TEDxBroadway Spreads Message Through Talk, Music and Exercise

If you were in the mood for a light workout, accompanied by ukelele and accordion music, peppered with inspirational speeches and capped with a cocktail hour, there was really only one place in New York you could turn Feb. 24: The annual TEDxBroadway conference, which was held at New World Stages.

Robert Lopez
Robert Lopez (Photo by Glen DiCrocco)

TEDxBroadway, an independently organized event licensed by TED, the by-now-renowned, multifaceted, California think-tank conference, is now in its third year. Co-organized by Damian Bazadona, founder of Situation Interactive, Broadway producer Ken Davenport and Jim McCarthy of Goldstar, it brings together a wide variety of business and theatre professionals for an all-day conference intended to spur new concepts and ideas about how Broadway might face the future.

Speakers at this year's event, which was sold out, included Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus, ( Pippin) of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.); composer and librettist Robert Lopez ( The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q) and Lea DeLaria, the jazz musician, writer, stand-up comic and actor.

Proceedings were kicked off on a whimsical note — a tone which would persist throughout the day — by Jonathan Mann, a musician who advertises himself as "the song a day guy." In true form, he had written a theme song for TEDxBroadway, the chorus of which went (which the help of some audience call-and-response): "TEDx/Right here today/TEDx/Right on Broadway/TEDx/Can't get enough/TEDx/You might learn some stuff."

And people did earn some stuff. The conference began with one of TEDx's star guests, Paulus, who spoke of how she had attempted to change the public's perceptions of the boundaries of theatre during her tenure at A.R.T.

"What will make Broadway its best is if we can expand the idea of what can be done on Broadway," Paulus said, pointing out that great theatre eras of the past had little in common with the theatregoing experience of today, where audiences sit together in the dark in appointed seats, do not interact with the show and leave when told. Ancient Greek theatre festivals, she said, were contests in which the spectators voted for their favorite show. "Greek theatre was closer to 'American Idol' than it is to theatre today." Additionally, she related, the French opera-house culture of the 19th century was more than just about going to a building to see a production. "You went to be in your environment. You went to be seen as much as see something." Paulus then described how she has tried to stretch the definitions of theatre at A.R.T. The activity surrounding The Donkey Show, for instance, begins outside the theatre building. An A.R.T. production of the popular, immersive theatre experience Sleep No More has so intrigued audiences that people return again and again, attempting to figure it out. "People started to steal the production books to see how the show worked," explained Paulus. At Woody Sez, a celebration of the music of Woody Guthrie, audiences were encouraged to bring instruments and play a part in a "hootenanny" that took place after every show.

"I actually think an audience wants to be challenged, " she said. She recalled a dismaying experience connected to the Broadway production of Hair, which she directed to Tony Award-winning acclaim. She had convinced producers that up to 300 theatregoers should be allowed on stage after the show each evening. Soon, however, she heard that the experience was being ruined by overzealous ushers who would yell at the ticket-buyers to get off the stage and exit. Paulus called the theatre owner to pleaded that the audience members be allowed at least five minutes on stage. "You have to teach your staff that the theatre is not just the art," she said.

A common theme with many of the talks of the conference was digital media, its pervasiveness in today's culture and how to integrate that positively into today's live theatre experience. David Drake, founder and chairman of LDJ Capital, a private equity advisory firm, as well as The Soho Loft, talked of crowd-sourcing and how it can be used not just to raise capital for theatre projects and companies, but also raise audience involvement and awareness. Dan Gurney, CEO and founder of Concert Window (and a six-time United States Champion on the button accordion) told of forming a company that connected paying, online audiences with concerts that musicians conducted in their own living rooms.

Dexter Upshaw, founder and CEO of Distinction Interactive, and head of digital for the Apollo Theater in Harlem, related how people attending shows at the Apollo's amateur nights were not told to shut off their cell phones, but instead urged to use them during the show, communicating their reactions on digital media.

"The people who come into your theatre today are connected 24/7," said Upshaw, who is also an ordained minister. "You have to build an interactive experience based on that. We need to stop thinking about digital last." Echoing Paulus' message, Upshaw said the unleashing of personal digital media allows the performance "to begin before the show." (Asked by McCarthy how active texting and tweeting would work in a quieter show than those found at the Apollo, Upshaw admitted that he hadn't yet heard of a "case study" of that scenario.)

Perhaps the most amusing and unusual TED talk of the day came from Mark Fisher and Michael Keeler, the buoyant founders of Mark Fisher Fitness, a Times Square-based exercise center. Fisher and Keeler — who met as young people at a community theatre in New Jersey — entered wearing shiny homemade capes and told of how, when founding their business two and a half years ago, they tried to recreated the fun atmosphere of invention and community they recalled from their amateur theatre days.

"How do we create a community, a culture and a brand that encourages people to take risks?" asked Fisher. Their answer was to reverse-engineer the typical business model, using in its place a "value-based agenda." Instead of finding customers, they aimed to "build community." Rather than create jobs, they opted to "inspire greatness." They called their customers "ninjas" and themselves "Ninja Master" (Fisher) and "Business Wizard" (Keeler) and selected the unicorn as their mascot.

Consumers responded, happily returning to a place where they felt they could be themselves, were encouraging and could do whatever felt right for them.

"We figured that if we created a place of magic and community, the dollars would come," said Fisher. "And the dollars did come! And we had accidentally started a gym."

While admitting they were both "ridiculous human beings" (slides of their various work outfits seemed to support this assertion), Fisher and Keeler stressed that their system made sense and generated results.

"Your business has more to offer than the things you list on your website," said Fisher, who encouraged business people to ask themselves how happy they were and how much fun they were having at their jobs. If the answers were in the negative, perhaps it was time to look at business differently.

Shortly after their talk, Fisher and Keener led an impromptu stretching session in the lobby of New World Stages. where roughly 100 people took part. Those who didn't availed themselves of the other offered attraction: Cookies.

Freestyle Love Supreme
Freestyle Love Supreme (Photo by Glen DiCrocco)