What “Bros on Broadway” Says About How the Theater Looks at the Public

A Broadway lovin’ bro.

Knowing our readership, many people have already seen TheaterMania’s “Bros on Broadway” review, which has been generating a lot of discussion this week. If by chance you haven’t read it, in general, it’s the first installment in a series based on the premise that: “A lot of people don’t do theater. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s just that they don’t know they want to.” So TheaterMania is apparently going to start sending “bros” to the theater, like this week’s–an “average guy” who’s a barback, frat brother, World of Warcraft gamer, and, uh, “Pan American Middleweight Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion.” (You know, totes average.) Anyway, since we’re now known as the “Everyone’s a Critic” people here at Culturebot, more than one person has sent this to me (and I assume Andy), so I thought I’d share my own general response.

First, I don’t particularly find this idea compelling (in fact, I think it’s kind of mean in execution). And second, this is not what we’re talking about at Culturebot at all when we talk about critical horizontalism.

With regard to the first point, this isn’t an initiative about criticism at all, just to make that clear. It’s essentially audience development. And it’s not overly original. Outside of New York, regional theaters, operas, and other arts organizations regularly undertake large-scale efforts to draw in new audiences in the belief that if only more people experience art, then more people will like art and continue to engage with art. I have no problem with this, I’m just saying that at its heart, TheaterMania’s gimmick isn’t all that original.

But at a deeper level, my issue with the philosophy behind initiatives like this is that it makes one of two assumptions (possibly both) about all the people who don’t regularly experience art: that either (a) they don’t like the arts because they’ve never experienced the arts; or (b) that they don’t appreciate the value of the arts, because they’ve never experienced the arts.

Both are really problematic ways to look at potential audiences, and say more about the arts (or the institutional arts world, to be more exact) than they do the public. In both cases, the assumption is that there’s some reason people don’t “do” theater (or whatever art form). But that’s a ridiculous way to look at the arts. The “bro” was sent to see Cyrano on Broadway;  the only reasoning the article suggests for sending this guy to see this particular work is that he makes money on the side helping other guys write their online dating profiles. That’s hanging an awful lot of weight on one tiny hook to try to convince a non-theater goer to start liking theater because in this one play this guy kind of does something similar to what our bro does.

In other words, I’d never personally suggest a show to someone based on so little. Who would?

The problem underlying this is the assumption that “theater” is something we must convince others to like. Not particular artists or aesthetic practices or anything actually having to do with the varieties of how theater can operate; no, “theater” itself. It’s an existential thing. Apparently you either like it or you don’t. It’s the “butts in seats” mentality dressed up as something more interesting, as an approach to demonstrating either the importance or the entertainment value of art (whichever sticks, I suppose).

Which is silly. This guy isn’t obligated to like Cyrano anymore than anyone else is. Trying to convince people that “theater” is something “important” is tilting at windmills; people will generally think theater is important or fun when they see works that either entertain or otherwise cause them to see a value in the form. And sadly, I doubt Cyrano–or the majority of Broadway and Off-Broadway–is going to do that. Because this is theater made by people who actually do “like theater,” and they’re making decisions about what they want to see and what they think is important. I’d go so far as to argue that the entire set-up TheaterMania has constructed around “Bros for Broadway,” with its assumptions about how non-theater people think, what they might like, how we can glibly pigeonhole them (he’s a jock and a frat guy–based on a couple behaviors he’s clearly way different than us!), is indicative of how the broader theater world looks at their audiences. It’s naive and judgmental.

None of which is to say that there aren’t substantial barriers to getting new audiences engaged and invested in theater, most of which come down to fluency. As people become less and less fluent in the form, less and less comfortable with how theater actually works, it’s harder and harder to convince them to accept the high entry cost to the field–by which I mean paying relatively expensive ticket prices over and over again until they become acculturated to how theater operates and develop a genuine desire to experience it more.

When Culturebot talks about everyone being a critic, our point is generally that (a) anyone is smart enough to get something out of art, and (b) that people’s experiences are not inherently invalid. Increased fluency in the form helps achieve point (a); but point (b) can’t be discounted out of hand, even as we have to try to help people navigate initial discomfort and misgivings. The ideology driving an effort like “Bros on Broadway” is disagreeing with both. The idea is to instill in people a priori the value or importance of theater, while trying to prevent them from being discouraged as consumers by negative experiences. But that has nothing to do with art–that’s artists assuming their own value and importance and trying to cram it down other people’s throats to ensure that butts remain in paying seats.

9 thoughts on “What “Bros on Broadway” Says About How the Theater Looks at the Public”

  1. Erica says:

    What's interesting is you have 8 facebook shares for your article and Josh the "bro" has over 4,000… something to think about.

