instagram igniting millions of mirror neurons

We may be headed into the first ever live tweeted war. Just like Arab Spring, the conflict in Gaza is blowing up on social media. The Israeli government just asked its citizens to refrain from posting details on Facebook and Twitter about rocket attack locations. These updates offer too much information to Hamas, giving them an advantage for future strikes.

I hope they continue. Both sides. On Twitter, Rana B. Baker (@RanaGaza), a Palestinian blogger posted this text her father received:
“The next phase is on the way. Stay away from Hamas elements.”

If you search #Gaza or #IDF (Israel Defense Forces) on Instagram, you’ll find a mass of images from both sides, showing destruction, propaganda and suffering. It’s a virtual war zone, and Twitter and Facebook are extended battlefields.

If you aren’t familiar with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Noam Chomsky recently wrote a wonderful piece that offers a first hand perspective, including a trip he took to Gaza at the end of October. He calls the Gaza Strip “the world’s largest open-air prison.” A linguist and philosopher, Chomsky has always been one of the most reliable and enlightened sources on this mufti-generational conflict.

Since the escalation of violence at the beginning of this week, my heart’s been heavy. I have both Palestinian and Israeli friends and colleagues. Most of them live in the U.S. and believe a peaceful resolution to the fight is long overdue. But here we are again. More people dying. More hatred born.

Recently, I’ve been doing research on how mindfulness meditation can alter the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain that cultivates compassion. I’ve also been reading about “mirror neurons,” which promote empathy. In the mix, I discovered this RSA talk from American economist Jeremy Rifkin. It speaks directly to what is happening in the Middle East.

We all know – in the pits of our stomachs – the violence is going to get worse before it gets better. And, I hope every moment of it spreads socially, affecting the minds of millions of people. Perhaps, finally seeing images and hearing the voices in real time will ignite our mirror neurons. Our empathy will grow, and we will come together as a global society to realize we are all in this together, on this great plane, trying to live this one life with grace and dignity.

w. kamau bell is totally biased. and totally funny.

In 2010, I was the lead curator for terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA Arts Festival, which celebrates a variety of solo genres. It presents magicians, burlesque, storytellers, dancers and comedians. One of those comedians was W. Kamau Bell, a funny, smart, social activist from San Francisco.

If you haven’t heard of W. Kamau Bell, he recently procured a late night talk show on the FX Network by means of another little known comedian, Chris Rock. Mr. Rock (who seems to be everywhere these days), is executive producer on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It premiered two weeks ago after one of my favorite shows, Louie.

Whenever someone I know gets a break, I really hope they knock it out of the park. I was eager to see what Kamau would do with this golden opportunity, and I’m pleased to report the show is wonderful. It’s not because the show is funny. It is, and if it weren’t, Totally Biased would be totally dead in the water. It’s great because at the center of his show is truth. The adage, “It’s funny because it’s true,” is elevated by a heart we haven’t seen in late night comedy for a while.

On the second episode, Rachel Maddow came through and talked about comedy entering a golden age. She emphasized how humor opens avenues that lead to important issues.

And that is precisely why “Totally Biased” is brilliant.

The strongest segment from the two aired episodes is Kamau’s man-on-the-street segment, “Stop & Frisk,” where he interviews people, including a representative of the ACLU, about the NYPD’s stop and frisk strategy, which violates individuals’ civil rights.

Kamau sheds a light on this racially charged strategy and ends the segment with a list of impractically funny items to put in your pockets “to make it a little more awkward for them, and a little more fun for you.” It’s truth mixed with absurdity as only W. Kamau Bell can do.

For me, a white man who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn – or someone who never gets stopped and frisked on the street – W. Kamau Bell pushed me to research the issue. The New York Times has a great analysis of the strategy, along with a documentary short featuring the neighborhood of Brownsville.

It’s super to see Kamau simultaneously making it in TV-land and making a difference. Here’s to many seasons of thought-provoking, hilarious comedy.

Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell – Thursdays at 11:00pm, after Louie.

