[Guest Blog] What We Can Learn From Korean Theatre on Theater Safety

There is an upside to opening up last.

As I wrote here, Broadway is actually in the enviable position of getting to watch what theater companies, sports franchises, and other mass gathering events are doing to make sure their patrons and company members are safe and comfortable as they open their doors again.

When I started to look around at which theaters to watch in this country, it was no surprise to me that Tom Gabbard, the CEO of the Blumenthal Arts in North Carolina and one of the leading Broadway touring presenters in the country, has been out in front of this issue for both his theaters in Charlotte and our entire industry.

I asked Tom to share his learnings with me and all of you, so you can get an idea of what the theaters outside of the city are planning . . . since I’d bet money that Broadway returns to Charlotte before it returns to New York City.

Take it away, Tom!

 

– – – – – – – – –

Blumenthal Performing Arts manages/presents in 7 venues in Charlotte, as well as producing outdoor events. Many jobs are dependent on the shows and programs we offer, not just arts jobs, but those at restaurants, hotels, and bars.

With the suspension of all our shows, we’re focused on learning any strategies to help us safely re-
activate our venues and put people back to work.

On April 30, The Stage published a piece from producer Richard Jordan with the headline, “We can learn from Korea”. Richard explained that big shows in Seoul, like The Phantom of the Opera, continued to play throughout the crisis. The shows run without social distancing and major reductions in capacity.

Serin Kasif, VP of Production at Really Useful Group, who is on point with Phantom in Seoul, accepted my invitation for a group Zoom call. With only a few days’ notice, 90 peers from New York and the road logged on to learn from her.

She explained that while this is unprecedented for us, it’s not for the Koreans. They’ve been through similar crises before. Government, business and the public have learned to manage through these situations and avoid widespread lockdowns.

Serin explained that every region of Korea is different and requires different responses.
There are many elements to their success in Seoul, but here are my Top 10, all of which we hope to
replicate.

  1. Universal masking. Everyone wears a mask at all times. Exceptions are for those actors playing that day and wind musicians in the pit.
  2. A simple questionnaire completed by ticket-buyers, staff, and cast prior to entering the building each day.
  3. Strict control over backstage access.
  4. Temperature checks in the lobby and stage door.
  5. Medical grade cleaning of the venue twice a week.
  6. Daily disinfectant cleaning of props, backstage hallways, and dressing rooms.
  7. Hand sanitizing stations everywhere.
  8. Limited food and beverage service to avoid lifting your mask.
  9. Fast access to testing for all company members.
  10. Close cooperation with public health officials.

The call confirmed that we indeed had a lot to learn from Korea that could help us reemerge earlier,
safer, and stronger.

Beyond studying and embracing the Seoul model, in North Carolina we created NC Live, a consortium of major theaters, arenas, and amphitheaters to work directly with the state in developing safe, viable plans for our venues.

Our officials have been eager to hear from us. They have encouraged us to submit detailed plans for their review rather than wait for them to tell us what to do.

Even if it’s taking small steps first, like doing small outdoor concerts, it’s important that we find ways to move forward. Our communities have never needed us more.

 


Tom Gabbard has been CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts since 2003. The Blumenthal’s 110 employees manage six theaters in Charlotte, hosting over 1,000 performances annually, as well as extensive education programs. During his tenure, the Blumenthal became a Top 10 market for touring Broadway shows in North America.

A member of the Board of Governors of the Broadway League, he serves on the Executive and Finance Committees and has been a voter for Broadway’s Tony Awards since 1997.  In 2012 the League awarded him the Samuel J. L’Hommedieu Award for Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management.

He serves as co-chair of The Jimmy Awards, the National High School Musical Theatre Awards held annually on Broadway.

He has co-produced/invested in several Broadway, Off-Broadway, national tour, and West End productions including for Monty Python’s Spamalot, Thoroughly Modern Millie, La Cage aux Folles, RED, Pippin, Kinky Boots, The Color Purple Revival, Hello Dolly, Dear Evan HansenThe Band’s Visit, Oklahoma!, Hadestown, Moulin Rouge, Ain’t Too Proud, Frost/Nixon, Jagged Little Pill.

