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?

Advertisements

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
.

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.

transmedia storytelling

At the end of last year, August Schulenburg, Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, posted at the TCG blog, TCG Circle, “The World Wide What Next”. He primarily focused on fundraising, social networking and how companies interact with their audience in the 21st Century. At the end of the post, he brought up the subject of transmedia storytelling. He quotes Max Koknar on 2am Theatre blog, “Don’t just write/produce/devise a new play. Build a new world and loose it upon ours. Do it incrementally and make the live performance your premium content.”

Two years ago, I’d written a play, Feeder: A Love Story, and it had some problems. First, was it was about a couple living the feederism lifestyle, and I got it all wrong. I wrote a thriller disguised as a love story. It was a series of monologues and short scenes about a subject on which I skimmed the research. The feeder and feedees who came to see the workshop readings were disappointed and, in some cases, angry. The other problem was the world of the play wasn’t consistent. One character was creating a video diary for a television program, and the other character spoke to another, unseen character in monologues. Their worlds didn’t make sense together, and the characters felt disconnected.

Once, I shared this play with a director, and he responded, “I don’t even know if it’s a play.” That may be the single most insulting thing for someone to say to a playwright. I get the statement’s sentiment. Perhaps the story isn’t well constructed. Perhaps it’s not a traditional dialogue rich theatrical experience. Perhaps they have a narrow opinion of what a play is. Still, the statement stuck with me in a way that challenged me.

Finally, I concluded, “Maybe this isn’t a play. Or, maybe the play is a part of a larger experience.”

I valued the workshops the play received, for during this time I made two major discoveries. More research needed to be done, and the characters yearned to live in the same world. I didn’t want to lose the aspect of monologue storytelling, but keeping the current scenario no longer made sense. I chose to shift the entire given circumstances to tie in with one of the main plot points in the play:

The characters share a blog together.

Suddenly, I saw this story as a theatrical journey rather than a traditional play. What if the characters’ blog existed? What if both characters share stories leading up to the opening of the play? What if this experience was as essential to the journey as the play itself?

To talk about how entertainment is pulling people away from live performances and gluing them to televisions or computers is to beat a dead horse. It is obvious, unless you’re a neo-Luddite living beneath a rock in the woods, the Internet is here to stay. It is a part of what we do and who we are in a very intimate way. So, why wouldn’t it be a part of the characters created on stage? Especially, when the characters talk about it in the play.

From this breakthrough, I fused the idea of a prologue & blog that exists entirely online in blog format. I’m calling it the problog. The aim isn’t viral marketing, as so often is done with big Hollywood films (though, some television shows [Fringe, Heroes] fully embrace transmedia storytelling). The purpose is to be part of the play in a very integral way. This doesn’t mean if audience only attends the play they won’t understand the story. The problog does, however, adds to the audience’s understanding of the characters.

Other theatre is venturing into transmedia storytelling. Most well known was New Paradise Laboratories Fatebook, which was a hit at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2009. In 2010, Waterwell’s #9 explored how we use technology creating a live video feed of the play in which Twitter users interacted with the production in real time. Currently, Better Left Unsaid is a live play streaming online with audience purchasing a ticket to go to the theater and see the play or paying less to view the online streamed version.

It’s exciting, for theaters are finally embracing the next evolution of live performance by tapping into this medium in fun and creative ways. I’m not suggesting that every play needs Facebook profiles created for each of its characters. What I am encouraging are more playwrights to think of innovative ideas to engage and entertain their audiences. The Internet is a unique, individual experience while still being social.

The problog for Feeder: A Love Story launches on February 15th, and I look forward to seeing how people respond to the story. I hope, like any good yarn, it will invite an audience to join another unique, individual (centuries old) experience while still being social – attending the theatre.

plays in peoria

The New York Times reported new National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman is going to visit Peoria, IL to see what plays there. Peoria is my hometown. I was born there, and I moved to Canton, IL, which is about 30 minutes from Peoria, when I was 9 years old. At 12, I started working in community theatre in The Fulton County Playhouse. Just before I moved to New York City to study theatre, I had the honor of performing in Big River, Metropolis and Lucky Stiff, all produced at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria, IL. Central Illinois theatre was integral to who I am.

