Digitizing Shakespeare


Our world is currently characterized by digitization. On a daily basis we interact with digital tools and properties. However, if we think about digitization in general, we probably think about the big things first: communications (who writes letters these days?), transportation (how many times have we cursed at the computers that make our new cars unfixable with a wrench and a willingness to bark our knuckles), and of course, weapons (drones, anyone?).

But the success of this technology on a large scale has given birth to an almost pathological willingness to experiment on a personal scale. Things we never would have thought needed digital versions – cabs, meals, maps, books, cigarettes, wine – we now can’t imagine in solely analog forms.

Part of this trend is commercial. Entrepreneurs and investors are looking for the proverbial next big thing and who’s to say that isn’t digital underpants that track your menses? Surveys only get you so far. After that you have to take the risk of producing and trying to sell the beeping networked panties of your dreams.

But an arguably more dignified reason for experimenting is the human desire to answer the question “What if?”


Plan for the Implementation of Social Software in Big Theatre

Most of what I’ve written on Big Theatre and the new information society has been critical. For those who’ve wondered whether I have anything constructive and affirmative to say, the answer is yes. I have a plan. This plan, by necessity, takes into account the various obstacles I’ve outlined, but is a positive plan for implementation.

There is no large theatre in the United States (or elsewhere so far as I’m aware) that has employed a full suite of social media, that has invested completely in the creation and sustaining of The Compleat Conversation with its audience. That opportunity remains wide open for any organization with the guts and vision to take it. This plan is an outline for how to do so.

These steps I outline in the plan are the fruit of three simple realizations: What is, is not working. Precedent, without experimentation, is not respect for the past; it is contempt for the future. What has worked for others may work for you.

The Plan

  1. Announce that The Conversation Is On. Period. Hold hands, have meetings, encourage an internal conversation, but remember: This is “disruptive technology.” There will be no consensus. It will—until it is a proven success and, for some, even after that—be resented and resisted. Only a determined leader, one willing to employ the force of his or her moral and organizational authority, will be capable of seeing this change through the period of adjustment to fruition. Express, as your goal, the recognition of an already-occurring conversation with your audience. Articulate your respect for the intellect and spirit of a dedicated audience. Remind your company members that to listen to an audience is not the same as to pander to them. But to refuse to listen to them is the same as dismissing them.
  2. Express your intent to destroy the hierarchical, authoritarian status quo in theatre-audience relations, replacing it with a radical openness and absolute dedication to The Conversation.
  3. Set up a phased rollout of conversational tools, building both skills and comfort as you go.
  4. Be complete. Do not try to have your cake and eat it too by, for instance, unveiling a “blog” upon which no one can comment. Activate all elements of each tool you use.
  5. Monitor each tool you roll out. You may find your blog and forum are extremely popular but simply no one wants to listen to your podcast. Again, do not act as though you know what works for all parties prior to experimenting with them. Use a combination of your own guts, vision and intuition, the expressed preferences of your audience and hard usage data.
  6. Set a subsidiary goal of being the absolute ‘thought leaders’ in the application of conversational tools to the theatrical environment. Speak at conferences and lend your expertise and experience to other theatres.
  7. Realize these goals through experimenting promiscuously with all forms of conversational tools: blogging, podcasting, vlogcasting, forums, social networking, wikis and file-sharing.
  8. Extend that commitment into the physical environment of your theatre. People who use these tools do not think of the ‘real world’ vs. ‘cyberspace’ when they fire up their computers anymore than they think of the ‘real world’ vs. ‘telespace’ when they pick up the telephone. To wit: Give bloggers press comps; sponsor meetups for blogging visitors; arrange group interviews with theatre professionals for bloggers.
  9. Make it understood throughout the organization that everything, everywhere, with no exceptions, is open to being blogged about, podcasted and videoblogged within the organization and generally observed, commented upon, praised or criticized by anyone and everyone within and without the organization. Get on the offensive and negotiate industry-benchmark agreements with Equity.
  10. Secure the necessary personnel to implement these initiatives. Make certain their positions report neither to marketing, to IT or any of the other old guard. These types usually have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, frequently avowing a teary-eyed affection for “tradition” and “history” which translates into a ferocious defense of personal fiefdoms and resistance to change.

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Social Media Rollout for Theatre

Here is my list of social media that would be worth experimenting with for any theatre.