GUEST BLOG: “Producing the Digital Musical: Live Theatre in the Age of Quarantine”

TheaterMakers are the MacGyvers of the Arts.

We’ll make art with whatever we have.  We can turn a barn into a theater, some newspaper into a dress . . . and yep, a pandemic into an opportunity.

And that’s exactly what the resourceful Student TheaterMakers at Northwestern did.

Faced with a possible cancellation of their traditional spring production, which has been going on for almost 100 years, they found another way to do it . . . through Zoom.

But, as you’ll see below, this wasn’t your typical Zoom production.  It featured live singing, “entrances and exits,” scenic backdrops, and over 500 people in their audience from around the world.

It is one of the best virtual productions I’ve seen.  And it was done by students.

That’s why I asked them to write this guest blog about their process, best practices, and their outcome.

What outcome I know is for sure . . . these kids are going to make some great stuff over the next few decades, on actual and virtual stages.

Take it away!

– – – – – – – – – –

Like any producers debuting a new show to a public audience for the first time, we were having quite a busy week leading up to March 13th.

The Waa-Mu Show, the organization we lead, was gearing up for a final reading of our new musical, State of the Art, for our faculty mentors and our student writing team. But after our university issued guidance to suspend all gatherings of over 50 people, we decided an hour before the reading not only that it was our ethical responsibility as producers to cancel the reading, but that our show, slated to open in May, was going to look a lot different than we had originally envisioned.

The Waa-Mu Show is Northwestern University’s oldest theatrical tradition, which began in 1929 as a student-written musical revue. In recent years, Waa-Mu has transitioned to an original book musical, which is written, produced, orchestrated, and performed by a team of over 150 students each year. Until now, The Waa-Mu Show had only ever been disrupted by World War II. And so, as the world was rapidly changing in the face of the coronavirus, we weren’t ready to abandon our show, which had been in development since spring of 2019.

While it quickly became clear that an in-person performance would not be possible — Broadway and the West End had just gone dark — we knew that we could preserve the mission of our process-oriented organization by continuing to develop our draft. Initially, we didn’t set out to do an online performance, but held virtual rehearsals to workshop material with the cast, writers, and music team. It wasn’t until a few weeks into this process that we realized the show was actually turning out better than we expected — so we decided to do a final reading of the show for a select audience on May 1st, our original opening date.

Creating and performing a new musical each year is already a monumental task and is all the more difficult when our collaborators cannot be in the same physical space. The most pressing challenge was figuring out how to sing over Zoom. While our music directors taught the cast their parts, our orchestrators and arrangers developed tracks over which the actors could sing live. For group numbers, where singing simultaneously would have been impossible, actors recorded all of their parts to click tracks and our music team stitched the actors’ parts together using some technical magic in Logic and Finale into one final recording.

As we worked through our virtual rehearsals, we discovered other online analogs for the in-person elements of a staged show. For example, actors’ entrances and exits were replaced with turning one’s video on and off, which removed the actors’ profiles from the screen. We also took advantage of Zoom’s “breakout room” feature to allow multiple rehearsals to happen at once — our director Amanda Tanguay might have been doing scene work in the main room, while actors learned vocal parts in a second room, our writing team made edits in a third room, as us producers discussed logistics in a fourth.

In addition to figuring out the technical aspects of a virtual musical, it was also important for us as the leadership to be aware of the time we’re living in and the toll it can take on mental health. While we remained committed to making this show happen, we understood if team members had to take a step back from the process.

It was also essential to embrace the limitations of this new medium, which allowed us to make all sorts of new discoveries. For example, as a new work process, the virtual format freed us from the budgetary or work time constraints of the physical elements of the show, which allowed us to make bigger story edits later in the rehearsal timeline. Normally, you can’t make changes that would affect your set during tech week, but without a set, we could make edits that were in the best interest of the story at any time.

