Friday, February 15, 2013

Conference Report: TEDxBroadway 2013

For the second year in a row, I got to attend the TEDxBroadway conference last month (it's also the conference's second year), and soak up some ideas about the future of theatre and what we might be able to learn from other industries and examine some fresh approaches. This year, the conference organizers said we'd be looking more at Broadway the street, as a neighborhood and a destination, through the lens of its theatres. I wondered briefly if I should go, since this sounded very New Yorky and I wasn't sure where I'd fit in as a representative of NAMT and its members. But it turned out that the discussion centered largely around theatre and communities, the world around arts institutions, not just in New York and not just commercially. I came away with a lot, and not always from expected sources.

Below you'll find highlights of speakers and ideas that stood out for me personally (and as a representative of NAMT). Despite the very different backgrounds of these speakers and topics they addressed, there are a few common themes running through this:
It's all about passion.
It's all about connection.
It's all about the audience.

Sure, that's nothing we haven't heard before, but as you'll see as you read on, there are surprisingly diverse ways to approach these ideas.

Producer Daryl Roth spoke about the impact of theatre on audiences' worldviews and connecting art with activism. Her experiences with plays like Wit and The Normal Heart – great plays that also have something important to say – have helped shape her as a producer and a person, and gave her opportunities to bring audiences into a discussion about the issues in the plays, as well as engage with people who might not be habitual theatre-goers but are drawn in by the topic. "If we share the deep belief that theatre matters…then isn't that the best Broadway can be for all of us?"

Critic Terry Teachout pointed out that 75% of Broadway shows lose money, so everyone who works on Broadway is gambling. "Why do people gamble? Because it's fun!" He made it clear that he wasn't bringing up this harsh reality to crush anyone's dreams, just to make them "look at them from a different point of view." He wants people to say to themselves, "I'm going to write the best, most original show I can think of. It's probably going to lose money anyway, so why not try? …Don't settle for safe, gamble on great. Make something that makes you proud." Sound familiar, Festival alumni?

I'll admit that I was both most excited for and most wary of our next speaker. As a nerd who grew up a huge fan of the original Star Trek, I was thrilled at the chance to meet George Takei. But why was he here? What could he possibly have to say about theatre? A lot, actually. I'd forgotten that he's written an autobiographical musical about his family's experience in Japanese internment camps during World War II. When Allegiance premiered at NAMT member theatre The Old Globe in San Diego, it broke records and played to packed houses. Takei will always be famous for Star Trek, but in recent years he's become an internet personality separate and apart from that, using social media to build a personal brand built on smart humor, science...and cats. He used that to help sell Allegiance, but also asked us why theatres weren't doing more of it on their own, bringing it back to his science fiction fame and love of technology. "I don't think Broadway has boldly gone where it needs to," he said, imploring us to "embrace all of the technological advances of the times."

I don't usually do the celebrity thing,
but come on! It's Sulu!
He also spoke of the power of musical theatre to "tell stories that need to be told." It has an accessibility that can bring people in, and the music can reach them emotionally. (During this, playwright David Lawson tweeted, "Musicals are incredible at preserving history that might have been forgotten: mid 80s UK miners' strike, June Rebellion, 1899 newsboy strike. And yes, two of those were not musicals first. But it was setting that history to music that made me hungry to learn of the history." I couldn't agree more.) Allegiance is aiming for Broadway this year, and hopefully it will expose audiences to this relatively little-known dark spot on American history. I got a chance to speak with Takei later in the day, and I was struck by what a theatre geek he is (he's done stage work throughout his career, though when Allegiance (in which he also appears) comes in, it will be his Broadway debut) and how passionate he is about not just his show but about musical theatre in general. It was great to see. And I'll admit that when he recited the opening lines of Star Trek during his speech, I teared up a little; the man knows his audience.

Christine Jones, a scenic designer and creator of Theatre For One, talked about the experience of making an intimate connection between audience and performance in any size space, creating design that can "respond to the visual acoustics of the moment, sometimes with a moment's notice." "I wish we had the same ability to make choices about how the audience is seated as I do with what's on stage," she said. As I work out the crick in my neck from seeing an otherwise fabulous show last night, I can't help thinking that Broadway's historic theatres and often tight space make this a largely unsolvable problem. But I also think fondly of the many comfortable evenings I've spent at NAMT member theatres around the country, and the opportunities those of you building or renovating theatres have to make flexible, comfortable spaces. Jones quoted Jujamcyn Theatres President Jordan Roth as saying "Seats are not born partial, they are made partial." Here's to never making a seat – or a patron – partial.

Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical Group, started off a little surprisingly, telling a story about hating and judging tourists (any New Yorker, however kind-hearted, can relate to this). "I have friends," he said, "who believe the sippy cup is the end of days.... In the 1600s people thought 'machine plays' were a sign of theatrical apocalypse too," but here we still are. "Times are changing. They are also staying very much the same." 40% of adults surveyed at The Lion King were seeing a Broadway show for the first time. "Our pretention towards the audience seeing the show for the first time simply stands in the way of growing and sharing our business.... These lovely people had bought a ticket, and here I was judging them." From a business standpoint, "by the definition of our venues and union contracts, this is not a growth industry," but there is great potential for growth in the audience. While Broadway has a reputation as a place of aging audiences, it turns out kids are also coming in unprecedented numbers, so let's embrace them and make magic for them – the same kind of magic Schumacher says he experienced going to the theatre as a child and learning that "a guy in a white turtleneck can be a horse and a white box can be a jungle." Disney, unsurprisingly, takes its populism very seriously, serving as an important entry point into the world of musical theatre for multiple generations.

Two talks that really made me think of our members were by Susan Salgado, of Union Square Hospitality Group, and Erin Hoover from Sheraton. "To say it's just about the show is discounting everyone who affects the experience of customers," Salgado said. "We need to provide a great total experience." (Considering I was yelled at by an usher last night before I had even taken a full step inside the building, I couldn't agree more!) Hoover talked about how hotel lobbies have changed over the last few decades from purely transactional to spaces "designed to give the guest a series of branded experiences [where] connectivity is expected." She suggested that theatre lobbies can be transformed to "a series of touch points to enhance the Broadway brand." I know from my travels, and from lengthy discussions at last year's Spring Conference, that this is something many NAMT members are already doing. They strive to make customer service a top priority, and recognize that every point of contact, from box office to usher to bar, affects a patron's experience. Institutional theatres have brands to uphold and seasons to sell, and building a relationship with a customer is vital. What if Broadway focused on service and design brand-wide, like a not-for-profit theatre (or a hotel chain!) does? Your building and your staff can tell a story and be an experience you share, along with the play.

I was particularly inspired by Seth Pinsky, of the NYC mayor's office, declaring that "the arts are a critical industry in New York and the ripple effect is a major economic engine... New Yorkers believe arts matter." (We'll be looking at how some other cities are supporting their arts communities and how theatres can advocate for themselves at this year's Spring Conference.)

David Sabel from the National Theatre in London gave a great talk about the NTLive series of movie theatre screenings of plays. He referred to the National's "spirit of R&D," which covers both new theatrical work and new ways to get that work to audiences. Digital is considered part of the experience (or one possible experience), not just a marketing platform. Because NT is subsidized by the government (25% of their budget!), they feel a responsibility to give taxpayers access to their art and have "a commitment to openness, wide-ranging engagement and access to everyone" in their mission statement. They've never seen NT Live as a replacement for the live event, but a separate and worthy experience in itself. When a performance is filmed, the priority is on making a good film of that theatrical event, and the audience is treated like a studio audience for the film, with cameras going where they need to go. The screenings are limited to a brief window, so it's still an "ephemeral event." Perhaps of most interest to American theatres is the way the National worked with unions and artists to create something new. They replaced up-front fees with profit-sharing, giving artists and crews literal ownership over the project. And they've found that screenings haven't hurt sales in the theatre at all. "Tech changes fast," Sabel concluded. "You have to be flexible, nimble, fast. You have to use both sides of the brain."

Other speakers talked about turning your passions into your work and achieving your dreams by being "flexible with the outcome" (Zachary Schmahl); making Broadway more diverse by telling diverse stories, embracing the theatre "community of nerds and misfits" and writing and producing shows that "cut so deeply to the heart that they transcend...into the cultural conversation" (Kristoffer Diaz); bringing theatre to schools and schools to the theatre (Vincent Gassetto); predicting the future by inventing it and learning what customers want and need by observing them rather than asking them (Ellen Isaacs); marketing to people who you know will never come to your show to make the arts matter to everyone (Adam Thurman); and finding Broadway's equivalent of the Kindle to overcome limitations of space and money and connect to a wider audience (Randi Zuckerberg).

This year's conference had some great examples of what we can learn from each other and from other industries. There was a great buzz in the room and online as people discussed ideas and how we might implement them, and old friends were introduced to new ones. Just like at NAMT conferences! (Oh come on, I had to.)

Thanks to the conference organizers, speakers, and especially everyone who was tweeting and blogging along. See you next year!

(For some other people's observations about TEDxBroadway, I recommend Howard Sherman's selection of quotes and write-up for the LA Times, and Ken Davenport's takeaways.)

Updated 3/4/13: Now with videos! For all the videos from last year and this year, just search for TEDxBroadway on YouTube.

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