31 days of giving

At the beginning of December, my sister Heidi did something awesome. She’s generally great, but this was extra super cool. She posted this on her Facebook timeline:

After 30 Days of Thanksgiving and the positivity that it brought to my life, I was trying to think of something for December. I have come up with 31 Days of Giving!

It is the season for giving, and so every day this month I am going to tag a friend and ask them what not-for-profit organization they think is worthy of a donation this holiday season.

It’s not an invitation to debate the worthiness of the charities, merely a way for everyone to find out about organizations they didn’t know about that might align with their values to donate to this holiday season.

Remember, a $25 donation to a not-for-profit is tax deductible.

When I asked her if this was her idea or part of a larger campaign, she said, “I came up with it. I thought it would be better than a charity a day from me, that I’d get a wider view of places where people could focus their giving.”

Heidi is half way through the month, and she’s received a response from every friend she’s tagged. Below, are the suggestions she’s received to date. I’m not officially endorsing any of these organizations, except for the one I personally shared on December 4.

December 1     Heifer International
December 2     Mattea’s Joy
December 3     More Birthdays
December 4     terraNOVA Collective
December 7     Colorado Strong
December 9     Wounded Warrior Project
December 13   Stray Rescue
December 14   Human Rights Council
December 15   Autism Speaks

 

One of Heidi’s friends made the good point you should confirm causes aren’t scams before donating. She shared an article from Consumer Reports on how to vet organizations.

There are only 15 days left in 2012 to donate to a worthy cause. Do any of these strike your fancy? What charities or not-for-profit organizations do you support?

found poem from a chat with jay z, warren buffett and steve forbes

Steve Forbes sat down for a conversation with Warren Buffett and Jay Z about success, hard work and philanthropy. It’s a wonderful portrait of two men from different generations comparing and contrasting their lives. I took a few notes and created a little sound bite found poem. Some of the words are direct quotes, some are the spirit of what was said, and some won’t make sense unless you watch the video. Guess who said what, and then see how many you got correct.

Start young. Be smart enough.
Don’t lose your shit.
Truth. Authentic. Discipline. Luck.
Do what you love. Don’t give up.
Embrace change. Practice. Take time to develop. 
Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. 

1 + 1 = 3. 
Try to create once in a lifetime experiences. 
The best boat you can have is your own talent. 
Education is important.
Emulate people you admire. 

Give back generously; you will have enough to live.

Thanks, Arian Moayed, who shared this video in the social feeds.

authentic listening, part 3: empathy and listening

This is the end of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the world. You can read part one here and part two here.

A couple weeks back, I wrote a bit about empathy. We live in a powerful moment in Time. Like never before, people put their ideas and emotions out for everyone to see. It should be easier than ever to understand each other, but there’s still a disconnect. Instead of seeing the humanity in each other, we selfishly lash out – often violently – at others.

In the first part of this series, I wrote about breaking the offline/online binary barrier. It’s all one. To separate the two limits how we listen to each other. Bringing them together enables us to listen to our audience and be better story architects.

Part two examined theater companies that equally listened to their own hearts and audience to create an entire theater movement, Geek Theater. I discussed part two with some theater artists, and a debate rose over the term, Geek Theater. Is it a movement, or just another way of branding?

Brands aren’t always movements. But most movements are brands. That’s because, like a movement, brand is an action. Over the 20th Century, advertising and marketing co-opted the term brand to mean many things, and they shifted away from the visceral physical action of what a brand does. It moves people. Traditionally, companies try to move an audience to buy a product. The strongest brands become a way of life for its audience. This can spark a movement. To foster that movement, you must have empathy.

Last night, as I worked on this final part about listening and empathy, I noticed Lina Srivastava (@lksriv) respond to Marissa Feinberg (@marissafeinberg) at the Twitter hashtag #futuresocent about a statement made by one of the speakers, Bill Drayton (@Ashoka), at a talk, The Future of Social Entrepreneurship. Lina questioned whether empathy was a skill. Pam McAllister (@PamMcAllister) responded, and this was their exchange: LinaEmpathyExchange

Empathy is difficult to discuss because it has many connotations and often feels intangible. My friend, Nick Bixby, commented on the first part of this series. He related a story about a filmmaker who wanted to hire him to execute the social media for a project. Nick tried to explain to the filmmaker social media isn’t something you tack on as an after thought. It’s like a garden. You must constantly tend to it. I responded to Nick by suggesting everything is a garden – creation, marketing, development – and each part must be tended with care.

Empathy is like a garden, too. It must be tended. It’s not a skill you learn, like Power Point. It is akin to meditation. You must practice it daily to see a shift in dynamic. It is in our brains, and our brains are malleable. We can change how we think. If we listen to others closely and frequently, we can understand their perspectives. That won’t just make us better creators. It will make us better human beings.

There are people who have studied empathy much more than I. To top off this series, I’d like to return to The Futures of Entertainment 6 and share their expert thoughts. This talk is quite a bit longer than the one I shared in part one, but there is a reason for that.
It’s about listening and empathy, two topics that require deep examination.
I hope you’ll listen closely to the entirety. It may actually shift how you see other people.

