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BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 2- Reviving, Revising & Revitalizing


This month, BWW is giving you an insider look at the reopening process as Broadway gears up for its big return!

BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 2- Reviving, Revising & Revitalizing

This month, BWW is giving you an insider look at the reopening process as Broadway gears up for its big return!

In Part 1, we chatted with Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin, and more about the reopening process from the administrative end, Covid-19 safety, the intersection of Broadway and the NYC economy and tourism sector, and why bringing back Broadway isn't as simple as "curtain up, light the lights."

For Part 2, we're delving into the trials and challenges facing industries surrounding Broadway as it prepares to make its big return. First up, we're chatting with the pros behind SpotCo, one of Broadway's largest marketing firms, about the details of getting ad campaigns back on their feet, as well as the efforts being made to bring Broadway back as a more diverse and inclusive entity.

We also chatted with technicians and artists behind some of our biggest shows about how the long-term effects of the shutdown have impacted their workforces and bottom lines as they work to bring back Broadway.

With the city making its way back, the time has come to bring the fans back into the fold. That process begins and ends with the marketing and public relations teams behind the productions.

Enticing families to visit Broadway is an enormous undertaking under regular circumstances, let alone those in which safety and the financial fallout from the pandemic for the average person are major concerns. To get inside this process, we chatted with two pros from one of Broadway's most prominent marketing firms, SpotCo- Chief Operating Officer, Aaliytha Stevens and Vice President of Creative, Callie Goff.

Though the shows went into hibernation at the start of the pandemic, the marketing process carried on, with firms adjusting to their new circumstances and circumventing their lack of a product with new and innovative ways to keep fans engaged.

Ms. Goff explains, "We never really stopped. We continued to work on the digital and social content. We also continued to plan and communicate with our clients regularly trying to map out possible solutions for comebacks and things like that. We also got innovative with what we were doing and how we were talking to audiences. Towards the beginning of the shutdown, we turned the Beetlejuice stage door into a virtual stage door and things like that. So, it was really just about spending the time, continuing to work with our clients on adapting and trying to keep our shows top of mind with audiences."

There are numerous avenues to consider when it comes to mapping and maintaining a marketing strategy for a Broadway show, and to navigate them SpotCo employs a team of 43 individuals who specialize in different types of media, research, and messaging to capture the public's attention.

Of the creative process, Ms. Goff explained, "It takes a village. It takes a bunch of different teams to bring the campaigns to life. There is the account side of things, then on the creative side we have a writing staff, editors, a social media/digital department, as well as designers and ad designers. We also have our marketing and partnerships team that does a lot of the boots on the ground work to set up a lot of amazing events. So, there's maybe six or seven departments on the creative side of things alone and somewhere between 10 to 15 people or more that are involved in a campaign at any given time."

As Broadway prepares to make its return, one of the most crucial factors facing the industry is generating awareness and pledging a meaningful commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The tragic death of George Floyd in June 2020 sparked a social revolution whose influence reached into all corners of our society, the Broadway community included. Spurred on by virtual seminars held by activist groups like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, individual and group testimonies from industry professionals, as well as highly visible protests, the diversity lip service of the past has been challenged, perhaps for the first time, with real accountability from a public hungry for genuine and lasting change.

Aaliytha Stevens is a force when it comes to industry literacy and efficacy in reaching audiences and professionals of color. In addition to her role as SpotCo's Chief Operating Officer, Ms. Stevens also serves as its Multicultural Outreach and Multicultural Audience Development Specialist, sits on the board of The Black Theater Coalition, and co-chairs The Broadway Multicultural Taskforce.

She explained the work currently being done within the industry to reimagine Broadway as a more inclusive space.

"We don't have show on our roster that is not taking the opportunity to reevaluate their brand as a whole, their messaging, the materials they have on stage- the whole shebang. And that's imperative, that has to happen. I would say the status quo doesn't exist anymore. This is opportunity to rethink and reevaluate all sides of things what's on stage and what's going on behind the scenes and how we're marketing things, as well."

The work has already begun, with several high-profile shows announcing actionable changes in their environment and outreach.

In acknowledgment of the historic privilege afforded white, male musicians in Broadway orchestra pits, the Hadestown band has organized an initiative to diversify its substitute musician pool to include a mandatory percentage of Black/BIPOC and female-identifying players on its roster.

Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who recently took criticism for colorism in the casting of the In the Heights film adaptation, also revealed that productions of his other musical juggernaut, Hamilton, are implementing their own inclusion initiatives.

He told The New York Times, "With business stopped in theatre I think everyone took a really long look at how many systems keep out Black and brown folks from being part of the theatre experience, particularly on Broadway, and how much poorer Broadway is for it."

