I think of Theatre Development Fund (TDF) as a sort of cousin of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), and not only because we’re headquartered in the same building in midtown Manhattan, and not only because my first full-time gig in New York City, for a few years before I started at TCG’s American Theatre, was as a content editor for TDF. We are both nonprofit theatre service organizations, supported by a mix of membership dues and grants, and charged with sustaining and leading the theatre forward as an industry and art form, albeit in our own particular ways. Where TCG has a national mission to “lead for a just and thriving theatre ecology,” which it supports with advocacy, research, regranting, convenings, and journalism directed primarily at theatre institutions and theatremakers, TDF’s more NYC-focused mission is to “sustain live theatre and dance by engaging and cultivating diverse audiences and eliminating barriers to attendance,” which they do with their signature TKTS Booth in Times Square, with their membership discount ticketing program, and with a slate of initiatives designed to introduce thousands of New York-area residents to the live arts, including students, veterans, disabled folks, and those on the autism spectrum.
Similarly, I think of Deeksha Gaur as a sort of comrade in arms: I met her when she co-founded Show Score, a review aggregation site somewhat similar to the late, lamented StageGrade (a short-lived venture I co-created with Isaac Butler). Deeksha and I have lunched and kibitzed regularly ever since, mostly on the topic of theatre journalism and its often rocky relationship with the art form it covers, as well as its relevance to audiences.
So I was understandably chuffed when I heard of Deeksha’s hiring as the new executive director of TDF. Putting another thoughtful, forward-looking leader at the helm of this crucial organization (Gaur succeeds the similarly thoughtful, forward-looking Tory Bailey) is unambiguous good news for an industry that could use some. I spoke last month with Deeksha about TDF and her hopes and plans for its future.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations on the job. I was so glad when I heard the news; it feels like not only a good fit for you but for TDF and the industry. How has it been so far?
DEEKSHA GAUR: It’s been amazing. It’s been about three months, and I’m very deeply in the learning phase of this role. I don’t have the exact number, but I think I’ve probably done at this point about 160 individual meetings, starting with the entire team here and our board, city, government, funders, producers, people in the industry, press. Every meeting has been an opportunity to learn a different perspective. TDF has been around 55 years; TKTS celebrated its 50th year this year. So this is an institution steeped in history. I would say that almost everyone I know has been touched by TDF, either through the booth or through our programs in some way, shape, or form. As I’ve been saying to others, I go home at night and my brain is mush as I sort of try to process it all, and then I come back the next day raring to go.
I’ve really been given a gift, in that this is a very beloved organization. The staff and the board have been extremely welcoming—they’re very open to new ideas and questions. Sometimes it can be hard to have someone new come in and just ask lots of questions, but they’ve been really open to it. And this organization has a great team; it has been really well managed, which means that I can come in and immediately start thinking about the future, rather than, what are the fires we need to put out tomorrow? I really have been given the space to say, okay, what does our future look like five years from now, 10 years from now, etc.?
How did TDF enter your life before taking this job?
In so many ways. I’ve had many friends who have worked here through the years; I was introduced to my co-founder of Show Score, Tom Melcher, through TDF. This organization had a huge impact on my career even before I started working here. And I always really connected with TDF’s mission of reducing barriers to access. When I started to think about life after Show Score, it was super clear to me that I had this very weird career trajectory—a decade-plus in nonprofit marketing, then the startup, plus sitting on boards. When I tried to think through, what is the throughline? It really is about developing new audiences, democratizing access, building community. When I saw not only what TDF has done, which I’ve known, but how they’re thinking about the future, it all seemed to align. There was this aha! moment, and then the more I went through this interview process, and the more I talked with our search committee, the more exciting it became. So I was very, very happy to receive the call.
The question I’ve been asking most folks in the field is: Are the audiences coming back? From where you sit, as an entry point for so many audiences, how does that picture look to you?
