by Jonathan Mandell
“How do you make the magic?” students from a middle school in the Bronx asked after seeing their first Broadway show. Their attendance was an outgrowth of a conference Monday at TEDxBroadway 2014.
TED, which started as a conference thirty years ago and has expanded into something of a movement, stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design.” The dozen and a half people who spoke or entertained (or did both) at the third annual TEDxBroadway included representatives of all three fields—from well-known theater artists such as director Diane Paulus and composer Bobby Lopez, to tech or design oriented visionaries whom, one sensed, hadn’t been to a play since they were kids.
For all the sophistication of the presentations, all the speakers on the stage at New World Stages were addressing, in different ways – directly or by analogy, accessibly or obscurely—the simple question that the students asked after their first Broadway show: How do you make the magic of theater?
1. The theater experience should not just occur on the stage
“What is the theater experience?” asked director Diane Paulus, the first speaker. Too many people think of it as just the show on the stage—“You go inside, you arrive with friends, but once it starts you’re not allowed to talk to one another. You’re either deeply moved or you’re bored, but when the experience is over, you’re asked to leave.”
But the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University asked us to consider the history of theater to realize how much more theater can be—and should be. Greek theater, she said, was more like American Idol than it was like the theater we know today, taking place at competitive festivals. It was also engaged in the “civic, religious, social and political” life of the times.
The nineteenth-century opera house was a beautiful environment, much like our Broadway houses, but part of the reason why people went was to be seen. They dressed up; that was part of the experience.
Dan Gurney offered similar advice in a completely different way. A self-described “six-time United States Champion on the button accordion,” he played a tune for the audience, before describing his business, Concert Window, which enables musicians to record their music using only a laptop, and to make money by showing the resulting video online. Neither Gurney nor his business has any apparent connection to the theater, but his remarks included suggestions on ways for theater and theater performers to engage audiences online before and after the show— building “new digital native experiences” such as an “interactive video chat with the show’s director.”
Gurney seemed unaware of the regular live-streaming of theatrical performances by National Live and others, but he did say: “A venue has four walls, but that doesn’t mean that your whole audience has to fit inside them.”
2. Embrace your audience in innovative ways
Paulus took us on a whirlwind journey through recent shows, many of them her own, that illustrated ways of extending the theater experience by engaging audiences.
For the 2011 musical Prometheus Bound, a political protest play “inspired” (in the words of the blurb for the show) “by Aeschylus’s Ancient Greek tragedy about the heroic struggle of Western civilization’s first prisoner of conscience,” A.R.T. partnered with Amnesty International. “After the show, people stayed and had a chance to talk with Amnesty International volunteers.”
For the Broadway revival of Hair that Paulus directed, she insisted that the audience be allowed on stage, and had to fight the theater’s management to keep the ushers from shooing people off the stage too quickly at the end.
Witness Uganda, a musical this season at A.R.T. based on a true story about a volunteer for a project in Uganda, includes a discussion (she didn’t call it a talk-back) after every single performance. Paulus pointed out that the show’s creators, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews (who also stars in it), have created a non-profit foundation, Uganda Project to provide a free education and otherwise aid the children of Uganda, 2.5 million of whom are orphans.
3. Consider crowdfunding
In 2012, $2.7 billion was raised worldwide through crowd funding, $1.6 billion of it in North America, said financier David Drake, founder of financial media company The Soho Loft, and the amount being raised just about doubles every year. About 15 percent of that, Drake told me afterwards, has been for theater projects. Crowdfunding can be defined (but wasn’t) as the effort to fund a project by reaching out, usually online, to a large network of regular people who aren’t professional investors, are unlikely to be rich, and donate on average just small amounts.
For a crowdfunding campaign to be a success, Drake said, the fundraisers must
be connected to a crowd, know their audience, and put together a great video. The three biggest online sites for crowdfunding creative projects are Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub. Recent federal legislation, Drake said (and has written about), will make it easier for theaters to reach out and create a new network of donors.
4. Don’t punish theatergoers for being digitally connected
Until three years ago, the Apollo Theater in Harlem punished theatergoers for being, like much of the world, “connected 24/7,” according to Dexter Upshaw. “By definition,” Upshaw said, the Apollo’s famed Amateur Night is an “interactive show.” Yet, if anybody took out their mobile devices during a performance, “immediately, ushers would come and shine flashlights in their faces, and say ‘put that away.’”
We have to engage people where they are, Upshaw said, and where they are is in the digital realm.
Upshaw, hired to take charge of all digital projects at the theater, helped change that. Now every Wednesday at Amateur Night, theatergoers are encouraged to use their phones to tell them about the show, using the Apollo Amateur Night app. Upshaw is planning to expand digital interaction at the theater, with a forthcoming app for the Apollo in general Upshaw’s advice to theaters: Don’t think about digital last. Involve staff who are responsible for social media and other digital projects from the very beginning of any stage show, because they might be able to identify opportunities to use digital that can then be more seamlessly incorporated.
