TEDxBroadway 2015

Ten Lessons Theatre Can Learn from Golf, Knishes, Teens, Tevye, and Twitter, But Not Termites

The organizers of TEDxBroadway like to say that its central theme is: “What’s the best that Broadway can be?” But the question that the fourth annual day-long conference more frequently addressed was: What ideas about theatre can we learn from people who may never have been inside one?

Now, to be fair, the nearly two dozen speakers in the 2015 TEDxBroadway at New World Stages did include such Broadway leading lights as the Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (whose Disgraced just finished its run on Broadway), the Tony-nominated songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story), and the Broadway performer Daniel J. Watts (Memphis, In The Heights, Motown, After Midnight).

By the time the day was done, the long-time theatre Tweeter Broadway Girl had revealed her identity for the first time; Benjamin Scheuer sang a song from his hit Off-Broadway solo musical The Lion; and Emily Simoness talked about her founding of SPACE on Ryder Farm, an artist residency program that has nurtured such playwrights on the rise as Robert Askins (whose Hand to God is opening on Broadway in March), Sam Hunter (author of The Whale, who has since been given the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship), and Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men).

A woman on stage
Laura Heywood reveals herself as Tweeter Broadway Girl
at TEDxBroadway 2015. Photo by Johnathan Mandell. 

But nearly half the speakers had no direct connection to things theatrical, and even those who did largely avoided discussing any specific plays or musicals. The conference delivered what organizer Jim McCarthy had promised at the outset: “marketing, music, a little bit of everything, even some theatre.”

As I explained when I covered TEDxBroadway last year, TED started as a conference thirty years ago and has expanded into something of a movement. It stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design.” TEDxBroadway (the x stands for independently organized) perpetuates the TED aura of cutting edge, techie-oriented ideas, much only indirectly if at all stage-related. Still, the majority of the theatre people among the more than 500 in attendance seemed eager to extrapolate lessons applicable to their work.

Nearly half the speakers had no direct connection to things theatrical, and even those who did largely avoided discussing any specific plays or musicals. The conference delivered what organizer Jim McCarthy had promised at the outset: ‘marketing, music, a little bit of everything, even some theatre.’

1. Pay attention to attention.
“The scarcest resource of the twenty-first century is human attention,” said Sree Sreenivasan, the first Chief Digital Officer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who cited a startling statistic: 90 percent of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years.

“It’s not good enough anymore to have great work,” said Sreenivasan, “you have to get people to it.”

This was arguably the main underlying message of the entire conference. Many see figuring out how to get people to pay attention as their main challenge.

An expert in social media, Sreenivasan made several recommendations for its use; Instagram, he said for example, is a great way for heads of cultural institutions to get attention for their work. More generally, he quoted a new book by Ben Parr entitled Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, “The more people are curious about what will happen next, the stronger the attention and the more people will remember it.” (What he did not point out is how much theatre has a natural advantage in this—it’s an art form that embodies the art of what happens next.)

2. Theatre can survive and thrive in a world of screens!
Ayad Akhtar also addressed the challenge of getting attention in an era of what he called “industrial storytelling,” in which images are dominant, and much art and entertainment is virtual. Some observers worry this has “shallowed our thinking,” Akhtar said. He waxed poetic to elaborate: Some believe “we are beholden to our screens like sleepwalkers lost in a waking dream—likening our enslavement to the image to the parable of Plato’s cave in which a captive humanity confuses shadows on a wall with the great wide world outside.”

man on stage
Playwright and author Ayad Akhtar at TEDxBroadway 2015.
Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

Unlike some of the other speakers, Akhtar doesn’t believe that the theatrical experience can be replicated through technology—theatre “requires space, challenges beliefs, can't be paused”—and in that rests its salvation.

“The underlying strength of theatre is to summon a collective experience of emotion that goes beyond our differences.”

3.  Listen to the public, and be welcoming.
Over the nine years that Leslie Koch has been president of The Trust for Governors Island, she has helped turn the 172-acre island in New York Harbor from an abandoned military base into a public space that serves hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. 

She accomplished this by being open to new ideas—looking for what the island could offer that was not already available in the cultural capital of the nation, and listening to the public: They collected more than 3,000 Post-it notes—“Lots more hammocks!” “Keep it car-free”  “Outdoor sculpture everywhere!”  “Yay for biking!”—and took their advice.

They also worked at making the visitors feel welcome.

In her talk, Koch used the word “welcome” rather than “engaged” as a matter of principle. “Everyone talks about engagement,” Koch said, “but only consultants use the word ‘engagement.’ Real humans/audiences don't use it, unless they have a ring on their finger, so you shouldn’t either.”

One of the ways they make their visitors feel welcome is to offer a wide variety of foods, including the Jewish New York delicacy, the knish.

“Find your knish,” Koch said, Zen-like. “By that I mean make welcoming pervasive in everything you do.”

It’s worth pointing out something that Koch for some reason did not—that Governors Island annually offers many different kinds of theatrical events, often experimental, sometimes attention-getting,  such as the twelve-hour theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Demons—in Italian!—which became the must-see event of the Lincoln Center Festival a few years back.

