As theatres closed around the world, actors, directors, and producers were put out of work and audiences were without entertainment. With no return date in sight, Broadway producer and Opportunity Network member, Sue Gilad, did what she does best. She got creative, pivoting her companies, Broadway Custom and Infine Company, digital.
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New York City, the home and heart of Broadway, has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. With theatre reopenings tentatively scheduled for 2021, this will be the longest scheduled closure of Broadway theaters in the industry’s history. As the United States struggles to get the virus under control, theatergoers are not hopeful that they’ll be able to enjoy regular programming for a long time. Within reopening plans, theaters present a tricky set-up. Enclosed spaces and tightly packed seats make for easy spreading. Even when the pandemic subsides, 59% of theatergoers reported that fear of potential infection would stop them from racing back to theaters.
For big-name shows such as Hamilton or Chicago, this presents a temporary setback and substantial financial loss, but nothing show-ending. For smaller broadway companies and start-up shows, as well as the artists themselves, the closure lands a devastating blow.
To face this challenge, artists and producers are turning towards digital platforms. Finding ways to work and keep their audiences engaged online. Shows like Hamilton have been filmed and released on Disney+. Productions such as Frozen as well as Beetlejuice have created themed backgrounds that fans can use in video calls. The artists themselves are offering up paid guest appearances via Zoom.
As with many industries, these changes raise the question of what Broadway will look like in a post-pandemic world. When theaters can safely open again, will everything go “back to normal”? Or will Broadway find itself part of the digital revolution?
Bringing Broadway Online
Sue Gilad is a Tony-winning theater producer, Opportunity Network member, and powerhouse Broadway producer. Having worked on productions such as Angels in America (Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play); Moulin Rouge!, Jagged Little Pill, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (nominated for 12 Tony Awards), Gilad was not about to sit around on her hands.
When the pandemic reached the United States, Gilad was running three separate shows on Broadway, all of which were immediately closed. Facing down a prolonged “intermission,” Gilad was determined to keep with the “show goes on” mentality. So, she turned her attention to a new stage.
In addition to being a theatre producer, Gilad is the founder of Broadway Custom. Broadway Custom focuses on training and educating the future of theatre and Broadway. Based in New York City, the program is highly selective, taking only the students who show a true passion for the art and industry.
Traditionally, the program covers everything from singing and dancing to improv sessions, to monologue and scene study classes. Students learn discipline and grit from the “wunderstudies,” performers who learn eight tracks or more to cover many roles in one Broadway show.
“We bring in the glamour! A parade of Broadway stars to tell their stories and share the inspiration of their successes. And we bring in the grit, the rigor of a top-notch Broadway training program,” shares Gilad.
This year, it will also bring something extra. Zoom-audition training.
The New Normal
Broadway shows are now holding auditions and callbacks via Zoom and video submission. So, Broadway Custom will focus on teaching students how to best present themselves as a theater actor on video. From lighting to spacing to audio, this new medium is something that Gilad sees as an important part of a performer’s repertoire in a post-COVID world.
“I saw young performers sabotaging their own chances because they simply didn’t know how to go about a virtual audition,” shares Gilad. “We wanted our candidates to come in knowing how to carry themselves, project an air of self-confidence, and present themselves in the best light. I wanted to share that information and develop those skills with them, on and off stage.”
At the start of the program, each student can expect to receive a host of “swag”. Together over Zoom, the group will open various items that support the activity or focus of the day. Nightly, there are optional activities including Virtual Broadway Show Night, Virtual Dance Party, Broadway karaoke, and of course the students’ own performances.
An Unexpected Bonus
Aside from simple know-how, Gilad is determined to maintain the community feel through the digital platform. An unexpected side-effect of this virtual shift? That community is now truly global.
“I love to see how theatre-loving kids from Ghana, Australia, India, all connect so beautifully in one week,” says Gilad. “It’s a real global community that is created, and that’s a big part of what Broadway Custom strives to create.”
Another unexpected bonus? Thanks to the pandemic, stars who are usually busy working eight shows a week have signed on to help teach the program. Students will meet and learn from their favorite theater stars from Frozen to Beetlejuice to Hamilton and more.
To say that the 2020 Broadway season has not turned out as expected would be an understatement. But in the face of COVID-19 closing theatres across the globe, Sue Gilad and the Broadway community have proven that digital integration can work for just about any business. All you need is a little creativity.
Founder of Broadway Custom