The rollout is designed both to build skills, internally and externally, and acclimatize employees and audience members to this way of communicating. The order is designed so that one implementation would lay the groundwork for the next.

Not every theatre would use each of these media. Some would be more useful and popular than others depending on the type of theatre, its offerings, its audience and its goals. That’s something each theatre would have to decide for itself.

  1. Internal wiki
  2. Internal blog
  3. External blog
  4. Podcast
  5. Video podcast
  6. Wikipedia entries on theatre and personnel (by volunteers)
  7. MySpace page
  8. Facebook for subscribers
  9. Second Life presence
  10. You Tube postings
  11. Forums or public wiki
  12. Yahoo or Google group
  13. Mobcasting and other coordinated events

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The Knowledge-is-Power Fiction

Big Theatre, perhaps moreso than most industries, is powered in part by a belief that knowledge is power. Theatre is to many the creation of artificial scarcity through the strategic release of proprietary information to the public. In an era where the public’s relationship to data has changed pronouncedly, this attitude can be a liability.

Here are the primary fictions regarding information. Theatre hardly has a monopoly on these fictions, but they are heavily invested in them.

• All data is controllable
• All data should be controlled
• Customers can and should be controlled
• The organization, not the customer, should be in control
• The worst possible scenario is the most likely
• The only attitude of an organization to its data is to secure it

These ideas are suspect for a couple of reasons.

• All data, with very few exceptions (such as some economic data) is already available to the public; between the Web, blogs, forums, YouTube, etc. everything is already accessible
• Efforts to control data sends a message to customers that you wish for them to remain passive and ingest what data you choose to give them and that you believe you know what’s best for them and they should be grateful should you choose to share any of the data; customers have already rejected being force-fed
• Social software is demonstrably more effective and infinitely cheaper than broadcast marketing

Your only real choice is whether or not to influence the use of that data by entering into a conversation with your customers. Choosing to remain outside of a conversation that has already begun does not make the conversation go away.

There is another reason why this attitude predominates as it does. To throw down the gauntlet and “take a stand” against sharing information due to “security issues” creates the appearance of prudence and concern and is therefore politically beneficial in the short run to anyone who advocates it.

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The Foundational Problem in Implementing Social Media in Big Theatre

Web pages, email and so forth are technologies that can be dovetailed into the traditional approach to communication, that is, top-down, broadcast communication. No one is really threatened by these technologies, just inconvenienced, because they support and further the traditional approach to communications and marketing.

However, as has been catalogued numerous times by people with more time and know-how than I have, people have grown utterly disgusted by this approach. No one wants you to cold-call their house at dinner time. No one wants your email about boner pills and software. No one wants brochures for leaf blowers to arrive at their apartment in Chelsea. Again and again and again, people have voted. One example will due. The standard rate of positive response for an email campaign is two percent. Two percent. That means for every positive action, you need to send out 50 emails. That’s 49 people who have been inconvenienced by you. The approach is cold, lacking in fellow-feeling and inefficient.

This new generation of technologies—blogs, podcasts, forums, file- and photo-sharing, RSS feeds, MySpace and Facebook, etc.—has been referred to as “disruptive technologies.” Disruptive because they completely break with, and break, what has come before. If you are not in a position to embrace two-way conversations, you will find disruptive technologies to be extremely threatening.

The theatre has a special situation, but one which meshes with this society-wide backlash against being told to sit down and shut up and listen. Already early adopters, secondary adopters, businesses and media have embraced these new technologies. Theatre, almost without any exception, has not. A medium built on communication refuses, in essence, to communicate. The contempt for the audience this implies is palpable.

The story of how this attitude came to predominate is instructive.

In the 60s and 70s, a generation of theatre professionals turned their backs on the pandering, bottom-line-driven theatre of Broadway. In an attempt, no doubt earnest, to return theatre to a place where it could provide people with intellectual and spiritual sustenance, this generation developed non-profit theatre, regional theatre. It worked. For a while. But now that this generation is in their 60s and 70s, the attitudes that powered their revolution, calcifying over time, have turned into a self-serving orthodoxy. Regional theatre has become Big Theatre.

The exaggerated self-regard of this generation is the single biggest liability for the sustainability and relevance of theatre. The brave refusal to consider profit first has grown into a patent refusal to listen, in any way.