He continued, "At Hamilton that has been the work of the last year... from the Hamilton racial justice task force that we created with cast members and stage managers to see how the show can be an ambassador for social change on the fronts of equity, diversity, and inclusion to larger conversations on how we have this celebrated, diverse cast on stage and how they can be better supported by more diversity, equity, and inclusion backstage. We're making up for lost time, but it's important work and we're committed to it going forward."

Last week, Wicked announced the appointment of Christina Alexander as its newly appointed Director of Social Responsibility in order to create and supporting a more inclusive and respectful environment throughout its numerous productions.

The creative team and producers behind The Book of Mormon have also made plans to revisit the show's content with cast members of color from all over the world to clarify the show's intent as a social satire and fortify the script against problematic and offensive interpretations.

Though individual efforts are an excellent start, the issues facing the American theatre are systemic and it is up to those in charge to lead the way to a brighter future in all aspects of the industry.

Ms. Stevens discussed the efforts being made to widen the marketing net in order to draw multicultural audiences, specifically those from Black and brown communities, into the theatrical experience.

"As far as marketing is concerned, its means dedicating more marketing dollars to different types of media that we generally didn't use before to reach out to communities that we haven't touched before. It takes time to build up trust in those communities in engaging them and educating them," she explained, "I think it's extremely important to be consistent in our approach. I think that we have to consistently reach out to the communities of color to get them engaged, keep them engaged, and to make repeat clients out of them. Those customers have huge spending power that we haven't tapped into before, and the time is now. It's good for the business and it's just good for humanity."

Though diversity efforts are being made on the audience front, Aaliytha also discussed the work necessary to make not just the theaters, but the overall industry more hospitable to a multicultural constituency.

"Certain shows are starting programs specifically geared towards multicultural audience development and creating access to the shows, of course, but it's also about making sure that people of color feel welcome in this theater space, and that's a big part of it. I am dedicated to not just making this change for SpotCo and SpotCo's clients, but also throughout the industry."

She continued, "It's not just about putting Black and brown butts in seats, right? It's also about making sure that we engage with people of color in our community. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We need to be making sure that we're posting job openings on the appropriate sites. We have to think about people in different roles of entertainment, where their skill set may be a crossover skill set that can definitely lend itself to the Broadway community. I has to be partnerships with HBCU's [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], speaking to youth groups and getting into inner city communities, making sure that they know about theater and have access to it from early on. There's so many different levels to it front of and behind the scenes, and we need to be consistent throughout."

With the work to revitalize Broadway's soul and fill its seats well underway, the focus now shifts to the folks working behind of the scenes of the scenes themselves. Throughout the city, artisans and technical experts are springing back into action to assess not just the needs of the shows, but the long-term effects of the Covid-19 shutdown on their workforce and bottom lines.

Before casts and crews can return to theaters to begin rehearsing and teching productions, it falls to Broadway's finest technological pros to ensure that a show's moving parts are in working order and meeting all necessary safety standards.

To better understand the ins and outs of a musical's machinations, we chatted with Hilary Blanken, President of Juniper Street Productions, the company behind the production management of several Broadway shows including, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Tina, Moulin Rouge!, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and more.

As a production management company, JSP is responsible for the physical production of a show. This includes everything from collaborating with creatives on realizing a show's overall vision, managing load in and training on scenery, automation, lighting, sound, projections, and special effects, overseeing set construction at scenic shops, and working closely with general and stage management on things like budget, maintenance, and personnel hiring and management.

With more than a dozen returning productions (including West End and touring shows) on its slate, the team at Juniper Street is currently working overtime in order to get these productions back on their feet.

Hillary explained how she and her team at Juniper Street are managing this mammoth workload, "It is very busy right now. We typically have 2-3 shows in pre-production at a time, now we have all of the shows that were previously running, plus four new shows and a few workshops. No one is required to come to the office, so at a given time there are 3-4 people in the office, everyone else is working remotely. But, we are back to sending emails late into the night."

In order to revive these massive productions, the process begins weeks in advance as the Juniper Street team assesses the specific maintenance, recalibrations, and repairs that production components may need to undergo before performances resume.

Hillary explains, "The planning and budgeting process for these shows started around April when it became clearer that there was a very good possibility of opening in the fall. Aside from trying to figure out how long the cast will need to get ready for a performance, we have had to think about what will need to be replaced or repaired when we go back into the theater."

Though the equipment that makes these productions run has had a lengthy respite from the routine wear and tear of a regular show schedule, that doesn't mean that getting it up and running again will be as easy as flipping a switch.

Hilly continues, "The electronic equipment will most likely need to be updated. Cables that have been holding thousands of pounds of weight have been bending around wheels in the same spot and units have been sitting on wheels in the same spot. The scenery and equipment was not made to sit idle for 18 months. We won't know what needs replacement until we go into the theater and move everything."