  2. Andy Horwitz says:

    Erica – it is something to think about. Popular entertainment like Broadway, by definition, has to appeal to the widest number of people possible. That's fine. You're right – Jeremy pointed out something that is actually not relevant to Theatermania or Bros On Broadway or whatever. Broadway's audience is largely made up of mainstream people who enjoy very mainstream entertainment with snappy songs, broad humor and happy endings. Theatermania is a ticketing site whose revenue model depends on consistently broadening its audience. (And that's not a dis, John Issendorf is a friend of mine and I respect his work and opinions). So Bros On Broadway is a perfectly valid marketing tactic to reach the audiences that Broadway producers want to reach. Broadway is kind of like Outback Steakhouse or Olive Garden – it suggests a more complicated palate than it actually requires.

    The work we cover, generally, is more complex and layered and, frankly, requires a different way of seeing performance. Broadway and mainstream theater are comforting, familiar and satisfying, like Outback Steakhouse or Olive Garden. The work we cover requires a little more focused appreciation, like eating authentic ethnic cuisine with unfamiliar tastes and unconventional foods. One may not like sweetbreads or strong cheeses or eel at first taste, but can grow to develop a passion for them over time.

    Our aim at Culturebot is not about being popular. It is about being thoughtful, discerning and critical. We prefer not to take things at face value but interrogate what other meanings may exist beneath the surface. That is not, necessarily, popular. I would imagine that USA Today has wider circulation than The New Yorker, probably because one is really easy to read and the other takes a bit more work, knowledge and circumspection.

    Bros on Broadway is a silly publicity stunt to bring non-discerning audiences to a bland and uncontroversial form of popular entertainment. We just have different expectations around what theater is and can be and what "audience development" actually means.

    We congratulate Theatermania on their marketing prowess and "funny" schtick. We're just glad we don't have to do it.

  3. Gordon Tromesco says:

    I was ambivalent about Bros on Broadway and this piece, but Andy: Your last comment has turned a well-written and interesting OpEd I into an aggressively elitist write-off of everything that doesn't have the CultureBot seal of approval. It now basically says "If you don't think this is stupid, like we do, then you're stupid. And Broadway is bland. We know because we're better than you." It's almost gleeful in its condescension.

    How could anyone develop a taste for "ethnic food," as you defined it, if the waiters slapped the restaurant patrons in the face and called them stupid every time they chewed a bite they werent sure they liked? You actually put in writing how you "don't take things at face value," and allude to looking deeper, but you jumped critical on the entirety of what looks like an ongoing series after the first two pieces went up. Would you post a review of a play you only saw the first 15 minutes of? I seriously hope not.

    You can't make claims about being educated minds and discerning tastemakers when you're so proud of being "above it" that you're not examining anything. The first episode of South Park I ever saw was the single most vapid, crass, stupid piece of televised dung I'd ever seen. 10+ years later, however, there's no denying that it's been the most effective mass market delivery of subversive satire and razor-sharp commentary, not to mention laughs (which you're morally opposed to? or ethically? Intellectually? What is the issue with releasing the death grip on stoicism exactly?) in the last half-century. Maybe more. Even Sondheim admits to being a fan of that show…is Sondheim too lowbrow now?

    This kind of elitist pontificating doesn't make me angry in a lasting way, but it does make me sad….if this thread is an indicator, there'll be so much reductive fighting about who is smart enough, not smart enough, or TOO smart for theater that there'll never be any actual audience development. Declaring you're tastemakers who are enlightened because you learned how to eat Korean pickles doesnt make you tastemakers. What is does is make you sound like a condescending stereotype of a critic.

    I saw the VIRGINIA WOOLF production on Broadway right now. You're telling me, and anyone that finds your post, that I saw an Olive Garden production? Next time you see Tracy Letts be sure to tell him you think he's the Fettuccine Alfredo of leading men. Oh, and then thank him for that Pultizer-winner modern epic he penned, which made a generation of audiences go, "YES, I would like to sit through a three-hour play about fractured family psyche instead of staying home and watching The Jersey Shore." No, really: Thank him. When you're done, maybe send Geoffrey Rush a note about how bland his EXIT THE KING was–that Ionesco, he really panders to the groundlings, doesnt he? And YES, there are people out there who like The Jersey Shore, contemporary theater productions AND subdued Ibsen deconstructions staged in a barn. Highbrow, lowbrow and WTF? tastes are not mutually exclusive.

    Think whatever you want about Bros on Broadway. Hate it. It's true that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But understand that this post and your follow-up comment say less about how "the theater" looks at audiences and more about what CultureBot thinks about itself–which is that you're in a position high above everyone else. Elitism, not accessibility, is the greatest enemy of art.

    Of course people read Bros on Broadway–when the choice is between reading a condescending self-endorsement or a bloke who makes them laugh, it's not a difficult choice to make.

    1. culturebot says:

      hey gordon – you're right and I apologize as that is not really what I intended to say. I just overreacted in that moment because I felt like erica – whoever that is – was playing this off as some kind of popularity contest and it felt petty, mean-spirited and high school. unfortunately I responded in-kind, which was stupid and is the downfall of the internet. Of course there are good things on Broadway (I loved Hair and will definitely be seeing the Les Mis movie) and I think if you read Culturebot regularly you will understand that we're anything but elitist.

      We don't slap people in the face at all, ever. I think you're conflating things. We work our best to make accessible work that snobby, midtown people dismiss as "weird" or "avant-garde". We think that the work we care about is just as accessible and relevant as Broadway, but mainstream writers discourage audiences from venturing into the unknown. The non-traditional theater world is incredibly welcoming of new audiences and we're more affordable. If anybody from Broadway wants to come see some the work that happens in PS122, The Kitchen, HERE, Under The Radar Festival, Abrons Arts Center, etc. We're happy to take them and discuss it with them and drink and hang out.

      We regularly resist highbrow/lowbrow distinctions, I dont' know how often you read our site, but we are just as likely to reference popular culture as "highbrow" discourse. And I love South Park but Family Guy is better. We recognize that there is no more highbrow/lowbrow from an asthetic sense, necessarily. But it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the market forces at work. And it is equally irresponsible to create false equivalences between work that is meant primarily to entertain and work that is meant to engage audiences in a different way. There is a fundamentally different aesthetic proposition being made when you go to BOOK OF MORMON than when you go see The Wooster Group. It is not a value judgement but an important distinction about what to expect and what is being asked of the audience.

      I think it is actually pretty elitist to suggest that Broadway be given due deference when midtown theater folks (and Isherwood and Brantley) are so regularly dismissive of "downtown", using outdated critical frameworks and frequently giving bad reviews to work they simply haven't taken the time to try and understand. Mainstream writers and others frequently paint an incredibly diverse body of work with a broad brush of stereotypes, using words like "avant-garde" and "experimental" that aren't even relevant or meaningful anymore.

      Also, it is worth nothing that EXIT THE KING and VIRGINA WOOLF are old plays that are very familiar to most playgoers. Broadway, generally, is not supporting the creation of challenging new work. Personally, I'm not too fond of Tracy Letts, or that post-Shepard genre of work. It is just not my taste. It isn't a value judgement, it just isn't my thing, and I don't think it is terribly innovative or new. I forget where it was, but someone once posted the NY Times Theater listings from the early 50's and you had something like 20 cutting-edge, major plays from Miller to Beckett and beyond all running at once.

      I'll admit to overreacting to what I perceived to be Erica's pointed and adolescent "we're more popular than you" comment and I'm ashamed that I rose to the bait. But I won't cop to being elitist or suggesting that Culturebot's imprimatur is a stamp of value. I think that's a misreading of what we do here and if you have been reading us for any length of time, I hope that it would be clear.

  4. Sherri K says:

    Hey Andy & Jeremy and co!

    So- The number of young playwrights and nonprofit theater administrators (20s into early 30s) excitedly sharing 'Bro's on Broadway', with only delight, and no condescension that I could tell, makes me question the idea you raise of it being mainly a kind of gross and simplistic marketing gimmick.

    There's a reason why theater people are really excited about it. Over in the new writing world (which is somewhere else between/on a continuum of the kind of work Culturebot covers, and Broadway) that I have one foot in, we younger folks are incredibly concerned about aging audiences and theater as an art form being viewed as increasingly bizarre, out of reach, and generally unimportant to the lives of young adults. So although these 'bro's' did not review new writing, I completely understood why dozens of the people in that world positively shared the article. They were enamored of the idea of 'regular' people- two guys who appear to be under middle age- attending and enjoying theater for the first time, and relating their generally positive impressions in a fun and casual way.

    Because you see there is this real drumbeat in the back of this community's minds that if we don't find a way to get regular folks in to live performance, eventually we'll no longer have live performance in any kind of mainstream way. And the 'bro's' very rarely attend the 'downtown' type venues you mention, at least partly because in these small nonprofits we (I say having been on staff at a few of them) do not have the marketing dollars to reach them. We are not on those prospective patron's radar at all.

