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.

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solonova applications online

I’m very excited to announce that the applications for soloNOVA 2010 are now online at www.terranovacollective.org. It’s our 7th year accepting applications for this celebration of solo artists spanning multiple genres, including music, spoken word, comedy, burlesque, monologues, storytelling, traditional solo plays, dance, performance and visual art. When we started the festival through terraNOVA Collective in the summer of 2004, our intention was to bring attention back to a form too often considered therapy, indulgent, cheap or just plain bad. Aiming to foster nascent works, we open submissions as well as scouting new shows around town and in various other festivals. In August, I saw 17 solo shows in the New York International Fringe Festival. My hope is to hit Edinburgh next year. Our intention is to make soloNOVA the place international solo artists strive to be. Part of that plan is to begin submissions earlier so artists may attain visas in a timely fashion. This past Monday night, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards recognized a 2009 soloNOVA artist, Jeff Grow, for Outstanding Solo Performance and Outstanding Performance Artist. Additionally, 5 of the 6 nominees for Solo Performer came from soloNOVA. We were very excited soloNOVA was able to facilitate the journey of these artists to being honored. This coming year we continue our search for the next fantastic solo artist along with celebrating great performers with successful careers. It is important to us to sustain and encourage solo artists in all their glorious forms. Looking forward to seeing what comes down the pipe.

16 years

16 years ago this week I moved to New York City. I met Jennifer Conley Darling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. We had one of our first classes together – theatre history, the only “academic” class taught at the conservatory to lend legitimacy from New York State as an accredited school. Jen and I knew each other, but we didn’t really hang out. It wasn’t until the end of our second year at The Academy, when we were in a production of Feiffer’s People, that Jen and I bonded.

A little over a year later, post AADA, several of our fellow alums, including Jen and myself, banded together as thousands of other pie-eyed conservatory graduates do to create a new theatre company. We wanted to cultivate new work and change the face of American theatre. It was from that actors’ group terraNOVA Collective was born. terraNOVA produced new plays, discovered the business of show, and lost and gained many members along the way. The one constant was Jennifer. When Ray Yates, the original artistic director moved back to Dublin, Ireland, Jen took the company’s reigns, though she’d never held a position like this before, and steered several plays to production, including one tour.

After a few years of “down time.” I approached Jen about writing a play for her, she laughed, but I did it. We tried to get backers to support the play, but when it couldn’t find financial legs, it was Jen’s idea to use terraNOVA as a fundraising organization to produce the play. That’s just what we did, and in October 2003, terraNOVA Collective produced my play Baby Steps at The Lion in Theatre Row. The success of the play re-energized the company, and I came back on board as the associate director (I’d left years earlier to pursue other opportunities), eventually helping to create its main programs: soloNOVA Arts Festival, Groundbreakers and Subterranean.

All along the way, Jennifer has been a rock and center of this company. Last night, terraNOVA Collective, which is currently in residence in Union Square at the DR2 Theatre and D-Lounge, launched its 7th consecutive season of programming (and its 13th year in existence) with Subterranean, our monthly performance party. This past season found us nominated for 17 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, which was both exciting and humbling. There’s been many bumpy roads along the way, too. Fundraising continues to be our biggest struggle, and making it through this upcoming season seems daunting during this current climate. Still, I have faith. We’ve overcome struggles in the past, and I know we’ll meet whatever obstacles are ahead with strength, creativity and perseverance.

There’s a common bit of wisdom imparted to many a young actors starting off in this business: “If you can do anything else…anything…do it.” It supposedly speaks to the brutality this business of show brings to pie-eyed actors with dreams of fame and fortune. I’d suggest the only thing with more odds against it is starting and successfully running one’s own theatre company with any sort of longevity. Jennifer Conley Darling does that with grace under pressure and intense resilience. She idealistically continues to believe in making a mark on the face of the American theatre, and humbly, I believe we’ve made a tiny imprint thus far. The artists who’s careers launched to success and sustainability from terraNOVA programs is due to Jen’s commitment of nourishing live theatre in a time at which most people would rather veg-out on couches or play on computers.

