Info You Can Use: Take A Look At The Broadway Books

Though I don’t cite him very often, I keep an eye on the blog of Broadway producer Ken Davenport because he tends to ask questions about how Broadway can do a better job of serving the public.

We often see Broadway as a monolithic behemoth to whose gravitational pull most theaters are subject to some degree. It is interesting to see someone talking about how the business process in NYC might not be living up to its potential and gain insight into some of the inner workings.

In the next two weeks Davenport is going to conduct webinars breaking down the budgets of a Broadway show. These will be held on October 22 and 29, both from 7-8 pm EDT with a recording posted afterward. (my emphasis)

Over those two nights, I’ll walk you through my philosophies of budgeting, a strategy to make sure you come in under budget on every single one of your shows, and most importantly I will walk you through each and every line and page of an actual Broadway budget.

In other words, if a budget is the engine of a Broadway show, I’m going to pop the hood, take apart the motor piece by piece, and then put it back together again . . . so you not only understand how it works, but so you can build your own.

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It’s going to be fun, and if you’re a numbers guy/gal, you’ll really love it. If you’re not a numbers guy/gal, well, all the more reason for you to sign up, because budgeting is where so many shows go wrong. It is the business blueprint of your production.

I emphasize this second to last sentence because even if you never think you will ever mount a Broadway show, this is an opportunity to have someone talk about a budgeting process for a performance.

For everyone who talks about transitioning away from the non-profit arts business model, this is a good opportunity to gain insight into what factors you need to consider in the commercial realm, even if you are already pondering a third (or fifth) alternative.

The Arts Are For Swingers

Do you ever sit in your office, thinking wistfully of the days when you were a kid and you would run around the playground, playing games and swinging on the swings?

Do you think your audience is thinking the same thing?

Well apparently some folks at Boston’s Convention Center were thinking along those lines because they built a temporary playground for adults on one of their lawns.

The playground is temporary because the convention center plans to expand on to that land in about 18 months. However, it is being used as something of a proof of concept testing ground.

The BCEC, Sasaki and Utile figured, why not test out some concepts for what should be the permanent park, further south on D Street towards residential South Boston?

The playground contains a “set of 20 lighted oval swings, bocce, ping pong, beanbag toss, Adirondack chairs, a sound stage, and open-air bar” and has become wildly popular.

Like the community ovens I wrote about a week or so ago, this is another idea for the type of thing that can be done to increase community engagement.

Now, according to one of the commenters on the article, the playground in Boston cost around $1.1 million which seems a little expensive for a project with an 18 month life span. Though maybe the equipment will migrate to the permanent park.

Many cities are seeing quick pop-up parks appearing on their streets.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation in Philadelphia set up an amazing looking pop up park for the summer. It was slated to close September 1 but got extended an entire month due to popular demand.

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has a pop-up Audubon program aimed at kids. Huntsville, AL will have activities popping up along their streets this month.

If you look at the pictures associated with each of the projects, you will see that they run the gamut from ambitiously expensive to simple and versatile.

Pop up events like this can be used to inspire community action as well as a tool for direct engagement. While reading about pop-ups, I learned that a community in Dallas dressed up a street with benches, trees and pop up shops for a day to provide evidence for its potential. (If you are looking to use this for community improvement, check out Better Block.)

One of the commenters on the Boston Convention Center park story shared this video of a fun installation on the streets of Montreal where people generated music as they played on the swings.

[vimeo 97090808 w=500 h=281]

Montreal’s 21 Swings (21 Balançoires) from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Transform Into…SUPER THEATER!!!!!!!

Andrew Taylor tweeted today that he would be speaking about theater spaces this week in Taipei and linked to a video of the Taipei Performing Arts Center.

At first I thought Andrew was going to be speaking there, but then realized the building hasn’t been completed yet.

Watching the video, I was interested to see that the design by Rem Koolhaas addresses many recent discussion points about how building design can either engage or alienate audiences. Starting at around 1:35 the video talks about how the street runs right into the building. Even more intriguing is the inclusion of a “Public Loop” which allows the general public to pass through and apparently peek in on the different performance and production work spaces around the building.

I imagine they would have to have some well trained staff present to prevent flash photography of a performance while allowing passersby to view what was transpiring. But more importantly than that, it seems to allow the public an opportunity to see what transpires backstage in the scene shop, costume shop and perhaps even in the fly system of a theater.