I think we’re hearing the same things you’re hearing, which is that Broadway is hurting less in terms of audience return, and the Off-Broadway and regional scene is hurting more. I don’t have any stats that are different from that. I will say that we have anecdotal data from our membership program that people who are coming back are coming more often, which is a great thing.
I ask the next question in a collegial spirit, because it’s something we also grapple with, both as a magazine and as part of TCG: To what extent do you feel your job is to restore and serve the audiences and the theatre industry that was so hurt by the pandemic lockdown, and to what extent do you feel it’s your job to help find and create new audiences—folks who not only aren’t going now but weren’t necessarily going before 2020?
That’s a great question, and it’s one we’re discussing very actively at the board level as well. One of the provocations I threw out at the first board meeting was, who do we serve? I think TDF, more than a lot of organizations, is part of this virtuous cycle, where you bring in more audiences, you support the development of audiences, and that’s how you serve the art and the makers. We’ve always made sure through our programs that we do give back to the theatres, so when we do our education program, Introduction to Theatre, where we bring in 10,000 students a year, the students don’t pay a dime, the schools don’t pay a dime—we pay for the tickets, because it’s really important that we show our support for the industry, even while we’re going out and developing new audiences. My genuine belief is that when you serve the audience, you are serving the field more largely. Maybe it’s not always serving every single producer, but holistically, our goal is, how do we grow the pie for the field?
When I was at Woolly Mammoth and Two River Theater, building new audiences was a particular passion. The way that I think about TDF is that we are uniquely positioned to go and build relationships with audiences that others might not have the resources to do. I actually liken what TDF does to the audience development arm for Broadway and New York City theatre and performing arts. The distinction is that when you’re in marketing and you have a show, you’ve got to sell tickets to the show. To me, audience development is using shows as tools to develop new audiences. That is what TDF has done and can continue to do. That’s what I’m really excited about.
My last week working at TDF was around the time the new TKTS Booth and the red steps opened, back in 2009. There were online ticket sales then, but no TodayTix, for instance. How has that affected business at the booth? Do you see online ticketing options as healthy competition for the in-person booth?
It’s a very interesting question. You can look at it sort of transactionally on a day-to-day basis, or you can look at it more holistically, in terms of what role we play. First of all, everybody knows TKTS, even globally. I have friends who grew up in Prague or Switzerland and they’re like, “We had our first theatre experience through the booth.” So that is enduring; that will never go away. And the fact that we can expand our message of access through the work of the booth will never go away. That said, my personal goal for TDF is that where we’re really maximizing impact is in reaching out to audiences who don’t feel like they belong in the performing arts, and finding a way to make them feel belong. All our programs, whether it’s the booth or our memberships or our autism-friendly performances—they’re all tools that we can deploy to make sure that we’re achieving our mission. So the booth will always be a center point of what we do. But I don’t know that I would frame this as a sort of competition with online ticketing.
So, like live theatre itself, you’re going to keep the booth in person, and let online be online.
Absolutely. You know, when you think of, what are the brands or visualizations that remind you of Broadway or New York City theatre? TKTS is right there. When I was interviewing for this job, I chatted with a number of board members and the recruiter team, and everyone talked about how central the booth was to their theatregoing experience when they were students. And these are now philanthropists supporting the arts. So the entryway to starting the relationship is where TDF is so valuable to the ecosystem. The question we have to ask ourselves is, if we are the entry point for the relationship with the performing arts, and then people find other ways to continue to access it, does that count as a win? To me it kind of does. Because our goal is to make people feel that sense of belonging, that sense of ownership. And that can take a million different forms. If more people are attending the theatre or the performing arts because of us—if, through our special programs, we can create an experience where people feel like they’re invited to see the show on their own terms, as opposed to within some rigid structure that doesn’t work for them, that’s a game changer. That’s what we’re going for.
So from what you can tell, the tourists are back, right? It certainly seems that way when I make the mistake of walking through Times Square.