Another added surprise of the virtual performance was the sense of community we still felt. In the end, a combined audience of about 500 friends, family, alumni, mentors, industry insiders, and students from as far as the Netherlands and New Zealand tuned into a first-of-its-kind virtual presentation of an original musical. As soon as the show ended, our inboxes were buzzing nonstop from viewers who were so thrilled at the way the show came together.

Ultimately, while our virtual reading was certainly not the performance we anticipated, we are so proud of the work we created and what we learned along the way. We hope our production can serve as a model and a resource for the wider theatre community as we enter into a new era of online theatre-making. Our gratitude is forever with our passionate and resilient team, who were able to look a worldwide pandemic in the face and decide that art is still worth making.

 

Written by: Emma Griffone, Leo Jared Scheck, Jon Toussaint, and Olivia Worley
Producers of State of the Art and Co-Chairs of The Waa-Mu Show

 

And now you can watch State of the Art!

 

 


Emma Griffone studies Theatre and Literature at Northwestern University. Favorite performance credits include FUN HOME, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and RAGTIME. She has been an orchestrator and arranger for several Northwestern productions, including COMPANY and GUYS AND DOLLS. Management credits include STATE OF THE ART, where she served as co-producer.

Leo Jared Scheck studied Theatre and Economics at Northwestern University, where he produced sold-out runs of DRY LAND and 13 THE MUSICAL. Other management credits include HELLO, DOLLY!, NEXT TO NORMAL, 9 TO 5, and STATE OF THE ART. He previously interned for HAMILTON on the Marketing and Communications team. www.leoscheck.com.

Jon Toussaint studies Theatre, French, and Psychology at Northwestern University. In addition to being a co-chair of the 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show and co-producer of STATE OF THE ART, Jon is an actor, director, and choreographer, most recently having directed Northwestern’s largest student-produced musical of the year (SPAMALOT).

Olivia Worley studied Theatre and Business Institutions at Northwestern University. Favorite performance credits include URINETOWN, CARRIE, SPELLING BEE, and LEGALLY BLONDE. As a playwright, she has written two full-length plays performed at Northwestern. Co-Producing credits include INTO THE WOODS, STEP ON A CRACK, and STATE OF THE ART. www.oliviaworley.com.

 

P.S. Tonight, we’re LIVE with James Snyder (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, If/Then, Cry-Baby). Swing by at 8pm EDT to find out what he’s been up to since the Broadway shutdown affected what was about to be Year 3 of Harry Potter and Cursed Child. Click here to set your reminder on Facebook. Or click here to watch on Youtube.

GUEST BLOG: An American in the U.K. by Jessica Rose McVay

Johnathan Larson wrote it best in Rent: “New York City. Center of the Universe…” So why, after 5 years in New York, did London call me away to start over from scratch? Here are the five reasons Big Smoke called me away from the Big Apple.

 

1. Public Funds

Unless you are 501(c)(3) registered, it is nearly impossible to get public funding in the U.S. There are one-off grants every year, but there is no major funding for small, unregistered companies. In the U.K., the Arts Council accepts applications on a rolling basis and for an application up to £15,000, you receive a decision within 6 weeks. These grants are not only important in funding the work but are also helpful in building your producing skills. You have to match the amount you apply for in either in-kind donations or other money. So don’t think we’re only using national funding, but it’s great to know that the government believes in us as much as we believe in ourselves.

 

2. Equity Isn’t Prohibitive

Every actor I have worked with from readings to full productions is part of Equity. There isn’t the great divide between actors who have accrued enough points to get their card and those who haven’t; a divide which seems to deepen the farther from 16-25 playing age we get. However, hiring all Equity actors haven’t made it cost prohibitive for me to produce. No one is getting rich on these shows, but it feels good to pay everyone a living wage!

 

3. A Great Artistic Melting Pot

I am a Director as well as a Producer. I have always wanted to work on an adaptation, but the theatrical model in the U.S. is still dominated by the playwright driven script, and the stories I wanted to tell didn’t have scripts that I loved. When I came to the U.K. for graduate school, I met the incredible Sally Cookson whose work I had admiredShe taught our class part of her adaptation process, which was led by herself and her company. It freed me and it opened my eyes to more models of theatre-making. The U.K theatre is a great melting pot of makers and processes- you can find the one that fits, or make your own.

