Broadway ditches age-old processes to run shows with iPads

From Elsa's magic in Frozen -- and those gigantic ice shards that rise from the stage -- to social media tak...

Posted: Nov 10, 2018 7:45 AM
Updated: Nov 10, 2018 7:45 AM

From Elsa's magic in Frozen -- and those gigantic ice shards that rise from the stage -- to social media taking on a nearly principle role in Dear Evan Hansen, the Great White Way produces some of Broadway's most elaborate and technical stage spectacles two times a day.

But behind the stage, it's a different scene: Directors and stage managers are still lugging around 10-pound production books filled with paper that's often swapped out for script and choreography changes, especially during pre-production and previews. And when understudies and new ensemble members are added hours before the curtain raises -- some of whom have never seen that scene before -- there's a steep learning curve to teach it fast.

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Now, backstage is catching up to the innovation we see in the seats.

Several shows, including Kinky Boots and Pretty Woman: The Musical, are shifting to a paperless system that packs the script, lyrics, videos, and costume and prop notes, into one spot for the director, crew and cast members.

The productions are leaning on an app from startup ProductionPro, which is already used at companies such as Walt Disney Studios to help produce film and TV shows.

During a recent rehearsal of Pretty Woman: The Musical attended by a handful of reporters, production stage manager Thomas Recktenwald ran lines with three cast members subbing in for an evening performance. Swiping through the ProductionPro app on an iPad Pro, Recktenwald showed off recent changes made to the script. It had notes scribbled into the margins via an Apple Pencil, and he tapped his way through videos that highlight blocking, broken down scene by scene.

On the choreography side, the dance captain might show the newer actors or understudies how a scene may look when a palm tree crosses from side of the stage to another, and where they'll need to stand nearby.

For last minute changes, productions like Pretty Woman are not only saving time but cutting down a significant amount of paper waste. Production associates typically sprint to copy machines to give the cast and crew a look at what's new. (On average, the show changed about 30 pages a day during its 12-week pre-production period -- and about 50 people received those copies daily). But Recktenwald or director Jerry Mitchell now pushes the update to anyone who's been given a ProductionPro log-in.

"We've gone through pages and pages of paper that have been printed, distributed multiple times a day and then recycled or discarded in the same day -- and even in the same hour -- to improve the show to what we see on stage today," he said.

ProductionPro founder Alex Libby, who started as a Broadway stage manager, came up with the concept to simplify the process five years ago when he was a producer alongside director Stephen Daldry, known for his work on The Crown and Billy Elliot on Broadway.

"We were working on a brand new show at his kitchen table in the Meatpacking District," Libby told reporters. "There was paper everywhere -- costume designs, set designs and script pages constantly changing. He looked up from this mess and was like, 'I need a way to see this almost like a musical score; where I can see the entire opus in one place. I need a window into the world that we're creating.'"

Libby transitioned from the musical world to launch his own software company, which now has 10 employees working out of its Brooklyn, New York, office. While ProductionPro is focused on rolling out the technology to even more shows on Broadway, it's also currently being used by 400 US high schools working on theatrical productions.

David McQueen, research director at tech advisory firm ABI Research, says the move to streamline large-scale productions to tablets makes sense.

"Tablets are gaining traction in many industries and businesses, from education and healthcare to lawyers and restaurants, so it is of no surprise that Broadway is also turning to them for ease of access to vast amounts of scripts and videos," he told CNN Business.

He emphasized how tablets enable real-time long-distance sharing in a relatively easy-to-use form factor has broad appeal.

"And of course, there are also the immediate benefits of reducing paper waste and literal storage space," he said. "Bye-bye, filing cabinets."

Or in Broadway's case, farewell 10-pound production books.

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