the way to head,” Bowen said.
He was hired as technical director of the South Shore Theatre Experience in Lindenhurst, New York, on Long Island.
‘I was determined to work in theater full-time’“I was determined that I would work in theater full-time,” he said. Being tech director was his day job while he also took every opportunity to perform.
Bowen spent the next few years as technical director for several arts centers: Plano Repertory Theater (now the North Texas Performing Arts Repertory Theater); the WaterTower Theatre in Addison; and the Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington, New Mexico, just across the border from Durango.
As technical director, Bowen drew up technical budgets for sound, lighting and crew; coordinated crew and staff; prepared for each performance; and oversaw the erecting and tearing down of the set.
Hellen said Bowen is “very, very smart. He can do absolutely anything in a theater. He knows the technical side cold. He can make any production sound and look good.”
He can work with anyone and is willing to do whatever needs to be done to make a production a success, she said.
“He’s also very reliable. When you’re in a business that runs on deadlines, that’s incredibly important,” Hellen said.
About 15 years ago, Bowen realized his long-term career goal was to be a venue director – to help decide which productions and events a venue presented each year.
“I’ve had a lot of pride in being tech director, but that time has passed. … I am excited to be the role of deciding how we advertise and how we sell the tickets,” he said.
More than 60 performances are held at the Belcher each year.
“In 11 years, I missed one performance. … Now I only have to be at shows that we present. I went from (working) 200 and something nights a year to about 15,” Bowen said.
Hellen said a production suffers if the sound or lighting is not perfect. Making sure the technical parts of a production click takes weeks and months of advance work.
Bowen kept ‘all those plates spinning’“
Cody understood the importance of keeping all those plates spinning, and nothing ever dropped,” she said. And show business agents, producers and promoters noticed.
“The Belcher Center has a great reputation in the business,” Hellen said.
The center usually presents seven or eight performances per season, which begins in September or October.
In addition, it presents at least one school-day show each semester. A total of about 3,000 students attend one of two performances, which always contain material that meets state educational requirements, Bowen said.
Other area groups and artists, such as the Longview Symphony Orchestra, also rent the center for performances or events.
“We are a true roadhouse. That specific term is applied to venues that are presenting, not producing. We’re presenting the artists,” Bowen said.
“I’m excited about this. I don’t plan to retire until I have to. I could do this job my whole life. I love it,” he said.