Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interaction

In the spring 1999, four guys on the margins of the internet business community posted 95 theses to their blog (just in case you thought George Hunka invented that particular idea). It was called the ClueTrain Manifesto, and it called on American business to get with the internet program and recognize that the internet wasn't just a smaller version of TV (i.e., a medium for delivering one-way messages), but something based on conversation, discourse, give-and-take. Some mainstream business leaders huffed and puffed about the brash and dismissive style of the authors, but many of those tuned into change, such as Tom Peters and Peter Drummond, hailed the authors as providing a map for the 21st century business. Seth Godin, author of The Dip, Purple Cow, and Small is the New Big, wrote, "If you don't think you need this book to better understand your market, that's your second mistake." [I'm still trying to figure out the first mistake...maybe I missed something.]

The authors proposed the minimizing of million-dollar web sites in favor of blogs in which the employee, the manager, the owner, the consumer, and anyone else who wanted to talk about the product could do so without intermediaries. Stop the monologue, start the dialogue. Nine years later, the ideas of The ClueTrain Manifesto have gone mainstream, and corporate blogs are ubiquitous. That's how fast things move in the business world.

It is interesting to read the ClueTrain Manifesto now, and transfer some of the ideas to the regional theatre scene. Here are seven of the 95 theses -- read them substituting "theatres" everywhere it says "companies."

34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.

35. But first, they must belong to a community.

36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.

37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.

38. Human communities are based on discourse -- on human speech about human concerns.

39. The community of discourse is the market.

40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
A year earlier, arts marketer and designer Edwin Schloassberg wrote Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-First Century, in which he addressed similar issues to the authors of ClueTrain Manifesto, except with a focus on the experience of the arts and museums. In it, he writes about a shadow puppet performance he attended in Indonesia, where he was "overwhelmed by an entirely new audience/theater/artist paradigm." He goes on:

The story told in the wayang kulit performances is always based on one of the Hindu classcs, such as the Ramyana or the Mahabhrata, with which the audience is familiar. Because the audience knows the story before going in, it is primarily interested in comparing this performance to previous ones. The performance, which lasts eight hours, begins around midnight on the night of the full moon. Throughout the entire performance and then afterward, the audience quietly chats about the show--how it is going and how it went. The whole experience is a way for the community to get together and have a shared experience.

Before the show I sat down in the front of the krato, the king's palace, and saw a large white curtain, like a makeshift movie screen, strung across the middle of a platform. A strong lamp hung in what I thought was the backstage area. The gamelan musicians sat in what perceived to be the front, with the shadow from the puppets projected on the white cloth. As the performance started, some of the audience sat in front and watched the shadows dance. But others got up and moved behind the stage to watch the puppeteer and the puppets. One part of the audience chose to step into illusion, listening and watching from the front, while the other part chose to be with the performer, to explore the art of his presentation. This practice, so alien to Western tradition, allows the audience to learn how something is made and how well it can be done. Their understanding, discussion, and appreciation of all facets of the play are part of the presentation. The culture values the audience's active role in the process as equal in importance to that ofthe puppeteer or the musician. A performance is considered from all these points of view, not simply on the basis of the performance alone.

I'm certain that most of my readers are reacting with horror right now. Talking during the show?
Unbelievable! Going backstage while the show is going on??? Absurd! Why, English actors complain bitterly about spectators crinkling candy wrappers while they're acting. Everyone knows that audiences are supposed to be seen and not heard. They should buy their over-priced ticket, sit quietly in the dark in their uncomfortable seats and not be heard from again until the show is over, when they should stand up and applaud enthusiastically, and then go home as quickly as possible while the actors scurry back to their dressing rooms, get out of costume and makeup, and slink into the night to their favorite artist hangout where they speak only to each other.

How long will it take until the leaders of American regional theatres realize that they must be part of their communities? That the only way to belong to a community of discourse is to have continuity in your artistic staff (actors, directors, designers, playwrights), not just your management staff? That theatres do not sell a commodity, they sell an experience, and part of that experience involves discourse, conversation, exchange? We can't continue to hide ourselves away before, during, and after a show. We must learn to engage our audience.

Perhaps we need our own ClueTrain Manifesto to wake us up to the idea that the miracle of live theatre is the opportunity for exchange, discourse -- something film can't compete with in any way. But the fact is that most of us are shy, don't you think? When we encounter someone in the grocery store who has seen us perform, for instance, we are flattered to be recognized and praised, but we have no real idea how to behave, and I suspect we never ask anything about the other person themself. It's sort of like being visited as we step out of the shower -- we feel naked and awkward, and so we cut the conversation short. Similarly, our natural inclination is to try to make our performances one-way communication where we know all our lines and you just listen to what we have to say.

I'm not suggesting interactive theatre -- even in the example Schlosser describes, the spectators do not interrupt or participate in the performance in any way -- but rather an interactive context that encourages spectators to talk to each other and to the artists in an informal, non-talkback-Q-&-A kind of way. Maybe meet in the bar across the street after the show, or have a place where people can gather inside the theatre where they can talk and where the artists visit afterwards.

And where the same artists visit month after month, year after year. So that John and Laura not only buy a ticket to the show, but they also plan on seeing actor Tony after the show to say hey.

Anyone getting on the cluetrain?


6 comments:

Simon said...

Right on Scott, this is a great consideration for us. The audience should be made to feel part of the club instead of outside of the "sacred mystery circle of art" that so many of us propagate. Who doesn't want to at least say thank you after the show to a performer that moved them? Why can't we postpone the self-congratulation and get out to the foyer to say "you're welcome. So, what did you think? Thanks for coming! Tell your friends", that kind of thing. We're making theatre to talk about something we feel strongly about (I hope), there's always that opportunity to do it face to face after the show. Besides, it's just smart business and good marketing anyway.

ilannoyed said...

so - i'm not even going to mention the "live streaming video" idea again, since it seems too "out of the box" even for this blog

The Director said...

Let me tell you about the last time I watched live streaming video...

...

..oh wait, I can't. It's never happened. It's not mainstream enough, it's not popular enough, and it's not profitable, not in the theatre niche.

If I want live video, I'll watch TV.

If i want to watch live theatre, I'll go to the theatre, thanks.

Scott Walters said...

ilannoyed -- I've already said live streaming video is a fine idea. It isn't the focus of this blog at the moment, and since it is my blog, I get to focus on what I want to focus on. You want to talk about streaming video, sign up at Blogger and start writing. It isn't a priority for me at the moment.

That said, I think it is damn good idea, and while it isn't "the same," neither is watching a football game on television "the same" as being there, but millions watch games every week and the interest generated fills the stadiums. Attendance at Broadway shows jumps during the weeks following the Tony Awards. Theatre people have this weird split personality when it comes to liveness -- on the one hand, they reject things like streaming video because it isn't live, and on the other they do their damndest to ignore the audience when it is actually in the theatre with them.

There are times when I think we are totally self-destructive!

Mac said...

Scott, you may not believe me, but this describes the Off-Off Broadway theater life. We always chat with the audience after the show, and people from both the show and the audience get drinks together afterward. At least in all the Off-Off shows I've done, this is standard.

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- I'm glad to hear that; so we have a model. Of course, there are some who would say: of course you drink with the OOB audience: they're mostly your theatre friends! Whether that is a fair comment or not, I think the object is to turn more members of the audience into theatre friends. And to turn theatre people into just folks as well.