If you have a clearer picture of others, you can give them what they want before they ask for it. If you give them what they want before they ask, you create a movement. And if you create a movement, you can change the world.

ListeningEmpathyFOE6FoE6: Listening and Empathy–Making Companies More Human

The panel features Lara Lee, (@laracatalyst), Chief Innovation and Operating Officer, Continuum; Grant McCracken (@Grant27), author, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer; Carol Sanford (@carolsanford), author, The Responsible Business; Emily Yellin (@EYellin), author, Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us. The moderator is Sam Ford (@Sam_Ford), Director of Digital Strategy, Peppercomm.

This series is the tip of the iceberg. I’ll return to these themes in my fiction and on the blog. I’d like to continue cultivating my own empathy by listening to you. Share in the comments below. What are your thoughts on empathy, listening and movement creation?

authentic listening, part 2: the rise of geek theater (and death of the theater geek) – an origin story

This is the second of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the way we interact with our audience and other artists. You can read part one here.

Theater people frequently lament lagging box office numbers and an aging audience that only supports the largest institutions. There’s talk that we must do something drastic to sustain our future. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about audience. Who are they and why are they waning? The solution to salvation may not be as drastic as some think.Ten years ago, Vampire Cowboys figured out the formula. A self-proclaimed “Geek Theater” company lead by playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, VC did two things. They followed their hearts, and they listened to their audience. Before VC, over-the-top, camp antics like cross dressing, wacky puppetry and goofy pop-culture references were relegated to cabarets and drag clubs. Certainly, theaters from the 1990’s like Collective Unconscious, Surf Reality and Todo Con Nada paved the way for VC to explore fringe theatrical devices. But, VC didn’t just create avant-garde passion projects for tiny downtown venues, nor did they try to fit their square-peg-style into a round theater community’s fashion. They aimed to cultivate a vast audience over the entertainment industry at large.

Vampire Cowboys was the first theater company to have an official sponsorship with ComicCon. For several years, these Geek Theater makers have manned a booth at the New York arm of the convention, offering live fight performances from their productions. Obviously, the increase in popularity of ComicCon paralleling VC’s inception is fortuitous, but the important point is they seized this opportunity and grew to cultivate loyal fans, as well as becoming critical favorites.

Another fantastic (now retired) program that VC offered was The Saturday Night Saloon. Again, building on the downtown theater models of the 90’s, VC created a monthly-serialized theater event that brought together some of the best up-and-coming playwrights, like Crystal Skillman and Mac Rogers. It also offered a regular home for actors and fans to get to know each other in an intimate setting. By involving these actors and playwrights, they expanded their talent pool and encouraged those artists’ inner geeks.

Vampire Cowboys inspired a theater movement that follows its heart and listens to the spirit of its audience. It effectively took the stereotype of the theater geek and turned it on its ear. Suddenly, it was hip to be square. More companies across New York City followed suit. Now, there are groups in Chicago and Los Angeles embracing the aesthetic. VC heralded the death of the theater geek and made way for a new hero: The Geek Theater Artist

Last season, Mac Roger’s theater company, Gideon Productions, produced his Honeycomb Trilogy – Advance Man, Blast Radius and Sovereign. It is an epic, science fiction tale about an alien invasion on Earth, the resistance and their rebuilding. The trilogy was ambitious, and ten years ago, it might have been a recipe for disaster. But Gideon learned from VC, skirted traditional theater press, and reached out to the science fiction community. They received accolades from tor.com and io9.com, which filled their houses with fellow sci-fi geeks. The productions’ success attracted the New York Times, which gave the trilogy’s final installation a rave. They also joined VC at ComicCon this fall, presenting Kill Shakespeare: The Live Stage Reading, based on the successful IDW Publishing comic book series.

Poster from Sovereign, the third part of Mac Roger’s Honeycomb Trilogy

Also last season, Flux Theatre Ensemble teamed up with Gideon Productions, forming an alliance with Boomerang Theater Company called BFG Collective. The three companies took over The Secret Theatre in Long Island City for six months, to disperse production costs. Flux produced August Schulenburg’s Deinde, a science fiction play about the rise of the singularity. Tomorrow, they open Adam Szymkowicz’s superhero  noir comedy, Hearts Like Fists.

Hearts Like Fist cast, photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum

Next week, terraNOVA Collective, where I served as associate artistic director for eight years, also opens a comic-inspired play, Robert Askins’ P.S. Jones and the Frozen City. I saw a workshop of the play earlier this year. It’s filled with wild puppets and fabulous costumes in a far out dystopian future. It’s gonna be loads of fun.

Illustrations by Peter Shevenell, Design by Christy Briggs

Finally, Vampire Cowboys returns for their 10th anniversary season. For the first time, the main stage play won’t be written by its co-artistic director and resident playwright, Qui Nguyen. In March 2013, they’ll mount the appropriately titled Geek! by Saturday Night Saloon alum, Crystal Skillman. I also enjoyed a reading of this play earlier in the year, and it’s full of stage fights and geeky girl power.

