"What is the best that Broadway can be?" was the question of the day at New World Stages on January 28, where an audience of 450 listened to 17 speakers attempt to present an answer.
The six hour event, TEDxBroadway 2013, continued to explore the query that sparked last year's inaugural conference. And much like the kick-off year, a common need became palatable as each speaker took the stage: access. In short speeches, a mixed bag of presenters addressed the need for a Broadway that is accessible to a more diverse audience -- to the non-rich, to the young, and to cultures outside of the white-skinned, artsy-fartsy-with-pearls vacuum – as well as a Broadway that is accessible to emerging playwrights with new and different ideas.
"Instead of having a small sliver of the world come to Broadway, why not bring Broadway to the entire world?" asked Randi Zukerberg, an early executive at Facebook who still dreams of Broadway fame, during her TEDx speech.
Despite the echoing questions surrounding access, TEDxBroadway, which was organized by Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, producer Ken Davenport, and Jim McCarthy, CEO of Goldstar Events, was hardly one-toned. Creatives, like Pulitzer Prize-finalist Kristoffer Diaz (who wrote #therevolution), playwright/author/Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout (Satchmo at the Waldorf), Broadway-bound actor George Takei (Star Trek, Allegiance), and Tony Award-winning set designer Christine Jones (American Idiot, A Punk Rock Musical) shared the stage with successful producers like Daryl Roth (Lucky Guy) and Disney Theatrical Group's Thomas Schumacher, as well as brains from the world of science, technology, hospitality, and education who were eager to share ideas applicable to Broadway.
"There are people right outside of here who will never see what you do," said Adam Thurman, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Court Theatre in Chicago, to an audience of industry insiders. "And it's not because they're uncultured. It's because they can't afford a ticket, or…a babysitter…We are leaving a lot of people out."
To be the "best Broadway can be," Thurman said the industry must "decide to impact those who [may] never come [to Broadway] as much as those who do." Vincent Gassetto, Principal of the Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology (Middle School 343) in the Bronx, presented a similar sentiment.
"In the South Bronx, Broadway doesn't exist," Gassetto said. "They hear about it, but we have to find out ways for them to see it."
M.S. 343 lies in the Bronx's impoverished 7th District. Last year, only 10 percent of Gassetto's students had seen a Broadway show. Thanks to a program within the school, that number has now reached 90 percent. After his time on stage, Gassetto spoke with us about the next step.
"If we are really serious about reaching out to kids in these communities, I think the marketing piece needs to be there, in the South Bronx, where you never see a Broadway billboard," he said. "Lowering the ticket prices has to be there too. A lot of things have to change for Broadway to open up, not just to the South Bronx, but all of these different areas around the city."
Gassetto quoted one of his students, a middle-schooler who said he thought Broadway was "for rich people" and "other people," not for him. The principal sought to change that.
"Instead of, ‘I see these billboards when I'm in Times Square to see a movie, but I never thought that was for me, or possible,' when they finally see [a Broadway show] and enjoy it, they understand that it could be for them -- which is also the frustrating part because they can't really afford it," he said.
In addition to opening Broadway to more people, presenters spoke about opening Broadway to new ideas, shifting it away from its comfort zone.
Terry Teachout, who made his debut as a playwright in 2012 with a one-man-show about Louis Armstrong, cited what he called the "one terrible fact of Broadway," that 75 percent of all Broadway shows fail financially. Using examples of groundbreaking shows that succeeded, and "safe" shows that did not make bank, Teachout urged producers to consider work that has never been done before.
"Don't start settling for safe," Teachout said. "Gamble on great. If you're not going to make money anyway, make something beautiful, something that makes you proud. Who knows, you may even get rich."
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz agreed, specifically arguing for more work by, about, and featuring women, people of color, and the GLBT community. "It's much harder to dismiss someone if you've spent a couple of hours investing in their story," he said. "[Shows] also need to be funnier, in general. We're living in a post-Book of Mormon society."
The majority of presenters at the conference acknowledged that Broadway would be at its "best" with lower ticket prices, and that high ticket prices are by far the largest barrier to access. But while the question of "what" the best Broadway could be lent itself easily to a discussion of the industry's problems, the question of "how," exactly, to address the problems was left unanswered. But, at least we're talking about it. That's a start.