One particularly self-aggrandizing actor once told me, when I had proposed we use MySpace to reach out to schoolkids who regularly came in groups to the theatre I worked at, but never came back on their own afterward, “Must the Festival sink to a new low in promoting itself?…why would we want to promote ourselves to the lowest common denominator? Let’s try to set our sights on something we can all be proud of and not waste our creative energies on some vapid preteen scrap book.” (He also used the word “lest” and mentioned Julliard.)

As happens when a group occupies the moral high ground for long enough, they achieved a position of authority, no longer rebels. Having grown comfortable in that authority, it seemed to begin to feel theirs by right. Especially when surrounded by people all too eager to flatter them, the only people they allow to surround them after a while, they grew arrogant and disconnected. They honestly believe that the very people who bring the second-half of the text to every single performance are the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, forgetting apparently that theatre’s genesis, in addition to religion, is entertainment, and the reputation of theatre professionals has more often been that of whores than of dons. You’d think that would breed some humility. It does not seem to have done so.

Using “disruptive technologies” in this context requires the willingness to destroy the many defenses theatre has put up to protect itself from the people it ought to be serving. The likeliness of establishing a functional two-way conversation in Big Theatre using social media is scant until this generation of theatre professionals retires. Even then, there will be a lot of habits of mind to unlearn.

No, listening to an audience is not the same thing as pandering to it. Opening up a blog and enabling the comment fields is not the start of a slippery slope leading inevitably to a production of “Dukes of Hazard: The Musical!”

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Age Trends and Diversity in Big Theatre

I once had the occasion to speak with a candidate for a marketing position at a large regional theatre. I asked this person what she would do to attract a greater number of young theatre-goers to the audience. To my surprise, she stated sweepingly that nothing could be done to accomplish this. Further, the notion that marketing could solve the problem of lack of younger audience members (by younger I mean early 40s and younger), was “arrogant.”

The bleeding of younger audience members (i.e., those who would, were they to exist, go on to become older, that is, wealthier, audience members, and donors) is a fantasy, a fiction. We should not worry. This idea seemed in keeping with the theatre’s leadership and the woman was subsequently hired.

The average age of the touring Broadway theatregoer was 51 years, up from 48 years in the 2002 season.
The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 42 years old. Theatregoers under 18 years old accounted for nearly 1.2 million tickets, a drop from 1.3 million in the previous season, but still relatively high.
Audiences…greatest concentration in the 45-64 age groups. The smaller of the companies tend to attract a younger audience…Only 17.6% of the respondents have children under 18 in the home, suggesting that families may be a significant untapped market for these companies.
TAMA Survey Numbers
• The problem, according to an article in the LA Weekly, is that fewer and fewer people have had any encounter with live theater in high school or college, and today’s reigning playwrights always seem to be a generation or two older than the 30-somethings who traditionally form the youngest tier of theatergoing audiences.

When it comes to that magic bean “diversity,” in many theatres it seems to be of a piece with the smug lack of worry about age.

I was told that virtually all the diversity and audience-building focus at one large regional theatre in Oregon is exclusively focused on the African-American community. This in a state which, according to the U.S. Census, African-Americans represent 1.8% of the population. That’s a smaller representation than Asian (3.4%) and Hispanic (9.5%). And far and away above that is the percentage of Oregonians who live below the poverty level. 12%. 12%! That’s 7 times more poor people in the state than African-Americans.

To over-focus on one group is unjust as well as unwise for audience development. I get the uncomfortable feeling that part of this possible monomania is powered by its efficacy in appealing to the wealthy out-of-state liberals who partially fund this theatre and others like it. It strikes a real “black folk are good marketing” vibe. Who’s that fair to? Black audience members, actual or potential?

Well, maybe poor people make awful marketing mascots. “The poor will always be with us,” I hear. Just not in the theatre.

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Blogging Interview with the House Theatre of Chicago

I recently interviewed Nathan Allen, the Artistic Director of the House Theatre of Chicago regarding their blog, which, as I’ve said previously, I regard as the best theatre company blog I’ve yet to find. Don’t blame Nathan for the slightly stilted sound of the interview. I reconstructed it from notes I made just for myself.

When and why did you start your company blog?

We started it a year and a half ago in June of 2005. It was hell to update our old flash site, so the blog became our website for a time. The blog is now thoroughly integrated into the new House Theatre website.

At The House we have a real young crowd. Most of the theatre-going audience is not interested perhaps in getting their info that way. But ours is in the 18-40 year old age group. Our mission is creating community, so the community-building aspects of a blog suit us. We’re trying to capture the people who get their information that way.