Yeah, they’re back. I remember during the pandemic, they were saying it would be 2025 before the full return kicked in. I know we’re not back to 2019 numbers, but we’re now looking at 2024 for a full return, which is significant.
I have heard from a number of folks who do audience research that theatregoers are even more last-minute in their planning than they ever were, which plays havoc with many theatres’ subscription model, even their single-ticket sales. But TKTS is indeed one of the few places that was always built for last-minute consumption, and still is.
That’s exactly right. We know that there are certain shows that are occasion shows, like the first time you take your kid to Wicked or The Lion King or the Rockettes, and TKTS isn’t for that. What we’re interested in is when people think, “Hey, I have a free afternoon.” Last weekend, my in-laws had the kids, and my husband and I woke up on Saturday, and of all the things that we wanted to do, going to the theatre was one option, and the fact that we could easily get a ticket was fabulous. That’s where TKTS helps; it’s less about, “I need to get tickets to this one show and it has to be the perfect seats.”
Then there’s your membership program, which is quite different.
Yes, and that has an online component. Membership is gated, so you have to qualify in some way. That’s a great way to reach out to many of the communities we care about, who have a passion for art and who are interested in the theatre and who don’t get the opportunity to go as often because price is a barrier. These people are sort of the lifeblood—this is where we see people who are opting in and opting in hard.
There’s also our student matinee program, where we bring in 10,000 students and pay for everyone. But it’s not just 10,000 students in the seats; there are eight workshops for every classroom that are built in tandem with the teaching artist and the teacher in the classroom, dedicated to preparing kids for the experience they’re going to have in terms of content. I was just at Hell’s Kitchen with students, and seeing that show with 300 17-year-olds is literally one of the favorite experiences I’ve had in the theatre. And to know that will be supported on the other end with real discussion and validation and excitement. We do this across hundreds of schools. What I love about the school performance is that we don’t berate the children about how to behave. We prepare the artists for the experience. So in this particular instance, the actors came out and spent an hour in the lobby taking selfies with the kids. It was about clearing the way so that the students could have an experience on their own terms, so that they didn’t feel “invited,” like guests who have to behave a certain way. It was: This is your theatre. This is your show, this is your experience.
And then if you look at our autism-friendly performances, we just had 2,500 people on the autism spectrum at the Rockettes. And our team works with the production on changing it—the performance happens with house lights at half, there are break rooms. It was awe-inspiring to be at the training and to hear the head of the front of house at Radio City, which is a well-oiled machine, saying to his front-of-house team, “Any questions, go to TDF—they’re the ones who know what’s going on.” That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s very exciting.
So when I talk about programs, I’m really thinking about how you expand that out beyond education, beyond accessibility. We just did a partnership with Girl Scouts Troop 6000. Are you familiar with them? They’re a troop made up of refugees and asylum seekers. We bought out a house and had them go see Aladdin with their families. There are so many communities who have not been invited to the conversation and whose considerations aren’t always taken into account. That’s what I’m really excited about at TDF.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you see for TDF and for the theatre industry?
We need to think about recalibrating our relationship with the audience. I’m so excited about what some of my colleagues are doing in the field—I think about Jacob Padrón at Long Wharf, or Nelson Eusebio at Kansas City Rep with KCRep for All, two examples where they’re sort of reframing the dynamic with the audience. Or my friend Russell Granet at New 42, who was the first person I really heard digging into what the idea of belonging means as you try to become a more equitable space. If we think that our relationship with our audiences is super transactional, that is a dangerous game to play, as we are finding. I feel very fortunate that TDF’s purpose is to step up in moments like this and say: We know people are going to come back, but this is an opportunity for us to throw our doors wide open and really ask, who should be in the room who will be our patrons of the future, our board members of the future? Who will carry the torch, be our evangelists for the future? This is a moment we get to do that. That’s a huge challenge, and frankly, I’m not even sure we know how. But we get to do it and to move that conversation forward—it’s both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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