GUEST BLOG: Why Saving Original Theater Journalism Matters to Broadway by Matt Britten

When I launched the theater industry newsletter Broadway Briefing about 3 years ago, I sent the first edition out to about 20 friends. I never could have imagined how quickly it would grow — or that I would never get any sleep again! The Briefing now reaches thousands of theater professionals in New York and around the world, including top influencers, award voters, and decision makers.

At Broadway Briefing, we celebrate the Broadway coverage from the theater sites, the New York news outlets, and sources all around the globe. However, after nearly three years of closely following theater news, the problem became clear: theater journalism is dying.

Critic and arts journalist/associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton wrote a year ago of theater journalism, “As a supposedly niche interest … it is an area that is being subjected to death by a thousand cuts.” In the year since he wrote that, even more cuts have followed, affecting local, national, and global outlets and their theater journalists. You likely have heard about the recent spate of theater journalists leaving — or being forced out of — their posts.

The Briefing did not set out to start a theater news organization, but after a couple of years of reps, reporters, and readers sending us their tips, it seemed that we had one. So, as other organizations cut theater coverage, we moved quickly to launch Broadway News (www.broadway.news), a new home for quality original theater coverage.

Here are some of the principles that guide Broadway News, and why original theater journalism should matter to Broadway:

PUT THE NEWS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

“17 Craziest Patti LuPone Moments” listicles are fun. Millions of fans around the globe are dying to read them and share them. And that’s good for Broadway because it keeps us relevant even to those who aren’t in New York watching our shows.
At the same time, hard news is important too. When tax law changes are made that affect Broadway or legal battles related to new shows are being waged in court, it is important for those things to be reported. The outcomes of these stories affect what shows are produced on Broadway, who produces them, how much they cost, and more.

To many, such reports on the already narrow topic of theater could be considered boring. But to a particular audience, the Broadway industry and those interested in it, they are just the opposite, the most valuable information that is otherwise shrouded in secrecy and not reported on at all.

HIRE TRAINED JOURNALISTS

In order for theater news to be reported fairly and accurately, it is important for it to be reported by trained journalists.

This past fall, we hired Caitlin Huston as editor in chief of Broadway News. Caitlin joined Broadway News after covering startups and initial public offerings at MarketWatch, part of Dow Jones, and working as an editor at The Wall Street Journal. In addition to her business reporting at Dow Jones, Caitlin contributed to the WSJ’s Broadway coverage and helped to launch Broadway coverage at MarketWatch. She began her professional journalism career as a crime reporter.

We were looking for someone with a passion for Broadway, but also someone who would bring an outside eye to the industry, as well as superb reporting chops. Caitlin has proven an excellent leader for Broadway News.

PROTECT INSIGHTFUL CRITICISM

Theater criticism, in particular, has experienced a great number of cuts over the past year. So, it became important to us to provide a platform for critics’ voices to be heard.

We were thrilled to hire Charles Isherwood, a brand name in New York theater criticism. Previously of The New York Times, Charles has continued to critique Broadway in his unique and experienced voice.

It was also important to us to bring new voices to Broadway reviews, and so we were delighted to hire Elizabeth Bradley. Liz has a distinguished background as a theater professor and practitioner, having helmed both the NYU and Carnegie Mellon drama departments.
With Charles and Liz, the tradition of first-class theater criticism lives on with a new home at Broadway News.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES

One of our more recent efforts has been the launch of the “Views” section of Broadway News. This new section will be home to opinion columns from some of the most important voices in theater journalism, as well as a platform for new talent. The first two columnists are Jeremy Gerard and Janice Simpson.

Jeremy has been a critic, columnist and reporter since 1977, and has held prominent posts at The New York Times, Variety, The Dallas Morning News, New York Magazine, Bloomberg News and Deadline.

Janice directs the Arts & Culture Reporting program at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, spent three decades at TIME magazine, and has also served as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

They are extremely well-sourced theater journalists and their columns will reflect that, weaving their personal perspectives with new insights gleaned from interactions with key players on Broadway.

