TEDxBroadway Tries to Make Broadway the Best It Can Be Through Talks
By Robert Simonson
The organizers of the Jan. 28 TEDxBroadway conference are hoping to change the fortunes of the theatre community through conversations spinning off from the question, "What Is the Best Broadway Can Be?"
Last Year, Vincent Gassetto, a principal at the Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology (M.S. 343) in The Bronx, spoke before a crowd of theatre industry professionals. The occasion was TEDxBroadway, an independently organized event licensed by TED, the by-now-renowned, multifaceted, California think-tank conference. His fellow speakers included Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters and producers Ken Davenport and Randy Weiner.
Gassetto, whose school is in the poorest Congressional district in the country, spoke of how shrinking arts funding to schools ran the danger of disenfranchising a diverse and talented student body. He related the transforming experience of taking his students to a single Broadway show — a performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The kids' eyes were opened to new artistic and career possibilities. "That day was the highlight of my 12-year career," he said in the speech. And he challenged the crowd to commit as fiercely to schools as his school has now committed to the theatre.
After the talk, said TEDxBroadway co-founder Jim McCarthy, CEO of Goldstar, "Fifty people came up to him and said, 'What can I do?' and he said, 'I don't know.'"
Gassetto is speaking again this year TEDxBroadway, which takes place at New World Stages in New York City on Jan. 28. Now, he's got a new story to tell. Since last year's event, the people at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark reached out to him. M.S. 343 had a "Career Day." Thirty actors and musicians, as well as the director and producer of the show, took part, doing break-out groups with the students. The musical also sent a truck to rig the school’s stage for a concert and the cast performed four numbers.
Moreover, Gassetto's students have now been to Broadway or Off-Broadway several times. They have seen War Horse, The Piano Lesson and Mary Poppins. Each grade has attended a separate show with a talk-back session. There are more shows scheduled for spring. Gassetto said that before TEDxBroadway, ten percent of the kids had seen a stage show. Now, 90 percent have.
This story is music to the ears of McCarthy and his co-founders Damian Bazadona, creator of Situation Interactive, and producer Davenport (Godspell). This year's event asks the thematic question, "What Is the Best Broadway Can Be?" And the trio of men hope that the conference will improve the fortunes of the greater theatre community and district.
"We're trying to get people in the Broadway community, broadly speaking, into the room," said McCarthy. "And hopefully they'll pick up some of those ideas and do something awesome with them in the future."
"Broadway is changing," said Bazadona. "There's an evolution happening. There are a lot of interesting pieces coming together. The industry now has some serious issues that it's addressing, everything from what goes on stage to ticket costs. And I think people need a stage where they can talk about ideas in a way that there's not the pressure that you have to have a speech that solves a problem. "
In 2009, TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design — began granting licenses to third parties to organize independent TED-like events internationally under the rubric of "TEDx." TEDxBroadway has to abide by the rules set down by TED. No speech may exceed 18 minutes. The speakers are not paid. And the top tariff allowed is $100 a ticket. But that price covers the entire seven-hour event, which begins at 11 AM. All the money made is funneled back into the future of the conference. (Additional funding is provided by the event's co-organizing sponsors: Jujamcyn Theaters, Google and Broadway.com. Other sponsors include Fathom Events, Theatermania, NewYork.com, Audience Rewards, Chase Bank, Davis Wright Tremaine, Camp Broadway and BroadwayWorld.com, and Ticketmaster.)
Speakers this year include Broadway producer Daryl Roth, Disney Theatrical Productions president Thomas Schumacher, Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, designer Christine Jones, actor George Takei and many more. Read more about the lineup here.
The three men had been kicking around the idea of a theatre confab for years before contacting TED. "Ken and Damian and I had been talking about doing a different kind of Broadway discussion," said McCarthy, "one that focused on a bigger picture and the longer term and a more diverse array of ideas brought in."
McCarthy had been attending the annual California TED conference for several years. In its framework of short, inspirational speeches and subsequent brain-storming — a formula popularized by the online dissemination of the talks — he thought he saw the blueprint for his dreamed-of Broadway town hall meeting.
"At a lot of conferences I attend, there's a lot of weight on specific, tactical things that have to get done," explained Bazadona. "What excites me about being involved in this is, this conference isn't meant to put that weight on your shoulders to walk out with solvable problems, as much as it is to trigger thought and hear from different points of view."
The speeches delivered at TEDxBroadway must be original and fresh to qualify.
"We've all been to panels where the preparation level is you walk on stage, you sit down and you talk," said McCarthy. "Usually, those are pretty dull. What's also dull is when some company dusts off their company Power-Point. From our point of view, we're trying to get people to make original intellectual property."
Assembling the roster for this year's conference began 11 months ago. The founders gathered, exchanged ideas, and raided their Rolodexes. By May, they had a list of people they wanted to go after. "We're thinking about whose perspectives we want on the stage," said McCarthy. "Who would fit those niches we need and how do we get them?"
"We also need a commitment," added Bazadona. "You have to be prepared. We stay on top of them. You need that. You have to give thought to a topic." If any candidate worried about the time commitment, the founders were content to let them go. "We are asking a lot of them," said McCarthy. "They have to create something out of thin air. That is a heck of a commitment."
Once someone said yes, McCarthy checked in with them regularly, offering feedback on the speech as it evolved. "They have to put up with me, for months and months, calling and asking how it's coming," said McCarthy. "My criteria is really simple. Once we get where I really want to hear the speech they're working on, that's what I want."
For this year's gathering, a broader range of speakers was sought.
"We've broadened the discussion more than we did last year. This time we're hearing from a wider range of industries that are involved in the neighborhood," said McCarthy. "It isn't a theatre conference. It's about Broadway as a neighborhood, as a place, as a part of New York City. Everybody relies on everybody else here, whether its the hoteliers or restaurateurs or theatre owners."
As a result, participants this year include Erin Hoover, the vice-president of design for Westin and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts; Susan Reilly Salgado, the founder of Hospitality Quotient with famed restaurateur Danny Meyer (whose Shake Shack on Eighth Avenue has become a popular theatregoer destination); and Bernard M. Plum, an attorney specializing in collective bargaining, arbitration, and strategic planning in a variety of industries, including newspapers, arts, entertainment and utilities industries.
Last year, 300 people showed up. This year, more are expected. (Interested attendees can purchase tickets at goldstar.com/tedxbroadway.) The founders hope that the attendees, along with the speakers, do not cherry-pick the talks they wish to take in, but absorb the entire conference.
"It's best experienced as a whole piece," said McCarthy. "Because you never know, you may look at the line-up and say, 'Oh, I want to see that guy, I want to see her.' But it may be something between those two that turns your head and makes you say, 'I never thought of that.'"
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