The first day of rehearsals for any Broadway show typically begins with a meet-and-greet, as an assortment of on- and offstage characters flood the studio. Before their names appear in the Playbill, the artists, producers, managers, marketers, and more are in a circle, ready to get to work.
But exit that circle, pan out from the rehearsal room, and encounter the security attendant at the front desk of the studio. Pop into the diner next door and meet the person who provides coffee and breakfast for rehearsals and work calls. Nearby—maybe now or maybe in a few weeks—a locksmith is changing the locks at the theatre on their routine schedule.
All of these people, even if not directly employed by a Broadway production, exist in a delicate ecosystem disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. If their livelihood has not ceased entirely, it certainly has been impacted.
On a happenchance, socially distanced walk in early May, industry regulars and neighbors Tiffani Gavin (currently manager at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre) and Greg Schaffert (a producer whose credits include Peter and the Starcatcher and The Lightning Thief) pondered the vastness of individuals affected by the theatre shutdown, and how one would even begin to visualize the ripple effect. “We’re ultimately visual people,” Gavin says, “and I said, ‘I just wish people would understand what it takes and who these people are.’”
In response, Schaffert sketched a chart that, upon first glance, might appear to look like the work of a conspiracy theorist, with myriad connecting lines, squiggles, and crossed out chicken scratch. But after cleaning it up, they turned to Situation Interactive President Damian Bazadona, who saw the potential for a digital initiative that shared the goals of his agency.
Schaffert and Gavin had tapped into an endlessly unraveling network of theatre people—all orbiting around the hypothetical “Show”—who work to ensure the vitality of this industry. The result: a new, virtual sort of first-day-of-rehearsal meet-and-greet. The Broadway Community Project launched July 23 in partnership with Playbill and Situation.
The platform, to start, resembles a spider’s web, with “The Show” aptly taking center stage. “We put ‘The Show’ in the middle,” Schaffert explains, “and from there there are six divisions. Say you go to ‘Creatives.’ There’s the director, composer, designers...then say from the composer, it goes to the orchestrator, the vocal arranger, the dance arranger, and it gives you a little bit about each.”
This is just one of the several routes to take on the map (and there are more to be added). In addition to creatives, emerging hubs contain producing teams, theatre staff, licensors, unions and guilds, and various affiliated industries. Each contain micro-profiles of some individuals who occupy those fields, putting faces to the names of those on stage, in the wings, in the Playbill, and around the theatre district.
The goal is for all to have equal stage time; therefore, the exact positioning of items may change each time the map is loaded. “It’s not set up to be a hierarchy,” Gavin says. “It should look as if everything is mixed together. But when you hover over something, you’ll see all the different things it’s connected to. You can start wherever you like, and the rest will unfold.”
The shifting configurations echo the fast-changing nature of the community (until Broadway came to a standstill). “When a particular show is over, they dismantle as a group,” Bazadona observes, “and form an entirely new configuration of people for a totally different show. It’s actually pretty amazing.”
The interactive tool can connect those who are a part of the industry and educate curious audiences. But it could also underscore the need for protection and funding by illuminating the enormity of the community. Currently, many relief benefits under the CARES Act (including provisions through Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) end July 31, leaving an uncertain path toward future relief legislation in the arts sector, which accounts for 4.5 percent of the U.S. economy and serves as a crucial driver for tourism.
“This was initially a project that was set to take many months to unveil, but once we realized how important the next few weeks are to appeal for financial relief for the arts in this country, we felt the need to push the pedal to the metal and release,” Playbill Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Alex Birsh says, explaining the fast-track approach to the map’s launch. “Our hope is that once those in the decision-making chairs in government see how many people affect such a vital part of our economy, they can understand just how important it is to provide needed financial help to these workers and the industry as a whole.”
And while the map may already be intricate, it is by no means exhaustive. Theatre workers who wish to see themselves or their roles on the map are encouraged to submit themselves and share more about their jobs and responsibilities. “Over time, the map could be expanded,” according to Gavin, “but we realize that we were not going to be able to do this on our own. So we thought this could be something that we start, but it’s going to be a community project. We want to invite everybody to participate.”
Birsh sees a future for the Broadway Community Project beyond the shutdown, with plans to integrate the system into the Playbill Vault database and the site’s Job Listings. “Once Broadway is on the fast track to reopening, this will become an unprecedented tool people inside and outside our industry can use to connect, network, and boost their careers.”
As boundless as the network is and as much as it grows, there are two things that unite each and every bubble. One, the root of their contributions: “The Show.” But also, a shared sense of responsibility. “I feel like in that way, theatre people are very generous in explaining what they do and why they do it,” Gavin says.
“Anything to help our community, anything to help people learn about what we do.”