From ‘Cyrano’ to ‘Sun & Sea,’ How BAM Expanded Its Audience During the Pandemic

·4-min read

At a time when live theater and events have struggled to shake off the COVID malaise, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has had one of its most successful seasons ever.

More impressive than the records that BAM broke for buzzy shows such as “Cyrano,” the hot West End transfer that featured James McAvoy in the title role, is the fact that the arts venue was able to appeal to crowds who had never been to the complex before. Some 48% of ticket buyers were first-time visitors to BAM. In contrast, 31% of ticket buyers in BAM’s previous season were new to the venue.

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The secret, BAM leaders say, is the variety of the programming on offer. These range from “Sun & Sea,” a theatrical installation that transformed one of BAM’s venues into a crowded beach, to a selection of music programming that was curated by cultural critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. Throw in performances by comic Hannah Gadsby and music great Mavis Staples, and talks with the likes of “The 1619 Project” author Nikole Hannah-Jones and Spike Lee, and you have all the makings of a boffo few months of theater, art and culture.

“BAM isn’t just for one audience,” says David Binder, BAM’s artistic director. “We were consistently sold out this season and more often than not had a standby line. That’s because the programming is doing lots of different things. And that diversity of programming allows us to reflect the diversity of this borough.”

BAM didn’t provide data about its overall ticket sales, but leaders say its capacity percentages were slightly better than the previous year. They also note that several shows, like those with American drag cabaret duo Kiki & Herb and “Mood Room,” a dance-based exploration of Reaganism, actually added performances based on sales.

BAM’s upswing comes as Broadway ticket sales remain in the doldrums. Revenues for the 2021 to 2022 season were down more than 50% from the last, pre-pandemic season. It was a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the Omicron variant and scores of cancelled performances after cast members got COVID. BAM also saw its audience shrink in the winter when cases of coronavirus surged, but it somehow managed to never miss a performance due to outbreaks. “Cyrano” canceled a show, but it was for a non-COVID related reason.

The unpredictability of the virus may be causing problems for the theater industry, but the deep desire of people to resume some semblance of their normal lives also has fueled the popularity of BAM’s programs. Abdurraqib, who handpicked the likes of Moses Sumney, Bartees Strange, Devonté Hynes, and L’Rain to perform as part of BAM’s spring 2022 music series, said that curating the lineup helped him rediscover his love of live events.

“I was at the point where I’d kind of given up on live music,” he admits. “It became so much work to leave the house now, it was just a greater mental and emotional physical task during COVID. But watching people at these shows, seeing them as the exited the space and talked about what they had experienced, reminded me of how rapturous and transportive live music can be.”

Nestled across a few blocks in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, BAM boasts several different performance venues, from black box theaters to a turn-of-the-century beaux arts opera house. Perhaps that’s because it is located near so many apartment buildings and brownstones, but staffers say the non-profit is more approachable than other cultural institutions.

“I may be generalizing, but there’s a certain informality and openness in Brooklyn that you don’t get in Manhattan,” says Amy Casello, BAM’s associate artistic director. “It is possible to go to a show at BAM and run into a lot of people you know. That vibe, that current of connection, is kind of what provides our secret sauce.”

Its popularity is also partly attributable to BAM’s commitment to mixing star-driven projects like “Cyrano” and familiar favorites with programming that elevates new voices and highlights more experimental works. BAM recently announced that it will return with the first in-person edition of its Next Wave Festival since 2019.

The programming includes Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling novel “A Little Life,” as well as anarchistic Belgian theater collective FC Bergman’s wordless production of “300 el x 50 el x 30 el” and Ong Keng Sen’s “Trojan Women,” which fuses K-pop and Greek tragedy. Beyond the return of its Next Wave Festival, BAM will also bring back the Pina Bausch Company, one of its longest-standing collaborators. In spring 2023, the dance troupe will stage “Agua,” a show that was inspired by Brazil.

“We have to keep responding to what our audience wants and needs,” says Binder. “How we sustain this success is to draw on our incredible legacy while also figuring out ways to take us forward.”

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