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Making Broadway Accessible to Audiences with Digital Capture

digital capture
By Bonnie Comley

Many creative artists are innovating with different ways to share live theater experiences in the digital space. For this discussion, I chose to focus on Broadway shows because of the higher ticket prices and narrow geography. Broadway is a luxury brand recognized around the world. The Broadway League has worked long and hard to ensure that if you ask someone, “what is Broadway?” they can tell you that it is the pinnacle of live entertainment – even if they have never seen a Broadway show. Luxury brands come with luxury price tags, but even people who can afford the average $125 ticket for a musical can’t always get to the show. The Broadway League has also worked long and hard to provide access to audiences with seats at lower prices with TKTS, student rush, and other initiatives, but the more popular the show, the longer the wait for discounted tickets.

Are digital captures the way to make Broadway more accessible?

“Digital capture” or “live capture” is the industry term referring to the recording by film or video of a stage production. Digital capture is usually done in the theater while the audience is watching the show to create a sense of going to the theater. The TV-viewing audience will sometimes see the ushers handing out Playbills, reactions of the theater audience, and hear the laughter and applause. It’s not the same as going to the theater to see the live stage show but it can be an enjoyable experience at a fraction of the cost. Screening in a cinema can give a communal sense to the experience, and the convenience of a streaming service allows viewers to watch anytime they are connected to the internet instead of waiting for the 8PM curtain to rise at the theater.

Broadway is dark for the foreseeable future, but digital captures are keeping the spirit alive. Grove Entertainment, the lead producers on the new musical, Diana, announced a digital capture of the show with the Broadway cast working under an Equity approved COVID safety plan. The show will be shot without an audience at the Longacre Theater. This digital capture will give TV viewers access to a show that never officially opened on Broadway.

Digital captures make theater more accessible by eliminating the barriers of economics, geography, and any physical limitations.

BroadwayHD is a streaming service offering over 300 digital captures of full length shows to a subscriber base whose demographic is 18 to 45-year-olds, which skews much younger than the traditional average 43-year-old Broadway ticket buyer. The online audience is also much more diverse than the traditional female Caucasian Broadway ticket buyer. Since BroadwayHD’s launch in 2015, the average age of a Broadway ticket buyer dropped for the first time since 2000 and the non-Caucasian audience grew to a record high. These statistics indicate that digital captures are one of the factors having a positive impact and knock-on effect on the audience members that were booking tickets to live shows. In other words, by bringing theater to more diverse and younger fans online, the younger theater fans were buying tickets to the live stage shows. The formula is a win-win for the future health of Broadway and the global audience that will never have the opportunity to step inside a Broadway theater. Digital captures are serving the existing Broadway fan and cultivating the next generation of Broadway fans.

Broadway shows with celebrities attract a wider audience than unknown actors, but due to their popularity, ticket prices are high and hard to get. Many times the celebrity-driven shows are built as limited runs, so when the actor’s contract is over, the show is over, often in less than six months. Digital captures of these shows will be watched by a broader TV audience because the star name will attract viewers. Viewers of the digital capture that have never attended a live stage show can become future audiences for Broadway. Here’s a few examples of these shows: Bruce Springsteen in Springsteen on Broadway (Netflix), Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma (BroadwayHD), Billy Crystal 700 Sundays (Amazon), Zachary Levi and Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me (BroadwayHD), and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton (Disney+)

Digital capture is an excellent tool for professional development. One of the best ways to learn about theater is to see as much as possible, and this is true for both students and professionals already working in the industry.

But if you are working in the theater, you might not be able to see other shows. Digital capture is an affordable and convenient way to study a particular director, composer, or designer’s work and stay current.

Another type of access is access to whose work gets seen by a global audience. Although women buy 68% of the tickets to Broadway shows, women are underrepresented in creative roles. Out of the 37 new shows on Broadway in the 2018 to 2019 season, only four productions were directed by women, women wrote only three shows, less than 40% of the characters were female, and 20% of the shows had no female creatives on the teams. The statistics for other underrepresented voices are even worse.

Digital captures can amplify stories by and about women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other underrepresented or marginalized, playwrights, and composers that might otherwise be lost when the curtain goes down.

The early release of Hamilton on Disney + has caught the imagination of the world and created a renewed appetite for the live stage experience. Multiple polls have reached the same conclusion; people who watched the digital version of Hamilton but had not seen the stage version are more likely to buy a ticket when theaters reopen. Hamilton and other Broadway shows captured at the height of their production values, can be seen around the world and inspire others to use their voices to create inspiring theater, all the while promoting the Broadway brand of excellence in live theater.

Also by Bonnie Comley:

COVID Creations and Derivatives: Is it Theater?

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