artsfwd blogging fellowship

EmcArts_Header

Recently, I was invited to join the ArtsFwd Blogging Fellowship. From now until the end of June, I’ll be offering my suggestions on innovation in arts administration. ArtsFwd is an extension of EmcArts, a social enterprise for learning and innovation in the arts.

From EmcArts website:

We serve as a nonprofit intermediary for many arts funders, and as a service organization for the arts field around innovation. We exist to strengthen the capacities and effectiveness of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, serving their needs in the design and management of innovative change, and assisting them in building their adaptive capacity.

Think of ArtsFwd as EmcArts’ arms embracing the online community. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and interviews give industry professionals’ tools to actively improve their organizations. ArtsFwd even offers a place for you to share your own innovative projects.ArtsFwd_fbook_coverphoto2-1Yesterday, ArtsFwd published my first article, What’s the Value of Transmedia Storytelling for Organizations? Here is a taste:

Transmedia is the art of sharing a narrative over multiple media platforms (print, online, stage, film, social networks), where unique content is delivered through each platform. For example, Fringe, the hit television show, used transmedia to expand its storyworld and reward its biggest fans. To learn more about how Fringe used transmedia, read my case study about the multiple platforms implemented over the show’s five seasons.

Though arts organizations are different than television programs, I believe it is increasingly imperative that arts organizations employ transmedia thinking as a way to expand a story over multiple media platforms.

Read the rest of the article on ArtsFwd.

The ArtsFwd program is inspiring, and I’m having great fun so far. Shout out to Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation, and Kendra Danowski, Associate Editor, for spearheading this important outreach initiative. Thanks for having me on board.

Excited about the future.

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always be in the game

It was one of the most memorable moments in Super Bowl history. When the stadium went dark. Hashtag #blackout blew up on Twitter. And from a virtual pile-up of snarky quips, one company came up with the ball.

Oreo tweeted: “Power out? No problem. http://ow.ly/hthYN.”

oreo superbowl“You can still dunk in the dark.” It spread like wildfire. And it cost far less than the actual commercial Oreo ran on television during the game. A cream-filled cookie became the night’s true marketing champion.

On his blog, Marketing the Arts to Death, arts and entertainment consultant Trevor O’Donnell, asks the question, “Should arts marketers emulate Super Bowl ads?” I commented on his article, but I decided to re-post and expand my response here because I think it bears repeating. My answer: Yes. Sort of.

Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm and co-author of Spreadable Media, suggests in his Fast Company article, “When it comes to content strategy, it’s better to think about spreadability than stickiness.” Arts organizations would benefit taking notes from this winning playbook.

On Trevor’s post, Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing and a marketing and branding consultant, commented, “While an actual comparison of Super Bowl ads to arts marketing is not simply apples to oranges but apples to elephants, in terms of budget, reach, etc., some companies use the Bowl as a chance to enforce (or change) their brand perception. While arts marketers rarely have the leeway to make their ads anything more than transactional (“Buy now”), there is something to be said for institutional arts marketers finding opportunities to build the qualitative perception of their organization, taking the long view.”

I agree with Howard on the apples to elephants comparison and looking at the “long view.” Arts organizations can do this by embracing the concept of spreadability. The quicker our messages spread, the better chance we have to grow our audience with limited budgets. This approach is essential when marketing plays, operas, art shows and ballets, which typically have limited runs. It also affects a brand’s long term perception by introducing that company to a new audience when it spreads.

The elephants may have the money. But at 72,888 followers on Twitter, Oreo has only 44K more than Carnegie Hall, 43K more than Lincoln Center, 30K more than The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Cirque du Soleil has 508K followers – seven times as many as Oreo! Arts companies have the reach. But we only impact if we’re in the game. As thousands of underdogs before have shown, it just takes one good “Hail Mary” to win the big game.

the lost children want you

Yesterday, I officially began blogging for Culturadar, an arts listings website for New York City. Here is my first post, which you can also read here.

Have you ever wondered what it is like inside a cult? I mean a true blue, alien believing, doomsday cult that blindly follows a single man anywhere he leads. How do they vet their members? What do they share with their inner circle? What is real, and how do they manipulate science to attract followers to their bizarre beliefs? And, what happens to someone after she is violently extracted from the cult in which she is deeply embedded?