It was at Eastlight I first had exposure to Actors Equity Association, performing with a guest actor from Chicago. It was at Eastlight I performed in a Midwest regional premiere of Metropolis. It was at Eastlight I decided to become a professional in the theatre. The opportunities I received at Eastlight and The Fulton County Playhouse taught me the essentials of what I do every day. I learned how to build sets, how to act, how to write, how to run sound (with lack of barking recordings, I found myself backstage “playing” the dog in Steel Magnolias), and how to work as a team.

When I read the original interview in the NY Times last week, I was put off. I didn’t say it out loud to anyone, but I was. I needed a few days to digest it. There’s always a stigma on community theatre. I get it. It’s for people working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, chiropractors, and IT techs that have decent voices, did theater in high school or college and still have the bug. It’s not professional, it’s not as good as Chicago theatre, and it’s certainly not Broadway. But, if one delves into the New York theatre scene, a vast majority of theatre artists trying to make it in this unforgiving business work as bartenders, waiters, temporary assistants, nannies, paralegals, and real estate agents. They are New Yorkers, pursuing careers in theatre, but they do other jobs to pay the rent. These artists return to regional theaters and grace them with their talents, inspiring young people to pursue insane lives as vagabonds, directors, raconteurs, clowns, actors, designers and artists. We’re all artists. We all matter. We’re just having different experiences.

The Peoria Players Theatre, Cornstock Theatre, and The Peoria Civic Center, which brings in professional national tours of plays and musicals like Broadway Bound with Zeljko Ivanek, (who’s career I’ve followed since I was in high school) and Cats (of course) are other wonderful Peoria theatres that inspired me through their productions and programming. I would be remiss in not mentioning them. Though I never worked for those theatres, many of my former colleagues did. They still invigorate the city of Peoria, IL. They produce plays from Broadway and Off Broadway, bringing New York playwrights to the Midwest. They encourage young people just starting off to passionately pursue this profession.

Fortunately, Kathy Chitwood, executive director at Eastlight, and Suzette Boulais, the executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois had the tenacity to reach out to Mr. Landesman and challenge him. I’m very proud to know Kathy, and I wish her all the best when meeting with Mr. Landesman. From what I’ve heard he’s a tough nut, but he’s a fair one. Mr. Landesman said of Kathy and Ms. Boulais’ invitation to visit Peoria, “I think it’s something we’re all going to have good fun with. It’s great for the Peoria folks — having some attention. And we can make a statement about the N.E.A. — we do intend to be everywhere. I’m looking forward to it.”

Eastlight’s recent production of Rent is just closed, but if it’s like any of the shows they produced 15 years ago, it was professional and well acted. They include outstanding singers that bring the Heart of Illinois together to drink theatre in like an oasis in the desert. I’m happy to hear Mr. Landesman is visiting in early December when Eastlight presents its annual production of Joseph and the Amazing Technecolor Dreamcoat. It’s a fantastic representation of what they do.

There’s a reason for the old saying “Will it play in Peoria?” They’re cultured. And the only reason they are cultured is because its theatre companies bring plays like Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Lindsay-Abair’s Rabbit Hole to their stages. When you see a mob of high school students craning their necks in Times Square, blocking the sidewalk because they are jazzed that they’re going to see Avenue Q or Hair on Broadway, it’s because of these fine artists living in Peoria and thousands of other smaller cities across America. They are our life blood. If we cease to support them, we cease to exist. It is very important Mr. Landesman understands this when he visits.
____________

One more thing – I have to credit two other people when touting my current career path. Jim Carter and Ilene Carter are my parents, and without their encouragement and support as I worked my way through these estemed institutions (existing longer than most New York theatre companies) I would not be a playwright, producer and advocate of theatre in all its splendor. Thanks to them for all their support.