    There have been all sorts of initiatives that go some ways to addressing this, the whole Signature/LCT3 thing of $20 tickets.. various cheap ticket 'under age 30' groups at several venues.. The increasing presence of theater being performed in non-theater spaces, which has helped bring in young audiences and folks who don't normally see theater, from Sleep No More to shows like PS122's Habit (extremely diverse aud, partially because it was free) and Too Shy to Stare (whose crowd definitely included 'uptown' and 'downtown' and 'bridge and tunnel' audiences – intriguingly mixed in the APAP presenter crowd).. and yes from marketing "gimmicks" of all kinds- which I don't view in quite the negative lens that you do perhaps, having spent years as a marketing person at various non-profits- of course I want people to be aware of shows! It's a constant battle in the nonprofit to make folks aware when you have no marketing dollars, especially to get any kind of awareness from folks who, like these Bro's, never attend theater at all. And we want those folks!

    My own small theater company SUPERWOLF was created 2 years ago for a few reasons, but at least in part to address this – regular folks not viewing theater as part of their lives- by making one-off or short run events that feel like rock shows – unique, intimate, accessible – also, events where the audience's presence is in some way necessary and where the space itself is an important character.

    One of the playwrights who posted the Bro's piece on Facebook included his comment that "these are the people I write plays for". This is a youngish guy who went to Juilliard and has already had a play on at the Old Globe, and he's making the rounds in the new writing world etc. Another playwright, a wonderful young woman who writes pieces on queerness and female gender stuff that are produced in alternative theaters all over the US, wrote on TM's post that she absolutely loves this series and wants much more.

    So, on behalf of people like that/comments like that- I just wanted to wave a little flag to let you know that there is more to this debate about Bro's than the 'Theatermania' side or the 'Culturebot' side- there are a world of us who are pretty darn thrilled about it, not laughing at the Bro's, not peeved at TM, but actually, genuinely delighted.

    Thanks for providing a forum to discuss stuff like this, guys! Hope this isn't too much of a tired ramble 🙂 it's been a big week
    Much love,

  5. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Of all the things to become such a heated argument, this one really surprises me. A couple responses in brief:

    @Erica: That comment is deeply concerning to me because it captures my initial and base-level problem with "Bros on Broadway." It's an insiderish theater world gimmick premised on the idea that other people aren't like us. It's as sophomoric. It's treating adults–smart, thinking, caring people–as though they can be neatly fit into the same high school cliques that constitute the flavor of the week drama of "Glee." To respond to a critique with a "well, this website that's far more popular than you did something that's more popular than your response means you should shut up." There's really no other response.

    @Gord/@Andy–Just for the record, my issue here isn't much to do with Broadway v. downtown or anything like that. It's a complaint about marketing and they way the theater portrays itself. Which I think is very tricky and demands deep investigation because so much of the theater world beyond the narrow commercial realm of Broadway is a non-profit cultural endeavor, whether it's Off-Broadway or LORT or contemporary performance or whatever. I think the real problems the performing arts faces are deeper and more complex than just "people would like this if only they saw it."

    @Sherri–We've talked about this offline too and I still disagree. I appreciate what you're saying. It's a truism of the field that every artist wants broader audiences and to speak to someone outside a dedicated community of artists and audiences/fans. And I wholly support that. What I don't support are gimmicks based around narrowly categorizing people. And I know, everyone keeps saying, "Dude, chill, it's just a joke." But it's actually not. It reflects the theater community's sense of itself and it's relationship to the broader culture. And what it says is sad. It proposes that the best way to reach out to new or occasional audiences is by narrowly defining them into market segments, based on quirky criteria. I really think that the theater needs to stop thinking that everyone will love "theater" if only they get to see it. Which isn't actually what I think you're saying about the new writing community (whatever that means). I honestly don't care that much about Bros on Broadway, but I'm pretty confident that for all the excitement it's getting, it's not gonna change much and in 12 months it'll be some other quirky effort to get new butts in seats that'll get the interwebs all excited.

  6. Anthony says:

    It's been encouraging to see people have a legitimate conversation online about anything, but weird to see so much of it surround what's basically satire or an The Onion piece. There's dissertation analysis happening here, which is wild. Here's my two cents: As an advertiser turned marketer, I can say from my perspective this Bros on Broadway thing in no way appears to be a sales marketing gimmick. I get that marketers and sales people are the scum of the earth and blah blah blah I'm Satan, but with that in mind just embrace im a bad person but might know what im talking about: listen to a marketer when I tell you there is nothing marketing related about "Bros." It doesn't make sense. There's no marketing meeting outside of SPIKE or MAXIM or G4 where the head of marketing would look at the head of sales and say, "Cursing and dick jokes are going to move our product at X rate over the the next quarter." "Yes, youre right." No team in their right mind would base their ticket sales foundation on sending "bros" to see shows, because it wouldn't work. The crossover audience (web + age + gender + income + recreation of choice) isn't there. This would get scrapped immediately in our office. I don't think Bros on Bway was ever meant to move tickets.

