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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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For Free, part I: (In it For the Money Mix)

November 12, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

The first check I got from Google AdWords was more than a little intoxicating.

It had been a hard financial month. I had just gotten married and settled down in our six month old condo (with its six month old mortgage), and I was off from my regular gig for two months. It was our first really lean month in a while, our savings were being tested, and while my life was leading me to dream about the future and children and picket fences, my numerous “volunteer” theater projects were starting to look like the biggest hurdle on that road.

One of those volunteer projects was backstagejobs.com, which Patrick Hudson had been doing out of the goodness of his heart for nigh on ten years. And when I say “doing,” I mean manually entering every contact, job, and spelling error on the site – and the site was powering human resources for a national storefront theater movement. It all funnelled through his poor Pentium II laptop, and his full-to-overflowing inbox. Like many others, I got I think my first three jobs out of college from the site, basically launching my career, and the opportunity to relieve this Atlas of the theatrical world though an automated redesign was reward enough.

But then, after the redesign was working and Patrick started blinking his eyes, wondering what to do with his time, he did what he could to compensate me – he handed me over two months of his google AdWords revenue.

And in that moment, I believed money really could grow on trees. It wasn’t an outrageous amount of money, but it made the difference in that month’s mortgage payment. And all this from a completely free site, that doesn’t charge either the poor starving artists looking for jobs or often the equally starving theater companies looking to hire them. Where the hell was all this money coming from? Who was advertising to this market that almost by definition didn’t have disposable income?

It turns out, the economy really can evolve. The market is rewarding companies with innovative revenue streams like Google. The model is basically: Provide a free service, and then get a large chunk of a potentially national or international market share with that free service, and then make your living through selling ad revenue for the sheer number of people just LOOKING at your site. In Patrick’s case, it’s a small compensation for the number of hours he’s already logged building and maintaining the site, but at the same time it’s a useful way to fund his child’s education.

Before we proceed, do me a favor: I don’t have the readership to justify the effort to make this blog a podcast, but I don’t want to deprive you, the reader, of the full storytelling experience here. So head on over to Amazon and order Joni Mitchell’s For Free or just play it if you’ve got it. Thanks. Life’s too short to not enjoy it.

getimageexe.jpgThe first time the economy shifted in such a basic way for American theater was the advent of film. (and I should warn, now that you have this great dramatic underscore rolling: what I am about to say probably has a great deal of ‘truthiness’ to it, but it’s all theory and not so much fact) At the time, there was a premium on the most skilled (read=famous) talent, and people would come far and wide and lavish extravagances on such a talent, and that talent would also tour around to ease the burden a bit, so you’d go to Des Moines instead of having to hoof it to New York. You could make such a name for yourself if you were a big personality, had a clear voice, and could fill the stage with your presence. That economic reality nurtured a style of acting that we now refer to as “Overacting.”

charlie_chaplin.jpgThen, suddenly, performances could be recorded, and seen in every city in the nation. Better yet, you could get up close and personal to the talent. Suddenly, the money changed directions – actors still needed presence, but they needed to be sympathetic and human-sized as opposed to larger and life. And, with expanding markets, projects that were populist and frankly lowest common denominator would suddenly have a great priority to the new studios – if you could bring a film to every market in the country, it better well APPEAL to every market in the country. Over time, the old ways get stigmatized and financially anemic, and the new ways get all that intoxicating money, fame, and – given enough market share – power. Meaning we have a lot of populist entertainment these days, and media conglomerates running way more of the country than they should, because they can literally control access to what people hear, see and read.

But there’s hope yet. Have you noticed how the content peddled by the movie industry has started to suckrepetitively – lately? Have you noticed how recent FCC changes show that cable companies are beginning to scramble for your attention?

Hear about that Writer’s strike?

Well lo and behold – web-based media is changing the rules again, in a big way. Just one tiny reflection of this is how DVD sales and free web access to TV shows has created a a richer and more focused viewing experience than cable and may have actually improved TV serials content as compared with film content. (TV allows for more character development than film due to running time limitations, so it follows that TV can nurture more complete, human characters than film – if the producers get the hell out of the way of the desires of the audience and writers.)

Equally promising – You Tube has created an outlet for user-targeted content which has created some really exciting projects that would never have gotten past the producers in the old days. And those projects are now being funded piecemeal directly by the users who want to see them. The audience’s energy and money is actually fueling the performer’s ability to perform their content.

Sound familiar? Audience Interacting with Performer… hmmm… The secret to this new model is volume, which is the big hurdle for theaters, since each show has a finite number of physical seats and in most cases a single physical location. But let’s take another look at this web theater idea. Throughout this admittedly biased little diorama of history, one thing has remained constant: The public will congregate towards what they want to see and hear. Since most of that pesky attention and money was removed from the equation of theater business back at the turn of the century, Theater has always been a haven for artists and audience looking to drive at deeper human truth and experiment/experience a bit more with the craft of entertainment than mass-market profit-driven companies would ever tolerate. They played their clarinets for free on the sidewalks, and if you happened to catch them, you experienced some breath-halting live-changing moments, that were then gone forever.

People love to have those cathartic moments. I could argue that cathartic experiences are what we want to buy when we see a movie or even when we get that double latte instead of the simple cup of joe. Especially in bubble-gum terror-scared times like these, we trust those moments and use them to recenter our priorities. Theatrical truth and human connection are finally valuable again. It’s what people want, but finding it is difficult, because we’ve become more compartmentalized. People literally are addicted to their iPods and computers, trolling the internet for a blog post or a video that will give them that sensation of human connection. To not create performances for them simply because they’re not looking in the place you’re going to be performing just seems silly.

I also think people are fundamentally smart. They don’t trust the content that is created simply for profit’s sake. They don’t really believe that they can make $20,000 in a month without doing something fundamentally immoral and/or dangerous. They want to interact and create, and theater and the web are far better at allowing that interactivity than film and TV can be on their own. Reality TV? Come on. That’s a silly substitute, but it was the best TV could come up with. How sad is that? People trust people who do things out of love, and they can smell if you’re doing something just for the money. If you see a street musician who’s damn good, you’ll stay and maybe take his card, and download his mp3s from his website, because you know he’ll keep playing even if you were to just walk by.

This new web-based financial model rewards the hard-working and clever street performers of the world. You can now travel the world, dance like a fool, and get paid for it, as long as you do it all the way. In the final analysis, this system is harder for big conglomerates to control arbitrarily for profit and allows for individual tastes and aesthetics to flourish in ways that weren’t possible before. Markets aren’t limited by physical location anymore, they’re delimited by personal interests, so they tend to reward individual and local flavors over nation-wide flavors-of-the-month. Web attention and traffic are also ephemeral, and they reward interconnectedness, which according to the Google Page Rank Documentation is ultimately a factor of trust, volume, and quality.

There’s been a few first gasps of theaters and theater organizations trying to tap new media market business plans, and in part II I’ll outline a little bit of the strategy behind them, and how they may be able to succeed – or crash and burn. Till then, thanks for funding my pipe dream by purchasing wonderful music from my site. Tee hee!

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