Let’s talk about the Spring Awakening Tony Awards fundraiser. Let’s talk about what it takes and what it means to perform on the Tonys. Let’s talk about what a commercial producer of a Broadway show’s job is.
I love Spring Awakening. I love the original production and I love the Deaf West revival. While the original production’s first national tour cast is the cast of my heart, the Broadway revival, performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English and featuring Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and hearing actors was better. It told the story of the show more successfully than the original production. The layers of depth added by Michael Arden’s directorial choices filled in holes in the show’s book. It was fucking incredible. But unlike the original broadway production, it was not a financial success despite its rabid (or… passionate) young fan base.
This week, commercial producer Ken Davenport and non-profit LA theatre company Deaf West asked fans of the Spring Awakening revival to donate $200,000 to fund a performance by the show’s cast on the 2016 Tony Awards, and I have some questions and I have some concerns.
If the Tony Awards are on June 12, 2016 and the fundraiser ends on June 11, 2016, where is this money actually going?
According to the official Kickstarter page linked above, the money raised will be used to “fly our cast back to New York, […] get the costumes and instruments and props out of storage, […] pay for rehearsal space since we don’t have a theatre, etc” as well as “the actual expense of performing on the broadcast.”
If we are paying to fly actors from LA and other cities around the country to NYC for rehearsals and a performance, how will that be possible if the money raised by the Kickstarter campaign isn’t received by the Spring Awakening team until the day before the Tonys? Plane tickets can’t be bought with the promise of “our Kickstarter will pay out soon.” Someone, likely lead producer Ken Davenport, his team of co-producers, and a group of behind-the-scenes investors, has already paid for these flights.
If we are paying to get stuff out of storage, maybe we can do that the morning of the Tony Awards, but let’s hope no costumes or instruments have been damaged while in storage, no actors have gained or lost enough weight in the past 5 months to need any alterations to their costumes, no props have been lost, and the show’s set is perfectly functional and fits into the onstage and backstage spaces of Radio City Music Hall just exactly as well as it fit in to the much smaller Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Except, this won’t happen. Someone, likely lead producer Ken Davenport, his team of co-producers, and a group of behind-the-scenes investors, has already paid for these storage expenses.
If we are paying for rehearsal space, let’s hope the entire cast remembers their entire tracks, which they last performed more than 5 months ago, perfectly and need to take no notes. Likewise, they must be performing a number exactly as it was in the show with no changes or cuts or transitions for the television broadcast of the Tony Awards. This way they can rent a rehearsal space the day of the Tony Awards, run their performance number once, and be done. Except, this won’t happen. Even if it could, large rehearsal spaces aren’t booked and paid for day of. Someone, likely lead producer Ken Davenport, his team of co-producers, and a group of behind-the-scenes investors, has already paid for the necessary rehearsal spaces.
If we are paying for the actual costs of the Tony Awards performance, paid to the American Theater Wing and CBS, who broadcasts the Tonys ceremony live on television, it is nice to know that these corporations are so kind and understanding that they will hold a performance slot for a nominated show up until the day before the performance without any payment from the show’s team. You guessed it: this won’t happen. Someone, likely lead producer Ken Davenport, his team of co-producers, and a group of behind-the-scenes investors, has already paid for the actual costs of performing on the Tony Awards telecast.
So where is your money going when you donate to the Kickstarter? Most likely, into the pockets of Ken Davenport and his friends who must believe so little in the importance of this show and the possible success of its previously announced national tour that they won’t even pay for what is ultimately a promotional TV performance without asking fans to prove their love for the show by paying them back a return on their investment.
You might ask: what is the job of a Broadway producer?
This is a great question, and to casual theatre fans it doesn’t always have a completely clear answer. Lucky for us, Spring Awakening’s lead Broadway producer, Ken Davenport himself, has answered this question on his own blog, The Producer’s Perspective. While he does note that these answers came from a large group of anonymous producer friends, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Mr. Davenport himself agrees with them at least somewhat, since he provided them as a substitute for actually answering the question in his own words. Here are some of the answers on his list:
– Producers do everything! We are the bank, the therapist, the negotiator, the scapegoat, the creative, and we rarely get credit! I should add its awesome. Because I think it is.
– We manage the business behind the show.
– Encourage and foster excellence for the purpose of optimizing profit and art.
– We raise money for projects we have faith in and then try our hardest to repay all of those wonderful investors who have had faith in us (hopefully with a profit).
– Find the right project. Raise money. Hire the creative team. Raise money.
– I don’t UNDER spend or OVER spend, but WISELY spend every dollar avail on creative advertising and marketing.
– Assess, finance, assess, stay out of the way.
– A Producer does whatever needs to be done, from A ( finding the property ) to Z (making sure the johns have enough toilet paper).
– Producing is the art of making the deal.
– The three F’s: FIND IT (the show), FUND IT, FILL THE SEATS (preferably with paying customers)
– A producer coordinates all aspects of the project and hopes the people he or she picks does the best job possible creating his vision while at the same time getting the most bang for his buck.
– Deal with the people who invest that think they know more than we do re: advertising and everything else.
– Maintains the connection between “show” and “business.”
– Raise money.
– If a show is the equivalent of a small company, the producer is its CEO.
– A producer is like the CEO of a company: hires and fires everyone and most importantly, makes sure everyone’s paycheck clears at the end of the week.
– My response to this often-asked question is that producing each new show is like starting a business – you have to raise the money, hire a business manager (GM), raise money, hire an attorney, raise money, hire a marketing/advertising/promotions team, raise money, hire a director, raise money, select and hire a design team, raise money, deal with the unions and raise money, etc.
– Oversee the financing, marketing and creative process to deliver a show that connects with audiences.
So, in short, what does a Broadway producer do? They are in charge of the business of show business, often seen as the CEO of a Broadway production and frequently investing significant amounts of money to make the logistics of a show happen. It is a producer’s job to oversee the financial side of a Broadway show, including arranging and funding marketing and advertising opportunities, such as a performance on the Tony Awards, for their shows. It is part of Ken Davenport’s job to decide whether this performance is worth it, organize the logistics, and make it happen. This is not typically done by begging fans to prove their commitment to a show by donating their paychecks to a for-profit business venture.
There are many other questions to be asked in this situation. Why is the Spring Awakening team throwing a Tonys party, an invite to which is a reward offered by the Kickstarter campaign, if they can’t even afford their rehearsal space? Will the Spring Awakening performance on the Tony Awards happen if the Kickstarter is not fully funded? Why did the production team choose the crowdfunding site that is most notably differentiated from its peers by only operating all-or-nothing campaigns, where projects that are not funded to 100% of their goal don’t receive any of the money that has been pledged to them?
It makes me so truly and deeply sad that such an important show is being used to exploit fans’ passion for groundbreaking, diverse theatre to ensure a return on an investment for commercial producers. Young fans are harassing and guilting each other for donating or not donating, for questioning or not questioning this campaign. Some man who claims to be associated with the production team, a stranger to me, has been for days continually sending me un-asked for and un-responded to Twitter direct messages calling me a bully because I sent out a few tweets questioning the validity and transparency of this Kickstarter campaign.
This would not be happening if not for this fundraiser. This would not be happening if this fundraiser were at all transparent or offered any details as to the logistics of the Tonys performance and the money it requires.
I don’t hold anything against the creative team or the cast of this show, and I totally believe that they all really want this performance to happen no matter what it takes. But, I am confident that this performance is going to take place whether or not the Kickstarter succeeds, because it is clear that someone has fronted the money needed to make it happen.
Finally, what should you do if you want to see more theatre like Spring Awakening succeed?
Donate directly to Deaf West Theatre. Donate directly to National Theater of the Deaf. Donate directly to Gallaudet University’s Theatre Arts program. Donate directly to Young Audiences Maryland, the organization that runs Quest Visual Theater, a theater group for d/Deaf/HoH youth. Donate directly to New York Deaf Theater.