4. Get better bathrooms.
Kirsten Sabia made what was for her a brave confession. A huge golf fan, she still would rather watch golf at home on television, rather than attend in person. This is brave because Sabia is vice president of marketing services for the PGA tour.

She was just one of the speakers whose message was basically: Make the experience more physically comfortable and convenient. The PGA tour began breaking tradition to build its audience, by allowing the use of cell phones on the course, serving alcohol, increasing public access to the golfers, offering better food (see Lesson 3) and throwing concerts—and making one more very popular change: “It's amazing how happy you can make the fans when you replace port-a-potties with A/C restroom trailers.”

5. Understand the importance of diversity.
Osh Ghanimah, a Detroit-born actor of Palestinian descent, was delighted to be cast in his middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye. He spends much of his time now working to give others what he calls their “Tevye moment” as the founder of Broadway For All, a New York City-based, not-for-profit that offers tuition-free, conservatory training to promising middle and high school students of varying ethnic and economic backgrounds. Two of the children in the program are making Broadway debuts this season—in The King and I and Finding Neverland—and a third will join the national tour of Matilda.

In advocating for diversity, Ghanimah is expressing an argument that was also made at last year’s TEDxBroadway. As audience demographics change, so must the make-up of the people on the stage and behind the curtain. “We need to respond to this if we want to continue to do good business,” Ghanimah said.

As stand-up comedian, actor and writer Phoebe Robinson said in a separate talk: “If you don't see yourself reflected, you don't think it's a possibility. It’s time that we tell new stories.”

Based on his conversations with industry insiders in both New York and Los Angeles, Ghanimah came to three conclusions:

  • The industry loves the idea of diversity, but has a hard time connecting to strong minority talent.
  • The industry casts from experience—a mostly white experience.
  • Almost all casting directors do, in fact, fight for diverse options, but they are sometimes met with resistance from the writers and directors in the room.

Having a black Phantom shouldn’t be a big deal, Ghanimah said; it should be the Norm [Lewis].

6. Cater to the young and the old.
Kevin Lyman, founder and creator of the twenty-year-old Vans Warped Tour, realized that his music festival is now older than its target audience, which is teenagers. He had to accept that he was no longer a peer to the people he was marketing to; he was now a mentor.

He was attendant to their needs. He established creative partnerships with brands in order to keep ticket prices low. He encourages the festival-goers to participate in charitable endeavors for local nonprofits throughout the year—giving blood or canned foods, etc.—in order to create a sense of community, so that Vans Warped was not seen as simply a once-a-year concert-going experience. And he cleverly addressed a specific need of his audience by taking a common practice and reversing it: He has created a kind of day care for the parents of the festival-goers.

7.  The Internet offers both opportunities and pitfalls.
Musical theatre team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul got their start by posting their songs on YouTube, and so they know firsthand how the Internet democratized the world of musical theatre. On the other hand, their YouTube songs were all “11 o’clock numbers.” They had to learn off-line how to create songs that one by one added up to a full story, as musical theatre must do.

Two man on stage
Justin Paul and Benj Pasek at TEDxBroadway 2015.
Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

8.  Bring a “hackathon” approach to theatre.
Elliott Masie, a “big data expert” and a Broadway producer, brought to the conference a taste of his Broadway Hackathon, which (to quote his bio) is “an Open Source collaboration with college students on applying emerging technologies to all aspects of the theatre production and delivery process.” During the break, he met with some of the younger attendees at the conference (who had been given scholarships to attend), and brainstormed some ideas, bringing back to the audience at large what he considered the best of them:

  • A Fantasy Broadway League (modeled on the fantasy sports leagues)
  • An app to help actors memorize lines
  • Live feedback during preview performances
  • A stage door signature collecting app

9. Fill empty seats smartly.
Damian Bazadona, the founder of the theatre marketing firm Situation Interactive and one of the organizers of TEDxBroadway, hopes to convince Broadway producers and theatres to play host to classrooms full of students at a reduced rate. His argument is that 15 percent of seats on Broadway at any point are empty. “That’s 2,228,213 empty seats in 2014,” he said. “You can fill Madison Square Garden 120 times.” (He did not address the possibility that some theatres are deliberately not filling those seats at a discount, in order to keep the ticket prices high.)

10.  Be thankful your audiences are not monkeys or slugs.
Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology  at Yale University, has pondered why it is that people love theatre, which she deemed “pretty weird.”

A woman on stage
Laurie Santos at TEDxBroadway 2015. Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

When we watch actors on a stage, Santos says, we pick up not only on the emotions they are presenting, but on their thoughts, and both influence our own emotions and thoughts so we are feeling and thinking the same thing. This she labels emotional contagion and mental contagion, respectively.

“We as a species can get into the minds of other individuals,” Santos said—something that no other species can do.”

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So many good things. Wish I had been there to hear it all.

#1- Yes, pay attention to attention. We need to get people to hear about our work. So tired of going to see (or participating in) great independent theatre with audiences of 30.

#2- The fact that we are live is an asset, not a liability....let's find more ways to take advantage of that. People want real, personal experiences.

#3- For goodness sake, make theatre an enjoyable experience....find a way to make the seats comfortable, make the atmosphere relaxed, etc. Perhaps BYOB theatre?