NEW YORK -- “What is the best that Broadway can be?” was the central question of the second TEDx Broadway conference, which continued to explore the query that fueled last year’s inaugural conference.
Presented, perhaps ironically, at off-Broadway’s New World Stages in Manhattan on Monday, the six-hour array of speakers struck similar notes: A better Broadway can be achieved through access for, engagement with and connection to the audience.
The conference mixed seasoned producers like Daryl Roth and Disney Theatrical Group’s Thomas Schumacher, artists such as playwright Kristoffer Diaz, actor George Takei and designer Christine Jones, and experts in other fields including Ellen Isaacs, the principal scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center; tech and media entrepreneur Randi Zuckerberg, and Susan Salgado, the founder with restaurateur Danny Meyer of Hospitality Quotient, consultants on the customer’s experience.
A capacity audience of 450 turned out to hear 17 speakers, watch thematically related videos from official TED Talks, and hear a performance by the all-female cello-driven band Rasputina. (TEDx conferences are independently organized events sanctioned by the official TED organization.)
Mixing pragmatism with imagination, Wall Street Journal critic and columnist Terry Teachout, who made his debut as a playwright in 2012, cited the oft-repeated figure that 75% of all Broadway shows fail financially. Then “why do people produce on Broadway?” Teachout asked. “Because it’s fun.”
He urged the attendees to take a chance on Broadway, “to do something that’s never been done … let the fact that most Broadway shows fail liberate you.”
He advised, “Don’t start settling for safe, gamble on great. If you’re not going to make money, make something beautiful, something that makes you proud. Who knows, you may even get rich.”
Takei, who plans to make his Broadway debut next season in the musical “Allegiance,” (which was produced at the Old Globe in San Diego last fall) talked up the power of social media. He acknowledged that he has a base of “geeks and nerds” thank to his “Star Trek” days, but he didn’t address how less famous figures, or shows, might achieve similar success.
Schumacher related his ideal vision of Broadway and how it ran counter to what he felt one night sitting at a show, responses that he believes many in the business must conquer.
“Who are these jackasses?” he wondered of his fellow patrons. “My loathing for the people I was surrounded with was insurmountable.” He then talked about countering such “pretentious” instincts, saying, “Populism has its own manifest destiny and we must embrace that.”
Jones, the designer, is also artistic director of Theatre for One, which creates intimate theatrical experiences between a single artist and a single audience member in a retooled peep-show booth. She spoke of her desire to “distill the space” between performer and artist. She then explained her efforts to connect every audience member in every seat with the work on a Broadway stage.
“I wish we all had the same ability to make choices about how the audience is seated as I do with what’s on stage,” she said.
Jones alluded to Lewis Hyde’s book “The Gift,” which was also taken up by Adam Thurman, marketing director of Chicago’s Court Theatre, who proposed, “Marketing, fully realized, is a gift. I am in the gift-giving business and so are all of you.”
But he cautioned about preaching only to the converted, those who already attend the arts, saying, “We need more people who love us.”
Diaz and Zuckerberg offered lists of ideas for Broadway. Diaz’s random yet passionate litany included a contrary notion to many.
“Having playwrights working in television is a good thing,” Diaz said. “But we need to get them back and bring with them everything they learned and evolve the stories we tell.”
He enthused over the works of Lynn Nottage, described the theater community as being made up of “nerds and misfits who didn’t fit in,” and declared, “We’re living in a post-"Book of Mormon” society.”
Zuckerberg spoke of her original plans to pursue a career in theater, then shifted to a list of “10 Ideas to Open Broadway to the World,” including open auditions on YouTube, crowd-sourcing costume designs, creating online viewing options and offering social media walk-on roles.
“Instead of having a small sliver of the world come to Broadway,” she asked, “why not bring Broadway to the entire world?”
Other speakers included “The Millionaire’s Magician,” Steve Cohen; David Sabel, head of digital media for the National Theatre of Great Britain, and Seth Pinsky, president of New York City’s Economic Development Corp.
The TEDx Broadway conference was organized by Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive; theatrical producer Ken Davenport; and Jim McCarthy, CEO of Goldstar Events.