Tweeting From a Broadway Show

Can theater enter the Internet era without losing its soul?

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Have you been to a Broadway show lately? Probably not. There are 27 shows on the Great White Way this week, from Anything Goes and Chicago to Wicked and Wit. In total, they sold 193 000 seats, out of a possible 254 000, according to the site Just to compare, a single movie, The Lorax, based on the Dr. Suess story, which opened last Friday will have sold five times that many tickets in its first week. So scarcity of seats is one reason you probably haven’t seen a Broadway show. The second reason is you have to come to New York to do it. And the third reason is the price. The average ticket to Book of Mormon was $170, and the average average ticket price for the 27 shows was $84.

That’s a lot of money for a 2-hour experience for even a middle-class couple where both people work, so imagine what it’s like for Generation Z, the people like my daughter, who’s 25 now, who has never known a world without the World Wide Web, and who registered on Facebook around the time she registered to vote. Her mom took her to see the play Rent more times than I can count, but now that she’s on her own, she couldn’t possibly afford it on a music teacher’s salary.

Ticket prices aside, is Broadway even relevant to today’s 20- or 25-year-old? Put it this way—to people coming of age in a world in which physical books and newspapers are disappearing, in which the DVD, which had already replaced the movie-going experience for a lot of people, has also all but disappeared, does the Broadway experience even make sense?

A lot of folks on Broadway are trying to ensure that the answer to that question is yes, but probably none more than theatrical producer Ken Davenport. He is the producer for the current run of the hit show Godspell, and his past productions include Blithe Spirit, Altar Boyz, and two great Mamet plays, Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow. Ken, welcome to the podcast.

Ken Davenport: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Steven Cherry: Ken, the FAQ, or frequently asked questions, for Godspell—and let me just note, I just said the FAQ for a Broadway show—has a hilarious little thing, where it says “See thee more clearly,” and a link to YouTube, “Love thee more dearly,” and there’s a Google +1 button, and “Follow thee more nearly,” with buttons for Twitter and Facebook. And those are lines from the show, from the song, “Day By Day.” Have social media changed Broadway?

Ken Davenport: Well, Broadway and social media has changed the world and we are, like most other products out there, fueled by word of mouth and of course social media allows our customers and consumers to spread that word of mouth faster and to a wider network than ever before. So it has certainly changed it to some effect and it certainly is changing it and will have a greater impact on it in the next 10 years as your daughter, as you just talked about, as she grows up into more of a traditional theatergoer.

Steven Cherry: You had an experiment with young fans and Twitter. Why don’t you tell us about that.

Ken Davenport: Well, something has been popping up all around the country, the idea of doing what people are referring to as a “Tweet Seat.” Where they have an event or a night or a section of the theater that they devote to people that are actually allowed and also encouraged to tweet during the performance. You know this is one of the big no-no’s when you’re at a live theatrical event, or a symphony or an opera. You know at some places if you dare show your phone a swarm of ushers, and in some cases actually in New York state, in the city, it’s against the law to use your phone. And never mind we’ve had some very famous cases here where performers from the stage like Patty Lupone have stopped the performance altogether and berated someone for actually using their phone during a performance. Well we decided to flip that on its head and reserve a certain number of seats in our house for a group of young fans, and encourage them to tweet their feelings or emotions about what was happening on stage during the performance.

Steven Cherry: It’s probably hard to tell, but do you think that helped the show in any way?

Ken Davenport: Look, absolutely. Whenever you can get a show part of a conversation, and frankly your interview with me right now is a perfect example, you said something at the beginning about how most people that were listening probably didn’t go to see a show. I would bet that if we didn’t do that Tweet Seat event there’s no way you would have had a Broadway producer on your podcast this week. We were able to get into a conversation that Broadway usually isn’t in. And frankly that’s one of my goals as a producer is to get—I had a press agent, a mentor of mine, say to me “Your goal should be to get your show’s story off the theater pages and onto some other page.” We’ve been able to get Godspell, and the idea of Tweet Seats, and theater and technology and what we need to do in the 21st and 22nd century in order to make sure that it’s relevant.

Steven Cherry: So it’s probably a little unfair to call that a gimmick, I mean Godspell is a noisy raucous musical. Do you also envision people tweeting at—I don’t know—Death of a Salesman?