It may come as no surprise that all of these theater companies have dipped toes or dove into the deep end of transmedia storytelling. Vampire Cowboys has a long history of creating online videos that tie into their shows. Flux Theatre Ensemble and Gideon Productions have used video blogs, news conferences, and pamphlets. And, terraNOVA Collective used video, written blogs, and Twitter for my play, Feeder: A Love Story.

Is the theater market becoming overrun with Geek Theater?

Can it sustain the influx of zombies, super heroes and sci-fi dystopian futures?

Short answers: No and yes.

There are only a handful of groups creating this kind of theater in a massive market, and there should be room for everyone to play in the same sandbox. However, it only works if they remember to stay true their hearts and listen to their audiences. When creators authentically listen, they lay the foundation for a long conversation with a dedicated and engaged audience. It can’t just be about the next box office transaction. It must be about cultivating a sincere relationship. If large institutions are going to thrive in an ever-changing digital landscape, these are the values they, too, must embrace.

Tomorrow, I will conclude this series featuring another panel from the Futures of Entertainment 6, focusing on empathy and listening.

You can read part three here.

authentic listening, part 1: breaking the online/offline binary barrier

This is the first of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the way we interact with our audience and other artists.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity to attend Digital Hollywood, a two day conference where executives and experts at entertainment companies discuss the state of digital entertainment and marketing. I only attended the first day, but my experience was extreme. The panels either focused on large corporations, like Barnes and Nobel, sharing over-arching strategies to “extend their brands,” or they offered small businesses speaking intimately about innovation with the audience.

One of the best panels of the day was The New Fandom: Building and Nurturing Communities. Its moderator, Steve Bradbury (@stevbrad), Chief Revenue Officer of Zazoom, took a refreshing approach to a well worn form. Instead of asking a prepared set of questions agreed upon by the panel, he dropped a bunch of statements into Power Point and asked panelists to give the number for a random statement about the industry. Steve then revealed a statement, like, “Brands are becoming more challenged to control their messaging vs. the will of their online community. Agree/Disagree?” Then, the panelists would chime in and expound upon their agreements or disagreements with each statement.

I live tweeted the event, and as these back channels do, an exchange occurred with another attendee, Kara Lea Rota (@karalearota), Director of cookstr.com. Though Kara was in a different room with another panel, she commented on one of the many statements offered by our moderator:

Kara’s points stuck with me, and I’ve increasingly been pondering this offline/online binary conundrum. The language we use to talk about our experiences is important, and frankly, it was the first time I’d considered that the offline/online binary might not be applicable to the common experience.

We know it. We feel it. We are already there, yet there’s still insistence on separation. There is no offline/online binary. There is only living. There are only gathering spaces. The mechanics of those spaces – whether Twitter or a tavern – are different, but separating the spaces as though they are different alienates. It is not IRL (In Real Life) or VR (Virtual Reality). It’s all just life.

One recurrent comment made throughout the day by several 40-something executives on Digital Hollywood panels was how they marvel at their children who play on iPads starting as young as age two. They wonder how this behavior affects their children’s impressionable minds. Ironically, this binary offline/online contextualizing keeps them from seeing something more intimate than their children. They don’t see how they, themselves, relate to the population at large.

The weekend before Digital Hollywood, another conference, Futures of Entertainment 6 at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, took place. I wasn’t able to attend, but the conference recently uploaded videos of the panels.

One that struck me was the introduction to the second day of the conference with Mike Monello (@mikemonello), Partner and CCO of Campfire, and Xiaochang Li (@xiaochang), a cultural theorist and researcher. It’s about 20 minutes, and I encourage you to watch it for context, but in a nutshell, they encourage us to look at whatever the audience encounters and approach story creation like an architect.

WATCH THE VIDEO HERE:

MIT TechTV – FoE6 Day 2 Opening Remarks – Xiaochang Li and Mike Monello
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Mike compares the current culture to a Greek theater: “It’s designed so the audience can see each other as well as the stage.” He shared an architectural urban legend in which an architect of a college campus refused to create a design with sidewalks. He just planted grass, and wherever the students walked and wore a path, that’s where he made the sidewalks.

Part of this architecture is digital. Part is in-person, face to face interactions. But, to separate the two as not intertwined creates an architecture that doesn’t listen to actions of the audience.

At the end of their talk, Xiaochang offers a humble provocation:

“We can start to ask how we think about these models of engagement if we just…Let’s try and just throw out the individual – alone or in aggregate – as our sort of our atomic unit…and if we sort of think bigger and smaller…so at the scale of the collective, at the scale of the contextual, or even down to the granularity of the acts and the gesture. And sort of think about what sort of opportunities and challenges in analysis and implementation does this new framework give us?”

It’s a dense charge, but basically, they encourage us to listen to the audience, which is a challenge for many art makers, especially in the theater.

Tomorrow, I continue this three part series on authentic listening, sharing how theater companies like Vampire Cowboys, Gideon Productions, terraNOVA Collective and Flux Theatre Ensemble embrace their inner geeks to become the heroes the theater industry desperately needs.

You can read part two here.