Sources: NYTimes.com, Totally Biased YouTube

the transmedia and transgressions of mike daisey

Everyone’s always asking the question about Alternate Reality Games:

“Do you let your audience know it isn’t real?”

Alternate Reality Games or ARGs are common lingo amongst any of you transmedia folk who read this; however, to most of my theater colleagues and the general public, ARGs are something new. ARGs are interactive stories using real world scenarios with other media platforms to deliver a story that may be altered by participants’ ideas or actions. Often, in the beginning of an ARG, one cannot tell what part of the game is real and what isn’t.

Mike Daisey Photograph: Kevin Berne

Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been a news sensation sensation since last year. It brought attention to the poor working conditions for Chinese laborers in FoxConn factories that make most of Apple’s devices. Yesterday, the story surged again. This time, the news was about Mike, himself. In an episode titled “Retraction,” Mike admitted to “This American Life” host Ira Glass certain portions of his monologue are fiction. Now, the issue of truth – not only in journalism but also in theater – is being called into question.

The monologue – whether by design or accident – became transmedia with Mike’s appearances on multiple television shows, news programs, and his blog. Mike also did something he had never done before: He wrote down his script. Famous for only performing with an outline, Mike transcribed the monologue and made it available for download so anyone in the world may perform the text royalty free. This act for a playwright is rare. It’s benevolent, and it helped spread the story.

Mike spurred countless to act. But as puppet master, the beast got to big for him to wrangle. I’m not suggesting Mike started out with a plan to fool the world, but once people became mobilized, everything changed. Sometimes, people tell the stories they want to be true because it will change reality.

Going to the theater, whether for a live performance or film, we suspend our disbelief. We do this with books, games, and even campfire stories. We know there’s not really a boogieman coming to slash us in our tent in the night, but we still might lose sleep as our imaginations run wild. Even with true stories, we all know there’s a little embellishment tossed in for flavor.

When I saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I never thought it was 100% true. I’ve worked with too many playwrights and solo performers to know personal stories are massaged, characters combined, and scenes interwoven to manipulate an audience’s emotions. I assumed Cathy, Mike’s translator who appears as a main character in the monologue, must be a composite of several translators Mike employed as he traveled China.

Still, I was converted. I became an evangelist for the cause. I did exactly what Mike wanted me to do. I posted Mike’s final plea to the audience on my blog. I emailed Apple CEO Tim Cook. I allowed the meme Mike dropped into my brain to grow into a belief and change me. That’s what good theater should do. It changes people.

But now, all the world’s truly a stage. Pundits and reporters are merely players spouting half-truths to advance causes. That’s what Mike did. He discovered a way to spill the story out from the theater and into the mainstream media to activate real change.

However, during the initial fact-checking of Mike’s monologue for “This American Life,” Mike continued the ruse, which was his horrible misstep. People are happy to be entertained by fiction. They’ll even be inspired by fiction to change the world, as I was. They just want to know whether they should suspend their disbelief or not. Mike didn’t offer that option.

In 2011, I saw another solo show based on a true story. When John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown played on Broadway, John included an author’s note in the Playbill about the authenticity of his stories:

“While based on truth, events within the play have been re-created for clarity. Some moments in the piece fall out of their original timeline to create a more streamlined narrative. One or two characters are an amalgam, but all are portrayed true to my remembrance of them. I had to change some names at the behest of my lawyer for litigious reason. Though all the dialogue is essentially true, it has been distilled and concentrated. I’m not a good liar, so it’s not dramaturgy, only lack of artifice.

I wish to transport you into my world as I saw it – rootless and undocumented. It’s my endless quest to examine my life, to create a history and legacy where there wasn’t one. I try not to judge those chemical and electric moments that have forged me as a storyteller as good or bad, but as stepping stones toward self-expression and self-fulfillment. I always felt that the more times I told my tale to as many people as I could find, I could exorcise the pain from my soul. I also felt that the admission of my culpability immediately absolves me of responsibility for the consequences. Being self-aware means one is not lying. And no one outside of politics likes a liar. Doing a live autobiography before one is dead is maybe an act of self-destruction and maybe an act of shedding an old skin. It’s an act of self-hate and self-adulation. It’s many contradictory elements combined to create an illusion of normalcy, which hopefully allows you to come with me on this journey toward a victory over those forces we don’t understand, called life.”

Mike has a two-line disclaimer in the Playbill for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in all caps:

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE SOURCES.

Changing names to protect the innocent is not the same as fabricating meetings with fictional FoxConn workers poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, used for cleaning iPhones. The difference between the two disclaimers is the lens through which the audience absorbs the stories.

One positive takeaway is the “Retraction” episode of “This American Life” is a solid hour of radio journalism. These days, when everyone is device driven and obsessed with retinal resolution, one of the earliest forms of media offered a riveting, revealing exposé. They shined a light on Mike Daisey’s betrayal of Ira Glass’ trust.

Ira even says to Mike: “I vouched for you.”

That means something. Especially to a journalist.

Context matters. Fictional stories can spread anywhere now and, too often, news organizations fail to vet them. One must be careful not to discredit one’s own cause. Even if Mike Daisey’s sprawling narrative wasn’t intentionally an ARG, there are many now who feel played. He stirred up the media, FoxConn, and the mighty giant, Apple. “This American Life” even continues to acknowledge this issue of poor working conditions in Chinese factories is not going away.

At the end of “Retraction,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg offered many facts about the working conditions. Then, Duhigg shifted to an editorial tone, impressing on Ira Glass:

“You are actually one of the reasons why it [the poor working conditions] exists.  If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

Sounds like Mike’s Agony Ecstasy meme survives, which is really the objective of his monologue. It’s also clear when telling stories based on truth, context matters. Whether it’s a stage play, film or ARG, letting the audience know a story isn’t 100% factual protects artists from a world of scrutiny and offers the audience an opportunity to go along for the ride with abandon.

No doubt, Mike will rise up to tell a new tale. He’s a storyteller. It’s what he does. I’m sure he’ll come up with a hum dinger.

::

To download the transcript of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs GO HERE

To listen to “Retraction” on “This American Life” with Ira Glass GO HERE

tweet seats – the public theater live tweets the gob squad

Last week, I participated in a new grand experiment recently popping up in theatrical Petri dishes all over the country. I was a tweet seater. Or, I live tweeted Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) at The Public Theater.

Gob Squad's Kitchen

Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) photo by David Baltzer

It was the first time The Public offered seats to Twitter users for the purpose of sharing thoughts about a play in 140 characters or less. The designated tweeters sat in the last three rows to minimize disturbing other audience members, and the theater gave us a number of rules to observe during the performance: No phone calls, dim your screens, no photographs (this was lifted moments before curtain, and several people did tweet pictures). There’s been loads of debate over the usefulness of tweet seats on blogs, news organizations and, of course, Twitter. I figured I’d share my experience of The Public’s Great Tweet Seat Experiment, and encourage theaters and theater goers to continue contemplating this divisive topic.

When I heard The Public was offering its first ever live tweeted play, I wanted to join in. After applying for a spot, the marketing staff chose me as one of 25 participants. One of my main interests, beyond seeing The Gob Squad for the first time, is my work in transmedia and interactive art. I was very curious to observe the reaction of the audience, the tweet seaters, and those following the #kitchenlive hashtag at home. There seem to be two camps in the live tweeting of theatre – the passive and the interactive.

One debate point that arises regarding live theater tweeting is over “passive tweeting.” Passive tweeting was what I experienced at Gob Squad’s performance. The tweet seaters essentially called a play-by-play of the play. Anyone following the hashtag read thoughts like:

shimmeringcell: This is hilare/nuts. Even the Public ushers are cracking up.

Or:

msteketee: Middle screen blonde actress has now donned the Edie Sedgwick striped shirt. Yes.

And criticisms such as:

nikkipatin: Just like Sontag last week, the technology utilized is far more interesting than the performance itself.

People live tweet concerts and television all the time. From concerts, tweeters share pictures and video of singers on stage and drunk friends acting asinine. The difference between a play and a concert is, typically, there’s no plot. With television, a wider, communal experience occurs; whereas, with a play only a few handfuls of tweeters share mainly with friends and colleagues. Does tweeting a play really make a difference, and if so, who cares?

For me, at least a few people cared. Responses varied. Some energized followers jumped in:

jennyg29: @PublicTheaterNY @jdcarter Digging the hell out of this #kitchenlive experiment. Hurray #Transmedia!

Fellow tweet seaters conversed with me:

adamjohnfrank: @jdcarter #kitchenlive yea, the plastic bag over the head is kind of freaking me out…

Audience members at the show who weren’t live tweeting joined in the feed after the fact:

AKwritenow: @jdcarter @PublicTheaterNY I was unPREPARED for how awesome #GobSquad #kitchenlive was.

The strongest interaction of the night came when I suggested it would be great if our tweets interacted with the show, a friendly debate (with a user following the #kitchenlive feed from home) over passive and interactive live tweeting ensued:

jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive

jennyg29: Agreed. RT @jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive

dloehr: @jdcarter There’s not much point otherwise. (Course, tweets from outside might have an effect, too.) #kitchenlive

jdcarter: @dloehr really? You think? It’s not like live tweeting any other event? Interaction is nice, but not necessary. #tweetseats #kitchenlive

dloehr: @jdcarter No, it’s not like other events. But I’m not a fan of passive live tweeting of theatre. #tweetseats #kitchenlive

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter Passive? As opposed to sitting in a theatre and NOT tweeting? That’s active?

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Audience mood affects every performance. The only truly passive audience is deaf, blind & unconscious.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter YOU were the one who used the term “passive,” not me.

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Sorry. Sitting without tweeting has often been called passive out here on twitter.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter I just don’t see how live-tweeting is less active. Maybe you don’t think you can engage in the work enough?

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter We can–and should–make art that can incorporate this & truly involve audiences beyond the level of chatter.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter That is interesting to me. I did think it was a unique experience livetweeting and reading others’ tweets though.

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Livetweeting the tv, you can pause, rewind, etc. Theatre can’t do that, unless the show’s designed to use tweeting.

I resigned myself there’s two kinds of live tweeting and each has its place. I’ve always been a proponent of criticizing plays for what they are and not what we wish them to be. Like the play itself, we should examine live theatre tweeting for what it is. If there are two ways to live tweet an event – one where tweeters report and one where they interact – let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

For me, as a theatre and transmedia artist, the most exciting artistic use of Twitter (or any social media for that matter) a production integrates tweets into the experience, either allowing the audience or user at home to interact with the show or characters/actors share personal updates integrated before, during or after the performance.

Some companies have integrated tweeting as part of the narrative. The Royal Shakespeare Company partnered with Muldark, a cross-platform production company. Together, they created Such Tweet Sorrow, a five week, improvised Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Actors took roles of central characters in the tragedy, and they tweeted as the characters living in contemporary London. Also, Waterwell’s#9 explored “how we use technology and technology uses us,” according to their website. The company invited the audience to live tweet the show with the hashtag, #9. They LiveStreamed the play, and viewers at home engaged in the live tweeting experience. Waterwell pulled the hashtag stream and fed it real time onto video screens in the theatre, much like super titles, which has been suggested in this tweet seat debate. I participated through the LiveStream, and though it was fun to see my tweets pop up as some sort of “inner tweetologue” of the play, though they never fully interacted with the performance.

I asked The Public’s marketing director, Nella Vera, to share her thoughts on the Gob Squad tweet seat experiment. Ms. Vera said:

“I think many of our tweeters enjoyed being able to share their thoughts on what was happening on stage, but also found that it was a bit of a challenging task – keeping one eye on the stage and on your phone is not as easy as it seems!  Because it was a large group sitting together, many of them commented that they enjoyed being able to ‘talk’ with each other without disturbing the show and share impressions; this added to the communal feel of the event. They liked being able to see how others were reacting to the work and how it compared to their own thoughts.  In a way, it actually enhanced the very thing theater tries to do—bring people together to share ideas.  This is not something we would do on a regular basis but it is fun to consider if the work lends itself to such an environment.  (For example, our Joe’s Pub venue is already a tweet-friendly zone where fans of the musicians regularly take photos and videos of performances.)”

A way to view passive tweet seaters is to consider them press. This is the second production I attended this season (the first, Nightmare NYC) for which I was specifically invited to tweet the event. At Kitchen, a couple tweeters referenced this:

Shimmeringcell: Whoa, we have laminated press passes with our names on ‘em, drink tix, & swag!

Scamandalous: This makes me feel like real press! #kitchenlive, baby!

They felt like real press. Perhaps even a critic. The night I attended was, indeed, a press preview. I saw David Cote of Time Out New York dart out just after the curtain call. What if, in addition to his regular review, Mr. Cote sat in the back and live tweeted with the rest of us? Would there be an immediate box office jolt for the show if a critic’s tweet hailed a performance? Automatic dive if it panned? Over the past couple years, bloggers have gained credibility with producers as viable critics. Might tweeters be taking their rightful seats next to blog and mainstream critics? I’m not suggesting reviewers begin reviewing on microblogs, but if there’s a place for the long form bloggers, why not tweeters, too?  Obviously, there’s already been plenty of fire against tweeting about plays before they’re ready for prime time (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?), but what if the tweet seats landed on press previews? That certainly doesn’t preclude the average theatre attendee from sharing her/his thoughts after the show, but it might encourage microbloggers to attend a preview worth sharing.

Ms. Vera also offered some marketing statistics from the tweet seat night. “Although the intent behind the event was not purely a marketing one,” said Ms. Vera, “it is interesting to note that there were a total of 483 tweets generated, resulting in 270,359 impressions, reaching an audience of 32,700 followers.  That’s pretty amazing for 25 people!”

Indeed it is. 25 live tweeters reached 32,700 people. For theaters, it may not just be about creating artistic interaction. It may be about spreading the word. And for an experimental theatre show imported from England, I’m sure it can use all the word of mouth it can get.

photo by David Baltzer

For many reasons, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) was the perfect play on which The Public to experiment with tweet seats. The Gob Squad is forward thinking, media focused, and experimental, and so is Twitter. One of the biggest concerns/complaints of tweet seats is potentially distracting other audience and performers. The troupe performs 98% of the play obscured by a giant video screen behind which live three simple sets: a bed, a stool, and, of course, a kitchen, which are all projected onto the screen thereby minimizing actor distraction. In fact, prior to performance, the actors invited the entire audience backstage to walk through the sets, and they were excited to greet the tweet seaters. The show proposes recreations of several Andy Warhol films made in the heyday of The Factory, and these vignettes offer a meta-theatrical-video-film experience you have to see to understand. According to The Gob Squad’s website, it is, “A quest for the original, the authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.”

Sound pretentious? I thought so. And one of my followers who kept up with the #kitchenlive hashtag said our tweets made it sound pretentious, too. I guess we didn’t do a great job of conveying the experience because it was downright fun, funny, thoughtful, self-referential, and one of the best uses of audience participation I’ve seen in a long time.

I think that’s why I was only slightly disappointed with this specific tweet seat experiment. I wanted to be up on stage with the other audience participants. I wanted to interact. But I was stuck in the back row, sharing my thoughts with people who didn’t have context of my experience. I wanted more. But that’s just me. Someone else had a completely different experience, and that’s how life works. Each of us has her/his own perspective, and in the end, we’re each trying to find the original, authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.

It was an experiment, and like all experiments, some succeed and some fail. This one felt pretty positive. There’s always room for improvement, and I look forward to the evolution of this social-theatrical happening called tweet seats.

As Ms. Vera shared, “Overall, I think a good time was had by all and we truly thank everyone who participated. We learned a lot and I’m sure we will be having internal discussions about this for quite a while.”

Thanks to all my fellow tweet seaters, and special thanks to Nella Vera and The Public Theater for the tickets and their bravery.

a note to president obama

You’ve been out of the country, Mr. President. There’s something happening here. We’re speaking clearly. Please, listen. It’s time you bring about that change you spoke of three years ago.

I still want to believe in you.

photo by Charles Dharapak / AP

Close up on photo by Charles Dharapak / AP