Like it or not, for most Americans Broadway is this country’s center of theatre and drama. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars are invested in Broadway shows every year, catering to natives and tourists alike. Even those who can’t visit New York go to their regional theatres (when they go at all) usually to see plays or shows which have had the imprimatur of a Broadway production. In this sense — whatever sense that is — Broadway is a success, but other kinds of success are questionable. Gross receipts on Broadway shows continue to rise, as do ticket prices, but so do costs, and it’s hard to get precise figures on just how much of these receipts constitute net profit — whether Broadway is a success even in capitalistic terms remains an open question. Some individual Broadway shows do indeed return profits to their investors, and these are trumpeted in the press; but similar accurate figures for the Broadway sector itself seem elusive. And for a very long time many critics and practitioners have debated whether Broadway shows constitute any kind of aesthetic success at all.
Because of this, the TEDxBroadway event held on 28 January bears some minor interest to observers of American drama and theatre. And I say minor interest because there doesn’t seem to be much there, except perhaps as a demonstration of how language in the service of high-flown self-congratulatory rhetoric can be utterly emptied and devoid of content. I didn’t attend the event myself, but various reports about it are interesting studies in narcissism. One of the event organizers, Broadway producer Ken Davenport, has conveniently put together a list of quotes from presenters, which he calls “takeaways,” from the event at his blog. Among them:
“Everyone on Broadway is a gambler. So there’s only one reason to produce on Broadway. To have fun. Best way to have fun? Do something good. Really good. Roll yiour dice on excellence.”
“Make every seat in every theater a great seat to allow for the intimate exchange of ideas between each artist and each audience member.”
“I have friends that believe the sippy cup is the end of days. Our pretentiousness regarding audiences that are seeing shows for the first time (tourists, etc.) simply stands in the way of growing and sharing our business. Populism has its own manifest destiny and we need to embrace it. Embrace the sippy cup.”
“School + Broadway = Infinite Possibilities.”
“Broadway needs to take the storytelling aspect of what we what do onstage and take it to the lobby. Even the bathrooms. Start the experience of your show at the front door.”
“Marketing is the gift-giving business. We’re giving the gift of Broadway. And we should impact those who never come to Broadway as much as those who can.”
“Art and technology are two sides of the same coin. A world without art is not a world worth connecting.”
Presumably more objective, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing Howard Sherman wrote about the event for the Los Angeles Times. Sherman reported that the main theme coming out of the conference was that “A better Broadway can be achieved through access for, engagement with and connection to the audience,” which should earn the TEDx conference a place on the cover of next month’s Duh! magazine (though I would like to know just what that “better” means).
But Sherman also reports on what is for me the most revealing comment made by a presenter at the conference, which Davenport somehow failed to include among his takeaways: Adam Thurman, the marketing director of Chicago’s Court Theatre, let slip the real issue when he said, “We need more people who love us.” This is less an idea or takeaway than a pathetic cry for attention. The nice thing about self-love is that it’s almost always reciprocated; the nasty thing about it is that you can never be sure if the object of your affection really deserves it.
With slowly declining national interest in the televised Tony Awards and even in fictional representations of Broadway on television like Smash (an intriguing recent report on that show’s internal troubles can be found here), one can understand the somewhat desperate air that seems to surround events like TEDxBroadway.
Not that the TEDx events generally aren’t susceptible to ridicule themselves, as the brilliant parody Onion Talks demonstrate. But a word that is frequently associated with these events is “smart.” I had always assumed that by “smart” was meant intelligent and insightful — and having watched a few of these energetic but for all their flash conceptually empty mini-lectures, I couldn’t agree. But then I realized I was wrong. By “smart,” I now think, was meant “trendy, stylish, superficial,” and not intelligent or insightful at all. By that score, the TEDxBroadway conference succeeded in spades.