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New Regards For Broadway

Date: Aug 23, 2010


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As you fight your way through the crowds in Times Square, it may seem inconceivable that the theater industry is fretting over its audience. After all, the numbers support what you see: Total Broadway grosses have been rising steadily (despite a slight dip in 2007-08) since 2001. The 2009-2010 season grossed $1.02 billion.

Even so, the question of how to get new people into theater seats looms large. "Broadway has a lot of tourists and some New Yorkers. But the swath of New Yorkers is pretty small," said Victoria Bailey, the executive director of the Theater Development Fund (TDF), the not-for-profit service organization known for operating the tkts discount booths.

For all the Theater District's visibility as a symbol of New York, the process of choosing a show, buying tickets and going to the theater is simply not -- obvious nor accessible -- to all. Take it from Carolyn Jordan, a community leader with Blessed Trinity Community Baptist Church: "Even though they see it, 42nd Street might as well be Hawaii."

Ms. Jordan is one of 32 representatives from groups that participated in a program created this year by TDF called New Audiences for New York. The initiative was designed to encourage theater-going among communities that are typically under-represented on Broadway. With that goal in mind, the New Audiences program offers the participating groups subsidized tickets and a pre-show visit from a teaching artist who describes and illuminates the show the group will see.

During the winter and spring of this year, 32 groups -- comprising all ages, from four boroughs -- went to at least two productions apiece. Many members had never been on (or even off) Broadway; others had been to theater only rarely.

On a recent summer day, the leaders of the groups met with TDF at the restaurant Etcetera Etcetera on West 44th Street to swap stories and discuss improvements for next year. Their feedback is the stuff that melts jaded hearts. What follows is a small portion of what the leaders had to say.

From Robert Henderson, who led a group from Green Chimneys Children Services, which provides foster care to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender youth ages 16 to 20: "To get all them interested in something is impossible. They were arguing all the way there. They had in their minds that Broadway is for when you get older."

By the end of "Fela!," though, the group was cheering, clamoring to stay and rushed to get autographs: "They wanted to go to an Internet cafe to look up more on Fela," Mr. Henderson said. "They wanted to know: 'Was that real or made up?'"

Michelle Darden of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn related one specific transformation: "We had a sixth grader who didn't want to go. He said 'Please let me stay home!' But by intermission, he lit up and said, 'Thank you, Grandma!'"

Cathy Cahn, who led a group from the Queens-based group Services Now for Adult Persons (SNAP) to Hair, discussed how seniors valued the chance to see a show and talk about an era they remembered well: "They don't travel into the city, and Broadway is prohibitively expensive. It gave us a different insight. It gave us so much to talk about afterward."

The gratitude was profuse--as was praise for teaching artists like Stephen DiMenna, who led the discussion at Etcetera Etcetera.

But what happens when this year's program comes to a close and TDF finds new folks to help? Ms. Bailey said that the groups chosen for the program's inaugural season were selected with this next step in mind. "You have to start with people who have the capacity to graduate out of the program and sustain it on their own," she said, adding that one requirement was that each group have a committed leader. "That way, after we are done, the leader has the skill set to continue this."

The New Audiences program began as a pilot when TDF was awarded a small grant from New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department for the Aging. "We took two groups to the theater twice, and we brought teaching artists in," Ms. Bailey said. After seeing "Sunday in the Park with George," one of the groups decided to go to a museum the same day.

With positive feedback in hand, TDF applied for a grant from the New York Theater Subdistrict Council, the not-for-profit corporation that administers a fund raised from the sale of theater airing rights. The grants it doles out are designed to promote new work, new audiences and the importance of Broadway. In 2009, a total of $1.26 million was dispersed to 10 organizations including TDF, as well as the Roundabout Theatre Company, New Dramatists and the Fund for Public Schools.

That funding, together with support from the city, took the program through 2010, and TDF has again applied for the grant, with hopes to expand and maintain ties with the initial community groups (which TDF refers to as its freshman class). Whether or not the grant comes through, TDF wants to keep the effort going.

"It's about smoothing the way for people who don't go to Broadway," Ms. Bailey said. "The point of this is to open it up and say: 'This is here for you and it's yours.'"