Upshaw’s presentation was part of a larger theme for the day, reflecting the fact that the “T” for technology in TED is first, and expressed by designer David Torpey: “Theater is about magic. Lets embrace technology and make it happen…” The potential of technology in immersive set design is overwhelming and beautiful.
Torpey also projected on the screen a quote from industrial designer Dieter Rams that designers “should and must question everything generally thought to be obvious…They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”
5. Make the neighborhood your lobby.
Craig Dykers of Snohetta, the firm that’s redesigning Times Square, offered an overview of their approach to the Crossroads of the World, which gets 42 million visitors a year. In discussing the “reimagining” of Times Square, he cited the work of Temple Grandin, comparing people’s movement to that of cattle. My favorite detail is how they embedded little shiny pucks in the ground to reflect the light of the marquees. The redesign’s main aim: “We want Times Square to be the lobby of the theater district.”
Yao-Hui Huang, founder of The Hatchery, “a venture collaboration organization” (probably translation: a business consulting firm), contrasted the competitiveness of producers on Broadway with the collaborative attitude and activity of the L.A. Stage Alliance, in which theaters share services and marketing.
Mark Fisher and Michael Keeler, co-owners of a gym that caters to the theater community, offered similar advice, more flamboyantly. Both also wore capes, and asked the audience to stand up and participate in a dance party for fifteen seconds. It’s easier to get in shape, and to build a business, if you are part of a community.
7. Collaborate some more.
Bobby Lopez, co-composer for Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and the Disney movie Frozen, was one of the TEDxBroadway guests who both spoke and performed— including, memorably, his Oscar-nominated song, “Let It Go,” from Frozen. If his presentation deviated from the norm, his presence was in one way the most apt—the entire conference took place in the theater in New World Stages that normally presents Avenue Q.
He played a song he wrote when he was fourteen, motivated by a medieval belief that when you sing a song, “airy spirits come out of your mouth and mingle with other people’s spirits and influence them. That’s what was special about music. I thought that was a cool idea.”
He explained how much he had to grow from his early attempts. Initially, “I thought it was cheating to accept help from someone else.
“I started to work with other people. My work started to benefit from other people’s talents, thoughts, ideas, qualities. Everything was not about me, and about how my stuff was going to impress people.” He said none of the work for which he is now known would have happened without his change in attitude.
“Every step in the writing of Avenue Q was motivated by: how do we help people with their adult problems?”
He said his growth reflects that of the character Princeton in Avenue Q, and Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon.
Both were self-involved guys who learn how to give and accept help. “Princeton learns that Kate Monsters is not an obstacle to his finding his purpose in life; making her happy is part of his purpose.”
8. Understand the connection between the arts and the sciences. Understand the need for diversity.
The cell phone was inspired by Star Trek— just one example out of many of art inspiring science, and of the connection between the two, said Ainissa Ramirez:
“The three-act play and the scientific paper come from the same seed.”
“Scientists and screenwriters are both:
Crazy about detail
Understand you have to fail to succeed.”
Ramirez, a former professor of mechanical engineering, is the head of Science Underground, a science education consulting firm. She focused on the need for a different kind of diversity in the theater—theater about science and scientists.
“Your mission if you choose to accept it,” she said, is to improve the connection between the arts and the sciences, which “will create something wonderful, and humanity will be better off.” Implicit in her focused argument was a more general lesson—the need for more diverse subject matter in the theater, and more diversity in general.
9. Realize that new forms of entertainment have changed would-be audiences
Games, said “gamification” guru Gabe Zichermann, have changed our very neurochemistry, so that we demand a constant rush of sensation. “We can’t even sit through 22 minutes of television without reaching for another screen”—Facebook or Twitter on our computer or mobile phone. How can people be expected to sit through two hours of theater?”
However, “we can use the power of games to our advantage,” he said, and urged the listeners to embrace games as a way to draw in an audience. He didn’t seem to say how, but he did offer what sounded like a really useful game: At a restaurant, put everybody’s cell phone on the table; the first person to reach for theirs has to pay for everybody’s meal.
10. Have fun
This was the explicit and implicit message throughout the day-long conference—a day that included spontaneous raps by Freestyle Love Supreme (pictured), magic tricks from Todd Robbins and jokes from Lea DeLaria:
By the end, though, Daniel Rehbehn was surely speaking for more than himself when he Tweeted: “My brain is hurting from trying to download so many ideas into my head from #TEDxBway.”
Jonathan Mandell, a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a third-generation New York City journalist who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He currently blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.
This post originally appeared in Howlround