Blogging is a real easy way to keep people connected and excited. Our blog is a venue for really great conversation. There is usually at least one (comment) thread per show, going on for a month or so, keeping people excited. The number of people commenting has grown.

Blogging is a good way to release information. We’re trying to capture the people who get their information that way. But we still do regular press releases. Some of the major press doesn’t even want emails. The blog hasn’t replaced any written material.

How satisfied have you been with what it’s given you?

It’s extremely easy to set it up and manage it. The more times you update, the higher it goes up in Google and elsewhere and that brings us additional visitors.

Do you think it’s enabled a better conversation with your audience?

It’s helped people feel like they’re in on a secret. Our two-for-one ticket deal was only announced on the blog and the people who took advantage of that felt like they’re more in the club. And people like that, who are more interested, are the people more likely to become donors. When we post playwright’s or director’s notes, people respond almost without exception with congratulations and other positives. So if newcomers stumble on our blog they see praise. There were seven comments on our Hatfield and McCoy (show) of utmost praise.

Did you have any fears when you started it? If so, have any of the chickens come home to roost?

Not for us. The House was created to encourage this sort of conversation, to acknowledge the audience; that’s part of our mission. The blog encourages the culture we create in our theatre. We have had a couple of people post that we had to remove, but that was very minimal compared to all the good we get from it. We’ve never had an ad hominem attack. In fact, we respond to complaints on the blog and have been able to use it as a means to retain disgruntled audience members. If a complaint shows up, we email or call the people who leave the comment.

Any of the company members can blog, all are invited to do so. Most of it is done by myself or Jake, our director of guest relations or Dennis who does the marketing. We announce a lot of events there.

How did your subscribers/board members/sugar daddies react when they found out you’d be blogging?

They are all here because they get the culture of the place. They’re all on board for the constant conversation. In tandem with a quality website, we’ve extended this culture into the internet.

Have you gained more or new audience because of it?

We have not yet asked the question. Our survey process is young. We tell people about the blog at shows, in emails. It gives some background into the theatre. But at this point we do not have a dependable way to assess what effect it’s had on building audience. It’s much more a place for people to explore their interests in the House and the theatre. Mostly these are young people and they’re going to turn into donors. Blogging is a smart part of audience development.

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Theatre Blogging

Update 2: As I trolled through these links again, adding, subtracting and rearranging, I realized that what I was doing was against G-d’s natural law.

There are so many blogs by so many theatre professionals—actors, directors and so forth—so many dropping in and dropping out, that to keep up with it would be a full-time job. Someone else’s.

So, instead of continuing with the vain attempt to make the list complete and current, I have created, using Feed Jumbler, a spliced feed for all the company blogs (and only the company blogs). Providing I can figure out how to do so, I will add any new company-wide blogs I encounter.

Here is the Theatre Company Blog Feed: http://feedjumbler.com/users/cfhopkins/d37d8bf4/rss.xml. Copy the URL and drop it in your feed reader.

Update 1: Since I originally researched theatre blogs I have found a great many more, in part thanks to S. I have also discovered that newer, smaller theatres tend to be much more aware of how to use blogs and post to them more frequently and with less timidity. I would have to say Chicago’s House Theatre’s blog is probably the best company blog I’ve seen. It’s updated regularly and the Houseites seem to really use it to engage in conversation with their audience. There are plenty of comments and even a podcast. (Read my interview with Nathan, the AD of The House.)

Still, the bulk of theatre blogging consists of personal blogs by theatre professionals and blogs by fans and critics. And I have still yet to find one that utilizes anything resembling a full spread of conversational tools, though the House comes close.


Recently, I had cause to research theatre blogs. There were surprisingly few of these and none used anything resembling a full compliment of social software tools.

Some of this scantiness of adoption is due no doubt to the technologies being fairly new. It’s worked its way through the early adopters, professional communicators and forward-thinking business leaders. But it has yet to catch on with much enthusiasm in the artistic community, at least in terms of artistic institutions. A lot of the reason for this, I think, is a fear on the part of the artists that engaging in this sort of conversation will somehow cede artistic authority. Art, after all, is powered by the vision of an individual or group. It cannot be voted upon and retain any vigor.