In the 1970’s, if you had a loved one embedded in a cult, a man named Ted Patrick was your go-to-guy. He forcibly broke doors down, tied people up and kidnapped them from cults. The police couldn’t legally do anything about the brainwashed members inside these cults, so they let Patrick get away with it. This went on until the 1980’s when laws shifted, making Patrick’s actions extremely difficult. That’s when kidnapping convictions and lawsuits landed left and right. But that didn’t stop families from hiring extractors to rescue brainwashed loved ones.

EVIEIn the 1990’s, a young woman joined a cult, and her family hired a professional like Patrick to extract her. He forcibly kidnapped her and put her through a rigorous deprogramming process. She tricked the extractor into believing she was deprogrammed so she could return to the cult, but the cult rejected her because they believed she had been deprogrammed. The woman lost all her friends and grew exceedingly lonely. To deal with her loss, she sued her own parents for destroying her life – and won.

Inspired by this true story, director and story architect Mark Harris wrote The Lost Children, a film that tells the tale of Evelyn Hamilton, a party girl turned would-be messiah of the secretive Lost Children cult that believes they are aliens from another world and their mothership, hidden within the Tioga Comet, is approaching Earth. The film follows Evelyn’s journey from The Lost Children, to the hands of obsessed cult deprogrammer Jared Allen Tyler, a character inspired by Ted Patrick.

Once Harris completed the film, he decided to dive into the themes of belief and faith. He expanded the story world of the cult through a live, immersive event in which the audience moves between two spaces. The first space offers a fictional cult recruitment session where some audience may be targeted for advanced psychic testing. The second space is an interactive science lecture in which authentic scientists discuss the nature of comets, as well as the real possibilities of alien life in the universe.

CONVERGENCE

On January 22 and 28, Harris will fully realize his plans when The Film Society of Lincoln Center presents the New York premiere of both the film and immersive theater extension of The Lost Children in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater.

Bouncing between cult mythology and hard science, the audience will see two sides of this strange world before viewing the aftermath, which is the film. When I spoke with Harris, he shared his hopes for the New York premiere.

“I kind of want this big argument going on in everyone’s head,” said Harris. “More importantly, I’d like the argument going on in person. Then, they kind of come together in the film with that argument in their head already.”

When finding distribution for the film became challenging, Harris sought a way to get people’s attention. The film doesn’t show the inside of the cult, so he turned to immersive theater to tell that story. By putting the audience in the position of the protagonist, they discover a unique perspective that deepens their experience. The live event also helps with marketing the independent film, which doesn’t have the big PR budget of studio movies.

“I didn’t want my movie to get lost,” said Harris. “You can’t compete. I wanted to do something really unique to make it stand out.”

UntitledDepending on the event’s reception, Harris might return for more showings in the spring. There is a possibility of digital distribution of the film, but he anticipates he will retain the theatrical rights, which gives him control over the live experience and allows him to pop up cult recruitments wherever and whenever he wants. For now, there are only the two showings at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. If you want to find out what it’s like inside a cult, Mark Harris is offering a limited peek at the secrets of The Lost Children.

Just tell your family where you’re going, so they know where to send Ted Patrick if you disappear.

The premiere of The Lost Children is now sold out.
filmlinc.com/lostchildren

thelostchildrenmovie.com

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.

tweet seats – the public theater live tweets the gob squad

Last week, I participated in a new grand experiment recently popping up in theatrical Petri dishes all over the country. I was a tweet seater. Or, I live tweeted Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) at The Public Theater.

Gob Squad's Kitchen

Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) photo by David Baltzer

It was the first time The Public offered seats to Twitter users for the purpose of sharing thoughts about a play in 140 characters or less. The designated tweeters sat in the last three rows to minimize disturbing other audience members, and the theater gave us a number of rules to observe during the performance: No phone calls, dim your screens, no photographs (this was lifted moments before curtain, and several people did tweet pictures). There’s been loads of debate over the usefulness of tweet seats on blogs, news organizations and, of course, Twitter. I figured I’d share my experience of The Public’s Great Tweet Seat Experiment, and encourage theaters and theater goers to continue contemplating this divisive topic.

When I heard The Public was offering its first ever live tweeted play, I wanted to join in. After applying for a spot, the marketing staff chose me as one of 25 participants. One of my main interests, beyond seeing The Gob Squad for the first time, is my work in transmedia and interactive art. I was very curious to observe the reaction of the audience, the tweet seaters, and those following the #kitchenlive hashtag at home. There seem to be two camps in the live tweeting of theatre – the passive and the interactive.