 

4. WOMEN!

We have a long way to go in moving away from an older, white, male-centric model of theatre-making, but I can see the changes happening. And here I have many models of women who are making their work both within institutions and freelance, on every scale and in every corner of the country. (I am still waiting for the year that we have an entirely female docket of Creative Team nominees at an awards show.) Until then, I am encouraged and excited by the women creating work and that our visibility is increasing daily.

 

5. The Right Fit

I’ve lived and worked in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York before settling in London. There is something here, an excitement in myself and in my work that never sparked elsewhere. Producing and directing, especially as an emerging artist without a home institution, can be a lonely endeavor. I didn’t want a city which made me feel even more lonely. London is just the right fit. So find the city, town, or village where you feel the spark!

 

I hope you find the place that enhances your spark. And if you come to London and want to talk work, moving across the pond, or want to see a show, shoot me an email.


Jessica Rose McVay is a London based director, movement director, producer, and founder of Jessica Rose McVay Productions Ltd. She is a graduate of UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television with a BA in Theater Arts with a specialization in direction, and a minor in Asian Humanities, and of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where she earned her MA in Drama Directing and won the Elsa Roberts Directing Award for her production of Sarah Kane’s Crave. She is an Associate Member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society in the U.S., and a Member of Stage Directors U.K.

www.jessicarosemcvay.com

GUEST BLOG: Tips for Applying to the BMI Workshop by Patrick Cook (with Frederick Freyer)

In the spring of 1983, Allan Becker ushered me into a windowless room on West 57th Street where I found myself facing Ed Kleban, Alan Menken, Maury Yeston, Skip Kennon, and Richard Engquist. They said hello and pointed me to the piano. My legs were a bit rubbery, but I made it to the piano and started my first song. It was a comedy song called “Piano Bar Prayer” (I was playing piano bar at the time). The first line of the chorus was “God, don’t make me sing Feelings again…” They laughed!!

36 years later, I have Allan Becker’s job, and writers are often emailing me asking for advice about auditioning for the BMI Workshop. When Ken asked if we could come up with a few guidelines, Rick and I grabbed the opportunity to gather some of our thoughts about it.

Tips About the Application

Submit songs that were written for a character. A sweet, generic love ballad may show off your songwriting talent, but it won’t show if you can write for the theatre. Pick a specific character and write a song for them, revealing their character through the song. Classic examples are “Some People” from Gypsy and “Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific. Modern day examples are “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen and “My Shot” from Hamilton.

Write out your accompaniments. Although we accept lead sheets with chords, we much prefer you write out your piano parts.

Don’t worry about style. Some people think there’s a “BMI Sound” that we look for. Not true. Nine, Avenue Q, Next to Normal, Once on This Island and Little Shop of Horrors all came out of the BMI Workshop. Other than craft, brilliance, and theatricality, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a similarity of “sound.”

Always welcome are… strong melodies as well as spareness and economy in your lyric writing and melody writing.

Heavily produced demos can be counter-productive. A clear recording of a singer accompanied by a piano is often the best approach.

Don’t announce your setups on your recordings.

A Couple of Tips About the Audition (if you get called in for an audition)

Don’t worry about being nervous. Everyone is nervous. It has no effect on your audition. Unlike actors and singers who must perform under pressure in front of a paying audience, writers are usually pacing in the back of the house where nobody sees them. In fact, most of the time the audition panel won’t even be looking at you; we’ll be looking at your score and/or your lyric sheets.

Try out your comedy song ahead of time. One of the requirements of the workshop audition s to present a comedy song. Writers often tell me they wrote their comedy song right before the audition. My advice is to try it out on other people first, even friends and family if you can trust them to be honest. Neil Simon said that out of ten lines he meant to be funny, only three actually got a laugh. Writing good comedy songs is an essential talent in the theatre and the only way to really tell if a song is funny is to get it out there and see how it plays.

Members of the BMI Workshop often say it is a life-changing experience. I know it was for me. You can apply online at bmi.com.