    Thats not to say there's not a gimmick. Marketing 101: a "gimmick" is a novel, shocking or innovative approach to something that makes your "audience" (readers, buyers, donors, whatever) notice you over your competitors. So the gimmick here is the columnist and the way the columnist writes. The "Bros" write in a style that makes them stand out from several hundred arts columnists and reviewers. There are people who laugh when they read them. Point for the Bros, because a laugh is something you remember. You guys get pissed when you read the Bros. Also a point for the Bros, because if you're offended you remember them too. Because their writing style is easy to read, it's also even easier to share via social media. More marketing 101 right there.

    From a marketing standpoint, this doesn't *appear* (I don't know anyone at TM, so I'm not an expert, and the audiences we market to purchase products that increase in value over time, so its a far cry from selling theater tickets) to be an attempt to marginalize audiences and squeeze money out of show-goers. It instead looks like a textbook example of someone surveying the land then saying "no one is writing about X in Z style. Why?" Someone found a new way of presenting old information. That's the name of the game across the board. In every field, from marketing to art to sports plays, we have to innovate how we share, discuss, and examine information that's been out there ad nauseum for a long time.

    For what it's worth, I think I'm what they would call a "Bro." I rock climb, was in a frat and won a cheese-eating contest once. I work in a big office where we quote Boiler Room a lot. My girlfriend, who I love with all I've got, goes to Broadway a lot with her girl friends. I don't go because I usually work really later hours or go to the gym at night. No, I'm not some stupid jerk, it's just not on my to-do list unless something like my girlfriend's birthday is coming up and I know she wants to go. I don't feel "marginalized." I'm not insulted if someone thinks Im a bro. I'm not being marketed to. I'm cool with being a "Bro." we greet each other that way in my hometown like "Hey, bro, wow, it's been so long! Miss you." Bro isn't derrogatory to me or the people I know. Maybe it's different where you guys are from. And maybe worth considering that I got filled in on all this because my girlfriend told me about it, so I googled "Bros on Broadway," and found Theatermania, and then found you, and now I'm commenting. I got all involved and wanted to say something. I should be watching Breaking Bad right now, but I thought about this stuff. So, basically, don't you all win?

    From a marketing perspective: you, Theatermania, the individual bros, the individuals shows, and broadway all got free press and are at the top of my google queue. That's good stuff, if youre looking at it from a "people are reading about this that normally wouldn't" standpoint.

    — a proud Bro from family of proud Bros and one Broette who we call Ma

  7. Josh says:

    I think that as an educator there's a reason bros on broadway hits home. It's the same papers/reviews we get from college students who are non majors taking an "intro to theatre" type course. They are forced to go and have similar responses. The upside is that despite not understanding things and having little prior experience they generally like the show or understand enough that it's not a waste. The comments from the culture bot side here have been at odds with each other… It should be accessible and appeal to a wide audience, but you cover high brow layered, material that needs extra thought? I don't get it.

    Sure some theatre takes some extra time to digest or to take in, but the theatre going culture for the most part would all understand it. We have a divide in our country. It's almost an all or nothing mindset. People who see broadway shows would likely go see something off broadway as well. These so called 'bros" wouldn't go see anything. Period. The high horse that you rode in on is part of the problem because the elitist nature is what is off putting to so many. Too often theatre is still viewed as stuffy. Groups like the neo futurists and I'll even throw out the Upright Citizens Brigade/improv everywhere are breaking the traditional constraints of "theatre" and performance. I dislike Glee for all of the obvious reasons, but I'll note that it's popular and that in and of itself says something I think that we can actually have a show about "theatre" (or whatever you want to call it) on the air and doing quite well. Also look at Smash, and PBS's Broadway or Bust. The theatre world as broken further into pop culture and our social consciousness more than it ever has in the past, and I think it all has a place.

    1. jray745 says:

      I'm not entirely sure who you're referring to as "riding in on a high horse." I actually tend to agree with you philosophically, which Is why I hated "Bros on Broadway" since it reinforces pretty much every elitist tendency the theater has, and in fact replicates the snotty high-school cliquishness of Glee. But it's also just a marketing gimmick as Anthony rightfully and eloquently points out and helps drive traffic to TM. Which is fine.

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