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🤩 What do you stan for?
Our first theme for 2023, and the density of Broadway fandom
stan (n): Our first theme of the year.
Hello, citizens! Paul here. Welcome to the new year at New_ Public.
So where shall we start in 2023? In my view, we have no choice but to stan.
For our purposes, the word “stan” has two meanings. One definition comes from Persian and its linguistic descendants like Urdu and Hindi, and it translates to “a place where anything abounds.” It’s the common suffix for several country names in Asia: Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and so on.
For something completely different, the Internet culture definition of “stan” stems from the Eminem + Dido hit record of the same name. Over time, “stan” evolved into an Internet shorthand for being an intense fan of pretty much anything.
Stan culture is particularly vibrant at the start of the year:
we’ll be picking apart the font sizes in the Coachella lineup announcement any day now;
your one friend’s fantasy football league is raising the stakes as we reach the playoffs;
and the Oscar races are once again wide open for everyone’s consideration.
Stanning keeps us warm through these tough winter months, and the digital public spaces that celebrate our shared fandoms can feel like a ray of sunshine piercing through the clouds.
Feedback time: show us what you “stan” for.
For the next few months, we’ll be exploring different “stans” together: the combined digital and physical spaces that celebrate and foster our most fervent passions.
I have my own personal “stan” story to share this week that I’m very excited about! But before I get into it, I want to hear from you. What do you “stan” for?
What elements of culture are you most passionate about?
How do those passions link to your sense of place, either in person or online?
To paraphrase Eminem and Dido: What are the (banner) pictures on your (social media) wall that remind you it’s not so bad? Share your “stan” with us in the comments below.
A “stanning” ovation.
As for me, I have pretty strong stan tendencies. Once I identify a passion, all my chips are on the table. And there’s one thing I’ve stanned for as long as I can remember, and that’s the Broadway stage.
I loved the place long before ever going there, starting with the first show I was ever in. I played Homer Zuckerman in a local community center production of Charlotte’s Web when I was eight. The part was rewritten to sound more like Homer Simpson, so I said “D’oh” a lot. (This did not age well!)
I also watched a lot of local shows and national tours growing up, and I always felt a sense of recognition and belonging when I sat in those seats. To quote Yip Harburg, “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”
Musicals are a medium where you feel so strongly that you have to sing about it. I felt like that all the time! And I felt that most strongly on my first trip to Manhattan in 1998. I saw four shows that year: Noise/Funk, Chicago, Ragtime, and Rent, and it was galvanizing to see new work created and performed at such a high caliber. I could barely sit still.
I realized then that, sitting in each audience, it felt like we were all feeling new thoughts together, picking up on the same vibrations, getting the same goosebumps. It’s like we were our own emotional symphony, an instrument in our own right.
How urban space activates Broadway stans.
What is it about this experience, this gathering around performance, that is so captivating? Growing up, I thought it was always the shows themselves that served as the anchor for my fandom.
But now that I’m older, I can see that it’s more than the tunes or the sets, or anything inside the theater, really. Long before we take our seats, the show begins out in public on Broadway itself, the actual street, thanks to some thoughtful human-centered urban planning.
Broadway as runway.
According to Fran Leadon in Broadway: A History of New York City in 13 Miles, “No street was better for walking than Broadway… men and women strolled down Broadway to the Battery to catch the ocean breezes. It was how they kept up with each other, how they did business, and how they fell in love.” This was true at the turn of the 19th century, and it’s still true now.
As you walk uptown from the 30s to the 40s, you approach the “bowtie,” the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue that form Times Square. This funnel of foot traffic into the “bowtie” creates the unique metropolitan phenomenon of hyperdensity, as crowds are shepherded through a crushed corridor to collectively take off and reach cruising altitude, a moment of awe and relief: a pedestrian-centered Times Square.
Times Square as public square.
Thanks to 20 years of collective urban planning, Times Square is now a proper outdoor theater in the tradition of Greek odeons and Roman amphitheaters.
We can track this most recent iteration of Times Square starting with the return of Max Neuhaus’ sound installation in 2002, then Choi Ropiha’s TKTS booth transformation in 2008, Snohetta’s reconstruction of Times Square in 2016, and most recently the massive LED displays like this wraparound performance venue from SNA.
With light, sound, and structure all in place, all you need now are the audience and the performers. Rather cleverly, thanks to the construction of the space itself, we are all playing both roles simultaneously. Is someone taking it all in, or putting on a bit of a show? In Times Square, it’s hard to know for sure, which is a large part of the appeal.
Theater houses as royal courts.