Ken Davenport: One promotion does not fit all, without a doubt. Like, Would I have done this if I was producing Hamlet? No. Or I certainly would have done it under very, very different circumstances. But you should know that there are symphonies around the country that have tried this. There are other theaters that have tried this, so it is starting to pop up. You know there is this theory that when you have—there is this tidal wave of social media approaching us and people tweeting and people frankly not being able to distance themselves from the device in their pocket, right? That’s why we have so many people checking their phones during shows no matter how much we hate it. Well sometimes instead of resisting, you embrace the problem that you’re facing. So this was the first example of a Broadway show saying, “Okay, we know a certain group of people want to do this. What if instead of saying don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, we allowed them to do it in a very controlled environment?” In a way, to use a very strange analogy, it’s like gambling. It’s like Las Vegas. You know, they legalized gambling in a certain geographic location and set up very strict rules of who can do it and under what terms and conditions they could, and hopefully everyone benefits as a result. And that’s the same theory here. We allow them to do it, but we set up very specific rules and regulations and actually a geographic location inside the theater.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Something of probably more lasting value is, you were behind the development of the “At the Booth” app. Why don’t you tell our listeners what that is.

Ken Davenport: Well, that’s a very interesting…. Another example of, you know, I’m a big believer in trying to get theater into…. We’re about 10 years behind every other industry, so I sometimes say I’m trying to get people into the year 2002. And I write a blog called “The Producer’s Perspective,” and I’m very lucky that it’s pretty widely read, not only in theater circles but in marketing and technology circles as well. And one blog I wrote a couple years ago was called “The Top 10 Broadway iPhone Apps,” and it was a little bit of a teaser of a headline because when you opened up the blog there weren’t any. I had meant to do a blog on that, and when I started doing the research I found there were like no theater apps, no Broadway apps out there at all. Which really disappointed me, again as someone who wants to make sure that our industry stays at least current. So I challenged my readers and I said listen “I’ll tell you what, send me ideas and if I like one of them, we will make it and we will split the profit with whoever comes up with the idea.” And I think it was like 13 or 15 people of the hundreds of ideas that we got, all e-mailed me the same idea. Which told me as a businessperson there’s definitely a market for this, if there’s 13 out of 100 people telling me “I want this. I wish I could have this,” there’s a lot more out there. And the app was, basically what they wanted was something that told them what was at the TKTS booth here in Times Square, which is a place where you can get 50 percent off tickets to Broadway shows the day of. If you’ve been to New York, it’s these red steps in the middle of Times Square. It’s like a beacon, and they wanted to know what was there without having to go there, by being able to check their phone. So we built it, we put it out into the world. It’s done unbelievably well. Entertainment Weekly put it on its “must” list. It’s been downloaded thousands and thousands and thousands of times, and for me as a producer who’s trying to encourage more and more theatergoing, it was a very successful marketing tool for the theater in general.

Steven Cherry: Ken, one of the biggest jobs, maybe the biggest job of the producer is to raise money. Technology companies can now turn to things like Kickstarter, where you declare your project and set levels of contribution and how much money you’ll need to have committed before the project starts. And that seems like kind of a perfect scenario for a show, if we get so much money we can definitely put on a 16-week run or something like that.

Ken Davenport: Well, it’s funny you say that because I’m not sure if you’re even aware of this but Godspell was actually the first ever crowd-funded Broadway musical. If you to the website, you can read all about it. But traditional Broadway investments are traditionally $25 000, $50 000, sometimes even $100 000 a unit. On Godspell I allowed people to invest for as little as $1000, the units were only $100 each, you just had to buy a minimum of 10. And we developed a network of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of investors, all whose names are actually listed on or the names of the people that wanted to be listed. In an effort to, I learned from the Kickstarter market, from the crowd-funding entrepreneurs in France that started this movement, to Barack Obama, to Million Dollar Homepage, all of these things that I had been experiencing about the power of community and the power of a group that would come together and not only fund something but also market it. That’s how I modeled the financing of Godspell and we’re a for-profit industry, so it’s not as easy. There are a number of securities regulations that are in place, but there’s a bill on the House floor now I think or the Senate, it passed one of them already, that could make this easier for entrepreneurs of all types around the country.

Steven Cherry: That is very cool, so for their money they got a tiny fraction of the show just like any investor would?

Ken Davenport: Yeah, absolutely.

Steven Cherry: I was kind of picturing a scenario where ticket brokers or maybe even Manhattan hotels in effect kick in, I don’t know, like $50 000 for 10 seats times eight performances times 16 weeks, and that would be about $40 a ticket which would be a good deal for them I think.

Ken Davenport: Yeah, absolutely.

Steven Cherry: There’s sort of a Broadway/television collaboration going on right now as I understand it. NBC has a show—it’s sort of a drama—it’s called “Smash.” It’s on right now on Monday nights. It’s about the making of a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe and it goes the whole story of getting a musical made, from the writing of the music and the book, to the casting, to the rehearsals and beyond that. And I gather at the end of the show the show that’s being written in the story line will end up on Broadway as a show, which would be kind of brilliant.

