JUDGING FROM PAST and present young professionals at last month’s TEDxBroadway conference, the future of theatre-making is in good hands.

Several hundred people gathered at New World Stages in New York City on September 24 for the eighth TEDxBroadway event, which annually asks the question, “What is the best Broadway can be?” Speakers within the theatre industry and those who contribute to that ecosystem spent the day encouraging attendees to challenge their worldviews and inspire change.

Among the participants was a group of industry professionals under the age of 30, attending free of charge thanks to support from the Nederlander Organization. Their fresh perspective about challenges in the industry benefits the broader conversation, while they profit from networking opportunities at the event.

Felicia Fitzpatrick, who oversees social media at Playbill, and Corey Steinfast of Disney Theatricals both attended as young professionals in 2016. “TEDx might not have an impact on getting jobs, but because my personal and professional lives are so intertwined, the contacts I made here have made a difference,” Steinfast said.

Fitzpatrick was born far from New York City. “I grew up on the West Coast, and Broadway was always geographically challenging. It was always a community I wanted to be a part of … but it seemed like a distant dream. When I found out there was an administrative and media side of theatre, that piqued my interest. TEDxBroadway is a good intersection of that. There is a true sense of community here.

“Broadway is full of tradition, but it’s hard as a young person to feel as though you can break through the gate to become part of it,” Fitzpatrick continued. “The TEDx Young Professionals program is a way to break into the community. It helps you get involved.”

Young professionals networked at the 2019 TEDxBroadway event.
Young professionals networked at the 2019 TEDxBroadway event. Photo by Glen DiCrocco.

Jim McCarthy, co-founder of TEDxBroadway, is acutely aware of the industry’s hierarchical challenges, addressed by both speakers and other young professionals at the event. “There are relatively few power brokers on Broadway,” he said. “I think if we had not been having these conversations … we’d be surprised when we fast forwarded to today how many [barriers to change] might have been kept in place by those in power.”

Event co-founder Damian Bazadona agrees, but points to a boldness unique to these TED talks. “Those power brokers are the sponsors of our event, and we discuss topics that might make them uncomfortable. It’s cool to see that conversation happening in a pretty transparent way. That doesn’t happen in other industries.”

Improving access was top of mind for many of the young professionals attending this year. “It’s possible to absolutely love something and also be critical of it,” said Shakina Nayfack, a trans actor whose TEDx talk touched upon the challenges of writing for the hit television series Transparent. Throughout the day, others echoed a similar desire to make the performing arts more diverse.

According to Jorge Acevedo, casting and executive coordinator at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, the “administrative side still needs more diversity. We talk a lot about diversity casting, but not so much within the admin world.”

Writer Morgan Smith shared similar views. “My biggest issue is that there is a very limited number of people telling the stories and a very limited set of people attending those stories,” they said. “We’re excluding stories about women, queer folks, people of color, differently abled. There is a lack of access to stories being told. It’s focused on name brand recognition. We are in a revolving door of grabbing successful movies, putting them onstage, and saying it’s our artform. If we really want to create change, we have to bring new stories, change who has access to those theatres both physically and socioeconomically, and create a system that allows new voices to enter.”

Smith pointed to the Situation Project as an example of positive change. Bazadona’s company, Situation Interactive, invites low income, high performing school districts in New York City to attend a Broadway show to interact with the cast and crew.

“The fact that we have 2 million empty seats each year on Broadway is staggering,” Smith said. “We have an overabundance of resources that need to be better utilized.”

TEDxBroadway co-founders Jim McCarthy and Damian Bazadona. Photo by Glen DiCrocco.

In her role at Dramatic Solutions, Kelly Carmody works on dynamic pricing for theatres. “We’re trying to get more tech and analytics into the theatre scene,” she said. Regarding half-filled houses, Carmody said, “There’s no reason for it. I think theatre should be more data driven in general.”

Sam Cornbrooks, a senior at Marymount College, participated in the event through his lens as a young producer. “Hearing the perspectives of those outside the incredibly small bubble we call Broadway opens up the opportunity for meaningful — and sometimes critical — analysis of tasks we, as industry administrators, habitually carry out every day,” he said. “There is so much more to learn in this world than what is written in textbooks. It takes individual experience and life-altering narratives to fill those gaps. TEDxBroadway made that clear to me.”

In addition to diversity and inclusion, Cornbrooks looks forward to more nonprofit representation on Broadway. “As of today, just three not-for-profit organizations present work on the Broadway stage,” he said. “Creating more opportunity for nonprofit work on Broadway has the potential not only to give strong platforms to the next generation of national and international writers but also to remedy many of our community’s most common complaints regarding the level of work presented on Broadway. While spectacle is undeniably fun and entertaining, our community will have to find a way to marry that with modern literary excellence.”

TEDx was founded to stimulate dialogue — among communities, organizations, and individuals. The Broadway event shows there are many questions facing the future of the industry and no easy answers. Yet, with the passion and excellence of these young professionals, the theatrical scene will continue to improve far beyond the Great White Way. “We never intended to focus solely on Broadway,” McCarthy said. “TEDxBroadway is not a theatre conference. It’s a conference about a neighborhood where theatre is really important.”

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