As a Broadway producer I’ve spoken at conferences across the country, and anyone who’s seen me speak knows that I always emphasize the why rather than the how or the what. Simon Sinek, in his TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action put it most concisely:
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
When producing, the what is fairly clear: produce a successful musical or film. At the end of the day, what is delivered is the same across board. So why do certain shows become massive hits and others close after two weeks? Is it bad songs? Maybe, but there are flop shows with excellent songs. Is it the cast? Possibly, but most great actors have their fair share of bad shows.The answer lies in the strength and clarity of the why.
Understanding the why gives us a human or emotional connection. Every Broadway show has access to amazing talent, flashy marketing agencies, and huge investments. The differentiator is the why. Why was the piece created? Why does the show exist? After all, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. Composers and writers are often unaware of the why initially. They follow an inspiration and embark on their creative journey. It is the job of the producer to recognize and amplify the why. This will inform the entire process. That process is the how.
The how of producing is much more complicated and evolving rapidly with the merging of technology and the arts. As member of both the tech and arts communities, I find this intersection to be particularly exciting.
The producer’s first task, in the broadest sense, is to bring the right people together. Through the advent of the Internet that is easier than ever, since we are no longer inhibited by location. We can discover new artists and make connections all over the world. Shows are literally being written online. We see teams transfer files on cloud based storage systems where they’re able to pull from the same underlying text or music. Writers on opposite ends of the globe, down the road from each, or across the country can collaborate in real time with services like Skype, Slack, and Google Hangout.
Producers in the future must be willing to embrace different forms of technology, as they help move the process forward. While I don’t believe you can ever completely replace meeting in person, by embracing new technologies we are cultivating an ecosystem where more people than ever before can come together to create new, emotionally rich stories
A major challenge of mounting a Broadway show is timing. You don’t want to open too early, because once you’re in the theater, that machine is operating at full speed. Shows often spend years in the development process, going through the Broadway feedback loop:
Reading -> Rewrite -> Reading -> Rewrite -> Workshop -> Rewrite -> Reading (ad nauseam)
This process gets expensive quickly. The major pitfall of the feedback loop is protecting our projects too long. As artists, we don’t want to show it until it’s “ready”. I subscribe to a tried and tested maxim from the software community: fail early fail fast. Technology allows us to create and cultivate our audience a lot earlier in the process. Not only will you learn what elements of the piece aren’t working, but you will develop your cohort. Just like in tech, you can cultivate those early adaptors who will influence others and help build your brand. We’ve seen some classic examples like Veronica Mars on KickStarter or Levar Burton and his reading initiative.
Another challenge of theater is the fact that people must be physically present. Fortunately, new and emerging technologies can provide audience members around the world meaningful access to the show.
Social media is already bringing Broadway to wider audience than ever before, but I’m interested in how we can take it further. Altspace VR, a company I’ve invested in with the Maven Portfolio, is revolutionizing the concept of VR by creating virtual human gathering places. You can interact, play, and create with other people using wearable technology such as Vive or Oculus Rift. We’re seeing the 360 video come onto the scene. Right now, it’s mostly for the wow-factor, but we’re quickly learning how to better use the technology to provide a feeling of presence to the user. Broadway shows like School of Rock and The Lion King are testing out the world of VR with 360 experiences of their own.
Increased activity on the Internet gives us invaluable insight into the minds of our audience in the form of analytics and data. Sometimes when I start down this path, people say, “You are going to tell me I have to write a show with a certain number of characters in a certain setting…” If only it were that simple.
Data provides us with a framework for development. When I see a trend forming, It activates my creative mind and spawns ideas. I always think back on the fantastic book Ingenious by Jason Fagone, which confirms there is no such thing as a bad idea. Data may inspire a totally outlandish concept, but in an open environment, this may lead to something brilliant.