How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The response in the old joke was: practice, practice, practice. Apparently the mantra for how folks get to Broadway is: network, network, network. And also: get your work seen somewhere — in a café, a workshop, or a festival.
Those are the main takeaways from the recent TheaterMakers Summit, a two day affair stocked with dozens of panels and speakers, breakout opportunities and virtual networking with industry leaders. The attendees: aspiring writers, producers, directors, actors — theater professionals and fans alike. They were there to learn about and discuss the business of the business. Tony Award winning producer Ken Davenport (“Once On This Island,” “Kinky Boots”) said his five-year-old creation, virtual this year, would be an in-person event in 2022.
The Summits promise a peek behind the curtain, to learn what theater pros involved in making the magic you love, have to say about what they do. According to the event producer, the 2021 Summit gathered close to 1,000 attendees virtually, and presented nearly two dozen panels, with breakout sessions and other meet-up opportunities available.
Behind that curtain, the playing field is not close to level, and the three women on the Future is Female Panel agreed that you have to create your own opportunities. Director Leigh Silverman (“Violet,” “Well”) was candid about the lack of gender diversity and of representation for women over 40 in the theater world. Simply put: The reality is bad and it’s even worse for women of color.
The solution, as with so many things in life, is to disrupt that. Composer/lyricist and music director Georgia Stitt (“Snow Child”) created MaestraMusic.org. Where once it was hard to find qualified women, there are now some 1,200 in the directory of female professional musicians. The anger over the injustice leads to action which leads to change. “You have to start something. Create opportunities,” Stitt said. You have to be seen.
At the panel of lead producers, Tom Kirdahy (“The Inheritance”) said that producing for Broadway was like “pushing boulders up mountains.” Daryl Roth (“Kinky Boots”) was more encouraging, trying to “give good direction” to those who sought her out. All the panelists emphasized the need to network with others in the industry and with potential investors. See a trend?
Of course, not all theater happens on Broadway, and one of the panels plugged into the untapped potential of universities. Speakers from Penn State, Shenandoah, and Pace described a vibrant scene, where new musicals and plays are valued and nurtured. The submission process was discussed and dissected. Also noted was the bridge from a university setting to a commercial undertaking, involving material that is performed and often recorded. Top agents and producers are invited to the university productions. The importance of getting your work seen was once again the mantra.
There was a presentation titled Access and Inclusion, but the focus was not on race or gender. It was on those with disabilities. The push was to accommodate the vast range of those with issues, knowing that would take money and time, and providing a “loving and welcoming environment” while not lowering expectations.
Social media, which used to be the stepchild is now the necessary go-to. The social media panel was all about bringing Broadway to people through social, with the reminder that the purpose was to build relationships through consistent content. What goes viral, the panelists agreed, is that which is authentic and connected to the brand. “People will find and follow you.” Facebook was seen as a “necessary evil.” Twitter was mentioned. Instagram and, especially, TikTok were touted as the ways to be seen.
Keynoter Andrew Lloyd Webber said that bringing attention to his work was what his concept albums (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita”) were all about. That wouldn’t work today, he said. “That’s not how people listen to music now.” But, he noted, Emily Bear’s use of TikTok for “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” was taking the same route — getting her work seen.
Davenport said that he modeled the TheaterMakers Studio and the Summits on the MasterClass subscription series. “I believe the world is a better place when there is more theater,” he said, “and there’s only more theater if there are theater makers. Everything I do is to educate and inspire people ... to help people make theater. There are lots of resources out there to help. What I say is, if you have an idea, a passion for something, go for it.”