Pun Bandhu – Actor/Broadway Producer (2007)

The biggest reality check for me as a young actor who had just graduated with his MFA from the Yale School of Drama was that my training was not going to be enough to get me the types of roles I wanted, those roles which reflected the full breadth of my experience and which did not exist on the periphery.  I entered the producing world initially in order to create more opportunities for myself as an actor.

I think it’s important that artists of color learn how to create opportunities for themselves.  Things won’t change until more of them get on the other side of the table.  After graduating, I helped to form and served as publicity and marketing director for a theatre company that featured the work of Yale School of Drama grads.  I was also one of the founders of an Asian American short film competition through the Asian American Film Lab that has since become a national competition sponsored by such companies as MTV.   I found I loved producing.  It was tangible.  I could see the results of my efforts and I was able to use all of my skills, which I could not always do as an actor, and so in 2004 my producing partner and I embarked to produce plays and musicals on Broadway.

It is no secret that there is very little diversity amongst Broadway producers, and I’ve often wondered why more producers of color are not attracted to Broadway. There are two things that deter most people from entering the field: the belief that the business is too risky, and that you have to be rich to be a producer.  Broadway certainly is a risky business.  About 20% of all Broadway projects will recoup and turn a profit.  Only the restaurant industry has worse odds.  Still, for the projects which are able to find an audience, the rewards can be lucrative and worth the risk.  In regards to money, well, you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be a producer, but you must have access to capital, if not your own, then of those who will entrust their money to you.   These two are obstacles that every producer faces and are simply the nature of the business.  Certainly both are true in the worlds of TV and Film as well, but you see many more producers of color treading into those fields than in to theatre. There is a third deterrent, I think, which is specific to Broadway, and that is the perception that Broadway is a closed, white, all male club with membership being offered to a select few.  In my experience, the exact opposite is true.

My producing partner will joke that I have an unfair advantage when it comes to networking because other producers remember me more than they do him.   I respond that they may remember me more, but they like him more.  All joking aside, there are really very little barriers to entry into this business.  If you are bringing money to the table, very few people will turn you away.  Funny how that happens. Broadway is above all else entrepreneurial. There is no corporate structure in place, like there are in the film and TV worlds where your project’s distribution may lie at the mercy of a handful of top level executives.  On Broadway, the lead producer is the executive, and no one will tell her how to run her business.

I am, of course, oversimplifying things.  A person can’t buy his way into Broadway and expect to automatically understand how to produce theatre.  Many creatives won’t work with a producer who is inexperienced.  Theatre landlords have a say in what goes up in their theatres.  And yes, as may be expected on Broadway, there can be some pettiness towards projects—particularly those of outsiders—until they have turned into a hit with critics and/or audiences (at which point they will be revered and held up as an example).  My point is that in general, the Broadway community is welcoming of new blood and acknowledges that diversity is good for the industry.  There is plenty of room for enterprising individuals to make a name for themselves, and people of color in particular will find fewer barriers to entry in this field that they might in other industries.

Broadway is in the process of changing its image.  It has, for too long, developed an image as a past time of the elite, perceived to be out of touch with culture at large.  Over the past few years, more diverse offerings on the boards have resulted in more tickets being sold to a greater variety of people than ever before and this diversity is widely credited for the increased growth of the industry from year to year. Spring Awakening’s modern score and edgy subject matter is bringing in crowds of younger theatre goers who had previously written off musical theatre as “un-hip”, The Color Purple is a must-see for African American women who are coming by the busload, and In the Heights, with its Latino characters and spoken word rhythms, might not have been deemed Broadway material just 10-15 years ago.  While the average ticket buyer is still a 42 year old white, suburban housewife, in the 2005-2006 season, there was a 6% increase over the previous year in the number of non-Caucasian theatergoers, jumping to 2.72 million people, the highest number in the past seven years and accounting for almost 23% of Broadway attendees for the year. Offers and discounts also help Broadway shows reach a diverse audience, and the price of a Broadway ticket is in line with other forms of live entertainment, such as concerts and sporting events. As American society becomes increasingly diverse and attitudes change, the idea of what is commercial or not has begun to change.  Producers would do well not to underestimate their audience.

All of the above projects are being led-produced by white, male producers.  Some may ask, if these forward thinking producers are already taking risks on such diverse fare, and if Broadway is already breaking its own records without the need for diversity initiatives, what benefit is there to having a more diverse producer pool?  I would argue that there is always benefit to having a diversity of ideas and experiences around the table.  Different producers will bring different resources to the team.  It’s interesting to note that the youngest producers on the Spring Awakening team were those who gravitated towards initiatives in internet marketing and outreach.

I would like to think that producers of color would be more attracted to stories that reflect their experience which are as yet untold.  Those are the projects that I gravitate towards, in addition to projects that can tell a story in new and innovative ways.  While as a commercial producer I must be mindful that a project have as wide an appeal as possible, I am also guided by something that Spike Lee said, which is that “the more specific a story is, the more universal it is.”  There is a thirst for new ideas and stories on Broadway, and ambitious new producers can capitalize on it.

As Broadway’s brand extension becomes increasingly global, Broadway producers may not only find themselves asking, “will it play in Peoria?” but might also be asking, “will it play in Beijing?”  The film Pirates of the Caribbean has already found itself shut out of the lucrative Chinese market by choosing to portray Chow Yun Fat’s character as a stereotypical Asian villain.  This is not altogether different from the (still existing) ban against the musical The King and I in Thailand for portraying one of the most learned and scholarly Kings in Thai history as a savage who had to be taught Western etiquette and mores.  I remember vividly my father’s pained expression when the King had difficulty eating with a fork and knife in the movie.  Immediately after the end of the video, my sister and I got a thorough history lesson.  Similarly, an Indian American colleague of mine told me that she felt Bombay Dreams was a gross co-optation of the Indian culture.  Would producers of color have produced a different show?  No one will know for sure, but one thing is clear:  Broadway is more ready now to offer more diverse offerings than at any other time in its history.  Interested producers should find out all they can about the industry.  I highly recommend classes offered through the Commercial Theatre Institute (CTI).  It was actually a connection made at CTI that led to our first Broadway credit.  The League of American Theatres and Producers also offers free seminars through its New Producers Alliance.   I wish you all the best as you create your own opportunities.

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