Dreaming up Broadway’s Next Big Idea: TedxBroadway Returns

Earlier this week, social media was in a tizzy over an app allowing people to tweet six-second videos. “Will Twitter’s Vine App be the Next Big Social Media Thing?” one journalist asked. But, is a single app seriously the definition of a “big thing”?

Big ideas are what made Steve Jobs a god amongst geeks. They allowed Henry Ford to crank out cars for the masses. Big ideas can become so popular, that they turn to the dark side. Take the concept of outsourcing, for instance. Businessweek.com has a nice roundup of the big ideas thought up over the past 100 years.

Expiration dates on big ideas appear to be coming faster than ever before. Once a big idea is mainstreamed, the original innovator has a small window of opportunity to crank out another game changer.

Apple is facing that harsh reality as the iPhone is now coming up against venerable competitors. “Questions are going to be around innovation and where the next products are coming from and what does [Apple’s] Tim Cook see in the next 12 to 18 months,” a Cross Research analyst told Reuters. No time for rest in the big ideas business.

Technology isn’t the only industry in search–and in need–of the next big idea. Live entertainment, more specifically Broadway, is facing its own struggles as it searches for ways to brush off its staleness and start dreaming up its own metaphorical iPhone.

“Very little from Broadway figures on my list of this year’s most memorable productions,” wrote New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley. Those are harsh words for a year-end roundup of 2012’s “best” productions.

Does that mean we can’t pin our hopes of a better tomorrow on the playwrights and directors of Broadway? Not exactly, but you can’t rush art. What you can rush is art’s surroundings, because things like physical theaters, merchandise, ticketing systems, second-screen experiences, and broadcast equipment have been rapidly evolving in industries other than Broadway.

The arts are in desperate need of technological convergence. And TedxBroadway is hoping to give theatrical entertainment a push towards progress. “We’re now in this sort of sweet spot for people recognizing that change, and I don’t want say change, but like an evolution is happening faster than I think people expected,” Situation Interactive founder Damian Bazadona told me as we discussed what is in store for TedxBroadway 2013. This is the second iteration of an industry event aimed at “bringing together experts from a wide range of fields to create, share, and stimulate dialogue about making Broadway the best it can be.”

Bazadona started TedxBroadway last year along with producer Ken Davenport and Goldstar CEO Jim McCarthy. “I hope to be in this business another ten years from now, twenty years from now. So if I’m going to be here, I think we need to start having discussions, and not just with ourselves but from outside perspectives and outside point-of-views.”

While Broadway’s core is not built upon technology–acting, writing, and stagecraft reign supreme in the theater– many of the big ideas that could potentially transport the theatrical industry into a safe future are grappling with ways to provide a play or musical with a larger footprint and exposure to a wider audience.

“Maybe there’s not a clear path from here to there, but it’s not insane. It could be done, it’s conceivable,” McCarthy added to our conversation before drawing a correlation to the iPhone. “One example of that is, and I was just talking to George Takei [who is set to speak at TedxBroadway] so Star Trek is on my mind, is the communicator. If you ask a lot of the guys who were in the telecommunications industry in the ’70s and ’80s, they thought to themselves, oh yeah, okay. So how would something like that actually work? 20 years later, it was real.”

Okay, so a new mobile phone isn’t likely to be the next savior of Broadway, but that sense of active imagination and big dreams big positioned Steve Jobs as an industry savior. Broadway needs its own Steve Jobs. And that’s what TedxBroadway is presenting–big thinkers positioned in front of the theater industry’s movers and shakers. They want to open minds and unlock potential.

“How does an ecosystem like Broadway actually lead the culture rather than follow it? It often does and sometimes doesn’t, but live entertainment as a whole has an opportunity to be a kind of leader of the culture rather than a taker of the influences of the culture,” said McCarthy.

In a room full of Broadway marketers and producers, how do you sell an idea of change without a clearly defined return on investment? When it comes to TedxBroadway, it’s the big idea that turns a profit, although it’s not a dollar sign attached to the value, it’s onboarding Broadway to the idea of thinking big.

“I think the curiosity curve for Broadway is beginning to slope,” added Bazadona. “There is a sort of sense of curiosity of the talent within the industry, and I mean everybody. That’s from everyone, like what does live theater really mean?”

What does live theater really mean? That’s a big question requiring a big answer. Some ideas were tossed around at last year’s inaugural TedxBroadway, including talks by Randy Wiener on “The Future of Show Content” and Vincent Gassetto on “Audience Development.” This year, when TedxBroadway takes to New World Stages in New York City on January 28, some of these ideas will be dug into deeper and new ideas will be brainstormed.

“Last year we nibbled at it around the edges, about the idea that Broadway is a limited inventory industry, and one of the ways that we framed this before is imagining if the NBA only made money from selling tickets to the games,” said McCarthy. “[Court Theatre’s] Adam Thurman is going to cue that up with his thoughts, and the example he gives is actually a basketball one where the kid in China wearing the LeBron James jersey will never set foot in Madison Square Garden.”

Broadway’s pulse is still strong. Arts organizations are hearing these conversations and have started acting on digital impulses. A recent Pew Research study noted that 81% of organizations receiving funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) say the internet and digital technologies are “very important” for promoting the arts while 78% say audience engagement is increased by those digital means.

TedxBroadway will not leave Broadway theater owners and producers with the keys to the future. There are no to-do lists handed out at the end of the conference. The tool needed to unlock the next big idea is a willingness to experiment, fail, and try again. Remember, for every iPhone there was a Newton, that rare Apple miss.

“I think it’s good to have a public facing moment because I hope that these things help trigger more people,” said Bazadona. “I think there’s only good that comes out of it, especially when you take out the pressures of having to feel like we’re going to solve anything. We’re not there to solve things. We’re there to start a conversation.”