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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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Helping The Rising Tide Lift All Boats

I have been following The Producer’s Perspective, the blog of Broadway producer Ken Davenport, for a number of years now. While I don’t have solid evidence, I suspect he is not like other Broadway producers. He is often curious to learn about the audiences for Broadway shows, where they are coming from, what motivates their purchasing decisions, etc. While this may seem like basic marketing surveying, the information doesn’t really exist so he is often sending people to query folks standing in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square.

Taking some inspiration from Zappos, he decided to create a toll free number to have his office staff answer questions about Broadway to help dispel the notions his surveyors and focus groups discovered people have.

Well, that’s exactly what I thought . . . so then I wondered . . . why doesn’t Broadway have a hotline? Why doesn’t it have a toll free number that people can just call to find out stuff? Ivory Soap has one. Coke has one.

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Yep, we created 1-855-SEE-BWAY (733-2929) to help answer your questions about Broadway.

It’s staffed by a bunch of the nicest Broadway theater lovers you could ever imagine (they also happen to be my staff, in a very Zappos-inspired “we all answer the phone including the boss” structure), and we guarantee we’ll get you the answer to whatever question you have about Broadway theatergoing.

Need to know what’s playing? Need to know at what times? Price of tickets? Suitability for kids? Location? Parking? Restaurants nearby? Sure, we got that. And if we don’t, we’ll get it for you. Promise on our autographed original cast recording of Company.

Oh, and before you ask . . . no, we’re not selling anything. This isn’t about us trying to make any money. This is about a service that should exist. And needs to exist if we’re going to grow our audience (just like Zappos increased theirs).

I bring this up not so much to promote his service (though I think it is great thing to offer) but to wonder if this signifies that arts organizations are moving toward a more collaborative “tide raises all ships” approach and a way from a competitive “ne’er the twain shall meet” stance.

About six years ago I wrote about an effort by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to provide people with information about all the performing arts in town rather than solely about themselves. I am not sure if they sustained the effort, especially when the economy got worse, but I took the fact that they were even considering it as part of their business model as an encouraging sign.

This year I am partnering with three different groups to present as many shows. In the past, we have partnered with maybe one other organization and the sharing of responsibilities (and revenue/expenses) was not as extensive. I am not sure about next year, but I hope to continue similar relationships even with the additional work it entails.

There have also been times I have assumed other organization’s obligations so that the show can go on. Perhaps as involved as I am in this type of activity, I am seeing a trend…or wishing for one, where it doesn’t exist yet.

I am all for making the effort to turn it into a trend though.

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Info You Can Use: Crowdfunding Legislation Update

Thanks to Ken Davenport’s post on the subject, I discovered the bill to facilitate crowdfunding I wrote about at the end of October is nearing approval. The House (H.R. 2930) approved the measure early in November and the Senate’s proposed bill (S. 179) is in committee.

As discussed in my earlier post on the subject, the existing rules for inhibit small investments made by many people because S.E.C. rules kick in after threshold of 500 people. These bills provide a little more leeway.

William Carleton has a good comparison of the passed version of H.R. 2930 and the proposed S. 179. Of most immediate concern to most people will probably be that where the House bill places the per investor, per year limit at the lesser of $10,000 or 10% of annual income, the Senate bill caps investment at $1,000. The North American Securities Administrators Association apparently agrees with the Senate on this point.

At that level, and given the level of required reporting and investor notice, I wonder if it will be worth it to too many people to attempt crowd funding in this manner. But again, I am thinking in terms of the investing prospectus one receives. Presumably, there will be less information to provide to investors in the case of crowdfunding efforts.

Trent Dykes at The Venture Alley provides the details of the House bill. I was particularly interested to see what sort of protections an investor had against fraud.

Not that it isn’t enough motivation to defraud, but you can only raise $1 million annually using the exemption provided by the bill ($2 million if you provide audited financial statements.) In addition to providing warnings of risks to potential investors and sending a collection of information and reporting to the S.E.C., one protection people will have is that the money will be held in escrow by a third party until 60% of the target amount has been raised. Presumably, if the amount has not be raised by the target deadline, additional arrangements must be made to retain it. There are also provisions that ensure the people handling the offering and cash management are qualified to some degree. People with a history as a “bad actor” as determined by the S.E.C. will be prohibited from offering investment opportunities.