As production teams come back together to begin the process of returning, a big question on the minds of industry insiders has been staffing. Throughout the Covid-19 shutdown, masses of unemployed theatre people were forced to flee the city due to lack of funds and work opportunities, leaving many industries short on personnel.

The team at Juniper Street is a relatively small one, with nine staff members returning to production management or assistant production management positions. Luckily. JSP has weathered the break with ease, welcoming back much of its pre-pandemic staff to help re-launch its stable of shows.

"Thankfully almost everyone is returning to our end of the business. We did all take advantage of the outdoors and visiting family and parts of the country that we usually don't have time for. Speaking for my production managers, we found out that we really like doing what we do and being in this industry and there was nothing out there that was more attractive than coming back to the theater," Hillary explained.

Despite the rosier outlook for some, other aspects of the industry were hit much harder as far as staffing shortages and financial repercussions are concerned.

Katherine Marshall, founder of Tricorne Costume Shop and an industry veteran whose work can be seen in the Broadway productions of Wicked, Aladdin, Hamilton, and more, explained to us how the pandemic shutdown has impacted her ability to keep the shop fully staffed.

She explains, "My team here before Covid, we were at like 36- 38 people and we're at about half that right now. So, we're scrambling. Not everybody is really ready to come back to work, not everybody feels comfortable. Several of my older employees have decided to retire and a couple have moved back to their homeland because they're mostly European. And young people just couldn't afford to stay."

The effort to bring new blood in to struggling shops has also proved challenging as the pandemic continues to rage in metropolitan areas.

Katherine explains, "I've been told by several people I know who work at universities and things that New York is not the draw it was at one point. Right now, people are afraid."

Many of Broadway's other go-to costume shops have been hit hard as well, using television and film work to keep the lights on throughout the shutdown.

Katherine and her staff made use of the time early on by manufacturing PPE garments during the shortage. Period television shows like, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Gilded Age also provided a much needed infusion of work for these skilled artisans when live performance was put on pause.

Though things seem to be picking up again, many costume shops are at the beginning of a steep climb to resolve back-rent and debts accrued during the shutdown.

Sally Ann Parson, owner of New York's largest costume shop, Parsons-Meares, Ltd. recently told The Daily News, "All of the shops are in debt. So yes, we are starting back to work, but that will only pay for what's happening during the work - it won't pay for past debt."

Financial support, including federal aid, also remains out of reach for costume shops, as funds generated by the "Save Our Stages Act" directly benefit producers and theatre owners, but will not be allocated to the often invisible workforce that supports them.

The Costume Industry Coalition has been doing its part to support impacted artists through fundraising initiatives. So far, the CIC has raised an impressive $500,000 to provide financial aid to their workers.

The group recently launched a new benefit costume exhibit, Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes from Stage & Screen, in the heart of Times Square. The exhibit features 20,000 square feet of incredible costumes from Broadway, Off Broadway and National Tours, and spotlights under-recognized costume contributions to entertainment and the hundreds of costuming experts who create, supply and care for them.

Despite the struggles that go hand-in-hand with returning, Katherine Marshall remains optimistic that better days are on the horizon.

She says, "I'm a little anxious, being understaffed, but it's exciting too, to know that we're going to climb back out of this darkness that we've been in for so long. For sure."

Though 2021 has given us much reason for hope with the advent of several safe and effective vaccinations, the spread of the Delta variant remains cause for concern as Broadway makes its way back. Utilizing the West End as a map for what's to come, industry insiders have been keeping close tabs on the developing situation and how it could impact reopening.

Aaliytha Stevens explains, "We have a sister agency on the West End, Dewynters. So we're in constant communication with them. It's different over there. They seem to be getting hit before we do, and so it almost gives us a bit of a heads up on what we can expect. We try to communicate with them and pick up whatever we can...So we'll just continue to utilize that as a resource. Some things have worked for them, some things haven't. They've had a lot of open, close, open, close, and we don't want that. Obviously you want to open and remain open. So we're trying to do everything it takes, you know, for us to be able to do that, but we're just learning as we go."

Despite the tentative situation, Ms. Stevens says there is reason for hope as ticket sales for returning shows remain steady.

"Ticket sales are decent," she says, "The Delta variant is not our friend. We are watching that very closely and trying to see any patterns of how that would affect upcoming sales for shows that are about to open or opening within the next few months. So we'll be playing really close attention to that, but we are happy with where we are with show sales."

She continues, "This is new to us. We have no idea, what's to come right now and it's outside of our control. We have to be flexible. We have to make sure that we're paying attention. We're thinking ahead. SpotCo is resilient and clients are as well. We'll get back to where we need to be. It will be different and it needs to be different, but we're excited about that."

Check back with BroadwayWorld later this month for Part 3 as we head into the theaters to chat with actors, artists, department heads, and more as they prepare to bring Broadway back to life.

Read Part 1: Waking the City That Never Sleeps here!

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