INSPIRE INDUSTRY INNOVATION

Theater is perpetually considered an industry that is lagging behind the innovation and disruption of others. And while there is reason for hope — new and exciting theater-adjacent businesses are now popping up nearly every day — there will always be a need to hold ourselves and our industry accountable. Real journalism is the best tool to challenge ourselves to look in the mirror and say, “Hey, how can we do better?”

If you’d like to support our effort and help us in the fight to reverse the decline in theater coverage, you can become a Broadway News subscriber today.

This coming Broadway season is going to be as dynamic and fascinating as ever, and Broadway News will be there to go beyond the press releases, providing context and conversation about the questions and challenges that face our industry every day.

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Matt Britten is a theatrical entrepreneur, writer, and producer. He created Broadway Briefing, a daily theatrical industry publication. Always seeking to innovate, Matt produced the groundbreaking first-ever app-enabled theatrical experience, BLANK! THE MUSICAL. Among other theatrical projects, he created ODYSSEY, an epic musical retelling of the classic myth. Matt previously served as Creative Director for the theatrical non-profit New York Musical Festival, where he conceived and oversaw the acclaimed “Musicals Live Here” campaign featuring Broadway talent in iconic roles. He also served on the Board of Directors for The Uprising, a New York City non-profit empowering underserved teens. Matt has worked for The Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros. Entertainment, The Weinstein Company, and was educated at Syracuse University, Shakespeare’s Globe, and programs with screenwriting legend Aaron Sorkin and powerhouse producer Arielle Tepper, both fellow Syracuse University alums. Matt has lived and worked in Detroit, Los Angeles, and London, and currently resides in New York City.

GUEST BLOG: Raising Your Artistic Babies: Sometimes it Takes a Village to Learn to Let it Go by Eric C. Webb

I’ve been thinking about collaboration a lot recently.

As a dramaturg who works with writers and composers of all stripes, and as a writer myself, collaboration is 99% of what I do every day. Every word of feedback I provide, every talkback or Writer’s Group I run, every note of encouragement… it’s all part of trying to help someone create the best possible work that they can.

Sometimes that collaboration can be hard work, however. Sometimes it’s difficult to hear that something isn’t being received the way you hope it will, or you’re afraid that you’re losing your own artistic voice in the development process.

A client of mine wrote me the other day with concerns regarding whether they should fight for what is “theirs” or go with the flow of collaboration and see where it all takes them. The analogy of children and nannies was bandied about, an idea that seems all the more relevant to me as I balance work with raising a 14-month old: both you and your caretakers theoretically have the best interests of your child in mind (just as you and your collaborators do with your project), yet new perspectives, ideologies and methods can seem foreign or unwelcome until common ground is found.

But that first time you put your baby out there in the world, allowing yourself to trust in the abilities of someone else… it’s absolutely terrifying.

The first day that my wife and I left our precious baby alone with a babysitter we were nearly as petrified with fear as we were the first day the hospital said “yeah, you’re all set… take him home (I’m sorry, what? Who said that we’re capable of this responsibility? Where’s the training manual?!).” We clung to our phones like life preservers, fighting the urge to text or call to check in, sighing with relief at each thumbs up or happy baby pic she sent.

In the end, my wife and I had to agree (as did my client) that our friends at Frozen have the right idea… sometimes you just have to… Let it go… (cue collective artistic groan) and trust those that we have chosen to share our life/project/baby with.

There are many of us, however, who tend to work in a bit more of a vacuum. We live and write, uncertain whether we are going down the right path or unclear whose opinion we should seek out. Friends and family are no longer quite helpful enough when they simply smile and encouragingly state “it’s great!” Their support is meaningful, but the actionable value of their feedback is limited.

As I come to the end of our first experiment with year-long Writer’s Groups, I’ve been struck by how a group of strangers, many of whom have been operating in just such a vacuum, have grown both in their ability to receive and act on feedback both positive and constructive, but have also learned how to communicate their own emotional and academic responses to other people’s work. Conversations become tailored to the person who is receiving feedback, and, in the end… we’ve all become collaborators. We all have the best interests of each other’s babies at heart, and our own experience and tales come to bear in helping to raise them to be clear, vital and valuable to our community. We may not have an active hand in constructing the work, but our feedback, support and care have aided our fellow artists. To cop from another Broadway giant… we are not alone.

