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BWW Column: How Can Technology Increase Breadth, Depth of Theatre Audiences?

BWW Column: How Can Technology Increase Breadth, Depth of Theatre Audiences?

There is no doubt that, for better or for worse, Broadway is the most visible home for theatre in the world. For many people across the country, it is the only thing that they know about the art form, even if there is a local playhouse just down the street. Like Xerox to copiers, and Kleenex to tissues, for many, the word "Broadway" simply means theatre. Therefore, often the shows that call Broadway home become our greatest gateway to getting people to consume theatre at the local level. However, Broadway, by its very definition, is inaccessible. It is limited to a small handful of theaters located in New York City, in the northeast corner of the country, at least 500 miles from 18 of the top 20 most populated cities in America (not including itself and Philadelphia). For many, that is a trip that they just can't afford to make. In addition, with premium seats and ever-escalating ticket prices, even if a family of four can afford to make it to New York, four seats to a Broadway show is often cost prohibitive.

These factors are why every year we see the median age of Broadway attendance rise. Despite lotteries, rushes, and discounted tickets, many younger theatre fans are effectively priced out of regular Broadway attendance; especially if they don't live in the New York metro area, with the flexibility to jump on last minute deals. So, if the theatre's most public entry point is systematically disenfranchising new generations of theatregoers, how do we build an audience for the future?

Supporting Stage to Screen

Despite the varying quality levels, I am always excited about anything that brings theatre, in one form or another, to audiences across the country. If we can't bring all of the general public to Broadway, we need to do a better job of bringing "Broadway" to the general public. Then in turn, hopefully that will help increase the number of people seeing theatre in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Sheboygan, Las Cruces, and every other city and town across the country, leading to lifelong theatre patronage for people who might never have actually stepped foot in a Broadway theater.

Often times the theatrical community turns up its collective nose at these projects, either because they don't meet the high standards that we have for our art, or because we feel that the original version, written specifically for the stage, is bastardized when adapted for, or broadcast in, any other form. However, as technology improves, as the economy fluctuates, as more of our brightest minds throw themselves into the important work of expanding the theatre's reach, I believe that we have an obligation to support these projects. If they are great, applaud and amplify. If they aren't, appreciate and adapt.

So when mercurial producer Ken Davenport announced that his tiny Off-Broadway musical DADDY LONG LEGS would be the first New York show to livestream worldwide, I saw this as an extremely important test case for the viability of broadcasting currently running shows to worldwide audiences.

BWW Column: How Can Technology Increase Breadth, Depth of Theatre Audiences?
The Pink Ladies and T-Birds of FOX's Upcoming GREASE: LIVE
Photo Credit: FOX

Very rarely are shows broadcast or screened while still running, because producers fear that it will disincentivize people from paying to see the show. However, in 2008, LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL aired on MTV four months before closing, and in 2011, MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL was screened in movie theaters nationwide, over a year and a half before ending its Broadway run. PBS, the last bastion of consistent theatrical television programming, aired Lincoln Center's revival of SOUTH PACIFIC just four days before it closed in 2010.

Now, I am by no means a Broadway or Off-Broadway producer; they know the theatrical financial landscape infinitely better than I do; but I hope that what Davenport's experiment proves is that there is a way for similar ventures to prove profitable for producers, whether they are livestreamed, broadcast on TV, or screened in movie theaters around the country. While I have yet to see any official numbers for how many people watched DADDY LONG LEGS during one of its handful of streams, I'm optimistic that enough people tuned in to prove that this type of experiment could lead to profits; the only way to guarantee that a project like this happens again.

Of course the easiest way for these things to be profitable, is if they get people who otherwise wouldn't, to buy tickets to the particular show in New York or on tour; but between advertising, distribution, merchandise, and licensing, there surely are other ways for inventive producers to capitalize on the increasingly accessible technologies that can bring theatre to additional audiences. In my mind, it is not a question of if someone will find a way to make broadcasting theatre profitable, it is a question of whom and how.

Through companies like Fathom, Broadway HD, NT Live, and many others, British theatre is far ahead of us in this respect; so much so that London productions are screened regularly in our movie theaters, where there is nary an American production to be seen. If it works for producers across the pond, certainly it can work for producers stateside.

