Bonnie Comley is a creative visionary. She is a three-time Tony award winning producer, has won an Olivier Award and two Drama Desk Awards for her stage productions. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the co-founder of BroadwayHD which is the only streaming platform in the world which offers premium full-length stage plays and musicals captured specifically for multi-platform viewing to theatre fans across the globe. The platform currently delivers over 300 premium live productions from the West End and Beyond.
The theatre community has also honoured Comley for her philanthropic work; she is the recipient of The Actors Fund Medal of Honour, The Drama League Special Contribution to the Theatre Award, The Paul Newman Award from Arts Horizons and The Theatre Museum Distinguished Service Award.
In this interview, I speak to Bonnie Comley about the magic of theatre, how technology is transforming this artform, and how to lead a successful business in the creative industries.
Q: Why is theatre such a powerful artform?
[Bonnie Comley] Theatre is one of the oldest art forms and traditions we have across cultures, across continents I think you know theatre has survived for thousands and thousands of years because people want it to survive.
People support it, they just love that communal experience of getting together and sharing our common humanity. I think that’s the core of it. The best kind of theatre is the one that starts and ends with good storytelling. If you have a good story and a good storyteller, then it’s an art form that’s just going to continue.
Q: Why did you make theatre your life?
[Bonnie Comley] I kind of’ fell into theatre! I wasn’t somebody who grew up going to the theatre. I’m from a middle-class family and the only theatre was when your siblings were doing something in the high school musical or in middle school, so I didn’t plan on getting into theatre.
My undergraduate degree was in Business, my master’s degree was in Television Production. I started off doing recording, segment producing and writing and then became a host of a national TV show on the travel channel called Nightlife TV in the eighties. I was covering New York entertainment and theatre and that was how I was introduced to it. I hadn’t seen professional theatre until I was an adult. I went in covering it with cameras and being there to report to people that couldn’t get inside those four walls and what was going on inside the theatre.
That was always where my sense of a ‘live piece’ came together with the technology to bring theatre outside of the four walls. So, I wasn’t someone who is looking to go into theatre or being ‘cast’ in the shows.
But once I got in, I started covering theatre… people would quite often tell you about their first experience of going to Broadway or going to live theatre…they would describe it with goosebumps, life changing or affirming beliefs that they had, or a feeling that they weren’t alone. That was special. I was able to blend with all the making of theatre: going to theatre, being in theatre and then bring it to others, that I just love all the different aspects of the career path that I’ve had.
Q: How is technology transforming theatre?
[Bonnie Comley] If you look at the theatre done 2500 years ago – it was the storytelling. Maybe they had torches or flames there. Over the years as technology has been invented it’s been brought into the stage and into the theatres and with each new piece of technology that’s introduced there’s always been an uproar! ‘What do we need those candles for? we’re fine with torches!’ Or people would say ‘…why would we need electricity for we have candle light!‘ – People objected to microphones saying that’s not real theatre! So, there has always been resistance to technology coming into our pure theatre and storytelling. But eventually people get over it and say well actually it does work.
Technology is there in making theatre with microphones and projections and lighting effects and all of that is now all generated on computers and run-on computer programs, and they are tweaked by the designer’s technicians.
Technology is there to market and sell those tickets for the shows and then there is technology around distribution, which is what BroadwayHD did, it came in and to bring the technology into the theatre to say you had these great shows! Why are you limiting it to just bodies that just sit there!
My theory is by the time a show gets into the Broadway theatre it should be shared with the rest of the world! It’s unfortunate that we have so many shows that just don’t last.
Sometimes we find with revivals that things work better the next time around. It could be that the temperature of an audience or culture has changed how they think about things, and we are more open to that now.
The reality is this… On Broadway there’s 41 Broadway theatres and pre-Covid the turnover in those theatres was that we would have an average of 30 new shows a year. If the resistance what we call in the theatre industry is ‘Cannibalisation of the live ticket sales,’ which means producers who’ve invested $20 million into this new musical, they are afraid as they need to make their money back! A ticket at a time that’s how they make their money back. The ticket sales can be hindered by fear of something streaming online or at the Box Office. So that fear has always been there.
With BroadwayHD our goal was from the beginning it was let’s just do it every show that’s on Broadway. Let’s do it out there because we believed that was a marketing tool. The full-length digital capture of a show is what we believe is the biggest commercial that you’re ever going to have…but everybody else didn’t agree with me.
So, what we did we focused on the shows that were closing and the reality was that there were more shows closing than that were opening so we had all of that to pick from to after that. That’s how we got our content, and it wasn’t until the pandemic that the ‘cannibalisation of the live ticket sales’ was put aside.
Disney licensed a Hamilton after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” and they had said they were going to put it into movie theatres first but due to the Pandemic they decided to release it early on Disney Plus. That was tremendously popular as it brought that show to people who couldn’t see it when it came around and they had to pay a premium ticket price. Many people hesitated due to the expense. But now they were able to view for a much lower price point, that video version of exactly that show, they can’t wait till they buy tickets to see the ‘live’ version. Other shows ‘Come from Away’ (a Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) is doing the same thing. Dear Evan Hansen, is also a movie, so there are different touchpoints that you can have in the same brand for the same show.
Q: Is digitisation of theatre transforming audiences?
[Bonnie Comley] Streaming is increasing the fan base of theatre… in the United States, (I’m talking pre- pandemic), we have 350 million people. In a typical year 70% of those 350 would go to a movie theatre and see a movie. Whereas only 15% of those 350 million would go and see a live theatre show. We are not a theatre going culture and we think the reason for that is because we didn’t grow up with it! it’s not (in general) on our entertainment radar! People would do other things like attend a sports game or go out to dinner… part of it is learned behaviour of what we can do in our spare time. Part of that is sense of belonging.
