Conference peers 20 years into Broadway's future

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

NEW YORK — Leaders in entertainment, academics and marketing gathered Monday to peer into their crystal balls and try to predict what Broadway will look like in 2032. Many agreed on at least one thing: Change is coming.

They discussed everything from Broadway's aging audience, its fragmented and maddening ticketing systems, the often poor experience it gives patrons, the power of social networks to harness fans and the continuing need to attract world-class talent.

The 13 speakers at the one-day inaugural TEDxBroadway included Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth, "Sleep No More" producer Randy Weiner, Citibank's social media strategist Frank Eliason and author Juan Enriquez. While some speakers made bold predictions, others demurred.

"I think it's safe to say that 20 years from now, Broadway will be a street in New York," said Kara Larson, founder of Arts Knowledge, a marketing consulting firm. She said people will continue to go there to take in a show. "Beyond that, I'm not willing to go."

Eliason warned that Broadway has become too much like a top-down business and needs to make a better human connection with its audience, which is bombarded by other rival entertainment. "You feel like they're rushing you in and rushing you out," he said. "That human connection is extraordinarily important."

The event, in front of about 200 attendees and peppered by short video clips from actor Neil Patrick Harris, was held in the off-Broadway complex's New World Stages, in the theater where "Million Dollar Quartet" is performed. Organizers hope it will be the first of many annual conclaves.

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." Video of the Broadway event is likely to be made available later.

The gathering was the brainchild of three men: Ken Davenport, a writer, director, producer and industry pioneer; Jim McCarthy, the CEO of ticket discounter Goldstar; and Damian Bazadona, the founder of Situation Interactive, an online marketing firm.

"How will our shows be created? How will they be marketed? Who's going to come see them? These were all the questions that Jim, Damian and I sat around one day asking each other. And the only answer that we could all agree on was that we had no idea," Davenport said. "None. So what we decided to do is invite some of the smartest people we knew into this room today and ask them those same questions."

Patricia Martin, an expert on commerce and culture, predicted a new flowering of cultural energy as long as the stories Broadway tells are told with love. "It must lift our spirits and it must help us be compassionate," she said.

Weiner, whose immersive, genre-bending "Sleep No More" is playing off-off-Broadway has routinely sold out due to enthusiastic word-of-mouth, said his experience may help other producers. His marketing cost for "Sleep No More" is zero.

"The show is the marketing. It's about unifying the show, the experience, the marketing — that is in many ways why the show has been so successful," he said, urging fellow producers to sink money into the experience. "There's something to be learned in that for Broadway."

Bazadona said that Broadway shows can overcome their limited supply by embracing different platforms beyond the four walls of a theater, opening the door to the idea of broadcasting a show on screens far away. "To me, innovative development is the best path to artist development," he said.

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