Barclays Center’s Cushman & Wakefield: Inside New York City’s Hidden Theater (Q&A)

Radio City Music Hall. Beacon Theatre. The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

These are just a few initiate-sized music venues that most New York concertgoers are familiar with. But here’s a name you might not recognize just yet: the Cushman & Wakefield Theater.

Since opening in September 2012, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn has made quite a splash in live entertainment. Last year, with the help of superstars like Jay Z, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Justin Bieber, the 19,000-capacity arena ranked No. 3 among the top-grossing venues in the world with capacities 15,001 or more, earning $83.5 million and drawing 1.1 million people, according to Billboard Boxscore.

Like many other U.S. arenas, Barclays Center has the ability to scale down its capacity to an intimate theater configuration. Arenas often function well as theaters, with such features as wall-to-ceiling curtains, ambient lighting, chandeliers and carpeting. Barclays’ Cushman & Wakefield Theater, which seats between 4,000 and 7,700 people, has hosted a wide range of events, including theatrical performances, concerts, music festivals, boxing matches and comedians.

“The name of the game is intimacy and flexibility,” Tyler Bates, director of booking at Barclays Center, tells Billboard. “What we try to express to people is how we can make it right for the event with the right look and feel -- how promoters, agents and managers can go about accomplishing things here on different scales.”

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Indeed, Barclays Center has made good use its intimate performance space. Over the years, the Cushman & Wakefield Theater has hosted such musical acts as Alejandro Fernandez, Kid Cudi and Rodriguez. Beginning July 30, the venue’s reduced-capacity setup will feature seven performances of Cirque du Soleil touring production “Varekai.” Prior to that, New Edition will play the theater on June 29.

Outside of the theater configuration, Barclays Center also has spaces available to rent for private functions, including luxury clubs, bars, restaurants, the plaza in front of the facility and the arena floor itself.

Billboard spoke with Bates about the origins of the Cushman & Wakefield Theater, how the venue competes with other similar sized venues in New York, whether there’s still a negative stigma attached to playing “cut-down” arenas, and much more.

Was the theater configuration inside Barclays Center part of the original construction plan for the arena?
It was factored into the design. There’s a whole upper bowl curtain on a remote system, where you push a button and the curtain drops and covers up the whole upper bowl really nicely. We have a house reduction curtain that goes all the way across the rear of the stage. So even if you’re sitting in the last seat of the lower level in one of the rows and you’re looking at the stage, you’re not looking behind the stage into a bunch of empty seats. It was well thought out and it has definitely catered to some of the success we’ve had here, because it wasn’t an afterthought or retroactive installment. It has a clean and intimate look that we can create.

Are booking agents, promoters and managers surprised to learn that Barclays has a theater setup? It seems like it’s been a bit under the radar.
It’s definitely not a surprise. It’s just trying to understand what makes sense for an artist -- from an agent and manager’s perspective. There are a lot of situations where this makes sense and we’ve seen success, but it’s not for everyone. I don’t take offense to that. We try to emphasize the fact that we’re a flexible building and can create a smaller, more intimate vibe. Early on, it was, “OK, it’s another cut-down.” But then when people came and saw it, they realized it was something cool and unique to Brooklyn. It doesn’t really exist in New York City. It offers flexibility and options. That’s been helpful.

New York has quite a few midsize concert venues. What does the Cushman & Wakefield Theater offer that others in the market don’t have?
I think inherently you get all the amenities you’d get when you come to a state-of-the-art arena. There’s no shortage of backstage space and technical assets. We still have the accessibility and all the things the arena has to offer, but we can make it into a smaller, more intimate setting. It helps the fans too. We have 11 subway lines … so it’s easy to get here. There’s definitely a lot of competition, but it’s not switching three subway lines and walking 10 blocks to get to the Warehouse or Park.    

Do you get into many bidding wars with other venues?
Not really. We feel that New York is a big market and there’s something for everyone. We obviously want to get the biggest and best, and right, acts and events for the theater and arena, but it’s been pretty consistent with a progressing level of interest.

One of the challenges with theater-in-arena setups is convincing artists that they're not playing cut-down buildings. Do you find there’s still a negative stigma that goes along with playing reduced-capacity arenas?
It does. But what we’ve done here and what we’re aiming to show is changing that a little bit. It’s one thing if you’ve toured arenas and don’t want to take a step backwards. But it’s another thing if it’s a stepping stone. That’s really been an asset to us in helping people understand -- you can do 6,000 seats here in New York City. Maybe you’re only doing 2,000 in Boston or Philadelphia, but if you really want to get in front of as many fans as possible and do it in a conservative way, this is an option. People are listening to that more than they did before.

Were all the concerts you’ve hosted so far at Cushman & Wakefield Theater booked for the scaled-down configuration, or were some originally planned for full capacity but reduced because of poor ticket sales?
They’re always booked for this configuration. It’s always a conscious decision, because we have the ability to be somewhat flexible once we go on sale with something. But we’re not going to move the stage or blow it out and lose that kind of feeling. Everyone who I’ve spoken with and work with are on the same page, in that you don’t want to go out and do one thing, then turn it into something it wasn’t intended to be. This isn’t something, like, go small and then roll the dice. We want to make it feel right for the show.

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What other types of events are you trying to book in the theater setup outside of music?
We have something called the Daily News Golden Gloves, an amateur two-day boxing tournament. We do that in the theater configuration, where we put the ring on one end and hang the curtain where we do for everything else. That has a great look and it’s a unique experience. On one hand, for boxing you think about a massive event. But for something like this, you’re bringing the action closer to the fans. That’s helped out a lot. It’s been mostly a variety of musical acts in there. We’re open to exploring a larger variety of performing arts.

Are you mostly pitching the theater configuration to agents and managers, or do they typically approach you with wanting to play in that capacity? How do those conversations come about?
It’s always different. I could write a book about how certain things get booked and it would be a million pages long. Sometimes you’re talking to a particular agent and they say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” We’ve also got great programming partners with Live Nation, AEG Live and Bowery Presents. They have their ear to the ground, and when someone says they’re looking for 4,000 to 6,000 seats, this is something worth talking about. Other times we’ll think of something.


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