Broadway specifically, Opera, Ballet, dance, and those heightened classic pieces, that people were put into these beautiful stunning theatres. it’s ‘high art’ in culture, it was for people who had higher disposable incomes, higher education (usually) and they also had more leisure time, which the middle classes and if you look beneath that didn’t have and so had less exposure to.
I read Shakespeare because I had to in high school, but I didn’t go and see those productions and even when I went to see them, I struggled with the language because it wasn’t familiar to me… and no one wants to feel foolish, especially if you pay a big price or something. In the United States the National Endowments for Arts started here in the 1960s and the purpose of that was to open the creative experiences that were exclusive to other people and opening them up. Every culture, every county around the globe has public education because they wanted their population to be workers. They weren’t encouraged to be creative thinkers… it was math, reading, or science… art was always a place that was reserved for this ‘high art’ in culture for this different class of people.
When the National Endowment for the Arts wanted to share it with other people, it was resisted. This education system that we have from when we turned from agricultural communities and societies into industrial – it’s working as everybody can read and they can do their math and science. So does anybody need art, and do we need to waste our time with that? Again having a technology company and being a big fan of data when this started, to being able to be tracked…we have opened theatre to other people what are the results – what was seen is that these communities that have large theatrical organisations in them have higher rates of graduation from high school, higher rates of going into college, higher rates of voting, higher rates if their community ‘giving back’ the way of volunteering whether it was at their church or temple .. so, it makes it a much more cohesive community and therefore a safer community. That was one part of it.
With the Broadway League, tracking the statistics…what they found was the economic impact of Broadway theatres on the cities and community and that impact was in the billions of dollars. It was clear in the pandemic when we in the United States got our Shuttered Venue Operator Grant (SVOG) of 16 billion dollars because using all these statistics the government looked at it and said you know what these big arts institutions, and if these theatres fall apart, they recognised that they [theatre industry] are the anchors of these communities. Compared with the auto industry when that industry left there was no cultural anchor.
Everybody is understanding the value of the arts. It has tremendous economic impact. It’s fascinating when you add the data and dollar sign you get much bigger players that are interested in what you are doing.
Q: How did you persuade the industry to move towards digital transformation?
[Bonnie Comley] My husband is my business partner and he’s a theatre owner. Both of us are members of the Broadway League, which is the Trade Association for the Broadway producers, presenters, and theatre owners, so we were not coming from the outside. We expressed that our passion is for this ‘live’ experience, to share it with other people, our mission is to expand the fan base, so instead of it being 15% of the United States population that’s going to attend live theatre we want it to be the 75%. People respected that, and the other thing is we did understand the players and their concerns.
There are 14 different unions (that make Broadway shows) when we approached them and said we are trying to make the industry more successful trying to get more people in here and any other way to make money. The digital capture on the filming if that’s added to the business, we believe it is and we believe it’s a long-term commercial for each show. When we started 10 years, cameras were in phones and now piracy was easier as every person had the potential to be a ‘bootlegger.’
The Union saw this and said ‘bootleg’ also promotes theatre to people who can’t get there. BroadwayHD captures with ‘authorised’ filming or digital captures of these shows and everybody who needs to be compensated is so as it’s standardised, without individually having any negotiations with the Unions. People preferred the standardised digital captured filming with 14 cameras and all the sound coming from a bodycam compared with a ‘bootlegged’ illegal filming, it’s a no-brainer! The quality is there with BroadwayHD and the shows are there as well controlling it and the timing of it.
When we launched in 2015 the conversations were different compared to the conversations now. People are familiar with the digital capture for a live capture also called ‘Pro-shot,’ as it’s a professionally shot. Those are the terms for it. BroadwayHD aggregated all the content all in one place, one destination – we have all the apps (you can watch the shows on you phone, tablet, big screen).
BroadwayHD is an affiliate member of the Broadway League, in addition to being a steaming service we are also a support and a service business to this industry because that was the whole purpose… to get more people to go to the theatre. It was always about how to we promote that. It wasn’t about grabbing that one big show…which is what the big guys did –they are looking for the Superbowl, Disney was able to spend $75 million to licence Hamilton. For BroadwayHD – that doesn’t make any sense! Netflix bought that Diana Musical.
People see what a digital capture is and say, ‘oh this is actually the show.’ We believe there are multiple touchpoints for each of these brands. So, you can have a West side Story from the 1950s or a West Side Story that just came out yesterday… a soundtrack, record …. The shows that we have you can do a movie and you can do a digital capture because they are two different things. Some of the problems being experiences are when the Broadway shows are being turned into movies is that they try to recreate what’s on the stage! It’s hard! Many of Broadway talents have spent years on these musicals and then they are replaced by movie people.
These movie people are recognised by other people and I suppose it’s part of the business of it but you lose something when you take away the chemistry of what the Broadway talents had for seven years together and just that magic of being in front of the audience at the same time, in real time…so these digital captures…so if the shows are 2 hours – they are shot in 2 hours!
It’s basically a sporting event as it’s in real time. When people are viewing that – it’s like fireworks. Not like a movie which can take 6 months to shoot, etc and edits and retakes.
The digital capture really makes you appreciate the local theatres and propelling people to go watch a show…what you have on stage and then in turn makes the people want to go and see a ‘live’ show.
The stigma of watching theatre on screen is gone, especially during the pandemic.
That is what the legacy of BroadwayHD is about.
It all adds up to the experience.