After a distinguished career at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, one of the premier concert and performance venues in the United States, Matt Laughlin returns to his home state to serve as director of Flathead Valley Community College’s new Paul D. Wachholz College Center.
The two establishments are a remarkable mix of similarities and differences.
Seattle’s prestigious Benaroya Hall was designed exclusively for symphonic music and concerts and is home to the Seattle Symphony.
While the Paul D. Wachholz College Center also boasts state-of-the-art acoustics in its 1,000-seat McClaren Hall, which will be the Glacier Symphony Orchestra’s new performance home, the 58,000-square-foot facility also features an art gallery and exhibition hall, located in the amphitheater Outdoor and multipurpose activity complex.
Laughlin’s professional background includes 14 years at Benaroya Hall, initially as a facilities sales and production manager before being promoted to director of that division and then director of venue administration.
A native of Billings, Laughlin graduated from the University of Montana in 2000 with a degree in business administration. In the summer he moved to Seattle. Aside from serving as an events manager for AEG/Showbox venues in Seattle for two years, his career has been at Benaroya.
“I was fortunate and fortunate to have had the opportunity to work there for so many years,” Laughlin said. “It was one of those things that I kind of stumbled upon. It wasn’t necessarily my goal to make a career there. I worked in the events and production industry before joining Benaroya and was very good at working with stage and lighting crews, booking bands and understanding the technical side of things to make concerts run smoothly.”
After hearing about the vacancy, he applied and was hired.
“I had never set foot in Benaroya before applying,” he said. “It turned out to be the perfect job and environment for me.”
Once the Seattle Symphony had its performances scheduled for each year, it was Laughlin and his team’s responsibility to fill the rest of the calendar with concerts, corporate events, lectures, banquets, and weddings.
Of course, as in any large organization, there is always one person with many responsibilities that people turn to for answers and solutions.
“I was for many years,” Laughlin said. “But it’s also about the customer experience, the box office, concessions, security — all the things that go into the operations and management of the venue.”
The responsibility came with unique challenges. Benaroya Hall occupies an entire block right in the heart of downtown Seattle on a major thoroughfare.
“We had a lot of security issues to look out for in how we operated the building and staffed it for events,” Laughlin said.
Laughlin also described one of the common operational challenges.
“Two tour buses and two semi-trucks come loaded to the big show and you would have to divert them to one-way streets and get city permission to park and unload.”
But he says all the work paid off in the end.
“We would see an auditorium full of guests, whether it was a symphony show, a National Geographic talk, or the Ellen Degeneres Netflix special,” he said. “To see how all the production planning takes place leading up to the show itself. Many people are involved in the implementation. It’s really rewarding.”
“But there’s always the curve balls,” added Laughlin. “That’s part of the fun, too.”
For example, certain performing artists require additional security such as metal detectors at the door, which would inevitably create bottlenecks.
“If guests show up with only 15 minutes and there’s a line out the door, it would come down to how we get 2,000 people in the next 10 minutes and get a seat.”
In the spring of 2020, Laughlin and his wife, who is from Ennis, made the decision to leave Seattle with their two young children to return to their hometown of Montana. He heard about FVCC’s College Center director vacancy through an events industry job board in the summer of 2021, applied, and was offered the job last September.
Until then he and his wife had not spent much time in the Kalispell/Flathead area.
“We were wondering if we could call this home and if we could imagine living here,” Laughlin said. “As soon as you drive up from Missoula and the lake comes into view, you have this ‘Wow!’ Factor and the beauty, the mountains, the ski resorts. The beauty of the Flathead region is appealing.
“And it’s also the venue itself. These types of venues and these types of jobs aren’t found everywhere. These are unique opportunities.”
Laughlin points out that even in a big city like Seattle, there are only four performing arts centers.
“Having the opportunity to work in a place like this and having this type of staff in the state of Montana is particularly unique,” he said.
“The College Center is a unique building, both in terms of performing arts and athletic facilities,” he added. “That definitely didn’t exist at Benaroya Hall. That’s an exciting perk to wrap my head around. I know the Gymnasium will be more focused on the students and the campus itself, but for larger events this Gymnasium will be beautiful with a fantastic view for sit down dinners, trade shows or conferences.”
Another fundamental difference between the two venues is adaptability.
“Benaroya Hall was deliberately designed for symphonic music. Acoustics was everything to them, and to that end, there’s no opening or closing of curtains or backdrops, no fly system to do any theatrical-style productions,” Laughlin said. “The College Center is being intelligently designed to be a very versatile venue. The Glacier Symphony Orchestra will be able to perform in an acoustically excellent atmosphere, but the orchestra shell can be struck and we have the fly system and drapes to enable us to do dance and theater productions.”
Laughlin and FVCC President Jane Karas agree that while being able to stage Broadway-style theater shows at McClaren Hall is a huge plus, it’s wise to know the venue and find out what its capabilities are are.
“We need to grow as a team in the first year and get a sense of what’s possible,” he said, “and make sure our staff are trained to produce those shows and bring them in when we’re ready.”
“We want to start with some bigger acts in autumn and cause a sensation. We are planning a solid inaugural season that will include the entire Glacier Symphony Orchestra season and add faculty, touring concerts and music groups; then, towards the second half of the first season, you might throw in a musical dance theater production or two.
“Jane and I have spoken many times about all of the things we want to do in this space, but it’s more of a long-term vision and understanding that this venue will remain in the community for the next 50 years,” Laughlin said. “The idea is that it’s a financially self-sustaining entity for the college. It is very clear to me how much support and anticipation there is in the community for this performing arts center.”
Community Editor Carol Marino can be reached at 406-758-4440 or [email protected]