Conference asks: What is the best Broadway can be?

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 24, 2013 13:45 hrs

Before long plane flights, Thomas Schumacher likes to download talks from some of the world's brightest and creative minds speaking at TED conferences, watching them on his iPad while thousands of feet in the air.

"I marvel at the range of stuff. I like the passion of the speakers and love the content," says the president of the Disney Theatrical Group about the various conferences dedicated to technology, entertainment and design. "I am a giant TED freak."

The downloader will become the downloaded after Monday when Schumacher joins more than a dozen speakers for the second TEDxBroadway conference at the off-Broadway complex New World Stages.

The one-day event is bringing together more than a dozen producers, marketers, entrepreneurs, academics, economists and artists. All will try to answer the question: "What is the best Broadway can be?"

Schumacher's string of hits — including "The Lion King," ''Mary Poppins" and "Newsies" — hasn't made him impervious to a bout of nerves ahead of the conference.

"I'm confident that somebody will be worse than me, and I'm really confident that people will be better than me," he says, laughing. "There are no rules about doping for this, so I'm going to do whatever I can. I'm going to have a blood transfusion Sunday night."

He'll join a wide assortment of speakers, including "Star Trek" actor George Takei, producer Daryl Roth, Schmackary's Cookies CEO Zachary A. Schmahl, playwright Kristoffer Diaz, critic Terry Teachout, ethnographer Ellen Isaacs and Erin Hoover of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

There will also be performances, this being Broadway, after all. Magician Steve Cohen will wow the crowd with tricks, and there will be music from Rasputina, the all-female cello-driven band.

TEDx events are independently organized but inspired by the nonprofit group TED, which started in 1984 as a conference dedicated to "ideas worth spreading." Video of the Broadway event will be made available to the public.

The annual gathering centered on Broadway is the brainchild of three men: Ken Davenport, a writer, director, producer and industry pioneer; Jim McCarthy, the CEO of ticket discounter Goldstar; and Damian Bazadona, the founder of Situation Interactive, an online marketing firm.

Last year, the organizers asked speakers to peer into their crystal balls and try to predict what Broadway would look like in 2032. This year, they dropped the forecasting to focus on current issues.

"I think by taking the time frame off of it, we've actually retained the imagination part and kind of liberated the speakers a little bit more," said McCarthy. "I think it's been a more constructive framework for them to work with."

The speakers will include Tony Award-winning set designer Christine Jones, who will discuss how to make the Broadway experience more intimate. She's an expert on the subject, having created Theatre for One, a 4- by-8-foot portable theater that fits just one audience member and one actor.

One returning speaker is Vincent Gassetto, the principal of a high-performing public middle school in a tough area of the Bronx who urged those in attendance last year not to overlook his diverse and enthusiastic talent pool as arts funding shrivels. His passion triggered several school visits to Broadway shows.

One hot topic will be on the future of live theater. David Sabel, from the National Theatre of Great Britain, producer Randi Zuckerberg and Internet pioneer Josh Harris will each talk about how theater can be freed from the stage, whether that means more immersive experiences or employing more broadcasts of plays and musicals on movie screens.

"Our goal at the conference is not necessarily to walk out with a list of things we're going to do tomorrow and say, 'This is going to solve the problem,'" said Bazadona. "The idea is really just to discuss what the different ideas and directions are. For me, the more open-ended it is, the more excited I am to see where it goes."

The three organizers have seen the event grow and hope to keep it an annual event. Last year's TEDxBroadway attracted some 200 people; this year it is expected to double that.

"I think of the conference as a steroid shot to everyone's imagination. It just stirs everyone up," said Davenport. "It's a jolt to everyone's system and gets everyone thinking in a new and exciting way."




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