Ken Davenport on Producing for Broadway and the Future of Theater Streaming

Ken Davenport is a Broadway producer whose credits include Spring Awakening, The Visit, It’s Only a Play, Kinky Boots (Tony Award Winner), The Bridges of Madison County, Macbeth, Godspell, Chinglish, Oleanna starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, Speed-the-Plow, Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America, Blithe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury (Broadway, West End and tour), and 13, as well as Altar Boyz, My First Time, The Awesome 80s Prom, Daddy Long Legs, and That Bachelorette Show Off-Broadway. He also runs several theatrical websites, including YourBroadwayGenius.com and DidHeLikeIt.com, and is one of the founders of TEDxBroadway. Combined, Ken’s productions have grossed more than $100 million worldwide and are being produced internationally in over 25 countries. He and Arti Ishak, Stagecloud’s Communications Director, recently discussed his unique upcoming productions, how he chooses what to produce, and how he views the future of digital streaming.

Arti Ishak: What got you into producing theater for a living?

Ken Davenport: Well, I started out as an actor, like so many people that jump to the other side of the business. And when I was in college at the Tisch School of the Arts, I was asked to be a production assistant on the My Fair Lady revival with Richard Chamberlain, and I just said yes. I had no idea what that would mean, frankly, what a production assistant actually did, and came to find out it means getting lunch and walking dogs in blizzards and doing all that kind of fun stuff. And I loved every second of it, and found a much greater affinity for what happens behinds the scenes of a Broadway show than what happens on the stage. So I started to pursue a career learning the business of Broadway and spent about 10 years as a company manager or general manager for shows, learning how they all worked and how they were put together, all the while developing and creating shows of my own until I started producing my own about 10 years ago.

AI: And how do you decide which shows to produce? What catches your eye when scripts come across your table?

KD: You have to…this is a very, very risky business, so producers for the most part produce what they love, something that really affects them or moves them. You have to love what you do because it requires so much work and so much effort and so much time. And, frankly, so rarely does it “pay off” that you better love what you do and are working on every single day, otherwise it would be a very miserable life. So I pick things that affect me and move me and that I would want to see. For example, I’m producing Spring Awakening on Broadway right now. I saw a production of it in Los Angeles, and it just spoke to me and touched me and moved me. And I thought, well, if I’m this affected by it, then a lot of other people will be as well, and I’m going to produce it.

AI: And can you talk to us a little bit more about your other projects that are opening this fall?

KD: So I have two big shows opening this fall. Spring Awakening, which is the Deaf West production and features a cast of hearing and non-hearing actors on stage, is very unique. It’s told through song and dance, but also through American Sign Language. It’s quite an extraordinary production, quite an event, and we open on Sunday [9/27]. And I have a two person musical called Daddy Long Legs based on the classic novel, which also inspired a movie with Fred Astaire, which is written by Paul Gordon and John Caird— who was famously the director of the original Les Mis.

AI: How did you come across this production? What made you decide to produce it?

KD: The production was started by Deaf West, and they’ve had two other productions that have gotten some significant acclaim and attracted people like me. One was Big River. That was done on Broadway several years ago at the Roundabout Theater. And then there was a production of Pippin, so I knew about their work and what they did. But when I saw Spring Awakening they just did it in a way that had never been done before, so I knew it would appeal to a wider audience.

AI: You mention on your website that your mission statement is to “Do shit other people don’t.” Can you talk about that a little bit?

KD: I’m a big believer in what stands out in this business from the crowd. Things that are unbelievably unique, different. So we try to do things that are very unique and different, because that’s the best way to get peoples’ attention, whether that’s an ad or a show. Spring Awakening is the perfect example of that. It’s very unique to see a show told through song and dance and text and American Sign Language. The uniqueness of [the show] makes people talk, but also it has an effect on the world. If you read the tweets about Spring Awakening right now, you’ll find a whole bunch which are “I’m inspired to learn American Sign Language” or “I”ve never been around so many people who are deaf before and communicated with them before.” It’s a whole different world, and it’s teaching a lot of people a lot of things which I think are very important.

AI: So that’s an amazing opportunity for a lot of performers who might not have otherwise had a chance to exist in a musical setting.