This is all to say: my Writer’s Groups are one of the best things about my job, and something that I honestly look forward to with joy each session. I am loathe to use this space to sell myself, however I encourage anyone looking to become a better artist, a better collaborator, a better member of your artistic community… to consider joining us.

In art, as in child care, it sometimes takes a village.


ERIC C. WEBB is the Director of Creative Development for Davenport Theatrical Enterprises and Artistic Director for March Forth Productions as well as a writer and freelance dramaturg.

For Davenport Theatrical, Eric scouts and aids in developing new stage and film properties as well as providing script consultation and educational programming for the playwriting community.

Writing projects in development include Taking Step Three13 (a rock/rap adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” with composer Matt Doers, developed at the 2015 Johnny Mercer Colony at Goodspeed Musicals and the 2015 Rhinebeck Writers Retreat), Breakup – The Musical (an irreverent new musical with composer Stephanie Bianchi), Thompson/Gifford (a Gothic chamber musical) and Bonus Day (also with composer Stephanie Bianchi). Previous writing credits include Krampusnacht (segments commissioned by March Forth Productions), Tania (commissioned by White Rabbit Productions, published by Indie Theater Now), “Orion” (short film, produced by Second Star NYC), The Angels of Mons (March Forth Productions/Horsetrade at Theater Under St. Marks), Ubu – a twisted puppet show co-adapted from Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Playwriting is Easy and Strange Currencies.

Previous Literary Management/Dramaturgy credits include Literary Management for La Vie Productions (2009-2013), Associate Literary Manager for the 2008 John Gassner New Play Festival, Dramaturg for Stephen Sondheim’s Young Playwrights Inc. (2008 – present), Un-American Activities (new musical by William Norman), Escape From Happiness and Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas (directed by Talvin Wilks).

Eric received his MFA in Dramaturgy & Literary Management from Stony Brook University (2008).

Affiliate Marketing for Theater Tickets.

Back in the late 90s, when Amazon was $48/share and my broker told me not to buy it because it was too expensive (PS, it’s $1,608/share now, which means a $10k investment would be worth $335k), they unrolled an aggressive marketing strategy that turned their customers into ambassadors.

That system?

They paid people for recommending them.

It’s called Affiliate marketing, and it has become a thing for many online retailers.  It goes like this:

You register with a company to be an “affiliate.”

You tell your friends, followers, subscribers, etc. about products and services that said company sells by sending them a unique URL or code.

If your friends buy a product or service from that company, you get some cash.

You don’t get paid much, but it’s something and it requires little or no effort at all.

And in exchange for those few bucks, companies like Amazon get a marketing army of online ambassadors sending traffic to their site . . . and they only pay when they make a sale!

Amazon’s affiliate system was an early initiative that they incorporated in their attempt to gain massive market share . . . and fast.

Now, here’s the interesting thing . . . almost two decades later, Amazon dominates the market.

So now that they have so much traffic, you’d think they’d abandon the affiliate system.

And you’d be wrong.

And when a company is this successful, yet still rewards their customers for sending other customers their way, it’s worth taking notice.

This isn’t a new concept.  Referrals are one of the most important parts of the sales process.  You sell someone on something (a ticket, an investment, whatever) and then you ask them if they know someone else who might be interested in the same product.

So . . . my question . . . you guessed it . . .  is why don’t we have affiliate marketing on our ticketing sites for ALL of our customers that is as easy as Amazon’s?

Both Ticketmaster and Telecharge have affiliate programs  . . . but they are not for everyone.  It’s more for B2B relationships.

And I’m not sure I understand why it’s not more of an open-for-all program.  What Producer wouldn’t pay a few bucks from their ticket price to gain the potential online ambassadors of an affiliate system?

We pay MORE than a few bucks for advertisements to sell tickets, why wouldn’t we pay consumers for recommending us?

Affiliate marketing is actually a cheaper and more effective form of advertising than most of the media we’re buying.

That’s why Amazon still does it.

And why you and I should too.

