"I have a sense that Broadway hasn't entered into the 21st century," Star Trek legend George Takei, whose musical Allegiance is now Broadway-bound, said on stage at TEDxBroadway. "Broadway hasn't boldly gone where it needs to."
Like many presenters at the event, held for the second year at New World Stages on January 28, Takei focused on how technology can improve Broadway. The epic Twitter and Facebook user, who said his following grows by "40, 000 new friends a week," sold out the premiere of Allegiance, at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, by growing his social media audience long before the production opened. The show broke every box office record in The Old Globe's 77-year history, and Takei now has more than 558, 000 Twitter followers and 3.4 million Facebook page "likes." He argued that Broadway needs to get with the times, and follow suit.
"Broadway [will be] at its best when it embraces all of the technological advances of the times, especially on social media," Takei said. "Then Broadway will live long and prosper."
After Takei left the stage, took photos with adoring fans, and entertained a group of visiting college students, TheaterMania cut in to chat about how viral cat photos relate to Broadway sales.
How can the rest of Broadway cultivate the kind of social media audience you have?
Well, [I] started from scratch too. Well, mostly from scratch: I had a core base of sci-fi geeks and nerds. You find whatever you have that can engage a group of people in a conversation. You know, Star Trek and sci-fi are totally unrelated to what we were putting together [Allegiance, which is set during the Japanese American internment], but you find what it is that you do have, and establish that. Then you start growing by expanding the topics you're talking about. That's the amazing thing about social media. You begin anywhere, with whatever base you have… and eventually you start embracing and absorbing and swallowing other groups, until you have a large enough group to talk about what you really want to talk about. I now have a huge audience that knows about Allegiance.
So is it more about personality than the subject of the show?
You work with what you have, even if it's totally unrelated to what you're trying to sell. But it is [about] content, what you talk about. And I talked about Star Trek, to begin with, and then broadened it to science fiction. Then I discovered that funny posts, especially with cats, get a lot of likes and shares. I started talking about GLBT rights, and then the dark chapter in American history where [Allegiance] takes place, when my family was shipped across the country to Arkansas from Los Angeles and locked in a barbed wire prison for four long years for looking like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. I now have a huge audience that knows about the internment, and that there is a show coming to Broadway about the internment. I mix that [serious content] with funny photos of cats.
You said in your talk that Broadway has not entered the 21st Century…
I use the contrast between Hollywood and Broadway. Hollywood has a movie, but before they release it, they start building an audience for it, early on, so that when it is released, the audience is there. How many musicals do you go to – not West Side Story, but new musicals – that open and it is months before the general public becomes aware of it? They have it backwards. What you need to do is start getting and building an audience before you open…You try to get your audience eager, waiting, excited and anticipating, and then you open the show, so that you are filling your seats, rather than staggering through the first few months with a half-full house.
A common theme presenters addressed today was accessibility, and the need to make Broadway available to more people, people who cannot afford current ticket prices. Do you have any ideas about how to achieve this?
When I was a student, and absolutely enamored with the theater, living in Los Angeles, I made friends with the house manager at the Biltmore Theater, which was the place where all the Broadway shows stopped, and I asked [him], ‘Do you need an usher today?' And he'd say, ‘Yeah, and bring a couple of your friends with you.' We'd go and usher and see the show for free. But with the young people here, while you do have…these last-minute sales that they squat on the sidewalk for, there should be a more organized plan to make theater accessible for young people. One of the speakers today [David Sabel] talked about making a theater performance at the National Theatre something you can watch on YouTube, or right here" [Points to phone]. So there are many schemes that could make it more accessible to all.
National Theatre Live is an interesting example because it was actually met with a lot of criticism. Critics even said that live broadcasting would be the death of theater.
You know, there are always complainers and snipers, but then there's the people who haven't complained, who got access to it, and were thrilled by it. You can't make your decisions based on the naysayers. Think of the large group of people that benefit and put the naysayers in perspective with that.