KD: Right, and it goes beyond that. We have a girl who is in a wheelchair in the production, and we just found out she is the first woman in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. It’s never happened before.

AI: Here in Chicago, we have seen quite a rising trend of Pay-What-You-Can theater.  What are your thoughts on that type of structure for a sustainable income?

KD: It’s a wonderful press stunt, but it’s certainly not something that could sustain a commercial production. I’ve done it several times on shows of mine, as a way to get attention or a way to get bodies in and as a way to give back to the community. So I love it, and I’m always fascinated by it, because whatever you set the minimum at you always average much more than the minimum. So it shows that people do value it more than the dollar or whatever minimum is set. But you just can’t sustain it that way. A commercial theater can’t sustain it that way. A non-profit, if they’re getting enough grants and things? You sure can, and that’s fantastic. But I work specifically in the commercial and for profit-arena, so it just doesn’t work here on Broadway. We wish! We would love to make the ticket prices a whole lot cheaper. But real estate, advertising in New York City is very, very expensive. And they drive up the ticket price, [along with] theater just being a man-made craft that requires people to show up every day. It’s live entertainment, and people are expensive.

AI: You have a lot of education resources on your website in terms of how to produce shows effectively from a commercial standpoint. Obviously I can’t condense your role down into five minutes, but any top tips you can give to our readers into what it takes to produce?

KD: There is a real mystique about what we do as producers. A lot of people think we are in top hat and coat tails and lunching every day, that kind of old David Merrick world, and it’s not. I’m in jeans and sneakers right now, first of all, and producing is really like running any small business. It’s the same thing, and it requires a great deal of passion and desire to get something done that other people may give up on, but you won’t. So I tell people, if you want to produce, start producing. I don’t really care if it’s “I’m doing a reading of Romeo and Juliet in my dorm room with my suite mate,” or whether it’s “I want to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars and do a small storefront theater in Chicago,” or “I want to be a producer on a Broadway show, and can I call Ken Davenport and see if I can raise two hundred thousand dollars to be above the title on his show?”  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. My first show was a small interactive show that was called The Awesome 80s Prom, and I did it Off-Broadway once a week. It ran for ten years and stayed me on my path to producing. It’s not what I want to be known for for the rest of my life, but it got me started.

AI: Just curious what your thoughts are for an online streaming service like Stagecloud. Since we are trying to adapt with technology these days and see what we can do to continue to make theater relevant. What are your thoughts on melding the two worlds and how to go forward from there?

KD: I certainly believe that streaming theater is going to be a big part of what we do to help bring the next audience of viewers to the live audience. Actually, I wrote a blog about how London was beating us here on Broadway by streaming or taping more and more shows. The National Theatre is doing it, and there have been some commercial productions as well. Les Mis did it, Love Never Dies, I think Phantom did it as well. And we are certainly lagging behind that on Broadway, because it’s very expensive to capture this stuff right now, and because we haven’t yet caught up with the understanding of how this affects our business. Unions are a little nervous. You know, I’m dealing with a couple other shows of my own that I’d love to capture. So it’s not the technology. The technology is there. We have to educate the people and realize it isn’t going to hurt our business—it’s only going to help our business.

AI: So you ultimately think that an online streaming service is best used to get people to attend live theater as opposed to a replacement?

KD: 
Yeah, and we’ve seen this time and time again on Broadway, you know, when movies started to be made about Broadway musicals again, people were freaking out that “Oh my gosh, if you release a Phantom movie now, Phantom will die at the box office. Oh my God, what about Rent? Oh my God, what about Hairspray, oh my God!” And every time, even if the movies have sucked, the Broadway box office has gone up. It happened every time. So we know it doesn’t cannibalize. If anything it only helps, and not only because people see it and think, “Oh I want to see that live.” It’s the advertising and marketing and press around those events, too. My god, do you know how much money was spent advertising the Hairspray movie or the Phantom movie or the Rent movie? That at the same time advertises the Broadway show on a national if not international scale that the Broadway show could never do. So it certainly helps.

 

For more information on Ken Davenport and his inspired contributions to Broadway, visit his website www.davenporttheatrical.com or read his blog at www.theproducersperspective.com.