As I am not an expert in investing law, I don’t know how vulnerable these arrangements are to fraud. Presumably, moreso then your typical investment opportunity. Individuals will just have less of their personal fortunes exposed to the fraud.

For some people in the arts, this might offer a viable alternative to the non-profit model. I imagine the return on investment might manifest as a hybrid of traditional donor benefits and cash. Providing preferential treatment to encourage people to remain emotionally invested in the organization in addition to paying out cash dividends will probably help keep them financially invested in the company.

Hopefully the limitation on the investing level will insulate arts companies from demands to operate themselves to maximize investor return. Even if the cap is set at $10,000, people aren’t going to be getting immense returns enriching their bank accounts (at least not for a few years). Who knows, perhaps a company will realize so much success thanks to this, they will grow to the point the will be subject to regular S.E.C. investment rules.

Now that this form of investment looks to pass the hurdle of legislation, how long before the arts community will pass the mental hurdle of considering anyone who uses it to finance their operations as selling out their purity and ideals?

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Change Content For Specific Audience? Good Question

Last month, Ken Davenport over at Producer’s Prospective issued a “you make the call” challenge to his readers and it ended up the most read and commented on post of April. People were still adding their opinions as of last Friday. Here is his scenario and challenge.

I have a division at my office that sells group tickets to Broadway shows. A few weeks ago we got an inquiry from a group of 500 people that was looking for a show. Yep, 500! That’s 1/3 of a big Broadway house, which means quite an impact on a weekly gross….

The group came back and said there was one show that they specifically interested in. “Great,” we said and started to place the order.

There was just one problem.

The group explained that there were a few moments in the show that they thought were objectionable, and unfortunately, because of the mission statement of the organization, they would not be able to book their group (of 500!) if those moments were in the show.

Insert dramatic chords here.

The “moments” weren’t specifically plot-related, nor would they involve a great deal of work to alter them.

But would the show make the alterations to satisfy this group?

Insert more dramatic chords here.

Obviously there are a lot factors that would be involved in this decision, like when the group is looking to come (what time of year and what performance during the week), how well the show is doing, how much the group is paying, etc.

But if you’re a commercial theater producer, the question is whether you would be willing to ask your creative team to make the changes to their work to accomodate this bonus to the bottom line?”

The responses to this challenge fell into some general camps- Sure if it isn’t that complicated; What about the fact that 1000 other people paid to see the original show? (sub-set response to this was, Sure if they want to buy the whole house); The artistic choices made were deliberate and that vision should not be compromised, stick to your guns; If you do it once, you create a precedent to do it again.

A couple of interesting points made by a commenter going by Julia was that shows often compromise their content on the basis of an audience’s physical situation: modulating strobes for epileptics, adding illumination for signed performances, captioned performances, audio described performances. Each of these changes the appearance of the performance from the original or alters the experience of other audience members who are not targets of the services.

I haven’t really addressed the issue of changing an artistic choice based on audience feedback since discussing Neal Archer Roan’s tough decisions about Bach’s St. John’s Passion and anti-Semitism. Since the discussion was still ongoing over on Davenport’s blog, I thought it might be appropriate to draw attention to the issues and get people thinking about how they might handle it.

Of course, if we are all to be honest, how we say we would handle it often diverges from how we actually handle the situation when faced with its impact on our own reputation and budgets.

One question I would add to the mix. Are you more likely to make the change if your show is on Broadway or presented by a non-profit organization? Broadway has much more profit motive to their show. The saga of Spiderman with the never ending previews, the rewrites and reissues have shown that Broadway is open to revamping content in response to criticism. (I am surprised no commenter on Producer’s Perspective mentioned that.) While they do it for more than one show, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility a permanent change might not be implemented if appeal to a wider market was perceived.

On the other hand the income from 1/3 a house means a lot more to a non-profit organization than a Broadway show. Though most Broadway shows have less flexibility in doing so, that Spiderman could afford to shutdown for a few months for rewrites is fair evidence that Broadway probably has a little more ability financially to refuse the change on principle alone.

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