‘Reconnecting people to their joy’: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Senator Schumer et al at APAP conference

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wynton Marsalis, Senators Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar, and Broadway League President  Charlotte St. Martin were among those who took to the stage on the first day yesterday of the annual conference of APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Professionals)—its first in three years, at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Below are edited transcripts of their speeches, and two videos of their perfomances.

Lisa Richards Toney, president and CEO of APAP

Can you say it with me: So happy to be back. There are more than 2700 of us here. Still standing and strong. This annual event is the largest presenting, booking and touring industry conference, aimed at ensuring that professionals in the performing arts who bring live performances to diverse audiences in concert halls, theaters and playhouses, studios, university auditoriums, festival stages everywhere, have the resources and networks to do their jobs well and to fulfill the passions that we all have of supporting artists and art making. Our work has a cultural, social and economic impact in small cities, midsize cities and large cities, and in particular, New York City.

Senator Charles Schumer

It’s good to be together again in person after three long years. It’s so fitting that we’re gathered just blocks from Broadway, the beating heart of the American performing arts industry and community. I want to thank all of you, the performing artists, the presenters, the producers, the agents, the managers and more. You make the magic of the performing arts, which adds so much enrichment to our lives. You make it come alive. 

I know the past three years have been so difficult, particularly for those of us in the arts. When people weren’t gathering, there was no place to do what we do. And it was difficult. Even when times are good we know it takes a lot of sacrifice and effort to work in the performing arts. And when the pandemic reached our shores three years ago, the performing arts were hit harder probably than any other industry, and harder than it has ever been hit before. But you never gave up. You kept fighting. And so did I

We knew that entertainment venues were the first places to close and some of the last to open. I saw it not just here on Broadway but throughout New York City and New York State. And let’s not forget  cities like Albany and Syracuse and Rochester, where the arts are five to ten percent of the economy. So when the arts closed down, the whole economy took a huge hit. That’s why I was so passionate about SVOG, the Shuttered Venues Operator Grants. As we like to call it: Save Our Stages.

I made sure not only that we passed the program and provided $16 billion, but also that all cultural institutions were eligible in New York, from Broadway to our small performing arts organizations, and that was true around the rest of the country as well. Save Our Stages provided billions of dollars to tens of thousands of theatres and music venues, jazz and comedy clubs and more in New York and across the country. I’m proud to say that in my great state of New York, which I love so much… we received over $2 billion for close to 1,500 New York venues. I remember visiting Broadway and seeing it dark and hearing the anguish of people wondering: How were they going to survive? I remember going to small  performing venues in Brooklyn and Queens and Rochester and Buffalo and Syracuse and hearing the same thing. So I knew we had to get this done. And this money helped the venues, the performers and the staff survive those hard times.

There are some Philistines — I would say Neanderthals; that’s the right word — in Washington who don’t understand how important the arts are. We showed them that it was vital to our economy and jobs in their own communities and their own states. More money for restaurants and hotel operators and taxi drivers and other vendors. We know when the arts are strong, our economy grows stronger too. 

I fought tooth and nail for this not just for economic reasons, although that was so important. But the performing arts are so important to our souls. And that extra extra something special that each of us experiences when we go to a performance is vital. America cannot exist without the performing arts. And the performing arts cannot exist without you. Because of your hard work. millions of Americans come together and enjoy the wonders of music and theater and comedy and so much more. 

Because we stuck together the arts are coming back. This didn’t just happen because of me and a bunch of other legislators; it happened because of you. You wrote and you called and you lobbied and you talked to your friends and your families and there was a nationwide movement to pass Save Our Stages and it was bipartisan, which was great. 

Now, as we get past COVID I want to assure you of one thing. I believe in you. I believed in you from the very beginning. And you will always always always no matter what else comes our way good and bad, you will always have a friend in Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Thank you. God bless you. Keep America becoming a better and better place. Artists are the nicest. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar (via video)

We all remember what it was like back in the early days of the pandemic. Performance spaces were the first to close down, and it was clear they would be among the last to reopen. You can’t exactly sit in an orchestra pit or for that matter stand in a mosh pit in the middle of a pandemic. It was clear we had to act and I will never forget the weekend when I got a call from my friend Dayna Frank, the CEO of First Avenue, the legendary music venue in Minneapolis. And she told me how the performing arts world and independent venues were struggling with shows abruptly ending, entire seasons getting canceled. people out of work, lighting people out of work, you name it. We knew that we couldn’t let the theater much less than music die, and that Congress needed to step in. So I worked with Senator John Cornyn of Texas, and our leaders across the country to introduce the bipartisan Save Our Stages. It was a positive lobbying campaign. And I mean that in the best sense of the word because it was venues and performers and people from all over the country that simply called their reps and senators and said we need you to do this. And we got everyone on that bill ,from Kevin Kramer conservative in North Dakota to Mitch McConnell. Our bill as you know resulted in the biggest investment in the history of America in the arts. $16 billion to create the Shuttered Venues Operating Grant. We also made sure it got implemented, that it got done.  There were a few glitches and I was on it every step of the way. And so it’s just really, really exciting. And for me, personally, just one little moment. I actually got a star on the outside of First Avenue with my name on it. And when they were painting it it was in the middle of a blizzard — because everything I do is in the middle of a blizzard. So after all those months of venues sitting empty, it’s been incredible to see artists finally getting back to doing what you do best, engaging, inspiring and thrilling audiences. So thank you for all of your unwavering dedication to the performing arts during those trying times. 

