The Future of Broadway Is Today. TEDx Broadway

Vincent Gassetto does not work in the theater; he is the principal of a middle school in the Bronx, M.S. 343. Yet he had something worthwhile to say at today’s day-long conference about “the best that Broadway could be” – and, more importantly, like all the good speakers, he was doing something worth knowing about.
Gassetto was one of 18 to speak at the second annual TEDx Broadway, including actor

Randi Zuckerberg
Randi Zuckerberg

George Takei (best-known for playing Sulu on “Star Trek”), who, at age 75, will soon be making his Broadway debut; Randi Zuckberberg, who before she joined her brother’s company, Facebook, had always wanted “to sing and dance on Broadway,” and an assortment of critics and producers and designers and people whose connection to the theater was unclear.

TEDx Broadway is a name that might intimidate the uninitiated. Given its provenance — TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” – TED events tend to attract visionaries and futurists and other virtuosos who think outside of the box, although unfortunately sometimes the box they’ve abandoned is plain English.

There was only a little of that today though.

Gassetto showed a video about what has happened at his school since he spoke at last year’s TEDx Broadway. Theater artists showed up. Theater producers invited the students to see shows. Together they worked to make Broadway exist for kids in the South Bronx.

The principal announced that there would be an event on February 27 to connect theater artists and others who could help with the students of two more “high performing schools in economically challenged areas.” The effort to reach this new generation is not just to do good, he suggested, but to do well. Without “an awareness of this industry…we’re never going to win that talent war. We’re all going to be competing for them.”

Here are a few other highlights:

Producer Daryl Roth in front of slide of "The Normal Heart"
Producer Daryl Roth in front of slide of “The Normal Heart”

Producer Daryl Roth explained how she has brought important social issues to the New York stage, and tried to make it possible for people to see them who would not normally get to Broadway. Theater, she said, was at the forefront of social issues long before TV. Would Ally McBeal have been possible without Wendy Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles? Would Will and Grace without Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy?

Among the plays she produced that she talked about: “Wit,” “The Normal Heart,” “Through The Night,”  “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” and, coming up, “Kinky Boots.”

“If we share the deep belief that theater matters, that theater can change us and ultimately change the world, then isn’t that the best Broadway can be?”

Wall Street Journal Drama Critic Terry Teachout
Wall Street Journal Drama Critic Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout introduced his remarks with the most popular line of the day, the

drama critic’s prayer: If it can’t be good, please God, let it be short.”

“The one terrible fact about Broadway”  he said is that 75 percent of all Broadway shows lose money..So why do it? “Because it’s fun.”

His advice to Broadway theater artists: “Don’t start out settling for safe. Gamble on great.”

Set designer Christine Jones
Set designer Christine Jones

Christine Jones is the set designer on Broadway for Spring Awakening, American Idiot and, coming up, Hands on a Hardbody. But she is also somebody who thinks as hard about the design of the theater itself. “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 that new theaters are being built differently, with sensitivity to the relationship between the stage and the seats. She quoted Jujamcyn Theater owner Jordan Roth (Daryl Roth’s son): “Seats are not born partial [view]; they’re made partial.”

Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theater Group
Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group

Thomas Schumacher was as animated as a Disney character, which makes sense, since he is the president of Disney Theatrical Group. His basic point, said so politely as to be sly, is that there are too many snobs in the theater, who look down at audiences that have helped to make Broadway more healthy. “Yes, theater prices are up. They’re also discounted a lot a more. Yes, new voices are less. We need more.” But there were 12 million who attended a Broadway show last year, 50 percent more than when Disney first ventured onto Broadway in 1994. Yet, there is a pretentious attitude that  audiences should be told what to like and what’s proper and improper in the theater.

“I have friends who think the sippy cup signals the end of days….Populism has its own manifest destiny and we need to embrace it.  Embrace the sippy cup…

“What is the best Broadway can be? Embracing, inclusive.”

George Takei
George Takei

George Takei talked a lot about social media, but more interesting to me was his description of his imprisonment for four years along with his family: “Our only crime was looking like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor” He recited the entire mission statement of Star Trek, then said: Broadway has not boldly gone where no one has gone before, but it will the Broadway-bound musical in which he stars, “Allegiance,” about the internment during World War II of Japanese-Americans.

Playwright Kristoffer Diaz
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz

Playwright Kristoffer Diaz underscored the importance of having diverse subjects and people on Broadway: “Women, writers of color, transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual — we need to keep hearing these stories. We need to hear them on Broadway, It’s harder dismissing somebody if you spend a couple of hours invested in their story.”

Randi Zuckerberg had many smart suggestions for how to use technology in the service of theater. (Enough so that I have made a separate post of Randi Zuckerberg’s ideas for Broadway) In a world freed by innovative technology, she said, why should Broadway be limited by ticket prices, space, or a fear of risk?

David Sabel, National Theatre
David Sabel, National Theatre

David Sabel of the National Theatre of Great Britain talked about his experience creating National Live, which broadcasts live theater on movie screens across the world. After four years, National Live is widely considered a success, although, as Sabel pointed out, it is a public institution partially funded by the government, which distinguishes it from Broadway. (I wrote an article for American Theatre Magazine, however, that pointed to the similar experimenting on Broadway with what are called HD broadcasts, including “Memphis.”)

“Risk, innovation, opportunity, challenge, curiousity; that’s the kind of place I want to work,” Sabel said.

Also speaking at TedX Broadway was a man who owns a cookie company and served the cookies during lunch. I’m not sure why he was one of the speakers (something about customer service and living your dream), but he’s the subject of the best photograph I took during the day.

Zachary Schmahl of Schmackary's Cookies
Zachary Schmahl of Schmackary’s Cookies

Here is the Associated Press article on the event. TEDx Broadway 2013 was also videotaped, and will be available for viewing soon.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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