Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thoughts on BroadwayCon

If you follow the musical theatre world on Twitter or Tumblr at all, you may have noticed an explosion of the hashtag - #BroadwayCon. This past weekend (January 22-24), the first annual convention dedicated to fans of musical theatre was held at the New York Hilton Midtown. The show went on despite Winter Storm Jonas. I had the chance to attend because my health insurance company issued me a shiny refund for exercising regularly (Thanks, Obama!). Here’s what I thought.

Mischief Management, a small event planning company based in New York, and, produced BroadwayCon. I first heard about the convention because I attended LeakyCon, another Mischief Management production, back in 2014 for dissertation research on fan-created music. I thoroughly enjoyed myself as a fan and a scholar and kept my eye out for future MM events. About a year ago, it was announced that Anthony Rapp and MM would be organizing the first ever Broadway fan convention. I was intrigued, but I also had some serious reservations.

Tickets for the event started at $95 for one day; general admission for the entire weekend cost $250; “VIP” tickets cost $350. Add to the equation that a significant number of participants also would be paying for flights to one of the most expensive cities in the world, hotel rooms at the Hilton ($229/night), and other miscellaneous food and transport costs. Oh, and if you wanted to see a show or two, that would easily add another few hundred dollars to weekend expenses. In this current season when finding affordable theatre tickets is increasingly difficult, I honestly thought that these prices were ridiculous and reinforcing the notion that Broadway is only for upper middle class white tourists. Because of the crazy ticket cost, I didn’t even contemplate attending until I got my surprise gym reimbursement. 

To be frank, ticket cost is a serious issue that the con organizers should consider in future iterations of this event. If new audiences are their endgame, they need to start making events like this affordable to more than just young people whose parents have the expendable income. 

Close to 3,000 people were in attendance this weekend. I’m guessing that roughly a third of audience was under the age of 25. (This is not scientific at all. I’m basing that guess on the amount of people who cheered at every possible mention of Hamilton at the opening ceremony.) At the ripe old age of 29, I felt old wandering the corridors sometimes, and I definitely felt a generation gap between the younger attendees and me. For example, this happened:

Scene: Outside the Nassau meeting room. 

AYA waits to enter. TEEN GIRL 1 is across the corridor and suddenly spots TEEN GIRL 2 who is to AYA's right, playing on her phone. TEEN GIRL 1 approaches TEEN GIRL 2

Are you [fill-in-the-blank]?

(slightly suspicious) Yeah. 

Oh, cool. I follow you on Instagram!

(watching this interchange. To TEEN GIRL 1) Out of curiosity, why did decide to follow her?

I was just looking at other pictures of Wicked fans, and I liked her pictures. (To Teen Girl 2) Can I take a selfie with you?

I could only marvel and move on. Anyways, as much as I enjoyed LeakyCon in 2014, I was painfully aware of how white and young the convention attendees were. However, the BroadwayCon crowd was more diverse in age and race/ethnicity than I expected.

The conventions featured approximately 136 events (I did my best to count...) over three days – panels, performances, dance/vocal masterclasses, sing-alongs, autograph sessions, photo booth sessions, interviews, and meet-ups. I, of course, could only attend a fraction of these, but most of my thoughts and observations clumped around this issue of diversity and commercial theatre.

Diversity and Hamilton-ian Optimism

The first panel that I attended on Friday was “A Brand New Day: Diversity on Broadway.” Andrew Shade, the founder and Editorial Director of a new podcast/digital platform called Broadway Black, moderated the panel. Erin Quill (actor, Avenue Q/blogger), Telly Leung (actor, Rent, Godspell, and Allegiance), Roberta Pereira (Producing Director, The Playwrights Realm), Quiara Alegra Hudes (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright), and Tamika Lawrence (actor, If/Then) joined him.  From the title of the panel alone, you can tell that it was optimistically meant. And the optimism isn’t unfounded – with shows like Hamilton, The Wiz, Live!, and Allegiance, it was a good year on Broadway for non-white actors. 

