The Tech That’s Bringing Broadway Into the 21st Century

For an entertaining time that’s essentially NYC, you can do no better than a show on Broadway. While many other pre-internet forms of entertainment fall by the wayside, the Broadway box office is thriving, with the 2016-17 season (running from May to May) the highest grossing year Manhattan’s Theater District has ever experienced. Robust ticket prices account for some of these high receipts, but how is it that the oldest performance art of them all, stage acting, is able to continually draw huge crowds in our technology-influenced age?

The answer is simple: with their own takes on cutting-edge technology. Today’s Broadway productions incorporate modern tech in a number of ways: from advanced production values to the scripts themselves, to all-new methods of delivery. Broadway audiences have always demanded the best in showmanship and craft and thanks to new technology, modern shows are able to deliver both in droves.

On Stage

The music and choreography, as always, is top-notch, but a growing number of shows are now boosted by an infusion of high-tech stagecraft. When adapting a blockbuster film whose audiences arrive with memories of CGI-laden animation in their heads, the stakes are higher than usual. Big budget crowd favorites like Aladdin and Frozen moved from the silver screen to the Great White Way seamlessly thanks to custom designed special effects. With audience attention at a premium thanks to all the distractions at our fingertips, the premier shows of Broadway have brought in tech experts to create an unmissable experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

In the Script

For all the allure of eye-popping setpieces, the heart of any good show is in making the lives of its characters real. For a contemporary show like Dear Evan Hansen, that means integrating everyday tech into the lives of its teen characters in an honest and organic way. The 2017 Tony Winner for Best Musical plot centers around a viral hashtag that spirals out of control, forcing the title character to reckon with the role the Internet plays in his and countless other teenagers’ lives. It’s a thoughtful take on modernity, one that’s resonated with audiences and critics in a major way.

Into Homes Worldwide

Even for shows with minimal special effects, technological advancements have expanded possibilities for reaching a new audience. 2017 saw the first-ever Internet live stream of a Broadway show, the beloved musical She Loves Me beamed to computers, phones and tablets nationwide for a wallet-friendly $10 price point. Affordability and convenience are two things that we don’t often associate with a trip to the Theater District, so if this development truly catches on, we might see wholesale changes in the way shows are produced and sold.

 

From the stage to the audience, there’s no frontier that changes in tech aren’t touching on the Great White Way. Worries about falling into irrelevance seem to be unfounded when looking at how well this perennial attraction has adapted for the 21st Century.

By |2019-05-30T19:16:37+00:00April 10th, 2018|Technology|

What The Shed at Hudson Yards Means for Public Space in NYC

The nonprofit art center the Shed will open in Spring 2019 at the High Line next to 15 Hudson Yards, at the edge of the Public Square and Gardens. While it has come under some fire for its price tag, lack of clear programming, and even its original name (the Culture Shed), what I find most interesting is the physical opening and closing of public space which the shell of the Shed makes possible. The flexible space, combined with the hiring of a chief technology officer who is known for creating real-world video games, suggests we are only just beginning to understand how we will interact with the Shed.

As a physical space, the Shed is in three parts: a building, a shell, and a plaza. The building will be eight large floors of display space total, including two levels of galleries, a theater that can merge into the outdoor plaza, a rehearsal space, a creative workspace for artists, and an events space at the very top. Covering over the entire building is a large, mostly transparent shell of metal and glass. Next door is a 17,000-square-foot plaza. When the shell is covering the building, the plaza is open for public use and as an outdoor performance space. However, when the shell rolls out to cover the plaza, things get interesting.

The shell of the Shed will be 120 feet high and mounted on rails so that an outdoor space is made into an indoor space with a pull of the lever. All of the necessary electrical equipment and platforms are built into the shell and so roll out with it. Of course, several features of the High Line already make use of rails, in homage to the trains below, but the wheels and rail for the Shed will be a new scale, with three large gray wheels on each side. It’s easy to see the possibilities for aerial and multi-level performances in that space.

Looking at the video on the Hudson Yards New York website for the Shed, the exterior walls of the building can also move to accommodate and meld with the plaza. On the sides of the shell, parts can open and close to create entryways and adjust flows of foot traffic.

The High Line averages 4 million visitors a year, so the exterior plaza of the Shed will be a natural place for foot traffic to pool, whether they visit inside or not. Also, the side of the shell facing the plaza can become a large projection screen, which can project shows or images to be viewed by those passing by.

Public space is sacred in New York first as part of the iconic 1961 Zoning Resolution which influenced the shape of skyscrapers with the idea that open parks and public spaces would surround them. The Shed has been criticized for its price tag of more than 500 million, and construction photos which make it look like a skeleton of the AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars don’t necessarily help. But is the plaza enough?

The American Planning Association outlines several questions for determining if a public space is any good. The questions as if it can:

  • Reflect the community’s local character and personality?
  • Foster social interaction and create a sense of community and neighborliness?
  • Provide a sense of comfort or safety to people gathering and using the space?
  • Encourage use and interaction among a diverse cross-section of the public?

We will have to see how people feel once the construction is complete, but I suspect that the use and interaction will be heavily influenced by our digital lives. Why do I think this?

The Shed has hired Kevin Slavin as the chief science and technology officer. He has a popular TedTalk on algorithms which has nearly four million views. He is also a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and co-founder of a gaming company that used location technology to create large, real-world games. This is worth thinking about because the public space of the Shed can really extend to cover the entire High Line area. Could interactive events begin all over New York, and end in the plaza of the Shed? Is the removal of walls both physical and digital?

The Shed is designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the same firm hired for the MoMa’s unsuccessful Art Bay, in collaboration with Rockwell Group. While there is still a lot left to learn, I suspect that digital art and interaction through smartphones and technology will be a major part of the Shed’s arts programming, which is an exciting prospect.

By |2020-02-11T16:49:35+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

How Urban Planning Shapes Art, Music and Culture

The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.

You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.

For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.

Art & culture

Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.

The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.

For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.

In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.

Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.

But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.

But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.

Music making

Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.

1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.

“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”

The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.

Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.

Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.

“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”

Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.

What it all means

Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.

Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.

Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.

For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.

Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:10:38+00:00March 29th, 2016|Culture, Urban Planning|