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Benj Pasek and Justin Paul at TEDxBroadway. (Photo by Glen DiCrocco)
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul at TEDxBroadway. (Photo by Glen DiCrocco)

TEDxBroadway Mulls the Future of Theatre in an Age of Screens

Ayad Akhtar and Emily Simoness speak, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul sing, about the future of theatre at the fourth annual TEDxBroadway.

NEW YORK CITY: What do a data scientist, a psychologist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright have in common? All spoke at TEDxBroadway on Feb. 23, 2015 at New World Stages in Manhattan’s theatre district.

Don’t let the B-word in the title mislead you. The fourth annual conference’s stated mission might have been how to make New York’s commercial theatre district the best it can be, but the topics covered had relevance to theatre across the country and around the world.

Organizers Jim McCarthy, CEO of entertainment deals company Goldstar, and Damian Bazadona, cofounder of marketing agency Situation Interactive, welcomed guests to New World Stages before speakers like professor Adam Sobel, music producer Kevin Lyman and set designer Kacie Hultgren took the stage.

One of the morning’s speakers was Ayad Akhtar, who penned the Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced, currently on Broadway through March 1. Ahktar discussed what he called “industrial storytelling,” his term for the current age of content distribution, in which ease of consumption and access enables monetization and mass viewership.

“Images are the currency in which this storytelling industry conducts its business,” Akhtarsaid in his impassioned and poetic talk. “For images, ever simpler, ever more forceful images dissolve differences of languages and culture, cross national borders and facilitate commerce. Indeed, the seemingly inexhaustible store of ever more graphic  and gripping images of bodies, blood, beauty only seem to take even more complete hold of the global viewer’s attention, whoever and wherever she may be.

“Some have suggested that this–let us call it the ‘regime of the image’—has altered the nature of the world’s attention,” Akhtar continued. “Some have spoken of it as a shallow of consciousness, of discourse, of empathy, or as a death of nuance of deep thinking, of literary culture. Others still posit that we are beholden to our screens like sleepwalkers lost in a waking dream, likening our enslavement to the image to the parable of Plato’s cave in which a captive humanity confuses shadows on a wall with the great wide world outside.”

Akhtar went on to discuss how theatre might survive in this industrialized world, where an art form that requires a room, uninterrupted attention and, usually, payment may struggle to compete with the immediate gratification of screen-based entertainment.

“The one thing almost every professional practitioner of theatre knows is that there isn’t much money in it,” he said. “It can seem like a daily miracle that the form survives at all. A poor, outmoded passion hobbling along its oldfangled ways catching uncomfortably in the quicksilver channels of industrial exploitation. How can the theatre compete?” What theatre offers, he said, is “presence, relationship, community,” concluding that “these are the values that speak to why there will never be a true crisis in the form, why it will always speak to us, why it will always endure.”

Following Akhtar, standup comedian Phoebe Robinson took the stage to champion diversity on stages and demand more access for younger audiences. “I know we talk about diversity a lot,” Robinson said. “Believe me, I’m sick of saying it!”

Robinson recalled her own childhood growing up in Ohio, far from New York theatre, and suggested streaming services so that audiences, particularly young ones in farflung locales, can see what’s happening on major stages. She also stressed how important equal representation on stages would be in this effort, as all viewers should relate to the stories.

“If you don’t see yourself reflected,” Robinson explained, “you don’t think it’s a possibility.”

As usual, TEDx reached beyond playwrights and performers for their speakers. Self-proclaimed “data storyteller” Ben Wellington, who runs the blog I Quant NY, shared insight on how to use data to tell a story of how people interact. In Wellington’s case, he looks at open access data about New York City—from frequency of bike accidents to the places most people hail cabs—and makes visual diagrams of the information to illustrate people’s behavior. He then uses these maps to instigate change on a city-planning level. The applications for theatre leaders could extend to looking at data for the age and gender of single ticket buyers to the location of most the subscriber audience.

During the afternoon session, Laurie R. Santos, a cognitive scientist at Yale, looked at the science behind why humans love theatre, beginning her talk with a slide that said “our love of theatre = pretty weird.” She described the phenomenon of “behavioral contagion,” which posits that human beings will copy another human beings behavior in a one-on-one situation. For example, in an interview, if the interviewer touches their face repeatedly, the interviewee will start doing the same.

Behavior can also cause emotions, which she called “emotional contagion.” If you force yourself to smile, you will be slightly happier as a result. But there is a relatively new idea known as “mental contagion,” which states that human beings can get into the mindset of other individuals. We are the only species that can do this, as compared to primates, who exercise both behavioral and emotional contagion but not the mental variety.

According to Santos, we take on the feelings of fictional characters as our own, and that allows us to engage in theatre in a way other species cannot.  “We as a species can get into the minds of other individuals,” Santos explained. “Theatre causes us to think about things that are downright crazy.”

The day also featured a few performances. The TEDxBroadway “house band” played audiences in and out of sessions, and lead singer Daniel J. Watts also shared a talk. Jonathan Mann sang his original TEDx theme song at the beginning of the day, while composer/lyricist duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul offered a selection from their new musical Dear Evan Hansen, which will premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. this summer.

Emily Simoness, executive director of SPACE on Ryder Farm, was the final speaker of the day, sharing with the audience her journey from aspiring actress to founder of a major arts nonprofit organization.

Simoness described an artist residency program in which artists come to the farm, provide labor to give the buildings and grounds much-needed renovations, and in return receive farm-to-table meals and have an oasis to work on their art.

As Simoness put it, there is a difference between a plan and a path. A plan is “a deliberate way forward you’re forging for yourself.” A path is “a course of direction that presents itself to you, a route you may or may not have forged for yourself.”

As a collaborative art form, theatre is full of such serendipitous paths. For an ostensible trade conference to embrace this element of chance and exchange, and to recognize that no amount of planning can determien the future, says something about the uniqueness of the field. And in that, despite Akhtar’s eloquent warnings, we might take heart.

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