As Times Square transitions into the Theater District, predominantly between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, the theaters themselves hearken to a history that contrasts with the ever-changing technology outside.
The thirty-five Broadway theaters built between 1900 and 1930 reflected the eclectic glamor of pre-war style, from Beaux Arts to Art Deco, from Georgian to Byzantine, from Gothic to Moorish Revival. The architects of these spaces aimed to compete with the heightened glamor of Europe’s fine arts palaces, to establish these new centers as inheritors of grand cultural tradition.
How digital public space can support Broadway stans.
The street, the square, and the court all impact the theater-going experience and paint a fuller picture of what it means to be a Broadway stan. But these constructions come with their own unique challenges, and they present an opportunity for digital public spaces to shine.
Improving access through community-driven digital productions.
Like many fandoms, Broadway can prove costly. Last week, the average ticket price came in at $166.68. Even if you went the rush/lottery route, the barriers remain very real to communities who lack access to capital and resources.
In his book Towards a Civic Theatre, Dan Hutton diagnoses this inequality problem as the “luxury-hospitality complex,” a conundrum that finds venues catering to its wealthiest patrons and private interests to stay afloat and inadvertently widening the opportunity gap for underestimated communities.
How might we improve access to Broadway, and performing arts as a whole? The pandemic innovations from the past three years may provide some clues: a transparent audition and performance process for musical revivals on Clubhouse, or the crowdsourced mounting of Ratatouille the Musical on TikTok, both of which served as vehicles for mutual aid and charitable support.
If Broadway venues and productions can build upon these organic community-driven productions and offer more accessible ways to participate, theaters can extend their mission into a digital space beyond crisis response into lifelong engagement.
Reconnecting to locality through co-created digital space.
In my experience, asking a proper New Yorker to meet you in Midtown comes with some gentle ribbing and a dash of apprehension. As Rem Koolhaas stated in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, “Manhattan’s architecture is a paradigm for the exploitation of congestion,” and there’s no place more congested and exploitative than Times Square.
There are two facets to this hyperdense hypertension. First, the rise of big-budget spectacles in the Theater District prioritized tourism over a local fan base. Second, Broadway’s enduring pre-war theater architecture is inherently resistant to modern cooperative response. History and preservation are extremely valuable, but how do we maintain transparency and accountability to a community along with the legacy?
Hutton identifies a remedy to this community disconnection in Towards a Civic Theatre: amplify local influence in the creation and utilization of performance spaces. “In order to become civic, theatres must also be specific and responsive. The idea of an empty space will be something of the past,” he says.
For Hutton, this means hiring socially conscious architects and designers that consider the audience's experience with the physical space itself, a space that remains accessible to and reflective of a highly specific local public. For example, Off-Broadway spaces and productions that are more experimental in their construction are often rewarded with a larger Broadway run.
A digital public space can also serve this purpose as an extension of a civic theater. By giving communities the tools to build and adapt online theater spaces that uniquely reflect them, by opening their doors more widely and more often, theaters can connect more strongly and dynamically to their original civic purpose
Pointing toward tomorrow.
Reflecting on Broadway’s power and potential comes at an ideal time for me and my personal standom. A few days ago, I flew to New York from LA to celebrate my 40th birthday. And I’m treating myself the best way I know how: tickets to a new show every night for a whole week.
Now that I’m reporting for New_ Public, feeling new thoughts through the complex song cycle of the Internet, I’m exploring my lifelong fandom with fresh eyes and a new set of tools. And the most important thing I’ve found so far, the thing that inspires me the most, is the resilience of Broadway as a public space.
The street’s ability to change over time, to adapt to new technology within its royal courts, to brave pandemics and fires and upheavals in its squares, is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. It gives me hope that we can be just as resilient in our shared spaces, both in person and online, wherever we stan.
Waiting at the stage door.
Now that the metaphorical aisles are clearing out, I have some recommendations for further reading and reflection if you’re a Broadway theater stan like me. Or even if you’re not!
For another take on the role of theater in the larger public, read Annie Howard’s reporting on queer spaces in New York from Issue #2 of New_ Public Magazine.
One of our favorite Substacks, jessiwrites, wrote a lovely piece last August on the role of reviews and feedback for one of her successful Broadway friends.
And if the thought of reconnecting with your people and passions after the pandemic resonated with you, try this article in The Atlantic: How We Learned to Be Lonely.
Join the chat.
I’ve really enjoyed the comments and interactions with all of you so far in Substack Chat! Open the Substack app on your phone for this week’s prompt, and I’ll keep sharing interesting links there as I find them.
Merrily rolling along,