Amateur Night at the Apollo

I had the opportunity to attend Amateur Night at the Apollo while visiting our daughter Jessica in New York City a few years ago.  Jesse was living in Harlem and the Apollo Theater was just a few blocks from where she was teaching at the time.  I was both entertained and pleasantly surprised at how effectively the Apollo leveraged every opportunity to engage with the community while operating an efficient organization.

The Apollo Theater is a historic site, in a historic neighborhood, operated by a nonprofit organization.  I’ve come to think of historic sites in terms of museums and monuments.  While the Apollo is both of these, it is also a working theater with a busy schedule.  Nonprofits are sometimes thought of as inefficient and noncompetitive.  The theater appears to operate quite efficiently and, as we soon learned, provides for an intensively competitive environment.

Amateur night at the Apollo has an air of the Roman Coliseum laced with conservative economics.  The crowd decides the fate of the performers through their reactions to the performances.  The champion of the night is the performer who has impressed the audience through the quality of their performance.  Those who the audience doesn’t feel are ready for prime time receive the hook as they are booed off stage. 

For such an old theater, they used the most up-to-date technology.  Our tickets were scanned at the door.  The sound and lighting systems were state of the art.  The staff moved everyone to their assigned seating area with the efficiency one would expect from the most modern of facilities. 

To think this is all there is to the Apollo experience would be over simplification.  While the Apollo Theater clearly prepares performers with the lessons that it’s a cruel world and only the strong survive they also invest a great deal of time and energy preparing young people for that hard, cruel world. 

The MC for the evening provided us with an overview of Amateur Night:

  • Performances are judged by the reactions of the audience
  • If a performer does well, applaud and cheer
  • If a performer does not do well, boos and jeers are the way to let them know
  • Based upon the reaction of the audience, one performer will be chosen as the winner for the evening
  • There are two categories of performers ; children, and adults
  • Warning:  we don’t boo our children

The night started with a series of performances by young people.  Some clearly needed additional work, while others were amazingly talented.  As expected, the audience was polite and supportive of the young performers.  After a short break the adult performances began.  The crowd was much more critical of the adult performers.  While the audience wasn’t mean, they did not hold back from letting the performers know how they felt.  Only one performer got the hook but another came very close as the audience recognized she had not prepared a chorus to compliment her original music.   

Between acts, the MC shared information about the theater and staff.  The show was being staffed by high school students.  The theater also provides paid internships through its Apollo Theater Academy.  Internship applicants are cautioned that:  “The application process is competitive. Not everyone who applies will be selected to participate.”

Lessons learned:

The Apollo Theater is a performance space but it is also a place in the community.  That sense of place is apparent at many levels.  I felt like we did, rather than attended, Amateur Night at the Apollo.  Even people who might find themselves too timid to go to Harlem are likely to have some sense of the Apollo Theater and its place in the history of the neighborhood and the country.  That sense of being a part of the theater’s history (present and future), the lives of the performers and crew came through as the evening unfolded.

Even though the Apollo Theater is a historic place and Amateur Night has a well defined process, there was a celebratory vibe to the night.  Within this atmosphere the MC provided brief history lessons and nuggets of information.  Through the experience of the evening and in reviewing the Apollo Theater’s web site it is clear a great deal of attention goes into making the best use of the space and how to leverage opportunities to be a part of the community.  Scanning tickets at the door is efficient but providing opportunities for high school students to produce a live show builds future capacity in countless ways.

The Apollo Theater is a historic place run by a nonprofit organization.  It is also a state-of-the-art performance space that operates in a highly competitive market (You can get to Times Square from 125th Street pretty quickly on the #3 train).  Customer satisfaction is clearly valued, as are community, performance excellence and the development of young people. 

Applying the lessons:

In reflecting at our time at the Apollo Theater I’m reminded of efficiency versus effectiveness.  As a business operation the Apollo Theater appears to operate quite efficiently.  As a cultural icon the Apollo Theater appears to be pretty effective at maintaining a place where talented African-American artists can grow and showcase their talents.  Their mission is summarized as “Honoring the legacy, advancing the path.”

Some thoughts to carry away:

  • Space vs. place:  How do you define space vs. place?  Are the people who are most important to you provided with a sense of belonging in the spaces you create for them?  How are the comfort, growth and opportunity for expression (yours and others) realized?
  • How are efficiency and effectiveness traded in the activities you engage in?  When could taking things just a bit slower create an opportunity for people to grow?  When might raising expectations just a little higher create an opportunity for people to shine?
  • Using only direct observation, how would you describe the mission and values of the people/places you are most actively engaged in?  How do you convey your own mission and values through the places and spaces you create for others?

For more information about the Apollo Theater go to:


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Copyright 2016, Dan Lococo.  All rights reserved.

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