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.

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biggest obstacle portraying tech in theatre? people.

Recently, I was tagged in a comment thread on Facebook after American Theatre Magazine raised a question posed by one of its fans:

Which plays effectively incorporate contemporary communication technologies – interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Skype, online chat, texting, etc? How have they overcome some of the obvious challenges in portraying those types of communications?

Carleigh Welsh, Sponsorship Consultant for Performance Space 122 and Director of Marketing and Communications at The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, mentioned my play Feeder: A Love Story, which was super sweet. Our team worked hard to integrate prerecorded and live video feeds and create a fun and engaging online experience.

I’m happy to see this question asked, and I especially enjoyed the query’s frame, presuming there is theatre successfully incorporating these technologies. I eagerly read other responses in the comment thread since I include this in my work. I’m always on the hunt for theatre integrating tech well. A few suggestions were Carlos Murillo’s Dark Play or Stories for Boys, Real Girls Can’t Win by Merri Biechler, Tommy Smith’s Girlfriend, and even Patrick Marber’s Closer.

Then, a man wrote: The experience of using those technologies is innate anti-theatrical.*

A woman immediately responded to the comment: That is piffle.

The man’s retort?

People spend ALL DAY LONG looking at screens, why would we expose them to that when they pay money to come to a theater? I suppose if you wanted to talk about how boring these technologies make people that would make a great play.

One of the obvious challenges in portraying those types of communications is overcoming prejudices of theatre purists like this fellow. Theatre is a congregational experience that entertains with live performance supported by a vast array of tools. Technologies are tools just like puppets, costumes or sets. To fully expand creatively, we should use every tool in the box. Even Annie Dorsen’s Hello Hi There, which employs no actors whatever, is a theatrical exploration of these technologies. Is it a play? Not in the traditional sense, but it is theatre.

If “people spend ALL DAY LONG looking at screens,” why wouldn’t we portray that on stage? Are we supposed to pretend computers, mobile devices and video technology do not exist? They permeate every moment of our lives. To keep theatre isolated is limiting and dogmatic. A better question is, “How can one write a contemporary play and completely ignore technology?”

People debate: What is theatre? What is good theatre? What is the best kind of theatre?

Who cares?

Expressing opinions freely wherever one wishes is healthy. Open people might listen and learn. Closed-minded individuals will continue to write negative drivel on comment boards and Facebook walls. I create theatre that matters to me, and fortunately I’ve met others who create theatre to which I aesthetically and emotionally relate. There are markets for everything, and so it is with theatre. Whether it’s downtown experimental performance art, a well made play on Broadway or something in between, we’re all in this together. Why spent time debating theatrical purity when it’s subjective anyway? All that matters is whether the show moves and entertains the audience.

Transmedia storytelling is a big part of the work I do. Transmedia isn’t for everyone, nor should it be in every play because not every play calls for it. However, those who suggest tech tools have no place in theatre should go to Broadway and see a musical or two. Most implement some sort of “multi-media” and have for over 20 years. If people do not want to see technology on stage, those plays certainly exist. If you value that aesthetic, support it and let tech advancements continue evolving theatre elsewhere.

As part of their 50th anniversary, Theatre Communications Group created a blog series called the “What If…” Project, asking what if we imagined the theatre field of the next 50 years, and began making visible progress today? TCG kindly invited me to respond to the question, What if Theatre Embraced Transmedia? Funnily, there are still people out there who can’t even face the question “What if theatre embraced multi-media?” If we are to make progress, we must accept both.

Opposing the integration of communication technologies in theatre is artistically irresponsible. As long as we keep embracing technology in our daily lives, it should continue on manifesting onstage. Art reflects life, and life includes technology.

*All grammatical errors belong to the poster.

___

If you’re interested in hearing me speak more in depth about these topics, I’m presenting on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at the Transmedia New York City Meetup. I’ll share details on the creation of my play Feeder: A Love Story, and discuss examples of theatre taking up technology in this new and exciting fashion. There are still slots available. It’s free, and you can SIGN UP HERE.

meeting feedees

A few weeks back, Aaron Gell from the New York Observer called to interview me about my play Feeder: A Love Story. The conversation was casual and focused on the play’s development. It was similar to other interviews I gave over the past month to Tom Murrin, Adam Szymkowicz and Zack Calhoon.

Then, our conversation turned to my research. Specifically, Mr. Gell wanted to know if I spoke to anyone in the feederism community. Being very private people, I wasn’t compelled to share many details. I did mention that the feederism blog, FeedeeWorld, picked up our press release about the play, discovered the play’s character blog, and organized a group to see the play’s first preview performance. Mr. Gell thanked me for my time, and proceeded to find FeedeeWorld and Fantasy Feeder. He posted requests for interviews at both sites. He planned to attend the same preview performance with the feederism group and hoped to ask them questions.

Because this play examines the media’s exploitation of sub-cultures and fringe groups, I have a few opinions and reservations about the media, and when one of the bloggers at FeedeeWorld told me Mr. Gell reached out to her, I encouraged her to be cautious. Though Mr. Gell reassured me his article would maintain participants’ anonymity and respect their lifestyles, I was still skeptical.

To my surprise, Mr. Gell did not attend the first preview of the play, but the group organized on FeedeeWorld did.

The original version of Feeder: A Love Story, written in 2006, was a solo play. I shared an experience here about two audience members confronting me after a performance about my intentions. Needless to say, when I discovered a group from the online community Fantasy Feeder was attending this new production, my heart jumped a little. Would they be angry? Would they be satisfied with the work I’ve done to depict this lifestyle honestly?

Happily, the group was open, responsive and generally pleased with the play. We had a wonderful discussion about their concerns, and they even offered some dramaturgical suggestions, which I implemented. It was a very different experience from my original post show discussion in 2006. Amanda, the woman with whom I’ve been corresponding, posted her review of the play today.

Mr. Gell contacted me a couple days after the group’s visit to the show, asking again if I could connect him to this group. I explained I respected the group’s privacy, and he would have to break the ice on his own. He returned to Fantasy Feeder, and with persistence persuaded one of the attendees to chat with him about their experience of the play. You may read Mr. Gell article at the New York Observer website.

Again, Mr. Gell surprised me. His intentions were indeed respectable, and his portrayal of the group was sweet, fun and objective. It wasn’t a hard piece of journalism, but that was never his intention as he so often insisted. In this exploitative and fast-paced 24 hour news cycle, we see innocent people vilified and judged for lifestyles. It’s refreshing to see a reporter do the work and stick to his word. One may disagree with how others live their lives; however, we’re all human beings seeking happiness and understanding.

Thanks, Mr. Gell, for staying true to your word and sharing a moment in which people tried to understand each other just a bit better.

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.

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.