Conference peers 20 years into Broadway's future

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 20 2012 5:20 a.m. MST

NEW YORK — What will Broadway be like in 20 years?

Will people still come to see shows in 2032? Will actors still be performing live? Will Times Square still be the crossroads of the world? Will "The Phantom of the Opera" still be open?

Those and many other questions will likely be mulled over Monday at the inaugural TEDxBroadway, a one-day conference bringing together producers, marketers, entrepreneurs, economists and artists. All will try to imagine what Broadway will be like in two decades.

"Everything is changing fast but there's not a larger conversation right now that's happening in the industry about the next five or 10 years," says Damian Bazadona, one of the organizers and the founder of Situation Interactive, an online marketing firm. "We're leapfrogging 20. Where's the vision for the industry?"

The conference speakers include Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth, "Sleep No More" producer Randy Weiner, former Lincoln Center Director Gregory Mosher, Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, Citibank's social media strategy head Frank Eliason and author Juan Enriquez.

TEDx events are independently organized but inspired by the nonprofit group TED — standing for Technology, Entertainment, Design — that started in 1984 as a conference dedicated to "ideas worth spreading."

Organizers of TEDxBroadway, which will be held at off-Broadway's New World Stages, hope it will be the first of many annual conclaves. Tickets are $100 and several hundred people have already signed up to attend. Video of the event is likely to be made available later.

Jim McCarthy, a co-organizer and the CEO of ticket discounter Goldstar, says the conference is an attempt to gather all the various parts of Broadway and ask stakeholders to sprint ahead a couple decades and envision the future Broadway. He sees these next few years as a pivotal time.

"Who buys what and where and how people consume stuff and where they go and how they think it is up for grabs for the first time probably since World War II. It's a jump ball," he says. "It's a moment where the Boomers are moving off the stage as the drivers of the culture and Generation Y and the Millennials are moving on the stage as the drivers of the culture."

The dozen or so speakers are expected to discuss how data will be collected in the future, how marketing and customer service will change, the role of cultural institutions, audience demographics and how technology will alter live events. A principal at a public school from an impoverished section of the city will talk about the importance of arts funding.

"I feel like we have a good cross-section of folks," says Bazadona, who will also talk about entrepreneurship. "We think this is about extending the discussion and stretching the imagination. I'm excited to see how it all stitches together."

The first speaker will be Ken Davenport, a writer, director, producer and industry pioneer who is also a co-organizer of the event. He moved to New York 20 years ago and will talk about the changes he's seen.

"Before you think about where you're going, you have to know about where you've been," Davenport says, recalling the enormous changes to Time Square since he moved from Massachusetts. "I remember riding my bike through 42nd Street and seeing a crack addict lying on the ground."

Now, of course, the streets are safe and clean, digital billboards have replaced hand-painted signs and Broadway generated a staggering $1 billion last season. "When you think of where it was 20 years ago, then you have to think that major things could happen over the next 20 years," says Davenport.

When the three organizers peer into the future, virtually nothing is a given. Forecasting five or 10 years is one thing, but 20 is much harder. So much depends on New York's economic strength, technology and the quality of the work on stage.

Broadway in 2032 could be as grim as the Broadway of 1992 if the city endures another terror attack or the economy falls of a cliff. New technology — or an anti-advertising backlash — might force the billboards to come down. Times Square might even become so pedestrian friendly that nature might return.

"I'm convinced that in 20 years we will see some grass somehow," Davenport says.

Even whether there will still be live theater or not is up for grabs. These days, Broadway shows are captured on high definition cameras and beamed to movie theaters far from Times Square or made into DVDs. In 20 years, bandwidth improvements may allow producers to project a 3-D image of a play or musical anywhere in the world.

"It's such a fascinating question: What is live? What is considered live?" asks Bazadona. For McCarthy, seeing a Broadway show in the future may mean attending it in New York or watching a broadcast elsewhere — a movie theater, a TV, a computer or a cellphone — with gradually lower prices as the experience degrades.

Davenport sees Broadway following the live concert industry, which made the seemingly risky move years ago to broadcast concerts. That just stoked more interest in the artist, not less. Davenport thinks more Broadway will be available on cable and pay channels but live performance will still be important.

"I do not think we'll eliminate it altogether because as more and more forms of two-dimensional entertainment pop up, the three-dimensional real-live-actor-in-your-face version actually becomes more rare and therefore more valuable."

One of the most critical factors about Broadway's health will be what's on the stages. Attracting new audiences with fresh work — such as "The Book of Mormon" and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" — will keep the industry thriving.

"This is an idea factory in the middle of the most vital city in the whole world," says McCarthy, who warns that Broadway will lose its relevance if it sticks with well-mannered works from predictable source material.

"If the content is right, the influence of it will extend past the physical space, rather than Broadway being a national park where people go to theaters because it's there, like visiting Ford's Theatre when you're in D.C."

Online:

http://www.goldstar.com/tedxbroadway

Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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