GUEST BLOG: 6 Lessons I Learned Growing A Theatre Blog by Ben Bailey

I’m not a very patient person. In college, I started day trading stocks in class to pass the time and ended up quitting because I was making good money. I turned to real estate shortly after and found myself with some significant money for the first time in my life. I was married but had no kids – it was the perfect time to take a risk. I was a “theatre kid” growing up and had a closeted dream of working in the Broadway industry, but it always seemed so far away from the grass seed farm I grew up on in Oregon.

Scratching the Broadway itch, I literally googled “how to be a producer.” I found Ken’s blog (yeah this one), and the next steps would change the whole course of my life. After reading a post, I responded in the comments with a question. A couple hours later, I get an email from Ken with a very thoughtful and detailed answer.

Fast forward several months, and I was a co-producer on Daddy Long Legs, moving to New York, and looking to pursue a life in Broadway producing. My wife and I sold our house, possessions, and moved here with a couple suitcases… and no idea on how we were going to survive. We had savings, but NYC is expensive… like really expensive.

Cue Theatre Nerds. The idea for Theatre Nerds began as a Facebook page that could act as a focus group for my producing ventures. What it turned into, I could’ve never predicted. Today the TN blog receives over 300,000 readers every month, and we have turned down buyout offers from well-known theatre industry players. We also have a merch division with over 25,000 customers and a staff of people from around the world.

 

Theatre Nerds just celebrated its 3rd anniversary! Here are just a few lessons I’ve learned on this journey:


1. Fake It Till You Make It

 

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When I first started the community, I had no idea what I was doing. I had to figure all the pieces out, from hiring a team of writers for the blog, getting press access, managing social media, to figuring out how to speak to my audience. It’s hard not to have imposter syndrome and feel like you’re spinning your wheels. The key is to just take action. It might not be pretty at first, but the only way to learn is to do. You’d be surprised on how many so-called “experts” are just people who figured something out along the way, the only difference is they pushed through the hard part and gained experience through the actions they took. Looking back at it, that’s how I got into theatre. I didn’t have formal training – I just went to auditions. I didn’t make the cut for the very first musical I tried out for, but I gained knowledge and got a small part the next show. Following this pattern, I worked my way up to getting lead roles, and even professional theatre gigs. Don’t you wish there was someone who came out and knighted you as an expert, just so you’d know you’ve made it? That won’t happen – but eventually, you will feel much more comfortable and confident.


2. Patience + Consistency = An Overnight Success

 

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Before you accuse me of being oxymoronic, here’s what I mean: I worked my butt off for 6 months before Theatre Nerds showed any sign of success. In the early days, I would spend hours uploading blog posts and memes on social media and paying our writing team. Day after day and I had not much to show for it, but I was determined and consistent. Then it happened, and it happened quickly. Following my usual routine, I released a blog post, but this time it went viral. Within two days we had over 100,000 visits to our site for that one post, and we never looked back. For whatever reason, the theatre gods released the floodgates and from that day on, we were on the “thespian map”. Six months of nothing and then, basically overnight, we got massive traffic, press coverage, and press offers from big industry publications. Since that post, we haven’t had less than 200K readers a month.


3. You’ve Gotta Have An Angle

 

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Why were we this successful? We separated ourselves from the Broadway industry. There were plenty of publications covering Broadway news and events. Our angle was publishing content every theatre kid could relate to, whether you are in community theatre or on the Broadway stage. I wanted the reader to say “oh hey, that’s me!”. We didn’t want some exclusive Broadway club that they could only peek through the glass to see. At the time, no one was doing Buzzfeed-style content in the theatre space, so we saw the opportunity to make theatre cool and relevant for the younger reader.

4. Haters Gonna Hate

 

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By the law of averages, the bigger you get, the more haters will show up at your door. Ironically, most of these people only have opinions, and not ideas. For the most part, I’ve learned that haters are just a sign you’re doing something right. We’ve had threats and hate mail from Broadway publications, people copy our ideas (to the very post title), and let’s not even talk about social media trolls. It’s hard as a business or brand owner not to take it personally, but you can’t. If you do, it will distract you from the other 99.9% who actually love what you’re doing. This was a massive challenge for me, but I’ve learned to just ignore it and stay the course. I imagine this is true for actors, producers, and any business owner.