The public loop doesn’t seem to be comprised entirely of darkened hallways that visitors shuffle through. There appear to be open spaces where visitors can sit and relax for a time.

One element that came as a bit of a surprise was their “Super Theater” configuration mentioned around 4:30. It allows them to take down the walls between two of the spaces to create a massive warehouse like space. They cite the fact that B.A. Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten requires a 100 meter stage. (Yes, that is right, approximately the length of a football field.)

It may seem like a lot of construction expense to accommodate a niche use until you recall that productions like Sleep No More, The Donkey Show and their ilk use large open spaces like this.

The building exterior is rather strange looking and has its detractors. My immediate concern was if the difficulty and cost of transforming the building might make such a transformation more of an aspiration than a reality.

As I wrote this post, I recalled another transforming theater, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. It turns out that facility was also designed by Rem Koolhaas so his company has some experience with this process. As you can see in this video, it takes 11 stagehands six hours to transform that the Wyly Theatre. I imagine Taipei might require more people and closer to a day, but that probably isn’t an impediment.

I wrote about the design of the Wyly a few years back. As you can see in the video where Joshua Prince-Ramus explains the design, that building also highly flexible and has many engaging elements to it. It allows people to enter or exit through its very walls, or perhaps even sit outside and watch a performance (or rehearsal) inside.

In the context of all this, I am curious to learn what Andrew Taylor talks about in Taipei this week. Not to mention how successful the Taipei Performing Arts Center is at engaging their formal and informal audiences.

Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share
Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share

How Green Is My Theater

Last week we were having a conversation to create a repair and replacement plan based on life cycle expectations for our performing arts facility. Of course, there are already a number of issues that needed to be addressed with some immediacy. The head of facility operations mentioned that these days there is little funding to be had for capital improvements. The only way to get much needed repairs and upgrades accomplished is via energy savings performance contracts. (ESPC)

The wikipedia description I linked to about performance contracts being a program for federal government entities is a little narrow. Nearly every state has a similar program, (Oregon has a good description), for themselves and their municipalities and many companies with large physical plants can benefit from them as well.

The benefit of a performance contract is that there is no up front cost to your institution. The company doing the work takes out loans and guarantees that the project will save you money in energy costs. Over the course of 25 years, you pay off the contract with the money you save.

As to whether ESPCs might be an option for arts organizations, I have looked at the programs of about 4-5 states. Other than Oregon’s which suggests a minimum of $100,000 in annual energy bills, there isn’t any clear guidance about what level of energy expense is appropriate to undertake such a project. Presumably your current bills should be relatively high as should the potential for energy saving to make it worth the while of your organization and the company undertaking the work.

You don’t necessarily have to be a governmental entity to have the work done. A couple of the vendors who provide ESPCs list retail and libraries as potential customers. Granted, they may be thinking supermarkets and libraries in need of excellent climate control for their collections rather than clothing stores and my neighborhood library.

But I think about the power use of theaters in particular with all their stage lighting and the energy savings that can be realized. LED lighting still has some color temperature and control issues which make them unsuitable for some uses, but the improvements come very quickly. Many theaters can benefit from upgrading their general lighting and HVAC systems.

When I was working in Hawaii the lighting in our lobby, offices, scene shop and exterior were all replaced. The illumination levels went up and the power use dropped immensely. My only gripe was that even with diffusion filters, the LEDs in some of the exterior stairwells were so sharply defined that it felt like you were furtively moving between pools of light.

My state arts council just sent out a survey yesterday and one question was about how they could better serve my organization. It wasn’t until after I finished the survey that it occurred to me to wonder if state arts councils couldn’t act as coordinators and guarantors on energy savings performance contracts.

Since many foundations aren’t providing capital improvement funding any more, this might prove to be a viable alternative. If a single organization wouldn’t realize enough savings to make a contract worthwhile, perhaps serving the needs of two or more organizations in the same community would be. The organizations could then turn around and use their energy savings to pay off the arts council (if not the energy contractor).

I am not sure what would happen if the organization went out of business or moved before the contract was paid off, but I am sure those considerations are already included in contracts for hospitals and other businesses.

Obviously, I am not fully acquainted with all the details of ESPCs to know how viable this would be. However, given how energy efficiency is becoming an area of increasing concern, I would not be surprised at all if the incentives for upgrading systems improved so over the next 10 years that it became easy for many arts organizations to do.

[Title of the post comes from the novel and movie, How Green Was My Valley]

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