Scholar that I am, though, I couldn’t help but be skeptical from the start. As thrilled as I am about Hamilton, the diversity of its cast and creative team, and all the conversations that it has started, I was worried that the panel would be too self-congratulatory and optimistic about the current state of things. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Erin Quill was quick to point out that many have, too quickly, patted themselves on the back for how diverse the current season turned out, considered the issue “solved,” and proceeded to make the 2016-2017 season very white again. Other panelists like Pereira, Hudes, and Lawrence added valuable insight with regards to how far the industry still has to go. I particularly enjoyed Pereira’s perspective as a producer because, as important as it is for young people of color to “see themselves” on the stage, much of the structural change has to happen behind-the-scenes. Having people of color work in production, direction, music direction, stage management, venue management, advertising/branding, marketing, and the myriad of other roles will change things in a way that simply casting people of color won't. It’ll change the networks of power.

The panel ended on an optimistic note, with Telly Leung noting how diverse the panel’s audience was. In some ways, I think he was trying to motivate the audience towards grassroots action by telling them that they have the buying power. Therefore, they control who and what stories appear on stages. While many people clapped enthusiastically at this, I was less enthusiastic. All I could think of in that moment was how that statement ignored the ways in which socio-economic class affects whether or not people of color attend the theatre. I was hoping to ask the panelists about this issue in the Q&A; but alas, time was too short.

I can't speak for them at all, but I'm not convinced that people in the audience got how much structural change has to happen before Broadway is really "diverse." For example, one white theatre educator from the Midwest took up a chunk of the Q&A time, telling everyone how his majority white high school did a "color blind" production of Flower Drum Song sans yellow-face. (I, along with a few others, were a bit appalled at that, but then again, I have serious issues with the idea of “color blind casting." That’s a gripe for another time.) I also was disappointed when I went to the panel for The King and I afterwards. I’m not sure Telly Leung would have been so optimistic looking at that audience. At 29, I was one of the youngest people there and one of the few non-white audience members. And this was at a panel about a show that reeks of Orientalism. Clearly, an element of self-segregation was present at BroadwayCon depending on which panels one attended.

My mood improved on Saturday because the conversations started at Friday’s diversity panel continued in the “Getting to Know You: Bringing New Audiences to Broadway” and “Your Fave is Problematic” panels.  One audience member at the “New Audiences” panel pointedly asked about ticket sales being the bottom line, despite all the optimistic talk about working towards diverse audiences. The panelists hemmed and hawed. I, at least, appreciated the panelists being put on the spot for that. The next panel, “Your Fave is Problematic” addressed some of the issues that I felt were open-ended at Friday’s panel. Musical theatre scholar Stacy Wolf moderated the panel. She was joined by Celia Keenan-Bolger (actor), Maggie Keenan-Bolger (co-founder, Honest Accomplice Theatre), Roberta Pereira, Anthony Rapp (actor), and Rachel Sussman (Director of Programming, NYMF).

Celia Keenan-Bolger gave my favorite anecdote of the entire con. She recounted an experience where she was the only white actor cast in a production. Her character upset her because she was so two-dimensional and the worst version of the white girl stereotype. As she mulled over that, though, she realized that her experience is something that every actor of color has had to deal with. I appreciated her honesty and the way she highlighted the costs of being an actor of color. The panel also addressed how difficult it can be for people of color to afford tickets to commercial theatre. They recognized it as a major issue, but also pointed to various initiative likes BroadwayHD that are trying to address it and gave outreach tips for different communities. I also liked the note on which this panel ended better than the diversity panel. Though hackles - specifically, Anthony Rapp’s - were slightly raised on Stacy Wolf’s suggestion that West Side Story (among other “classics”) is problematic, Wolf ended with the note that just because certain shows are problematic with regards to race and gender, this does not mean that we simply stop performing them. Rather, we keep performing them, so that we can continue to engage and interrogate them.