In fact, you know what?  I was going to end the blog with that last sentence, but I just realized something.  While I may not be able to create an affiliate program through my official ticketing sites, I can create a workaround.

So if you like my shows, from Once on this Island to Gettin’ The Band Back Together and want to make some extra money from home, email me . . . I’ll hook you up.

And if you’re producing a show, drop me a note and I’ll tell you how to set up a program like this for yourself.

 

 

GUEST BLOG by Donna Walker-Kuhne: Diversity on Broadway: An Insider’s Perspective

Why is diversity important on Broadway?  I believe that many in the field want to see equity, diversity, and inclusion.  But they aren’t sure how to implement it, or don’t know the steps to take. I asked my colleague, Jim Joseph, the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, for his thoughts on trends in diversity and inclusion as well as tactics for growth.

Jim said: “I recently spoke at the 2018 TEDxBroadway, and I proposed a version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” named after the late Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The “Rooney Rule” mandates that NFL teams interview at least one qualified candidate of color for every available head coaching job. This broadens and increases the pool of candidates and exposes the owners to a wider circle of qualified people.

We have to acknowledge that folks know who they know; they hire who they know. But hopefully, this idea could systematically help break those barriers down.  There isn’t a governing body for Broadway like the NFL. The Broadway League is a trade organization for the Broadway theater industry. However, that should not prevent the Broadway gatekeepers from adopting the spirit of the “Rooney Rule” during their hiring processes.

Clearly, Jim has presented a case for mentorship, developing and executing equitable hiring practices, and providing opportunities for diverse candidates to excel.

How do we build diverse audiences?

Let’s take notes from the film Black Panther. What has deeply impressed me about this film, is how communities around the country have been mobilizing experiences to engage with this film.

Inspired by trailers more than a year before the film was released and online information that helped give potential viewers a window through which to view “art-in-the-making,” the community created its own programs based on its desire to support and engage.

In addition, Black celebrities, athletic teams and Ellen DeGeneres joined the #BlackPantherChallenge and purchased screenings in major cities to ensure that Black community youth did not have the barrier of the ticket price (as $25 in major cities) as an obstacle to seeing the film.

We start with the product – who is the play for and who will it inspire? Director Ryan Coolger started with a vision. In an interview, he said he was “Making the film to inspire the next generation the way he was inspired when he read his first Black Panther comic book, especially because he still lived in a world where there weren’t many heroes who looked like him.”

This film’s blockbuster status was the result of a community-building process; a journey that began with the first inklings of the film’s existence. This foresight led to the curating of audience experiences that were further enhanced by attending the screening. In other words, the audience felt kinship, ownership, and connection before the film opened. This process required vision, desire, time and an investment in building the film’s eventual audience. In the realm of theater, what is the vision we can hold for the communities we seek to engage?

The product needs to tell/show the “perspective audiences’” story in a positive, bold, and dynamic way. That may require the enlistment of new writers who can share stories that encompass the past, present, and future. Like the Black Panther screenplay, stories that project and promote respect, dignity and love resonate the deepest and garner the widest audiences. That also may require enlisting the input of emerging artists (taking a chance on the future Ryan Cooglers and Joe Robert Coles) and taking a risk on a new vision of theater.

And then you engage the community. As early as possible, you share the creative process behind the work: the reason for the project’s genesis, and the people involved, including those working behind the scenes. I have read at least 50 articles about the cast and the creative team behind Black Panther. There have been countless videos, links on social media (including a Facebook Fan Page that currently has more than three-quarters of a million followers), as well as numerous articles in a wide variety of print and online publications.

Broadway has the capacity to do the same. It’s not about having a Marvel-like marketing budget and promoting ticket sales. It’s more important to look at the psychographics of building communities and engaging them from the perspective of creating value by wanting to connect, respect, honor, touch and transform their lives.


Donna Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group (WICG), a boutique marketing, press and audience development consulting agency. Her team specializes in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press and promotional events. They have over 45 years of experience executing successful marketing and audience development campaigns for Broadway productions and cultural arts organizations with sales over $22MM. Donna is acknowledged as the nation’s foremost expert in Audience Development by the Arts &Business Council and has devoted her professional career to increasing access to the arts.  Her company has developed a brand reputation among performing arts patrons of exposing them to high-quality productions and unique experiences in a way that exceeds audience members and clients’ expectations alike.

