it’s about engaging

Last night, I met some great people with whom I’ve corresponded in the social worlds for quite a while, and we put faces to names (not just screen names to avatars) for the first time. We had a quick chat about our upcoming projects, and I told them about the blog I’m creating for Feeder: A Love Story. One suggested it was about marketing and hooking an audience, and I tried to explain that it’s not just about putting butts in seats but about telling the story.

This is a common misunderstanding when it comes to transmedia storytelling. Certainly, it’s a way to “hook” people, but I prefer the word “engage.” When I first thought about creating the problog for Noel and Jesse, I hadn’t heard of transmedia storytelling. I just wanted to find a unique and interesting way of telling and expanding their story. Eventually, after working on it for a while, I discovered the world of transmedia storytelling, or deep media storytelling. There are stories in the problog that are only briefly mentioned in the play, and the play has stories not even referenced in the problog. The pieces are meant to work together to give the audience a richer experience of the tale.

Theatre is a unique and special experience. Like any live performance, it allows the audience to congregate and trek through events and emotions of the characters. It should make the audience curious to know more. I don’t know how many times (especially with this play) people remark, “I wish I knew more about that character.” To put everything in the play, however, doesn’t make sense. There’s subtext. Human behavior. Uniquely theatrical journeys. As a dramatist, I don’t want to tell everything in the play. That’s where mystery and magic lives.

So, why tell back stories on another platform at all? I dislike dramaturgical notes.

With Feeder: A Love Story, one of the first questions audience members ask is: “Is this real?”

Yes, it is. Do I want to put that in a paper program people read before the play begins, detailing out what the fetish is, how people live it, or how I found it? Not really. That takes people out of the play. Generally, theatre could do a better job of pointing the audience in the right direction to discover these answers for themselves.

As theatre-makers, our job is to create worlds that entertain, enlighten and excite. If we have to explain why we wrote something in a dramatugical program note, aren’t we falling short somehow as storytellers?

Of course, sometimes audience needs explanation. Pieces may be completely avant-garde or experimental with no story at all, or perhaps a company re-envisions a classic play in a new setting or time period. There are ways of giving context without writing a four paragraph manifesto on why this piece exists. I don’t care. I don’t usually read them. If I am not moved to laugh, cry or dance, the performance doesn’t succeed.

If and when audience requires context, why not share it in other mediums? There are loads of ways to achieve this. Direct an audience to source material on the internet, tell a classic story in a two minute video with puppets, or create an interactive game that reveals more about the live performance experience. Make dramaturgy a fun discovery, not a return to the classroom. No body wants to feel like they must learn something to enjoy art. But, if art spurs people to learn because it engages, a dual benefit manifests.

We aren’t printing a program for Feeder: A Love Story. We’re going green. Our program will live online at the terraNOVA Website. But, we’re not going green just to “go green.” We’re doing it because we want to direct people to the back story. Back to the problog. If an audience member hasn’t discovered the problog before the play, she or he can dig deeper on their own.

Hopefully, it engages in a fun and fantastic way.

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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.

brooklyn piggies

Here is a cute, quick video from my Blackberry (excuse the quality). It’s one of the cutest things, and it shows the wonderful creativity of my sister, Heidi. This is her version of “This little piggy…” Brooklyn Style with my 11 month old nephew, Carter.

She’s working on versions for Alabama and Illinois, where both sets of grandparents reside. “This little piggy ate venison…?” Looking forward to the next incarnations soon!