However, engaging in a conversation with your audience is something theatre professionals do all the time, usually in a bar. So why not extend the walls of that bar to encompass the whole of the audience regardless of actual geographic location? Not to mention, resistance to ‘crass’ commercial considerations may be virtuous, but becoming calcified, closed off and non-responsive must surely be no such thing.

Anyway, here is my list of theatrical blogs and blogs related to the theatre. I am presenting just the links and a brief title, no analysis for now. I welcome your comments, however.

(Any blog that has not posted in over a month I have listed as defunct.)

Company blogs
Banana Bag & Bodice
Buffalo State Theatre Blog
Foothill Musical Theatre
Handcart Ensemble
The House Theatre
Impact Theatre Company
The Neo-Futurists
North Shore Music Theatre Blog
Salvage Vanguard Theater
The Solvents Theatre Company
Steppenwolf Theatre Company (no published feed for posts)
Strawdog Theatre
Texas Radio Theatre Company

Defunct company Blogs
Clancy Productions (no posts since 9/28)
Didactic Theatre Company (no posts since 8/15)
42nd Street Moon (no posts since 6/30)
The Forum Theatre Company (no posts since 5/3)
Portland Theatre Works (no posts since 10/10)
St. Louis Repertory (no posts since June 16)

Ongoing project & show blogs
Intiblog (Intiman’s guest artist blog; no published feed)
Jersey Boys

Finished project & show blogs
Bloomsbury Theatre Ensemble
Burning Coal’s Summer Conservatory Blog
California Shakespeare Theatre
Magnetic North Theatre Festival
Ruby Slippers Theatre
A Suicide-Site Guide to the City

Blogs by theatre professionals
Adam Szymkowicz
An American on the West End
An Angry White Guy in Chicago
Butts In The Seats
Desperate Curiosity
Elite Theatre Company – Artistic Director’s Blog
Freedom Spice
Iridescent Spoke
Life on the Wicked Stage
Light Cue 23
Mr. Excitement News
My London Life
On Theatre and Politics
Parachutes of a Playwright
A Poor Player
Sheila Callaghan
Theatre & Writing
Theatre Conversation
This is not Jason Grote
Venal Scene

Defunct blogs by theatre professionals
Bolloxed (no posts since 9/19)

Theatre news & criticism
Applied and Interactive Theatre Blog
Attention Must Be Paid
Blogway Baby
Broadway Pulse
Encore Theatre Magazine
Guardian Unlimited Theatre Blog

The Mirror Up to Nature
The Morning After
My Own Private Eugene O’Neill Project
The Playgoer
The Stage Newsblog
Theatre Ideas
Theatre Notes
What’s Good/What Blows
The Wicked Stage

Defunct theatre news & criticism blogs
College Theatre News (no posts since 6/19)

Theater podcasts & vlogcasts
The Cool As Hell Radio Podcast
Theatre Directory from Podcasting News

Defunct theater podcasts & vlogcasts
Royal Shakespeare Company (no posts since 5/25)
The Stratford Festival of Canada (no posts since 8/23)

Background information & articles
are they speaking our language? what the next generation of internet technologies means for theatre artists and producers, Erika Block’s Theatre Communications Group presentation
CEO Guide to Technology, resource on communications technology in a corporate context (Business Week)
The New Critics, blog post on the influence of bloggers on the critical reception to plays (Guardian)
Producers Use the Web to Romance Audience and Bring Them Back, article on Broadway shows’ use of blogs (NYT)
Technology in the Arts Conference, conference at the Center for Arts Management and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University
Web 2.0 Has Corporate America Spinning, article on blogging and related communications technologies in a corporate context (Business Week)

OSF in LA Times

My latest is out in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a travel feature about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and its environs.

From the article:

SNOWFLAKES the size of quarters filled the air of the Bear Creek Valley and felted the grassy hills above Ashland with white. Nature, Shakespeare said, mirrors the affairs of man, and this snowstorm was no exception. The first play of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2006 season, opening Friday, was to be “The Winter’s Tale.” And at that moment last month, the whole of the town felt as still and breathless as the wronged Hermione.

I have had a long relationship with this corner of southwest Oregon; my grandfather and uncle served as mayors in two neighboring towns. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, running this year to Oct. 29, always provided me with an acre or two that felt like my own, where I could meet proverbial kindred spirits. The festival attracts not people looking to fill a Saturday night but theatergoers with an abiding love of drama. It is not an ivory tower. It’s a wooden one. Where nature and artifice meet.

See what I did there? Did you see that? Genius.

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