One debate point that arises regarding live theater tweeting is over “passive tweeting.” Passive tweeting was what I experienced at Gob Squad’s performance. The tweet seaters essentially called a play-by-play of the play. Anyone following the hashtag read thoughts like:

shimmeringcell: This is hilare/nuts. Even the Public ushers are cracking up.

Or:

msteketee: Middle screen blonde actress has now donned the Edie Sedgwick striped shirt. Yes.

And criticisms such as:

nikkipatin: Just like Sontag last week, the technology utilized is far more interesting than the performance itself.

People live tweet concerts and television all the time. From concerts, tweeters share pictures and video of singers on stage and drunk friends acting asinine. The difference between a play and a concert is, typically, there’s no plot. With television, a wider, communal experience occurs; whereas, with a play only a few handfuls of tweeters share mainly with friends and colleagues. Does tweeting a play really make a difference, and if so, who cares?

For me, at least a few people cared. Responses varied. Some energized followers jumped in:

jennyg29: @PublicTheaterNY @jdcarter Digging the hell out of this #kitchenlive experiment. Hurray #Transmedia!

Fellow tweet seaters conversed with me:

adamjohnfrank: @jdcarter #kitchenlive yea, the plastic bag over the head is kind of freaking me out…

Audience members at the show who weren’t live tweeting joined in the feed after the fact:

AKwritenow: @jdcarter @PublicTheaterNY I was unPREPARED for how awesome #GobSquad #kitchenlive was.

The strongest interaction of the night came when I suggested it would be great if our tweets interacted with the show, a friendly debate (with a user following the #kitchenlive feed from home) over passive and interactive live tweeting ensued:

jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive

jennyg29: Agreed. RT @jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive

dloehr: @jdcarter There’s not much point otherwise. (Course, tweets from outside might have an effect, too.) #kitchenlive

jdcarter: @dloehr really? You think? It’s not like live tweeting any other event? Interaction is nice, but not necessary. #tweetseats #kitchenlive

dloehr: @jdcarter No, it’s not like other events. But I’m not a fan of passive live tweeting of theatre. #tweetseats #kitchenlive

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter Passive? As opposed to sitting in a theatre and NOT tweeting? That’s active?

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Audience mood affects every performance. The only truly passive audience is deaf, blind & unconscious.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter YOU were the one who used the term “passive,” not me.

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Sorry. Sitting without tweeting has often been called passive out here on twitter.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter I just don’t see how live-tweeting is less active. Maybe you don’t think you can engage in the work enough?

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter We can–and should–make art that can incorporate this & truly involve audiences beyond the level of chatter.

Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter That is interesting to me. I did think it was a unique experience livetweeting and reading others’ tweets though.

dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Livetweeting the tv, you can pause, rewind, etc. Theatre can’t do that, unless the show’s designed to use tweeting.

I resigned myself there’s two kinds of live tweeting and each has its place. I’ve always been a proponent of criticizing plays for what they are and not what we wish them to be. Like the play itself, we should examine live theatre tweeting for what it is. If there are two ways to live tweet an event – one where tweeters report and one where they interact – let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

For me, as a theatre and transmedia artist, the most exciting artistic use of Twitter (or any social media for that matter) a production integrates tweets into the experience, either allowing the audience or user at home to interact with the show or characters/actors share personal updates integrated before, during or after the performance.

Some companies have integrated tweeting as part of the narrative. The Royal Shakespeare Company partnered with Muldark, a cross-platform production company. Together, they created Such Tweet Sorrow, a five week, improvised Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Actors took roles of central characters in the tragedy, and they tweeted as the characters living in contemporary London. Also, Waterwell’s#9 explored “how we use technology and technology uses us,” according to their website. The company invited the audience to live tweet the show with the hashtag, #9. They LiveStreamed the play, and viewers at home engaged in the live tweeting experience. Waterwell pulled the hashtag stream and fed it real time onto video screens in the theatre, much like super titles, which has been suggested in this tweet seat debate. I participated through the LiveStream, and though it was fun to see my tweets pop up as some sort of “inner tweetologue” of the play, though they never fully interacted with the performance.

