When I wrote a story on this Fountain blog in February of this year, one week after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, my goal was to point out that the high school’s drama club had prepared the young survivors in Parkland, Florida, to stand up in protest and have their voices heard. A drama class teaches more than just how to act. It teaches how to take action. Performing in a school play endows students with poise, self-awareness and empathy. All of which the protest leaders exhibited at huge rallies in the weeks and months following that tragic afternoon on their campus.
Today, American Theatre magazine announced that my post was their most-read story in 2018. Clearly, the piece struck a deep nerve at that time with theatre artists, students and drama teachers across the country. As this year now comes to a close, it’s gratifying to be reminded how art — and theatre, in particular — remains essential to the soul of us all. The benefits of art are abundant. Those students in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama club, and the many thousands of readers, young and old, engaged by my story prove that the passion and skill learned in a theatre class stay with us for the rest for our lives.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
“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.
News about print newspapers is now seldom good. And news about newspapers in Los Angeles reducing or cutting theater coverage has now gotten worse. Here it is — the good, the bad, and the ugly:
Last month, Back Stage laid off Dany Margolies, the Los Angeles executive editor and theater editor. Without warning or notice. After eleven years championing the LA theater community, she was told by a young staffer that Back Stage was “restructuring”. Her services were no longer needed. It took her two days to remove more than a decade’s worth of work from her office using the post office tubs they gave her in lieu of storage boxes.
In an open letter to Back Stage readers in October, the new CEO and Chairman, John Amato, had expressed his excitement about taking over the company, adding “I would like to thank the dedicated, talented, and loyal Back Stage team, whose incredible work has gotten us to where we are today. ”
Three months later he fired Los Angeles theater editor Dany Margolies, national editor Jaime Painter Young, and other staff members including one in charge of casting notices.
John Amato states the publication is entering a “transformative period” as it moves exclusively to an online digital platform. Print media is fading fast and will soon be gone, going the way of vinyl LP’s.
Of course, if you’ve followed the magazine at all in recent years, the “transformation” at Back Stage is more than about going digital. Back Stage has become another Hollywood Reporter, with more focus and coverage of films, TV shows and movie stars than on the art form it was created to cover in the first place: theater and plays. Back Stage has sold its soul to Hollywood. Someone needs to remind Amato: It’s called Back Stage. Not Back Lot.
Which is why losing Dany Margolies at Back Stage is so painful. LA Theater has lost one of its strongest advocates in that office.
Los Angeles Times
The same week in January that Dany was laid off at Back Stage, it was announced that Lisa Fung, the longtime Online Arts Editor at the Los Angeles Times, had jumped ship to The Wrap, the entertainment website “covering Hollywood”. Word has it that the new editor making Arts assignments at The Times has meager knowledge of theatre and little familiarity with the many theatre companies in Los Angeles. Not good.
And now the Los Angeles Times has just announced that it will no longer provide online listings for plays, events or venues. It will list only critic’s picks online throughout the week, adding “select listings” and critic’s picks on Sunday. To make it even harder on folks in the LA theater community, the Times now requires that play listings be submitted directly to individual Times reporters and editors, to their personal email addresses. No more “@latimes.com”. So, if you don’t know Charles McNulty’s personal email address, you’re out of luck. And left out.
Meanwhile, over at the LA Weekly, editors decided two weeks ago to reduce the Weekly’s theater coverage even more than it already has in recent years. The Weekly had already eliminated its theater listings. And its former service of running all play reviews for the length of a play’s run. Now Weekly editors wanted the number of new theater reviews assigned each week to be cut down to six. Six! In a city that averages 20-30 new productions opening each week! It took passionate negotiating by theater writer/editor Steven Leigh Morris to convince the Weekly higher-ups that assigning only six reviews per week was absurd. A higher number was reached: eight.
Times are tough for print newspapers everywhere. Arts coverage in newspapers is slowly evaporating like an old faded photograph. The LA Weekly has reduced the size of its print edition and the scope of its theater coverage. Back Stage is going digital. The Tribune Company, owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
We need to understand the impact of technology on the live performing arts. Technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: the average American spends 25.7 hours of leisure watching television or online each week. Internet consumption per person has grown to 14.2 hours per week. By the time Net-Gen-ers reach their twenties, they will have spent more than 20,000 hours on the Internet and an additional 10,000 hours playing video games.
We are in the middle of a transformation of cultural expression and communication—a realignment that is shaking the newspaper and publishing industries.
So, where’s the good news?
Here: As arts coverage in newspapers declines, theater-related blogs and websites are flourishing like never before. Folks are blogging, posting, tweeting and chatting online about theater — and sending their friends to see plays they “like”. With audiences wielding iPhones, the experience of going to the theater involves more than just seeing a play. Its about sharing the experience with friends.
And Here: More theater is being created and produced in Los Angeles than ever before. Against all odds, the number of theater artists developing new work in Los Angeles grows. The hopeful urgency of the artists’ need to create and share work with other human beings lives on and still flourishes.
No doubt, these are dark times to be an artist of any kind. In this city, in this country, in this culture.
As theater artists, we can curse the darkness — or light a candle. And in Los Angeles, thousands of theater candles are being lit everywhere, every night, all over this landscape.
Let’s keep our candles burning! Together, we illuminate the world!