On the other side of the same coin, what Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have done at NBC, and now what Marc Platt is doing at FOX, in bringing live musicals to millions of people on television, is likely to have an impact that we won't fully understand for decades, no matter what quibbles the community has with their quality. Much like the way that people of my generation site Disney animated musicals as the start of their theatre appreciation, hopefully THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE!, PETER PAN LIVE!, THE WIZE LIVE!, and the upcoming GREASE: LIVE, will be remembered fondly as the impetus for the next wave of theatre lovers and creators.

Likewise, movie musicals, like last year's INTO THE WOODS, and even those not directly inspired by the theatre, like the PITCH PERFECT series (which stars a number of Broadway alums), should play a role in expanding the reach of live theatre. So, while we can nit-pick the casting, and complain about the adaptation, these high profile projects can only help advance the theatrical cause; except for NINE, that was an abomination.

Broadway Stars as Brands

While high profile projects help to widen the appeal of theatre to new audiences, another thing to look at is how we deepen the appeal to the audiences we already have. The projects that are likely to build a stronger, more personal relationship between audiences and the theatre, aren't the big budget one-off broadcasts, they are the smaller, more frequent ones that they can watch on their phones. There have already been a number of think pieces about the importance of HAMILTON's Ham4Ham shows (check out a few from Vulture and Slate), so I won't go into it too deeply, but what Lin-Manuel Miranda (and by extension the unofficial Ham4Ham videographer, renowned arts administrator Howard Sherman) is doing is giving people who are already theatre fans something that's exciting, free, and unique, and keeps them engaged with a show and its cast long after the Opening Night glow fades (not that any of HAMILTON's glow is likely to fade any time soon).

BWW Column: How Can Technology Increase Breadth, Depth of Theatre Audiences?
HAMILTON's three King George's, Brian d'Arcy James,
Andrew Rannells, and Jonathan Groff at a Ham4Ham show.

While we theatre folk love to say that every performance in the theatre is different, for the average person, it isn't. The story is always the same, the songs are always the same, and the performances, while perhaps with different actors, are always based on the same direction. But, in these short, shareable Ham4Ham shows, fans are able to get something special, a moment in time, a close-up performance. They are like the lovechild of an exclusive New York cabaret performance and stage dooring, without having to pay for the two drink minimum or spend an hour smushed up against a guardrail waiting for a star to come out so you can get a selfie.

These videos are exciting, they are personal, and they form bonds between theatre artists and theatre fans. Similarly, many Broadway stars do vlogs to connect with fans, which serve to not only promote their show, but also to endear the artist to his or her existing audience, making them more likely to support future projects, whatever they might be. I also think that what Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina of The Skivvies are doing is extremely valuable as well. While seeing Broadway stars perform in their underwear is always fun, the fact that Molina posts YouTube videos of nearly every New York performance, usually the next day, goes a long way to making the duo and their guests more than just "theatre actors;" it makes them celebrities.

Television and film stars have an endless supply of talk shows and press junkets and fan conventions to build a following with fans, Broadway stars don't have nearly as many opportunities. So, they need to find ways to create unique, memorable moments that allow fans to see them as stars worth investing in, rather than just the characters that they play.

How many times have you gone to see a movie simply because your favorite star was in it? I started watching the HUNGER GAMES series only after falling in love with Jennifer Lawrence in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Think about how valuable it would be if people bought tickets to SHE LOVES ME, without knowing that it's based on the same source material as YOU'VE GOT MAIL, just because they've watched Laura Benanti's performances with The Skivvies several hundred times? If theatre performers are able to turn themselves into brands, like screen actors are, and are able to draw audiences to the theater by sheer star-power alone (despite a theatre ticket being much more expensive than a movie ticket), that is one way for us to have a fighting chance to develop new, life-long audiences.

Tangentially, this is another reason why I continue to believe that my friend Patrick Hinds needs to start pitching his insanely popular Theater People Podcast as a TV talk show.

Words of Wisdom

I am going to try and wrap this diatribe up now, because I am beginning to ramble, and it really has no thesis anyway, but no matter what your relationship is to the theatre community; producer, actor, media, fan; if we want to see this art form continue to grow and thrive, it is incumbent upon all of us to help and support that growth.

As Davenport said in a talkback after the DADDY LONG LEGS livestream, "The more theatre there is in the world, the world is a better place." I couldn't agree more Ken.

What do you think that we can do to help expand the appeal of live theatre? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.

Banner Image: Photo Credit: DADDY LONG LEGS Livestream, NBC.com, TheSkivviesNYC.com

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From This Author Matt Tamanini

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