It seems like a long time ago we blew off theater history class, goofing on the unqualified substitute teacher who rambled on about Uri Geller bending spoons and keys – anything besides the history of theatre. We’ve accomplished much together since then. I look forward to the stretch ahead.

We’ve come a long way, Baby.

keeping terraNOVA going

I wrote this on Facebook as part of terraNOVA Collective’s $10 toward $10K campaign:

Six years ago, terraNOVA Collective experienced a resurgence with the production of my play BABY STEPS, which played in the The Lion in Theatre Row. Since then, the company grew and began many programs including the annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, which celebrates the best in solo performers and visual artists, Groundbreakers, a developmental program for new plays & playwrights, a Touring Wing, bringing the best terraNOVA has to offer to universities and presenters across the USA, and now a Musical Theater Development program.

I am very proud of all the work we’ve done. It’s hard work sustaining a not-for-profit theatre organization in New York City – especially in the current economic climate. It’s terrifying, sometimes, in fact. Still there are so many people who are supportive. We just brought on a managing director and literary manager for the first time. We grew our board of directors this season by 6 people, and they’ve been extremely helpful in generating more interest and support for terraNOVA. We also started a residency in the DR2 Theatre this past fall; our partnership with this wonderful organization has been a great experience, and we’re looking forward to seeing it grow.

Still, with times being what they are, we find ourselves falling short. terraNOVA still needs $10K to make it through into this next season. It’s always a conundrum, asking friends, family and colleagues for money. Any not-for-profit’s base is made up primarily from its individual donors, and we’re very fortunate to have that kind of contribution. It’s been difficult to reach out to individuals this year because we’re not the only ones hurting – our base is feeling it quite intensely, too. We looked at this gap and realized that we weren’t going to close it by asking 20 people to give $500…or 10 people to give $1000. No one’s got that kind of cash to blow right now. It hit us – why not ask our base to give what they can? I don’t have much, but I can give $10. Most of the people who make up our base are like me, so we’re reaching out in a tight time to see if our friends, family and colleagues can help us get through this tight time.

It’s only 10 bucks, but it’ll help more than you can imagine.

Very best,
James (JD) Carter
Associate Artistic Director & soloNOVA Lead Curator
terraNOVA Collective

More information on terraNOVA can be found at http://www.terranovacollective.org

long haul

soloNOVA’s coming to a close, and it’s been a looooong haul this year. It’s more than we’ve ever done (almost 5 full weeks of programming). We’ve produced more shows than ever before – 60, when all’s said and done (including the Breakthrough Performer week with Martin Dockery next week), as opposed to 32 shows last year. We’re in residence at one of the most wonderful places you could reside – the DR2 Theatre and D-Lounge. So many publications have given us great reviews. From The New York Times to NYTheatre.com, there has been great praise for the festival’s participants. And Mike Daisey opened the festival with a rousing speech on “Why Solo Performance Matters.”

The other day, someone was asking me how the festival is going, and I said to them, “You know some days you have 20 people in the house, and the next day you have 80. It’s like life – you can freak out and beat your chest on the bad days and cheer the good days, but in the end…all I want to be able to do is say, ‘I’m proud of what I did.’ That’s how I feel about the festival. We’ve had downs, but we’ve certainly had more ups.”

It means so much that so many people are excited about what terraNOVA does. I know there’s still those out there who aren’t on the solo band wagon. And that’s fine, for it’s not for everybody. However, when the craft of solo performance is done well – and I have to say how well I think it was done this year – there’s nothing like it.

Many blessings…and if anyone’s reading this before we close on Saturday, come through and check it out. Or, come and see Martin next weekend. They’re great shows, and I’m not just saying that because I’m producing them. I’m very proud.