I asked The Public’s marketing director, Nella Vera, to share her thoughts on the Gob Squad tweet seat experiment. Ms. Vera said:

“I think many of our tweeters enjoyed being able to share their thoughts on what was happening on stage, but also found that it was a bit of a challenging task – keeping one eye on the stage and on your phone is not as easy as it seems!  Because it was a large group sitting together, many of them commented that they enjoyed being able to ‘talk’ with each other without disturbing the show and share impressions; this added to the communal feel of the event. They liked being able to see how others were reacting to the work and how it compared to their own thoughts.  In a way, it actually enhanced the very thing theater tries to do—bring people together to share ideas.  This is not something we would do on a regular basis but it is fun to consider if the work lends itself to such an environment.  (For example, our Joe’s Pub venue is already a tweet-friendly zone where fans of the musicians regularly take photos and videos of performances.)”

A way to view passive tweet seaters is to consider them press. This is the second production I attended this season (the first, Nightmare NYC) for which I was specifically invited to tweet the event. At Kitchen, a couple tweeters referenced this:

Shimmeringcell: Whoa, we have laminated press passes with our names on ‘em, drink tix, & swag!

Scamandalous: This makes me feel like real press! #kitchenlive, baby!

They felt like real press. Perhaps even a critic. The night I attended was, indeed, a press preview. I saw David Cote of Time Out New York dart out just after the curtain call. What if, in addition to his regular review, Mr. Cote sat in the back and live tweeted with the rest of us? Would there be an immediate box office jolt for the show if a critic’s tweet hailed a performance? Automatic dive if it panned? Over the past couple years, bloggers have gained credibility with producers as viable critics. Might tweeters be taking their rightful seats next to blog and mainstream critics? I’m not suggesting reviewers begin reviewing on microblogs, but if there’s a place for the long form bloggers, why not tweeters, too?  Obviously, there’s already been plenty of fire against tweeting about plays before they’re ready for prime time (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?), but what if the tweet seats landed on press previews? That certainly doesn’t preclude the average theatre attendee from sharing her/his thoughts after the show, but it might encourage microbloggers to attend a preview worth sharing.

Ms. Vera also offered some marketing statistics from the tweet seat night. “Although the intent behind the event was not purely a marketing one,” said Ms. Vera, “it is interesting to note that there were a total of 483 tweets generated, resulting in 270,359 impressions, reaching an audience of 32,700 followers.  That’s pretty amazing for 25 people!”

Indeed it is. 25 live tweeters reached 32,700 people. For theaters, it may not just be about creating artistic interaction. It may be about spreading the word. And for an experimental theatre show imported from England, I’m sure it can use all the word of mouth it can get.

photo by David Baltzer

For many reasons, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) was the perfect play on which The Public to experiment with tweet seats. The Gob Squad is forward thinking, media focused, and experimental, and so is Twitter. One of the biggest concerns/complaints of tweet seats is potentially distracting other audience and performers. The troupe performs 98% of the play obscured by a giant video screen behind which live three simple sets: a bed, a stool, and, of course, a kitchen, which are all projected onto the screen thereby minimizing actor distraction. In fact, prior to performance, the actors invited the entire audience backstage to walk through the sets, and they were excited to greet the tweet seaters. The show proposes recreations of several Andy Warhol films made in the heyday of The Factory, and these vignettes offer a meta-theatrical-video-film experience you have to see to understand. According to The Gob Squad’s website, it is, “A quest for the original, the authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.”

Sound pretentious? I thought so. And one of my followers who kept up with the #kitchenlive hashtag said our tweets made it sound pretentious, too. I guess we didn’t do a great job of conveying the experience because it was downright fun, funny, thoughtful, self-referential, and one of the best uses of audience participation I’ve seen in a long time.

I think that’s why I was only slightly disappointed with this specific tweet seat experiment. I wanted to be up on stage with the other audience participants. I wanted to interact. But I was stuck in the back row, sharing my thoughts with people who didn’t have context of my experience. I wanted more. But that’s just me. Someone else had a completely different experience, and that’s how life works. Each of us has her/his own perspective, and in the end, we’re each trying to find the original, authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.

It was an experiment, and like all experiments, some succeed and some fail. This one felt pretty positive. There’s always room for improvement, and I look forward to the evolution of this social-theatrical happening called tweet seats.

As Ms. Vera shared, “Overall, I think a good time was had by all and we truly thank everyone who participated. We learned a lot and I’m sure we will be having internal discussions about this for quite a while.”

Thanks to all my fellow tweet seaters, and special thanks to Nella Vera and The Public Theater for the tickets and their bravery.