5. Listen & Pivot

 

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 By the time a show has made it on Broadway, it has undergone many changes. A play evolves as the characters develop; the final result could be a mere shell of the original idea. Such was true with Theatre Nerds, and it’s a darn good thing. Three years later, TN looks a lot different than what I initially pictured. It’s not centered on Broadway, I’m not using it as a focus group for producing, and the merchandise division has become the core business model. Originally, I had planned on selling ads and Broadway tickets as a way to generate income. One day I put a shirt for sale on the site, thinking If I sold a couple a month that would be a little extra money to pay the writers. We immediately starting selling way more than a couple; it caught me by surprise. I threw out the idea of selling ad space and listened to my community. They wanted merch, they got merch. What had been a complete afterthought is now our primary business model.


6. Theatre People Are The Best People

 

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Moving away from the business stuff, what really made TN work is the wonderful community. I really just wanted a positive place for theatre kids to hang out and share their common love. For most of us, theatre is a family and there’s nothing like the bond a family has. I’ve never met a more loving and accepting group of people, and that makes me very proud to work in this industry. There was always a place for Broadway fans to hang out, but we created a space for theatre kids to say “hey, that’s me!”.

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Ben Bailey is the founder and Editor-in-Chief at TheatreNerds.com, and head of swag at thespianswag.com. He recently made his producing debut with the Off-Broadway musical Daddy Long Legs. He’s created numerous Broadway-Themed products that have been featured in Huffington PostPopsugar & CNBC.

GUEST BLOG: How Do I Work With A Dramaturg? by Natasha Sinha

Are you a playwright or other generative artist who is considering working with a dramaturg, but questioning how to start? Here’s one possible starting point!

When I was asked to talk about the development of new theatrical work via collaboration with a dramaturg, I did what I do when I’m developing new theatrical work dramaturgically… I took my cues from the brilliant folks making the work! In this case, I asked some of my favorite generative artists what they want to know.

Many of the subsequent conversations hovered around how and when to work with a dramaturg. The role of a new work dramaturg is a highly customizable one that shifts from dramaturg to dramaturg, and from project to project. What’s reflected here is only my take, shaped by many experiences working at an institutional theatre as well as freelancing.

First off, want to demystify “dramaturgy”? Fellow dramaturgs Jeremy Stoller, Molly Marinik, and I co-founded Beehive Dramaturgy Studio to help do that. Beehive collectively defines dramaturgy as an exploration of the world of the play—both the text itself and how the text engages with the world in which we live (whereby “text” means whatever mode of storytelling is being used—language, movement, etc.).

Since each piece of theater is unique, the role of a dramaturg is further defined on a project-by-project basis. Each process requires a customized approach that begins with a deep understanding of the play and of the generative artist’s goals. I’m so grateful for what has been amassed by traditional dramaturgical studies, Aristotle, Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” the Liz Lerman method (a favorite of mine), etc. But particularly in thinking about how to best support work that functions separately from Eurocentric perspectives and the male gaze, I’m curious about additional ways to build a theatrical piece, other systems of logic, the queering of experience, and how to shape the visceral arc of a story. These can be built from scratch by knowing the history and intentionally proceeding differently with the tools we have.

Generally, dramaturgs ask key questions, start conversations, research, provide context, and sharpen intent. Working with a dramaturg may bring up conversations with character maps, timelines, Post-It sequencing, big-picture structural questions, analysis of theatrical devices, world rules, logic policing, etc. For guiding principles that could steer your dramaturgical process, examples of what specifically a dramaturg can do, and varying definitions of “dramaturgy” by a handful of active dramaturgs, click around on our website at www.BeehiveDramaturgy.com.

When should I start working with a dramaturg?

So you want a smart-sounding board, a storytelling collaborator, the perspective of someone who knows your goals yet will continually re-calibrate as you make new discoveries, in order to make it stronger and stronger? Sounds like you want to work with a dramaturg!

Dramaturgs can come on board at many different points in the process– perhaps to help flesh out a conceptual premise, to weigh in on an outline or treatment, to respond with questions after reading a first draft, to join in as the dedicated person keeping an eye on core storytelling needs as a production begins, etc. I tend to prefer being brought onboard once there is some sort of draft in place so that I can start exploring how the execution is serving the premise.

But are you at the right point in your process to start working with a dramaturg? Are you ready to invite someone new into the process? You may feel extremely vulnerable in allowing someone in, which is why you want to find someone appropriately sensitive to how you want to set the tone to talk about your work. Because at the end of the day, it is truly always your work.

