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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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.

experience true convergence: the 50th new york film festival invites you to play

People often ask me, “Transmedia storytelling? What’s that?”

Usually, I point the questioner in the direction of Henry Jenkins’ often cited definition:

“It is a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”

I share how I crafted Feeder: A Love Story, a play that extended to blogs and online video. Then, I tell them about my current project, NY_Hearts, an immersive experience that guides participants through New York neighborhoods with the iPhone app, Moveable Feast. Generally, people are interested, fascinated, skeptical or confused, and, often, their minds are blown.

It’s a new thing for sure. The Sundance Institute, understandably, embraced this futurist story form, offering a retreat for creators called the New Frontier Story Lab. Tribeca Film Festival has the TFI New Media Fund that offers grants, and this year it launches a new transmedia program honoring creators who use innovative, interactive, or multi-platform storytelling tactics. Film festivals aren’t the only institutions supporting this trend. The Global Cyber-Narrative Project from Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Black Women Playwrights’ Group, and Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment and Technology Center offers residencies to playwrights of color to explore ways of expanding stage works to digital platforms. Until now, these institutions offered residencies, grants, mentorships, and project case studies, which are all vital to incubating new creative forms.

The missing pie piece has been audience engagement. It’s wonderful to listen to creators offering case studies. Other story architects learn new techniques, and it spurs audience to seek out more transmedia work. But only a few programs offer a place where audience can truly engage and play.

The 50th New York Film Festival aims to let the audience play at Convergence.

More than just a series of killer panel discussions with top notch transmedia creators, Convergence has several events on the roster for the audience to play with. Check out these four fun experiences offering more than just panels and discussions.

RENGA
Presented by Adam Russell and John Sear

Renga
is about finding a way home. Attacked and left for dead, our hero must carefully marshal their resources to build a new ship, confront their nemesis and finally return home. Only this hero isn’t visible on the screen – it’s the entire audience, working collectively to control the action using laser pointers directed at the screen. Turning the traditional hero’s journey on its head, Renga asks the question – what if the ultimate reward can only be grasped by many hands? The show combines real-time crowd interaction technology, retro videogame aesthetics and a wry sense of humour to bring the audience together and leave them feeling a deep sense of camaraderie. The title refers to a form of collaborative poetry with 100 verses that blossomed in 15th century Japan.

WHISPERS IN THE DARK
Presented by Jeff Wirth


Whispers in the Dark
is an immersive fiction experience in which a non-actor participant will become the lead character in a story that plays out over 24 hours in settings throughout New York City. A young psychic spends the night investigating a room that has recently become haunted in Lincoln Center. Her encounter with the ghost sets her on an odyssey through the hidden worlds of New York City to uncover a dark secret. A professional cast plays the characters that appear and engage with the participant in the real-world locations, while an invisible crew captures the entire experience in one extended 24-hour “take.” The experience culminates at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where highlights from the adventure will be screened on September 30, 2012 during a live presentation.

MCCARREN PARK:
HIPSTER DINOS, TRANSMEDIA, AND PRODUCING SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

Presented by Caitlin Burns and Steele Filipek

McCarren Park
is an interactive educational transmedia experience available on phones, the Internet and even a card game. In this session, a selection of scenes in the first half of the narrative will be combined with lessons learned creating the feature for under $3500.00 How do you inspire collaborators to engage in your story world? What are some tactics that worked on this project and others to build an audience and to get that audience to add their own content into the story world? How do you create a story that can translate from one platform to another? How do you do that without a huge budget? Finally, what are the barriers to production on a miniscule budget and how can you overcome them?

TRANSMEDIA TEST KITCHEN
Presented by Brian Fountain and Matt Bolish

Two teams enter, but only one will leave victorious. Witness this first-of-its-kind exhibition-style transmedia showdown. Over the course of an hour, two teams of elite storytellers will conceive, build and pitch their best cross-media story. Not crazy enough for you? Wait! There’s more. In an unforeseen and dramatic twist, which you will already know about because you are reading this now, the teams learn they must also incorporate a secret ingredient. Spoiler Alert! The secret ingredient is you, the audience. That’s right you will be part of history. And who will decide the fate of these two teams? Some Ivy-league eggheads? Nope. Some B-list celebrities? Not happening! Those guys are way too expensive to book. In a stunning conflict of interest, you (yes you!) will be casting your vote to decide the outcome of this event. One team will be crowned victorious. The other will suffer the deep humility of having to watch the other team being crowned victorious.

Of course, there are plenty of professionals speaking about the evolution of storytelling. Collapsus creator Tommy Pallotta offers the event’s keynote address. Steve Schultz (Moveable Feast), Andrew Evans (National Geographic), Bill Plympton (Animator), and Amy Neswald (Indie Filmmaker) head up a panel on sharing stories in a geo-tagged world. Plus, the woman who literally wrote the book on transmedia creation, Andrea Phillips, discusses new roles audiences can have in storytelling.

I’ll be bringing NY_Hearts to the festival in a conversation about the Lower East Side experience that launched this past July and teasing part two of the story hitting Park Slope this fall.

I am also one of the participants in the Transmedia Test Kitchen, so if you want to see me get silly and try to make a multi-platform experience in 45 minutes, come by for a laugh or ten.

If you’ve ever wondered what transmedia is or want to play in new creative sandboxes, get a pass to Convergence in The 50th New York Film Festival on September 29th and 30th. It’s gonna be loads of fun.

Buy your festival pass here.