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.

play for students

The past few weeks have been filled with writing my first new play in two years. Really, I’ve not written a new full length play in almost four years. There’s many reasons for that, not the least of which has been my focus shift toward curating and producing others’ work. It’s been great producing, but I’m extremely happy to return to the creative. A couple weeks back, I spoke to an artistic director/producer friend of mine at another NYC theatre company, and I asked her what she is doing these days. She said she is getting back to acting and directing, which was what she originally got into the business to do. We laughed that we started our companies so we could create our own work, but the administrative rigors of producing and fundraising have kept us from creating original work of our own. She was very happy to be back in the creative saddle again.

So am I. Recently, I received a commissioned from a high school in Elburn, IL to write a play for their students. It was doubly exciting to have this request come from none other than my own mother, Ilene Carter. For eight years she’s taught theatre at Kaneland High School and she’s directed the fall play and spring musical. She has her Masters in Theatre Education from NYU, and she’s been inspiring teenagers to enter the business of theatre for over ten years. She spearheaded a campaign to build a new 750 seat auditorium at the high school, and the referendum passed, which afforded the district to build a beautiful palace of a theater. It’s larger than most Broadway stages, has state of the art sound and lighting (better than that in most professional New York theaters) and a hydraulic lift on which an entire orchestra can lower down and up into the pit. It’s pretty sweet. And my mom was a big part of it coming to pass. She’s retiring from teaching this year, and after saying we were going to do this year after year, it’s finally happening. You can imagine my anticipation as I prepare to fly to Chicago today and work for three days with her students.

My biggest concern on writing a play for students (aside from certain “moral” restrictions…read: no swearing) was writing something distinctly for their voices. I didn’t want to write some glossed over After School Special issue play, and I didn’t want to write a play where teenagers were playing adults. It had to be about them…for them. How to do this? Easy. Create a world in which adults don’t exist. I devised a story that takes place in the not-to-distant future where everyone aged 9 years and older was wiped out by a world-wide pandemic. The play, itself, unfolds 10 years after all adults were wiped from Earth, and the children, who are now teenagers, live at outposts created by their parents who hope by leaving the few remaining children video lessons (they use power from solar panels for power to view the videos, but don’t have enough real electricity to run much other than small household appliances) hopefully, they will learn what they need to rebuild humanity.

At the top of the play, the tribe receives an S.O.S. distress signal from another outpost in Old Chicago. Nothing else. No audio, no video, no written communication. Only S.O.S. After much debate, the tribe sends a band of seven out to determine who or what may be on the other end. Through the trials of their quest, they learn more about themselves and humanity itself.

Mom cast the play last night with all 31 students who auditioned. I wrote it with large group scenes so as to include as many students as possible, so I’m glad she was able to incorporate everyone who wanted to participate in this unique experience. I’m heading off to catch a plane now, and tonight we’ll have our first read through of the script. I hear they are very excited to be working on a new play. Some are hypothesizing how the play ends. Some are science fiction freaks geeked about the future setting. Some are aspiring playwrights and will just be sitting in to learn about process. It’s very cool.

Boarding the plane now. More on the first read through tomorrow…