And as we know, it still isn’t easy, but you are hanging in there. 

And I want to close with a few words of wisdom from a musical legend, Prince. He said: Music is healing; music holds things together. So as we begin this new year, I’m confident that you as artists will continue healing our spirits and making our communities whole.  

Charlotte St. Martin

I’m so pleased to say that for the first time this season, which began in May, we passed a billion dollars in revenues for Broadway. We’ve had 22 new shows through December 31, and we already have 16 more that have been announced. I think there’s more to come. It’s an incredible spring with exciting revivals, dynamic new shows, incredibly poignant plays, and we want to see you all back to catch some of those. 

Of course I can’t say that we’re back to where we were on March 12 2020 when we shut down, but we’re pretty darn close. We’re at 85 to 88 percent of where we were. And we’re very fortunate that domestic tourism has definitely helped overcome the loss of all of the international travelers but the international travelers were 14 to 20 percent of our audience. So we believe we’ll have them back by 2025 according to the research from NYC & Company. That is of course if our nasty visitor called COVID doesn’t wreak havoc on us once again.

 We are pleased that for the last five years Broadway has had more shows that have opened with themes, cast the crew that represent more of our society and we believe that in the long run, it will enhance attendance and our business model. When the reckoning occurred in the spring of 2020 the Broadway League [created new initiatives] and now there are even more because we have complete agreement that we must change. Our board is now over 20 percent BIPOC  membership. And we’re working on enhancing that membership with new levels of membership so that we can continue to grow that. Many of you are aware of the Black Theatre United New Deal.. And I want to tell you that my partner at the Tonys and I have been working for a good seven or eight years to completely change the nominators and the way we’re getting our shows nominated to the show, and over 55 percent of our nominators now are BIPOC.  On June 11 2023 the Tony Awards are on Broadway at 175th Street, at the United Palace. I’m looking forward to working with my colleague Anne del Castillo [Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment]  to help make it the best possible experience that we could have because we are in the Heights, so it’s just appropriate. We produce the Jimmy Awards and I’m so proud of what they have become. As you may not know, over 140,000 kids competed last year from 1700 schools from around the country to send 92 students to New York to train with the best trainers, acting coaches, dancers. They walk out of here with 20 scholarships.. I’m proud that we’ve given out over $5 million in scholarships and we’re going to continue to do that. And what’s even so exciting is we have over 20 Jimmy’s alum performing on Broadway right now or on the road.

Now I can talk about Broadway all day, but you’ve been here sitting for a while so I get to introduce the treat that’s coming up. It is my pleasure to introduce Brian Stokes Mitchell. He has been dubbed by the New York Times as the last leading man. And we like to claim him as a Broadway fella. He is a Tony Award winning actor. And he is but he also is in film, television music. He does concerts around the world. He’s an author. He’s a leader. He is a leader for theater and for community. I’m sure you probably know that. Stokes has been chair of what was the Actor’s Fund and is now the Entertainment Community Fund for twenty years.  And they’re embarking on the largest capital campaign ever. And this organization gave more support to more people in more jobs around this country.than ever in the history. So let me just say he’s a star. He’s our star. He’s your star. Stokes. 

Brian Stokes Mitchell

I’m so happy to see everybody here. I see so many friendly faces.. This was my first APAP ever. I’ve been invited on numerous occasions but unfortunately — or fortunately — I’ve always been working so I’ve never been able to be here. So it’s nice to be here at this one, which feels like a resurrection and a reforming of everything. 

This is an important time for all of us. I started understanding the importance of art and the importance of artists in the lives of what I call civilians, the people who don’t do what we do. It kept me sane, during this whole pandemic and all the craziness that we’ve been through,  binge watching my favorite shows watching Seth Rudetsky online, Stars in the House,that kept our community together.

A quick lesson that I learned or actually relearned during this whole pandemic: I was singing out my window for maybe five or six days, but I started feeling like I shouldn’t do that anymore because the crowds started getting bigger and bigger.  There would be like a thousand people there, and I thought we’re supposed to be giving gratitude to all the essential workers, and it was like now people were coming to hear me perform. I didn’t want this to be a performance. So I decided okay, I’m going to stop singing.

And then I was walking into a market a block away from me, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. A gentleman said “Mr. Mitchell, you don’t know me, I’m your neighbor. I live across the street.’ And he started getting emotional as he was speaking. And he said ‘I just wanted to stop and say thank you. I come out every night to clap for all of the essential workers. My wife comes out, my two sons come out. We come out to clap for all the essential workers, but we also come out to hear you.  It’s the one time in the day that I feel joy.’

 And I was kind of overwhelmed by that comment because I think as a performer sometimes we forget the impact of what we do. I am fiercely aware that when I’m doing a one man show on stage or solo performance on stage, there are dozens if not hundreds of people that I am collaborating with. I am so grateful for this collaboration and that we’re able to get it started up again. Because, man, this is what the world needs right now. 

To misquote Stephen Sondheim: We’re still here. Right? Look at us. We’re all sitting here. So one of my questions was alright, now what? What do we do now? What’s our path? We have a chance to kind of working with this blank slate to kind of rewrite things once again together. What do we want to say? Inspired by that man that made that comment, I thought this is what I want to do when I do my own personal shows.  I decided to make my shows about reconnecting people to their joy

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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