Ken Davenport: Well, it certainly could—I’m sure that’s everyone’s dream. The composers of that music, of the musical, are very successful, you know. They’re the writers of Hairspray and are very well connected and very well respected in our industry. So if it all comes together, I think it certainly could happen and I think everyone’s hoping for that.

Steven Cherry: In effect, the costs of creating a musical are borne by a TV studio which can surely better afford them.

Ken Davenport: Ha ha ha.

Steven Cherry: It does seem to get around the problem of creating a new show instead of a revival. Why are new shows so hard?

Ken Davenport: Musical theater is one of the most collaborative art forms there is, unlike a novelist who sits in a room and writes and deals with an editor and a publisher maybe. You know, on a musical you’re dealing with a book writer, a composer, a lyricist, a director, a choreographer, designers. There’s a number of people who have to be doing their best work in order for it to come off very, very well. And again, on most musicals you have literally three writers—three of them—and they all have to be perfectly in sync. If one is off, the whole piece is just off kilter. So it can be very, very challenging to do, but when it happens and when it happens right, like you and your family know from seeing Rent, there’s just nothing more magical.

Steven Cherry: People expect to be able to Google anything nowadays and many, especially young people, expect to be able to view anything, and yet you know we can call up at least the sound of Martin Luther King reading “I have a dream,” but we have no idea really what the stars of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which came out the same year, what they sound like. Don’t shows need to be recorded nowadays and made available?

Ken Davenport: Yeah, this is something you’ll also see change over the next 10 years. We’re starting to, there’s been a couple of nonprofit theaters that have done this. Which are—the theater in London, the National Theater does this a lot—which is record their shows and show them in movie theaters around the country just like the Metropolitan Opera has been doing with their operas. I think you will start to see more of this. We have a number of union issues here in the city which make it very difficult and very expensive, so we haven’t quite figured out how it works economically yet and I actually think it’s more of a marketing tool for Broadway rather than a real revenue driver. So we’re still tiptoeing around the subject, but you will I think see more and more shows recorded and also made available to the public. A lot of them actually are recorded; you just don’t know about it. They’re all recorded and they’re stored at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts where if you’re a student, if you’re doing research, a theater professional, if you have a specific reason, you can apply and go see that production of Virginia Woolf. But I do think recording them for posterity’s sake, for educational purposes, and for marketing purposes, I think that will happen a lot more in the next 5 to 10 years.

Steven Cherry: Ken, one of the most remarkable things to ever happen to me in a theater was at one of your shows I think. It was at Speed-the-Plough with Raul Esparza and William H. Macy, for whom it was maybe the first or second performance, and Elizabeth Moss, who some listeners will know from the TV show “Mad Men.” Right at the end, with maybe just a few lines of the script to go, the lights went down early by accident. And they came back on and Moss was offstage and she came back on, and she and Esparza and Macy ad-libbed an ending, and they were just brilliant. They kind of acknowledged what happened, and then they managed to get back into the show somehow and bring it to a conclusion. And it was really kind of amazing. The audience stood up and applauded, because they loved it and appreciated it, and there’s a magic to theater that makes it different from anything else. Now that we have people watching instant replay right at the baseball stadium nowadays, do young people especially, get the magic of theater?

Ken Davenport: Yeah, I think you know that’s the thing. You just described why people go to the theater: Anything can happen. It’s live and it’s right there in front of your face and it’s raw and that’s exciting. Watching a drama unfold by incredible actors and singers right in front of you, it’s alive. It’s the same reason why, yeah, people download music, whether they’re paying for it or whether they’re stealing it, but they’re also going to the concerts. Because there’s something about seeing that artist that you know and love live that excites you that a recording, a two-dimensional video recording, or just an audio recording, just can’t replicate. And a lot of people have said, “Oh, the theater, it’s going to be so challenged because of the advent of the Internet.” And you know look, the theater has been around for thousands and thousands and thousands of years and it’s what every other performing art form is based on. We survived radio, we survived television, we will certainly survive and I think thrive in the new technological age that we’re in. Because as more and more examples of two-dimensional forms of entertainment pop up all over, on your television, on your computer screen, on your device in your pocket, the live three-dimensional form actually becomes more rare. And as you know, as something becomes more rare it becomes more valuable. So I actually think people will be craving live entertainment as we become more and more inundated with video clips of everything we’ve ever thought about watching.

Steven Cherry: I think I totally agree. The program for Speed-the-Plow contains a quote from the novelist William Thackeray, which goes: “Which is the most reasonable, and does his duty best: he who stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest?" I think it’s fair to say that you’re on the ground, taking your part in a great contest to save the theatre for the 21st century, and for that I say, thank you, and thank you for joining us today.

Ken Davenport: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with theatrical producer Ken Davenport about the challenges—and opportunities—facing Broadway in the Internet era. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 6 March 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @techwisepodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.