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Flyover, USA, Broadway Needs You!

One of the reasons why I like reading Broadway producer Ken Davenport’s blog, The Producer’s Perspective, is that like a lot of non-profit arts managers, (though he isn’t one), he is constantly asking how the experience of attending a Broadway show can be made better.

It may interest you to learn that this examination extends to the national tours of  Broadway shows. Back in March, he took a look at a study the Broadway League did on the demographics of people who attend Broadway touring performances.

It may come as no surprise that audiences for the tours are older, whiter and trend more slightly more female than audiences on Broadway. Among his insights that caught my eye were the following:

 

    • In the 2013-2014 season, Broadway shows touring across North America drew 13.8 million attendances.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  Broadway saw only 12.21 million attendees.  The Road Audience is 13% larger than the Broadway Audience.  Now do you see how important The Road is?)

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    • The most commonly cited sources for show selection (other than being part of the subscription) were: the music, personal recommendation, Tony Awards and articles written about the show.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  This is all the same as in NYC, with a little less dependency on advertising, because shows aren’t in these towns long enough to have big advertising budgets.  Want to be big on The Road?  You better be big in NY first.)
    • The reported influence of Tony Awards in deciding to see a show continued to grow.  Twenty-four percent of respondents said that Tony Awards or nominations were a reason they attended the show, compared in 8% in the 2005-2006 season.

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    • Theatregoers said that the most effective type of advertising was an email from the show or presenter.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Everyone should look to double their email list every year.)

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    • Advance sales to single-ticket buyers have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years.Thirty-eight percent of respondents said that different performance times would encourage more frequent attendance.

He makes many other observations, but these were most interesting to me in terms of providing some insight into how best to promote performances to audiences.

In his commentary on the study’s final finding, he suggests touring productions may be important to the health of shows on Broadway by getting people interested in visiting NYC.

    • Thirty percent of respondents said they made a visit to New York City in the past year.  Of those, 81% attended a Broadway show while in town.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  And this is the stat I was looking for.  81%.  That’s huge.  Like 3.35 million huge.)

For me, the last stat is what says it all.  See a lot of people think Broadway begets The Road.  But I think we should focus on the reverse.  See, it’s much easier for a person in Dallas to see a show in Dallas, rather than NYC, right?  So perhaps Broadway would benefit from encouraging Dallas citizens to see shows in Dallas first, before trying to sell them Broadway.  Get them to buy into what’s close to them, what’s easy for them, and they’ll work their way up to Broadway.

In a different post last week, Davenport noted the importance of touring to Broadway productions. The economics of touring is different from mounting a production on Broadway. While no one knows if a Broadway show will recoup its investment, a tour nearly always does. However, you have to have invested in the Broadway production to have the opportunity to invest in the tour.

Davenport questions why people loudly announce when a Broadway show recoups, but never announce when a tour does. He suggests the following reasons:

Is it because National Tours have an unbelievably high recoupment rate?… So since it’s more of a “given,” do we just not think it’s special enough to put out there?

Or are we afraid of putting it out there for the public for fear of getting the attention of unions and vendors who want a bigger piece? (If so, I think we have plenty of losses on Broadway to point to that balance the equation.)

Or are we afraid of putting it out there because the Presenters of the tours might be losing money, while the tours themselves are making money?

That final point resonates a bit with me. Due to the economics of our region and a mission to make attendance affordable, we lose much more on a sold out Broadway show than we do on a chamber music concert with 1/3 of the seats filled.

Setting that aside, it is very interesting to learn just how important venues in the fly over country between the coasts are to the continued economic well-being of productions in NYC.  As it is, looking at the cast bios for these shows, they are certainly dependent on artists migrating from those parts of the country to NYC in order to mount the Broadway productions and tours.

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Info You Can Use: Take A Look At The Broadway Books

Though I don’t cite him very often, I keep an eye on the blog of Broadway producer Ken Davenport because he tends to ask questions about how Broadway can do a better job of serving the public.

We often see Broadway as a monolithic behemoth to whose gravitational pull most theaters are subject to some degree. It is interesting to see someone talking about how the business process in NYC might not be living up to its potential and gain insight into some of the inner workings.

In the next two weeks Davenport is going to conduct webinars breaking down the budgets of a Broadway show. These will be held on October 22 and 29, both from 7-8 pm EDT with a recording posted afterward. (my emphasis)

Over those two nights, I’ll walk you through my philosophies of budgeting, a strategy to make sure you come in under budget on every single one of your shows, and most importantly I will walk you through each and every line and page of an actual Broadway budget.

In other words, if a budget is the engine of a Broadway show, I’m going to pop the hood, take apart the motor piece by piece, and then put it back together again . . . so you not only understand how it works, but so you can build your own.

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It’s going to be fun, and if you’re a numbers guy/gal, you’ll really love it. If you’re not a numbers guy/gal, well, all the more reason for you to sign up, because budgeting is where so many shows go wrong. It is the business blueprint of your production.

I emphasize this second to last sentence because even if you never think you will ever mount a Broadway show, this is an opportunity to have someone talk about a budgeting process for a performance.

For everyone who talks about transitioning away from the non-profit arts business model, this is a good opportunity to gain insight into what factors you need to consider in the commercial realm, even if you are already pondering a third (or fifth) alternative.

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The Curse of the Experienced Eye

Ken Davenport recently talked about how he enjoyed Broadway shows much more when he was younger. Part of the reason he has a harder time now is because he analyzes the show with the eye of a producer. The other reason is because when he was younger, he was often ignorant about disparaging news about a show in the absence of social media and websites and thus approached each show without any bias.

