Conference Report: TEDxBroadway

Last week I attended TEDxBroadway, an event hosted by producer Ken Davenport (Godspell, Altar Boyz) and Damian Bazadona of Situation Interactive (who you may remember as a speaker at NAMT’s 2009 Spring Conference). If you’re not familiar with TED (which stands for Technology, Education, Design), they’re best known for their conferences, which bring together “the world’s leading thinkers and doers” for “a 4-day journey into the future, in the company of those creating it.” That sounds intimidating and exclusive (and expensive!), but all of the “TED Talks” from the conferences are available for free online, with the best ones in a free podcast you can subscribe to in iTunes (that link goes to the audio version; there’s also a video feed and some highlights versions). The subjects cover everything from hard science to puzzles to arts education, and I’ve been a big fan for a while now. TEDx events are independently organized conferences “in the spirit of TED’s mission, ‘ideas worth spreading,'” and I was thrilled to get the opportunity to go to one to speculate about the future of Broadway.
About that B-word… Since I was there representing NAMT and our national membership, I was inclined to agree with a couple of attendees who wondered why it wasn’t “TEDxTheatre.” But the majority of the speakers said things that were relevant to all producers and artists all over the country, making the conference feel applicable to “theatre people” everywhere.

Our host Ken Davenport kicked things off by looking at how much has changed on Broadway in the last 20 years, from the dramatic changes in Times Square (this was probably about as NYC-specific as things got) to Ticketmaster to the internet. In 1992 the top ticket price for a Broadway musical was $65. Cameron Mackintosh caused a stir when he raised prices for Miss Saigon to $85…and he lowered them again when demand fell off! (What Ken didn’t mention, but I was too curious not to look up, is that $85 in 1992 dollars was $130 in 2010, so ticket prices have actually remained fairly steady in terms of inflation.) Ken then looked ahead to how Broadway might look in 2032. There were some interesting possibilities, from the positive (technological advances, a greening of NYC) to the scary (what if Broadway were underwater?), but as later speakers would discuss, this sort of projection is challenging and possibly pointless. But the real question was: Will the way we create shows change in the future? Will audiences change? Marketing? There may not be answers to these questions but we have to be open to whatever possibilities come along.
Interestingly, our next speaker, Jordan Roth (Jujamcyn Theatres) brought us back from the future with a look at some unchanging truths about what we do. “Our use of the word original speaks only to the what and not the how. It is a description of origin and not of execution…. A musical can have source material and still be an important and even seminal work, and ’twas ever thus,” he said, noting that most classic musicals were based on existing properties, just as today’s are. The most compelling question for Jordan is “Why is this live?” The reason for being live has to be “baked into the artists’ concept.” He cited War Horse as an example of something that has been through multiple media, changing significantly in each one in ways only each medium can provide. No one version is necessarily better than any other, but, Jordan concluded, “we do what no other medium can do. We do it live, and that’s original.”
Randy Weiner, producer of The Donkey Show and Sleep No More spoke about being inventive and making use of what you have to give audiences “an experience.” The Donkey Show was helped immensely during its long run by bachelorette parties, a market no one expected or actively cultivated, but which became a huge revenue source for the show through word of mouth. He acknowledged that working in theatres with union crews is different from working in nightclubs and converted warehouses, but suggested that we could be using the hours during the day when theatres are dark in productive ways, in the same way that Donkey Show used clubs when they were otherwise empty.
Patricia Martin was up next with some good news: “The conditions we are facing right now is what it looks like right before a renaissance.” She explained that there have historically been three indicators of a renaissance: It follows a collapse, there is a facilitating medium (in Rome it was the roads, now it’s the Internet), and then an age of enlightenment. As someone who hates the term “Millennials,” I was delighted when she referred instead to “the renaissance generation” (RenGen for short…not coincidentally also the name of Patricia’s book). It struck me as a call to action, a challenge to this new generation. “I believe what I can experience,” Patricia said, “[RenGen members] believe what they can feel.” Thus, stories are most powerful when they’re live, providing the greatest human connection. “What kind of stories are you going to tell us?” she concluded. “Because if you’re going to speak at the higher frequency and be heard, it would help if you told stories about the human condition. And it would help if you told them with love…you can deliver it live and you can deliver it with heart.”
After lunch, performer Matt Sax rapped his TED talk. Which was awesome but didn’t lead to the best note-taking! I did notice when he suggested that out-of-town tryouts might become online streaming tryouts, contradicting earlier speakers’ assertions that “live” is the most important thing. It’s an interesting idea though, especially given the success of Memphis, Company and other movie theatre events.
Kara Larson almost shot down everything that had come before by saying that everything we do in life involves predicting the future, but we’re bad at it. We’re good at predicting future events but not how we’ll feel about them, in part because we don’t know what we want. We focus on one set of influences (such as the weather in Los Angeles) while ignoring the others (traffic, smog and earthquakes). We’re unable to predict a world completely different from the one we’re in now. Change is inconstant; it comes in sudden jolts. In a way, everything Kara said contradicted Ken’s opening speech, and the whole idea that we were there to imagine the future of Broadway. But in fact, we shouldn’t predict, she said, we should adapt. We should accept change, or better yet create it, letting others adapt to us.
