Annual TEDxBroadway conference urges theater professionals to be bold

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NEW YORK — A conference on how to make the Broadway experience better for audiences and performers alike has come up with some prescriptions — be open, inclusive but, above all, be true.

"There's great value for telling the truth in art," said Benjamin Scheuer, who wrote and stars in his autobiographical solo show "The Lion." A cancer survivor, he gave perhaps the most heart-felt endorsement of honesty in theater: "Tell the truth in art about bad things. You'll be doing something good."

The fourth TEDxBroadway conference on Monday brought together 19 speakers — producers, marketers, entrepreneurs, academics and artists — to try to answer the question: "What is the best Broadway can be?"

TEDx events are independently organized but inspired by the nonprofit group TED — standing for Technology, Entertainment, Design — that started in 1984 as a conference dedicated to "ideas worth spreading." Video of the Broadway event will be made available to the public.

The conference, held in the off-Broadway complex New World Stages, included speakers with no theater experience but with interesting insights on the human experience, including atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel and cognitive psychologist Laurie Santos.

One speaker was Leslie Koch, who has helped turn once-empty Governors Island into a popular 150-acre space for festivals and art by being inviting and accommodating.

"What I've learned from working on an island in the middle of the harbor for several years is be truly open, improvise, be radically welcoming," she said.

Kirsten Sabia, vice president of marketing services for the PGA Tour, explained how she grew her niche sport: allow cellphones on the course, serve alcohol, increase public access to the golfers, have better food and throw concerts.

"We strive to provide the ideal setting, the ideal talent and allow the fans to have the experience for themselves," she said.

Set designer Kacie Hultgren showed what the future might look like with 3-D printing, which she uses to make miniature models of the designs that will later be on Broadway. She said printing costs have come down and the flexibility of design sharing makes the work collaborative and exciting.

Osh Ghanimah, an actor and founder of Broadway For All, a nonprofit that helps nurture a strong minority talent pool, noted that Broadway audiences are growing more diverse and urged the crowd to push for non-white actors onstage.

"We have a golden opportunity here because our audiences are changing and we need to respond to this if we want to continue to do good business," he said. "We can't expect this growing number of strong minority talent to come to dinner unless we make room for them at the table."

Kevin Lyman, founder and creator of the 20-year-old Vans Warped Tour, spoke about always needing to connect to his core demographic, which is young people between 13 and 19.

A few years ago, he recognized his concertgoers' desire to be part of a larger community and so he pushed to take donations of blood, canned food and books.

"Focus in on your brand. I don't worry about what other people are doing. I have to zero in on my audience. I live and try to understand what they're doing," he said.

There was also a performance and talk by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony-nominated songwriters behind such shows as "A Christmas Story" and "Dogfight." The duo urged fellow songwriters to stop writing single songs for YouTube, which they called "a hamster wheel."

Instead, they urged composers to write full stories and asked those looking to back new musicals to help give artists access. "Producers help us out: Come to us as writers and say, 'What is the story you want to tell?'" Paul said.


Online: http://www.tedxbroadway.com


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