I am much the same way. I can’t attend a show at a place I have worked earlier because I feel left out of the social interactions and behind the scenes activity that I was once an initiate of. I also have difficulty watching a show that I have contracted in because I want to be backstage checking things out.

As Davenport says “As a theater pro, I know I’m enjoying a show when I’m not thinking about what went in to making it.” In my case, it is a question of whether the show is of sufficient quality and interest to me that I want to sit in the audience for the whole show rather than watching from the wings or attending to various details.

I was wondering if other arts people out there had a similar experience to Ken Davenport and my own.

I don’t have any problem attending and watching the entire performance I don’t feel personally invested in. But there are other complications that have resulted from my training.

Attending shows first became a chore when I had to write a critique of it from some perspective. With the onus of either taking notes or trying to remember what went on, the shows weren’t as enjoyable any more.

Today, without that responsibility, it is easier to enjoy a performance. Except, now I dread being asked what I thought of the show as soon as the curtain comes down. I usually beat a quick path to the door so that I can have the time to digest what I have seen without being pressured to respond.

Often I know there was something I didn’t like about the show, but it can be difficult to pin down what it is exactly in the moments after the performance.

Then there is the issue of knowing the show wasn’t great quality and watching everyone else fly to their feet to give a standing ovation. It is times like this that I wonder if it is better to have a discerning, critical eye and know the show barely deserves enthusiastic seated applause, much less a hair trigger standing ovation or would I be happier having not developed that skill so I could just sit there and enjoy the show without reservation.

It is something of a two edged sword since the same skill will reveal delightful, intriguing choices that deepen your appreciation of artists’ work.

Some of this is unavoidable and just the cost of growing up and experiencing the world. My high school science teachers removed some of the magic from my childhood by explaining the reality, but later that same knowledge was the basis of a different sort of awe about the world.

So does anyone else face issues like this? Do you have similar circumstances where you can enjoy yourself and then others that require a degree of self-restraint?

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Breaking Hearts Away From Broadway

Broadway Producer Ken Davenport wonders why Broadway doesn’t do an American Idol type audition either having open auditions or putting casting directors on a bus to tour the country.

The basis for this suggestion is that it would get a lot of people engaged in the process–not only the people who auditioned, but all their friends and family as well. And they would remain engaged over a longer period of time, keeping the show present in their mind during the rehearsal period, leaving them primed to want to attend once it opened.

“You don’t think all those people that audition in the coming months will be more enthused about watching Season 13 when it rolls around? They’ll tune in to say, “Who beat me?” And they’ll be proud to tell their friends, “I auditioned for that.” By involving people in the process, they expand their audience.

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Why doesn’t every Broadway show have open calls, allowing anyone and their brother, Equity or not, a chance at Broadway stardom? We did it for Godspell, and we had lines around the block (and collected emails). So many people said it was their dream just to be seen for a Broadway show, and they would never forget it, even if they went back to their day job the next morning. Sure it’s a cost, but you don’t think you’d make that back in press and tickets? And just imagine if you found a cast member from that casting net. Oh the articles!”

One of first thoughts was about all those experienced actors that have been honing their craft and hitting the pavement for years. Where does this leave them? What message does it send about the performing arts?

There is a long tradition of unknowns being “discovered” so I am not put off by the prospect of someone getting a lead role with little effort. It has been known to happen. Much the rest of the cast would probably be comprised of experienced people and the producers probably shouldn’t be looking for the lead parts like You’re The One That I Want” did for the revival of Grease.

My biggest concern is that in an environment where people think orchestra musicians shouldn’t want to get paid for “having fun” performing, an American Idol type process for casting Broadway shows would send the message that just about anyone could circumvent the hard work involved with performance and just walk into a part.

Where most performers work to become suitable to be cast in a variety of roles and shows, the only thing you could say for sure about a person cast in this manner is that they are suited to play this character in the dynamics of this particular production.

Certainly, they might have the ability to do a credible job in many roles. My concern is that the general public would believe that success in this specific endeavor validated their ability to perform well in multiple roles. There is a big difference between what you need to bring to each role. But it will appear that anyone can be a performer after a few hours of competition and coaching.

Best situation would be if the process wasn’t televised because the meat of the casting and coaching process would be edited out leaving people with the wrong impression of the process. After watching someone get asked about the character choices they have made, why they reacted to another person in the manner they did and if they understood the time period in which the show was set, people would get the sense that there is work involved in preparing for a production.

As part of coaching, this makes for boring television. As the basis of biting criticism from a panel of judges, it might be very exciting, but it is rather far from the mind numbing reality of a real audition process. I am not sure anyone is well served in the long term by injecting that sort of unrealistic melodrama into an audition process.

But an untelevised national casting tour that mixed competitive drama with an emphasis on the fact that this was the exception rather than the rule to having a performance career could be productive.

The title of this entry comes from the old saying “There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway.” I do agree with Davenport’s perception that people would be happy just to have the opportunity to try out for a Broadway show. That could be turned to a constructive end if an effort was made in conjunction with the auditions to encourage people to become more involved with their local performing arts organizations, reinforced the value of a liberal arts education and disseminated the idea that talented people didn’t/shouldn’t need to go to New York, Chicago or LA in order to work.

Of course, my agenda and that of television and Broadway producers probably don’t intersect in a lot of places.

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