How do I find the right dramaturg for me?

A feeling of emotional safety when talking about your work is important. Dramaturgical approach, past experience, and a generally shared perspective on the work are also elements to consider. If you like talking to this person about your work, I often suggest having a conversation (perhaps a phone meeting) to ask how they initially approach new work and what they’ve worked on in the past (and you may want to then more specifically ask if they’ve worked on the type of work that you’re developing).

(A more practical answer to this is that there are lots of great dramaturgs! Beehive is one place you could start. We have bios and testimonials for each of ours, plus we’re also happy to help folks find dramaturgs who aren’t part of Beehive.)

How might the process of working with a dramaturg begin?

From my end of it, when I’m having this conversation with someone new to me, I want to soak in as much from the generative artist about inspiration, concept, goals, and concerns. If I’m naturally aligning with much of that and excited about working on the piece, that feels like a good fit! Then I want to start figuring out what the main goals are– whether that’s toward an upcoming reading, a submission deadline, or something else. A loose timeline should emerge as well, which is helpful in guiding the pacing of the conversation.

Personally, I then start the process by saying what I love about the piece, and what I find most resonant. Because that’s why I chose to work on it! This naturally segues into continued excitement via a ton of questions about the work– both the birds-eye-view questions and the nitty-gritty– as I organically also get to know the artist as a person and learn how they respond to what I pose about their work. The approach I take after the beginning steps depends on what feels most productive for the artist– that could mean continued questions, suggestions of scenes or elements to look at that respond to what they’re grappling with most, tough questions to ask in order to honor a full exploration of what’s at hand, pointing out two or more places in the storytelling that could be connected more (or be differentiated more), etc. Rooting the conversation in questions is always part of my approach (since it’s always the generative artists who have the “answers” anyway), as is avoiding prescriptive feedback unless explicitly asked for by the generative artist.

 

How should I receive and process my dramaturg’s thoughts?

It’s always your play, first and foremost! Ideally, whatever the dramaturg presents to you creates a prism of ways to further explore your piece. You receive these thoughts, and then it’s up to you regarding what you want to work into your piece, discuss further, or simply not use.

I am a big proponent of generative artists always knowing that any feedback they receive (whether from a dramaturg, director, actor, designer, producer, audience member, etc.) should be taken with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored– as long as the piece is created for humans, anyone’s response is of interest! But, you may need to translate these responses, particularly if that respondent is not aware of your goals and/or not someone who uses your storytelling devices the way you do.

For example, if someone expresses confusion about something in the fourth scene, what that may really be telling you is that the questions you have about the dispensation of information in the second scene lead-up could use a look. Or, if six people are telling you how to “fix” that third scene in a particular way, it may not mean huge rewrites– it might just be how everyone is communicating to you that their eye was drawn to something unintended that is distracting and maybe just needs to be taken out so as to not beg the question.

Hopefully, your dramaturg does get to know your goals and how you’re building the piece– and therefore can translate their thoughts (and translate others’) as they relate to your goals. Divergent opinions absolutely may and likely will happen between with your dramaturg– these can be helpful! But if you’re not on the same planet of discussion, the opinions may be too far away for it to be a helpful path to go down. Collaborating is an act of trust after all.

How do I know if the collaboration with my dramaturg was successful?

There’s no black-or-white answer to this. That said, if you feel that the conversations you had with your dramaturg deepened your exploration of the piece, that feels like a successful collaboration. If you want to work with that person again, that feels like a successful collaboration. If your audience is now following storytelling threads that they weren’t before (whether or not they can identify why), that feels like a successful collaboration. And hopefully, your work is closer to your vision than before.

 

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Natasha Sinha is a producer and dramaturg, focusing on new plays and new musical work. She is the Associate Director of LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater which exclusively produces premieres (including Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, Dave Malloy’s Preludes, War by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Martyna Majok’s queens, and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over). Natasha is a co-founder of Beehive Dramaturgy Studio, which works with individual generative artists as well as organizations such as Page 73, Musical Theatre Factory, Astoria Performing Arts Center, and New York Musical Theatre Festival. Prior to joining LCT3, she was the Associate Producer at Barrington Stage Company. Natasha is on the Advisory Boards of Musical Theatre Factory and SPACE on Ryder Farm. She has served as a judge on award committees, taught classes, and curated events focused on inclusivity.

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).

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.

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