Next, Situation Interactive’s Damian Bazadona brought us back to the present, talking about all the things that Broadway is doing well in terms of talent, ideas, and economic success (attendance has remained constant through 9/11, the recession, the housing boom and bust). Rising prices are arguably good, since they indicate that there is a demand for the “product.” But, he asked, where is the growth potential for innovators? We need diversity, he said, to attract innovators. We need young people of various backgrounds to get into theatre to be those future game-changers. But “there is no financial model for audience development in a marketplace driven by limited supply.” (I’d make that “commercial marketplace,” since we’re talking about Broadway and not the non-profit majority of NAMT members.) Damian proposed that we need to expand exposure for Broadway and create new revenue streams so that we’re less reliant on ticket sales alone, allowing more seats to be discounted or given away.
On a related note, the crowd favorite of the day was Vincent Gassetto, a public school principal from the South Bronx who, with the help of the show’s producers, brought his entire school to see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. He said it was “a logistical nightmare, but worth it.” He now feels like his school is “part of the Broadway community.” The kids talk now about wanting to work in theatre and see more shows. “There are 1.1 million students in NYC public schools. We’re easy to find. It’s easy to reach young, talented and driven people.” Many NAMT members, of course, do exactly this with their education programs, and here in NYC we have Theatre Development Fund and the New Victory Theatre (whose marketing director I happened to be sitting next to), to name but two; it was a good reminder that there are always more kids to reach, and the video of Vincent’s students was an inspiring delight.
Naturally following this, market researcher Joseph Craig noted that Broadway audiences are aging and we have to replenish them to remain viable. The price of tickets outpaces senior citizens’ limited income. He also pointed out that theatres aren’t generally built well for older folks. Broadway audiences are 65% female, and what’s more there’s a stigma attached to theatre for men, who are far less likely to share the experience around the water cooler the next day. How do we become more inclusive and lose this stigma? How do we keep Broadway viable when there’s more distraction for entertainment dollars among an “instant gratification generation?” (Personally I’d argue that the earlier talks from Jordan Roth and Patricia Martin answered this pretty well.)
Finally, Greg Mosher joked that “we’ve reached the point in the day where everything has been said but not everyone has said it.” He spoke about the “fallacy of prediction” with a silly but helpful analogy: If a turkey keeps gaining weight at a steady pace, he would naturally assume that he’ll keep doing so until he’s the biggest turkey ever seen. But Thanksgiving, while not a surprise to the farmer, is a variable the turkey doesn’t know about. Greg admonished us not to be the turkey. Businesses change, he said, citing Kodak as an example where that change caused collapse, and the New York Times as one that has adapted successfully. “Tinker, fail and protect yourself against failure. Many of the greatest things in the world were mistakes.” On a different note, he asked if we can still engage deeply. He said he has trouble reading for two hours now, and is worried he can only sit through a play “out of habit.” This struck me because I have a pretty short attention span myself, and I’m fairly addicted to my devices. As this talk was given and this thought was had, I was listening to Greg, taking notes and tweeting (chances are none of them entirely successfully). But I can happily sit still for a play or a movie – at least when it’s good! I wonder if that’s just habit from a lifetime of doing it, as Greg suggested, or is it, along the lines of Jordan’s talk, the experience of sitting in the dark and sharing a story with other people? I’d like to believe it’s the latter.
What I was perhaps most impressed by at TEDxBroadway (and what reminded me in a lovely way of NAMT’s own conferences) was something that happened outside the talks: A real sense of community, which actually had nothing to do with Broadway as a place or a product. I got to spend time with some NAMT members from various parts of the country, old friends from two of my past jobs, neighbors from our office and other colleagues, most of whom are not Broadway producers (and none of whom are exclusively Broadway producers). I also tweeted with people who I never managed to find in person, even though they were somewhere in the room, and with others who were just following along from afar.
I loved getting the chance to hear all these different ideas from both inside and outside our industry, and to see all of these different people in one place. Attending conferences can get expensive and time-consuming, but I really think it’s vital – in any industry! – to get away from your desk and maybe out of your comfort zone now and then. Even the less successful talks at TEDxBroadway were valuable because they got attendees talking. People are doing great things all over, and it’s inspiring to get a bunch of them together in one place. And in a very TED-esque thought, technology will let us share more of these events without necessarily being in the same room.
Speaking of which, video of all the talks is online. And for a much more detailed account of the day, check out Howard Sherman’s live-blog. I’ll admit that my notes on some talks were better than on others, and I skipped a couple here entirely for space. My friend Lilaia Kairis (one of those aforementioned friends) wrote a great post for the New Victory’s blog. And Reynaldi Long, one of those people I was tweeting with, blogged about things he felt were missing. There are many more posts out there, I’m sure, as well as the conference’s official Twitter account. I look forward to continuing this conversation online and in person, at NAMT events and others.

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