Recommended reading:

The Making of a Musical by Lehman Engel

The American Musical Theater: a Consideration by Lehman Engel

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 by Alec Wilder

The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey by Joseph Swain

 

GUEST BLOG: To Stream or Not to Stream (or When to Stream) by Van Dean

The question of if and when to stream is something we strategize for each and every release. It’s certainly not an exact science, and reasonable people in our business disagree on this important decision.  The issue at hand is that the average Broadway cast album costs between $300,000 and $500,000 to produce.  Spotify pays between $0.001 and $0.007 per stream.  So an average Broadway cast album receiving average revenue from Spotify would have to receive 100 million streams to cover its production costs.  That doesn’t including paying for distribution, the songwriters royalties, the show royalties or anything beyond just the creation of the album.  Given that there are approximately 320 million people in the United States, your cast album has to be extremely popular to recoup it’s production costs from streaming alone.  Of course, repeated listens and international fans help rack up the streaming numbers. The Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen‘s of the world can do it, but not many others.

This is why when using the current music business models, CD and digital download sales are still so important for cast recordings.  Luckily, they still represent the lion’s share of our sales.  Broadway is a unique niche within the music business in that a Broadway cast recording is still considered an important collectible or keepsake of the musical experience.  We always make sure that our cast recording packages are chock full of photos, lyrics, essays and more to help enhance the fan experience. For those fortunate enough to see their favorite Broadway or Off-Broadway musical, the cast album is a cherished remembrance.  For those who live further from New York City, the cast recording is their way of discovering all of the amazing shows that are difficult for them to see in person. At any one time, there are around two dozen musicals running on Broadway.  Of course, there are thousands of musicals in the theatrical canon that can also be discovered and embraced through their cast recording, as well as through Off-Broadway, regional and licensed productions.

Whenever we work with a Broadway show, an Off-Broadway show, or a solo artist, we have the streaming conversation.  Most often, with Broadway shows, we wait a minimum of 6 months to a year (and sometimes longer) to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.  This is to allow the recording time to reach its audience amongst CD and digital download buyers. The aforementioned high expense of Broadway cast recordings frequently necessitates this approach.  However, if the marketing and wide exposure of the show’s score are deemed more valuable for a particular production than the financial considerations, then early streaming may make more sense. Part of this decision depends on who financed the recording.  If the show financed the album via its marketing budget, it is much easier to justify prioritizing the marketing needs of the show.  If the album was financed by direct investors expecting to make their money back, then the financial considerations must be given more weight.  Without investors supporting the cast recordings, these important preservations of a show’s score and performances will become less and less common.

Off-Broadway recordings and solo artist recordings are far less expensive, so the pressure on streaming to deliver financially is less.  Streaming is excellent for getting more ears on an artists’ work, so early streaming is very attractive if the artists’ primary goal is wide exposure.  However, since many solo artists finance their own albums, we have this streaming conversation with each of them so that they can make the decision regarding the balance between exposure and financial return.

The next phase in cast albums will require innovative use of social media and streaming, collaboration with the unions to make the finances more efficient, and collaboration with creators and show producers to evolve with the changes in the industry and technology. Continued love and attention to quality and detail will be essential in the preservation of the art form that we have made our life’s passion.  The ability for future generations of theater lovers to discover new musicals, as well as rediscover the classics, depends on our industry’s ability to keep the cast album business strong for the foreseeable future.


Van Dean is President and Co-Founder of Broadway Records. He is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway Producer of 12 musicals and plays and is a Grammy Award-winning producer of The Color Purple (New Broadway Cast Recording).  Broadway Records has released 150+ albums including the Grammy-nominated Matilda, Once On This IslandMy Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof as well as AnastasiaGroundhog DayBandstand and also created the popular “Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below” album series and the Tony Award Season series. Van’s philanthropic work includes being a producer of “Broadway For Orlando: What The World Needs Now is Love”, “Broadway Kids Against Bullying: I Have a Voice”, “From Broadway With Love” benefit concerts for Sandy Hook, Orlando (Emmy Award winner for sound design) and Parkland and his work with NewArts in Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT. www.BroadwayRecords.com

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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