If diversity on the Broadway stage is something you’re interested in reading about further, here are some cool links, the top two of which I learned about at BroadwayCon and the other being one that is just a great read:
Other Interesting Things...

Not everything I attended was so intellectual and worthy of furrowed brow. Some of it was quite practical. As someone who does some work in theatre education, I also found BroadwayCon useful for learning some pedagogical techniques. My role at this little theatre on Roosevelt Island is a wonderful, ambiguous mixture of assistant director, assistant choreographer, stage manager, and student morale booster for the Teen Theatre program. There were several workshops and panels for those of us in theatre education. While I couldn't attend the masterclasses because they filled quickly, I found the session "Stage a Scene" immensely useful. David Alpert (associate director of If/Then and Director of MainStage programming at BroadwayCon), along with actors Sarah Jenkins and Rob McClure, read and staged the scene from Little Shop of Horrors that comes right before the duet "Suddenly Seymour." I took copious and messy notes. 

I also loved that they featured new musicals on the MainStage. We heard from the creative teams and cast members of Tuck Everlasting; Nerds; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; and Found! I am most excited to see Natasha... because Denée Benton performed beautifully and (OMG!) Josh Groban will be playing Pierre. (I was a diehard Grobanite in high school; I still have the T-shirts to prove it.) My only quibble is that there isn't an Oxford Comma in the title. Found looks entertaining, although the song that the team chose to feature, "Denim and Diamonds" still needs some time in the workshop. It almost works but isn't quite there yet; the bridge into the modulation didn't flow well (but then, I might just be picky.) Major props to Alpert for scheduling this session.

Things I would like to see at the next BroadwayCon:
  • A Meetup for theatre educators and/or theatre scholars. I met plenty. I think these folks would like the opportunity to say hello and network.
  • In similar fashion, more panels like "Stage a Scene" that provide a behind-the-scenes view of how different roles work in the industry. Maybe something similar with a choreographer, stage manager, lighting designer, sound designer, music director, etc.
  • Better crowd management/line barriers for the entrance to the opening ceremony. It was already much better at the closing ceremony.  
Aya's Personal Highlights

In the manner of the AVClub television recaps, I'm just going to list things that were other random fun moments that I can't tie into any sort of narrative.
Obviously, this post was me trying to make sense of several scribbled notes in my Moleskine journal after a few days. I can only recap and remember so much. I'd love to know your thoughts if you attended as well! Next year looks to be "Bigger and Better" (and I'm hoping at a more affordable price). Over and out...

1 comment:

Maryann Lopinto said...

I had a different point of view. This was the first try, the first one, for that reason I thought it was pretty good. I wonder how many ComicCon they did bedfore everyone was happy. Of course these comments are very helpful for next year.

It was great to see the younger people there the groupies etc. At this age group they are doing something postive instead of going out getting drunk etc. The volunteers were very helping in answering questions. Everything was easy to get to from one to the other and though there were sometimes huges lines and crowds, to get into some events, It was organized between those on line and getting everyone in. Performers and particpants were really nice and time giving. In the photo sessions, it was in a very organized way.... and Jonathan Groff stood there well over two hours smiling and posing for everyone... he was able to stay only because of the cancellation of Broadway, and everyone got their moment with him. I heard from many people who came from out of town and stayed in the hotel, that there were special rates, $125 for those attending. Even a few hotels around the area were too. I know rates are quite high for a night usually. The fees were high, but not as high as ComicCon.

It will be better next year, remember they were virgins on this. They need to introduce to the young people who know nothing about the theatre before RENT, of the classics shows that were around, and of †he performers, who are still working in Movies TV theatre.....

Where else would you find the casts of those big shows now all in one place. Wouldnt it be great to do a seminar on the bio shows such as Beautiful, Jersey Boys, On Your Feet all big hits too. But the feedback from those who came are important to see where to go next.