Hal Luftig is optimistic that theater will not die as an artform, even in the face of our on-demand, digital consumption. Children, he says, are slow adopters, but will ultimately be won over if exposed to the stage. Luftig is a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. His latest is Kinky Boots.
Hal Luftig: The value added to theater – and, you know, I know this is a debate that has gone on for millions of years and hopefully will still go on for millions of years is that there is no experience like it. It’s live, you’re live, they’re live. They’re feeding off you, you’re feeding off them, you know. And an audience senses that and that is an added value and I don’t really care how technology pushes us forward. There’s never going to be anything like sitting in a theater with, like I said, a hundred or a thousand people around you laughing, crying, you know, doing all those emotional things that hopefully good theater will do for you. And my challenge and the challenge that we have as an industry is getting people to recognize that and into, you know, the theater. And, you know, the complaint that I hear – I hear too the most about theater specifically – the price and the accessibility.
The accessibility – I’m going to go backwards. The accessibility is something as an industry – I think actually technology and the theater world can marry more. There are people out there that don’t know how to get tickets or they think that getting tickets are complicated. They don’t understand you can go online now. And I think, you know, the technology in that case has helped the theater industry tremendously. I mean there was a day – and I’m not that old but there was a day that I remember the only way you could get a theater ticket was to go to the box office. And now we’ve expanded that so it is amazing to me. The idea of it being too expensive is something that, you know, is a challenge to the industry too. And to that I always say my job is to let people know there are many ways and many different prices of seeing shows. There’s the TKTS booth. There’s, you know, direct mail. There’s email blast. We’re starting to use that technology. And so I think those two obstacles when you add it together, the added value is to get the world to understand there’s no experience like live theater. There can’t be. Live streaming, HD filming, even the audience that is listening to this conversation right now – it’s not at all like if we were sitting in a room live. And that’s the excitement of live theater.
We find that the younger generation unless they have come – been brought to the theater don’t get it. It seems like their grandmother’s form of entertainment. And, you know, to that personally I have been – and most of my career have been a big advocate of getting school children into the theater. And whether that is a Wednesday matinee where you donate tickets or we have a program right now with the city school system that we choose, you know, one school every Wednesday matinee and they get, you know, a hundred tickets. Some of the schools do it on merit, some do it on financial need, you know. Each school is a little bit different. But I find – and this is one of the greatest joys that I have as a producer is watching those kids watch a show, many of them for the very first time. And you can tell which ones are hooked. You can tell because again, their sensing without any explanation they’re watching someone live. I remember once when I was producing a musical called Jelly’s Last Jam and the late Gregory Hines played Jelly Roll Morton and we took every Wednesday matinee there were a hundred inner city school kids that got to see the show.
And one Wednesday matinee a couple of kids didn’t realize, you know, they saw it was live but they didn’t know the decorum of theater and they were screaming out Gregory, go Gregory, yeah, my man. And they were just so excited. And he kind of stopped the show and he just very calmly said, you know, we are so glad you are here. It is so cool but you know what’s not cool? I’m trying to, you know, so I’ll tell you what, man. Why don’t you like – let’s do the show that’s how this works and then you guys come backstage and we can rap. And these kids were like over the moon. And it wasn’t because they were, you know, rude but they were hooked. Man, I was watching those kids – they were so hooked onto live theater and I thought this is cool. They had just never experienced that before. You know, every form of entertainment these kids had up until this point in their life was a movie, was a TV, was a video, was a, you know, something. They had never gone and had that, you know, oh my God, there’s a person up there and they happened to know who the person was. So yeah, I love when that happens and that’s a big huge added value.
When I was a kid they were saying the great white way is dead. You know, they were calling it the fabulous invalid. I don’t believe it ever will die because of that feeling, that idea that you can’t get anywhere else. And I think the younger generation – they may be slower to get there but, you know, if we do our job right we’ll get them, you know. There are those kind of hip, cool shows where it’s cool to go and they go wow, this isn’t so bad, you know. Yeah, that’s how you kind of get them.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton