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.

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stuck on repeat: the story of our lives

Good art sticks with you. It may not always be the slickest, most “well-made,” or mass consumed, but it haunts you, makes you think, and frequently lures you back.

Habit, the creation of David Levine from text by Jason Grote, is one of those pieces. An offering that challenges actors to repeat the same 90 minute play for eight hours at a time, Habit places the audience in the role of voyeur, peaking through windows and doorways to catch a glimpse of the action. The entire set is the first floor of a house constructed in a raw space on Essex Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is an existential exercise in humanity, and I hope to check it out again before it closes on Sunday, September 30th.

Blurry snapshot from my phone’s camera.

The production notes offer a handy explanation of why Levine conceived the project and how it works, but I (as I do with most plays I attend) chose not to read the production notes until after I experienced it. I’m glad I did. Unlike some press explanations about the production, I won’t divulge its secrets. My above description is even more than I’d like to share, for when one views Habit blindly, surprises surface.

Today, Maria Popova of Brainpickings coincidentally posted about a different Habit, by William James. She shares the concept of “habit loops,” which (probably not coincidentally) is the term Levine uses to label the repetition of Grote’s play. Each loop of the play is slightly different than the previous, and these differences magnify how peoples’ choices affect life.

Don’t expect to be blown away by Levine’s Habit – though you may be. Seek subtleties and reconsider how your choices determine your future. You may discover the intricacies of the actors’ choices reflected in your own existence. And if you think about those habits, your perspective on life might shift. Just a touch.

Habit
Presented by the Crossing the Line Festival and Performance Space 122

FREE and open to the public. No reservations required.
helpful hint: arrive early and stay a for at least two loops, or 3 hours

Sept 21 – 30 / 1 – 9pm daily
at Essex Street Market, Building B
130-144 Essex Street (btw. Rivington & Stanton Streets)

@alldayhabit
#CTL12

ny_hearts: les kickstarter ends in 24 hours

Almost a month ago, I announced my first new project in over a year, NY_Hearts: LES, an immersive, transmedia theatrical project, opening at The Brick Theater’s Game Play Festival in July.

I also announced a Kickstarter campaign for the project. The aim was to hit $5K in 30 days, and 24 hours from now this campaign ends.

As of this writing, the project is $660 away from reaching its goal. You may not have $660 to give. But what about $40? $40 gets you a fun day in the LES that includes a yoga class, lunch and other surprises along the way. Get your limited 35% off through Kickstarter only in the next 24 hours.

Tomorrow, I want to celebrate a huge achievement, and I’d like to celebrate with you. Join in. Every bit helps. Thank you!

WATCH A VIDEO ABOUT THE PROJECT AND PLEDGE YOUR SUPPORT HERE

where’s the dough go? to a heckofa show called ny_hearts: les.

Inspired by Amanda Palmer’s blog today about where the hell all the money she’s raising on her Kickstarter will go ($801,825 as of this writing), I thought I’d break down my own NY_Hearts: LES budget and share where my campaign for $5000 will go.

THE BUDGET

$2100 covers production expenses. I’m paying actors, a sound engineer, and an associate producer. It’s a shoestring budget, and because the theater space is the Lower East Side I don’t have the overhead of theater rental, which would typically add another $15,000 to the budget.

$2878 is goes to hiring a press agent and printing. You may ask, “Why isn’t this line a round number?” It’s because I must cover the payout to businesses of goods and services for each journalist or reviewer who takes the journey. The press ticket is free, but I still have to pay for food and classes for any person – including press.

Finally, Kickstarter takes 5% of the total raised. In reality, I must raise about $5500 to cover all my expenses. Obviously, Kickstarter is a make it or lose it situation, so if I don’t reach my $5000 goal, I don’t get anything, which means I’ll be footing the bill for most of it and I will end up doing my own press hustling. It would be great to not have to personally take on the financial burden or hustle of garnering press so I can spend time creating the best experience possible.

WHAT DO YOU GET?

Some have asked what you get for the experience, and I think it’s a great deal. Participants get a yoga class, a drink from a bar, a special from a coffee shop, an item from a retail store, and a meal at a restaurant. They also get what I think is a sexy and provocative story that kicks off an 18 month transmedia narrative. It costs less than dinner and a show, and you get so much more with NY_Hearts: LES.

THE BIG PICTURE

In comparison to what Amanda’s raised my goal is meager, but it all goes somewhere and I don’t see much back. The monies from ticket sales in July go straight back into the project, which is an 18 month endeavor, including the NY_Hearts neighborhood experiences, a web series and another live experience for the winter of 2013-14. In addition to those three tent pole productions (which really feel more like seven productions once all five of the neighborhood experiences are complete) I’m including morsels of story through visual art, music, and social media platforms to color and shade the narrative.

Right now, I’m at $800 of my $5000 goal. I have 22 days left. Please, consider pledging. You can get 30% off tickets if you’re an early bird donor at $40, and if you pledge only $25, I’ll integrate a sentence about someone you love or loved into the NY_Hearts: LES experience.

Thanks tons, and hope you can pledge your support today:

NY_Hearts: LES KICKSTARTER

NY-HEARTS.COM

ny_hearts: les kickstarter

Creating a new piece of work is challenging. You work endless hours writing, planning, and raising money. The first two tasks are daunting enough, but then you ask people for support — whether you request they pay money to see the project or solicit donations for financing — you ask friends, colleagues and strangers to believe in your work and invest time and money into it.

It’s been a while since I’ve invited people to support my work, but now I’m reaching out again. I’m proud of the creation, and I’m just about ready to share it.

Now, I’m in the final phase. I’ve launched the Kickstarter campaign for my transmedia theatrical project, NY_Hearts: LES, which opens in The Brick Theater’s Game Play Festival in July 2012. I’m partnering with local small businesses to offer an immersive experience in which the audience gets to see, feel, taste and smell the same things the characters did in the story.

Contribute $25 and submit a sentence about someone you love or loved, and I’ll integrate it into the story. You can also get 30% off the regular price if you pledge $40 for limited early donation discount tickets. Once this deal is gone, you can still reserve regular priced tickets through Kickstarter.

Thanks to all who have supported me throughout the years. This is a big new chapter in my career, and I hope you’ll not only contribute now but also come to check out NY_Hearts: LES this summer. After all, the most important part of creating work is sharing it with others.

DONATE ON KICKSTARTER