New World Stages hosted TEDxBroadway May 17, an event which featured 16 speakers across three sessions, with music performances by Britton Smith & The Sting. The topics ranged from actions that will evolve American theatre into a more equitable and dynamic space to how we invest in ourselves and the stories we want to tell.
Across the talks, themes continued to appear throughout the day that captured the questions, concerns, and passions of the theatre community. Here are five themes to take away from this year’s TEDxBroadway talks.
1. How do we evolve Broadway to make it more equitable and diverse?
In his talk, Brian Joseph Lee, creative producer and founder of CNTR Arts, spoke about developing a Green Book for the American Theatre (alluding to the annual Jim Crow-era guidebook for African-American motorists that offered advice, and lodging and restaurant recommendations for safe travel across the U.S.). Created collectively by BIPOC artists and for BIPOC artists, the guide would provide resources and insights into ways to safely navigate the industry, building upon current private and smaller spaces where information is currently exchanged.
For productions, theatres, and theatre companies, Nicole Javanna Johnson and Junior Mintt both spoke about their approaches to creating access and building safe, equitable spaces. Johnson, who has experience as a performer and organizational theorist, believes using organizational theory and approaches to wellness through the five senses can help “change wants into actions.” In advocating for a mindset of approaching racial equity as a process, Johnson suggests using sensory inputs to non-judgmentally walk someone back to their core, where the work can be done of addressing toxic, privileged, and discriminatory behavior. “The future of American systems relies on all of us rewiring ourselves.”
Mintt, a drag artist, performer, and activist, advocates for a reexamination of budgets. “Invest in connection” by reorienting the production’s goals. Among her recommendations are allocating marketing budgets to connect with the local community, bringing up new artists, and changing the casting question from “who are the biggest stars we can get?” to “which actors are a part of the communities we are trying to connect with that we can invest in?”
2. How do we foster more diverse artists and creatives?
Producers Sammy Lopez and Emanuel Azenberg both discussed the ways in which the industry can lower the financial barriers which face theatre creatives and audiences alike. Through The Industry Standard Group, Lopez has worked with fellow producers to make it possible for people to invest in Broadway productions beginning at $500 as opposed to the more common tens of thousands that existed before. By addressing the financial barriers, Lopez and The Industry Standard Group hope to also change the current statistics on diversity of Broadway producers—93% of whom identify as white.
Rather than a traditional talk, TEDxBroadway host Damian Bazadona had a conversation with Azenberg, who has worked in theatre for over 60 years. In discussing the ways in which Broadway has changed, Azenberg spoke about the industry needing to entice artists back to theatre and expand the financial accessibility to Broadway shows for audiences. Azenberg shared that it would cost $1.10 for a box seat ticket when he was growing up in the Bronx. “The most expensive ticket when A Chorus Line opened was $15.” The producer suggests a day of free Broadway show performances for young New York City locals every month, and that by opening that door to invite young, diverse people in, the industry can evolve.
3. How can we change what early engagement with theatre looks like?
Three of the talks focused on the importance of investing in children and young adults as future theatre artists and audiences. The Situation Project, an organization aiming to increase access to the arts for students in local communities, presented an update for its 10th anniversary. Because of The Situation Project, tens of thousands of high school students in New York City have been able to see a Broadway show, filling some of the two million seats which go empty in Broadway theatres each year.
Jonathan Rockefeller, who wrote the book for Off-Broadway’s Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical, says that children’s theatre deserves the same attention, opportunity, and investment as theatre aimed more at adults. He presented the ways in which Winnie the Pooh has proven that children’s theatre can be both high-quality and profitable, a combination which ultimately brings more families to the theatre, developing future artists and audiences.
Broadway For All, also celebrating 10 years, introduced attendees to its program for young artists with an alumni performance featuring Jaelen Smith, Kayla Hom, RJ Jimenez, Karina Ordoñez, Bernard Scudder, Kai Smith, Connor Strycharz, Thea Tinawin, and Nico Young. Broadway For All, under the direction of producer and actor Osh Ashruf, purposefully integrates teens from diverse backgrounds, including socio-economic statuses, ethnic identities, and neighborhoods to push young adults outside of their ideological bubbles to learn and collaborate as artists and social leaders.
4. What stories serve us?
Producer Michael J. Bobbitt spoke about the development of “trauma drama fetish,” and how theatre needs to expand its imagination, particularly in creating stories about people of color. Bobbitt pointed out how such stories are limiting and often re-traumatizing. “How are these people meant to be entertained by the trauma they have lived?” Bobbitt advocates for an explosion of imagination and celebrating stories.
From a musical history perspective, Playbill’s Margaret Hall presented a framework of five categories (Active, Tricky, Troublesome, Augmented, Archived) that will help with communicating about which musicals continue to serve the community and audiences, and which do not. The language of the categories will aid in exploring why a musical should or should not receive a revival—or a revisal. Hall presents her methodology as a guide to navigating the growing pains of musical theatre as an aging art.
5. How do we invest in ourselves?
Four of the talks focused on the individual, rather than the community. Emma Daniels, a recent BFA in Acting graduate who has been blind since birth, discusses the ways in which social expectations limit the horizons we are willing to explore. This theme of spilling out and over with authenticity to pursue one’s dreams was also embedded within theatre press agent Irene Gandy’s talk about her passion for the community, and where it comes from. Gandy implored audiences with the parting words “Don’t put a budget on your dreams.”
How we achieve that authenticity and how we approach each other was the subject of Justin Schuman’s and Ash Marinaccio’s talks. Justin Schuman, seen onstage in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, spoke about what it means to perform an identity—and that “perform” is not synonymous with “fake.” Schuman advocates for using social media as a way to embrace and explore what one’s authentic self looks like rather than chasing followers by playing into the box that others want you to fit into. How we meet that authenticity and bridge those gaps was at the focus of Marinaccio’s talk. Marinaccio studies theatre in spaces of violence. Using her experiences teaching at ASHTAR Theatre, a non-profit Palestinian theatre located in Jerusalem, Marinaccio shared how she and her students found ways to communicate (a difficult task considering Marinaccio and each student in rehearsal spoke a different language) across all of the divides they faced.