Musical theater? There's an app for that

Cast of 'Blank! The Musical"
Jim Ryan

Off-Broadway's newest show comes with a side of mobile interactivity.

"Blank! The Musical," which premieres Saturday at New World Stages in New York City, is pioneering a screen-to-stage experience for audience members. The improv-style show puts a spin on audience participation with a mobile app, designed specially for the production by Livecube, representing another step in the theater industry's adoption of digital technology.

At the beginning of "Blank! the Musical," which is being produced in coordination with Upright Citizens Brigade and ImprovBoston, audience members submit ideas for songs, lines and even the show's title using the app. Next, they get the chance to vote with the app on certain submissions, which the actors then incorporate into the show.

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The show's producers eyed the mobile format for audience participation primarily as a way of solving a common problem with audience participation in improv performances.

"If you've been to an improv show, they usually take the suggestions from the first person to yell out an answer," said Matt Britten, the show's executive producer. "I thought about how we could incorporate the entirety of the audience so the whole room gets this experience."

To develop their app, the show's producers turned to Livecube, a company that specializes in developing mobile technology for live events and conferences. For the folks at Livecube, creating an app intended for live theater meant tweaking what they usually design for clients.

"We had to set the app up so it's appropriate," in a theater setting, said Livecube co-founder and CEO Aaron Price. "For instance, we've turned off most of the other interactivity because we want people to pay more attention to the show."

The Great White Way embraces Silicon Valley

While "Blank! the Musical" is one of the first shows to develop an app for a truly screen-to-stage experience, New York's theater industry has been testing the waters of mobile technology for the better part of a decade. Much of the mobile technology developed for Broadway, however, has focused merely on the act of helping people buy tickets.

"We've seen at the most basic level the ability to transact over a mobile phone," said Damian Bazadona, co-organizer of TEDxBroadway and founder and president of Situation Interactive, a digital agency that serves a largely entertainment-based clientele.

Ticketmaster and Telecharge, the two major ticket purveyors, both have widely downloaded apps, and upstart firm TodayTix has developed a mobile-only platform to sell tickets.

Beyond trying to sell tickets, though, many shows have created apps as promotional tools. Hit musical "Mamma Mia!" created its mobile platform five years ago, and "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" reached a milestone one million downloads for its app, Bazadona said. Unlike the platform designed by "Blank! the Musical," these apps mainly offer additional content to entice ticket buyers -- from productions stills to video clips of performances.

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That said, other shows have worked to provide a rich digital experience while in the theater.

"There have been instances, certainly with off-Broadway shows, where they've encouraged people to use their phones to Tweet or to engage," said Bill Hofstetter, owner of Hofstetter and Partners, a mid-size advertising agency that caters to entertainment clients.

Besides live-tweeting, Hofstetter added that other productions have encouraged mobile phone apps as a way of eschewing the traditional Playbill program. The current production of "iLuminate: Artist of Light," also appearing at New World Stages, is in the process of developing its mobile app to include an e-version of its program, Hofstetter said.

"Blank! The Musical" app
Livecube

The digital future of Broadway: will the curtain fall on Playbill?

Yes, some shows may be quick to embrace mobile technology, but some traditional aspects of theater-going are likely to endure for a while, say some in the industry.

Case in point: The Playbill. Sure, some shows may be getting rid of their programs in favor of mobile apps, but the handout is beloved as a keepsake item.

Now that most folks going to a Broadway show expect to be handed one of these, replacing them with an app might only serve to disappoint the theatergoers.

"If you ask patrons what they prefer, the piece of memorabilia or the app experience, I'm not sure they'd pick the app experience," Bazadona said.

Instead, Bazadona emphasized developing apps for theater that improve audiences' enjoyment. One example is an app that tracks what shows you see and rewards you for seeing more shows, almost like a frequent flyer discount with an airline, he said. He also suggested a "remote control" style app that would provide you special content based on where you're seated.

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But Bazadona also offered words of caution: there's no one-size-fits-all way of developing mobile technology for live theater and it shouldn't be a distraction. After all, you don't want phones ringing and people looking down at their phones the whole show.

"Technology can play a role to enhance," he said. "But if technology is a roadblock to the experience then you need to get it out of the theater."