Her current client roster includes major cultural and performing arts organizations such as: Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Apollo Theater, as well as the Broadway productions of The Lion King, Aladdin and Once on This Island. She is currently Senior Advisor, Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center charged with developing and deepening relationships with targeted communities through partnerships and special events.
Broadway productions include: A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington; A Trip To Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson; HUGHIE starring Forest Whitaker; Porgy and Bess featuring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis; A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Blair Underwood; Alicia Keys’Stick Fly; Hairspray; Ragtime; Ann starring Holland Taylor; Thurgood starring Laurence Fishburne, Driving Miss Daisy featuring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, August Wilson’s Radio Golf; Caroline, or Change; Time Stands Still featuring Laura Linney, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, etc.

Off Broadway, WICG has worked with Playwrights Horizons, Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Second Stage Theatre, New York Fringe Festival, National Black Theatre, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company as well as arts organizations such as Dance Theater of Harlem, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities and WNYC Radio.  She provides consulting services to numerous arts organizations throughout the country and worldwide including Australia, Berlin, Moscow, Sochi, Edinburgh, and Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Donna Walker-Kuhne is the recipient of over 40 awards acknowledging her distinguished service in the field of audience development and serves on several Boards of Directors. She is an adjunct professor of over 20 years at New York University and also teaches at Bank Street College.  Her first book, Invitation to the Party:  Building Bridges to Arts, Culture and Community, was published in 2005. Ms. Walker-Kuhne is a volunteer with the SGI-USA, a worldwide peace organization serving as Vice Director for New York.

What us Broadway folks can learn from the success of The Simpsons.

Earlier this week, The Simpsons celebrated its 30th anniversary on the air.

That’s right, both The Simpsons AND The Phantom of the Opera started entertaining audiences in 1987.

The cartoon has 32 Emmys on its hand-drawn shelf and is also the longest-running scripted, primetime entertainment series of all time (and is guaranteed to run for at least two more seasons).

Whenever anything is this successful, but especially when it’s in the entertainment industry, I always take a few moments to dig into the story, in the hopes I’ll find something we can learn/borrow/steal for our playbooks.

Here are three takeaways from The Simpsons success story that we should pay attention to:

  1. It’s a cartoon that isn’t just for kids. Like most success stories, part of the key to its early success was how unique of a product it was. We had never seen anything like it.  It was a cartoon that wasn’t on Saturday mornings. And while kids loved hearing Bart say “Cowabunga, dude!” and piss off his parents in each episode, adults loved it too. Potential audience size = doubled. Disney is a master at this as well, especially with their films, in creating something that parents can take their kids to and enjoy just as much as their younger counterparts do (School of Rock is another great example of this on Broadway).If you have a show that could attract a younger demographic, work extra hard that you still appeal to the parent-set, and you could find yourself with twice as much word-of-mouth and twice as long of a run.
  2. It incorporates the current. All great satires poke fun at what is currently happening in society. The Simpsons constantly wrote current events into its scripts, making it resonate that much more with an audience.  In the press world, we call this newsjacking . . . you write a story based on another story that people are talking about and get that much more attention (and often press). In the entertainment industry, we just call this smart.And sure, it got themselves into some controversies from time to time, but that ain’t all that bad either.

    Maybe your show is loose enough where you can literally call out current events (comedies like this one lend itself easily to that).  But if you can’t, you should still endeavor to have your story contain an undercurrent of a theme that’s currently being talked about at water coolers around the world.  Because it’ll make sure your show is being talked about at those coolers too.

  3. They used stars . . . as supporting players. Celebrity voices were common on The Simpsons for the past 30 years, but they were always supporting folks. The primary characters were voiced by actors you never heard of before, and the show actually made stars out of them.Audiences turned on The Simpsons for the show, not the stars, and got some celebrities as a bonus.

 

Remember, of the 10 longest running shows on Broadway, 9 of them debuted without stars. While in today’s day and age, it may feel safer to put a celebrity into your lead role, it’s not what leads to long-term success.

 

 

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