Building a New American Theater of the Commons

“We were one of the most well-respected organizations in the country because of our commitment to developing and producing new plays….Now what we are is history.” – Nan Barnett, formerly of Florida Stage

Nan Barnett’s tale of last year's closing of Florida Stage sounds like many a story of the past few years from people impacted by a radically shifting economy. It’s safe to assume that if the economy thrives, so does the theater. In a real estate bubble, new theaters are built. In an increasingly corporate culture, theaters look and act more like for profit businesses. In this moment of economic meltdown, artists and smaller organizations look around and see only scarcity, while some of the largest institutions live in the super-sized 1990s. The big regional theaters spent most of the pre 2008 economic crash building giant structures, inflating artistic and managing director salaries, and turning to commercial enhancement deals with Broadway producers. Sound familiar? This is the theater’s equivalent to the 99 percent political dynamic that’s playing out around the world.

Ours is an industry that is in a relatively new iteration, one born in the sixties as a reflection of that decade’s zeitgeist, a counter cultural revolution known as the regional theater movement. It was founded on a belief that cultural institutions like theaters, museums, and symphonies are a value proposition and compose the life-blood of any city along with libraries, schools, hospitals, and public works. It was born out of the same collaborative impulse that is required in making a great play—a belief that the shared resource of artistic imagination makes communities better. But like the rest of the country, we find ourselves at a crossroads.

100 delegates in the US new works community collaborated on ideas and feedback for the New Play Map's development copy. Photo by Flordelino Langundino.
100 delegates in the US new works community collaborated on ideas and feedback for the New Play Map's development copy. Photo by Flordelino Langundino.

In his 2009 report to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Gates of Opportunity, David Dower, Associate Artistic Director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, looks at the current state of the field for theater artists and institutions. After spending a year in twelve cities around the country talking to any and everyone working to write, develop, and produce new plays, he comes to two important conclusions:

  1. There is an imbalance in the distribution of resources in our field. He writes, “At present the distribution of philanthropic resources is heavily balanced in favor of major institutions. The majority of activity and opportunity, however, falls outside this segment and is being supported by ”sweat equity” at levels of activity that are not sustainable.” It’s important to note in a more recent report this imbalance is shown to be sustaining primarily white and wealthy audiences and institutions.
  2. A disconnect between emerging artists and these major institutions, “opportunity’s gatekeepers,” as Dower refers to them, helps to sustain this imbalance. “There are far more artists trying to squeeze through these gates of opportunity than will fit.”

This report shaped the foundation of the American Voices New Play Institute (the Institute), where we both work. The Institute is built on a passion for looking back at that original impetus of our movement’s founders that stressed access and shared values in order to move forward.

The not-for-profit regional theater movement is based on the commitment, supported by millions of dollars from the Ford Foundation, to invest in artists living and working locally in communities around the country. The Institute seeks to make a movement that started in the sixties relevant for the 21st century.

Our agenda revolves around a few key questions: How can we reclaim the original intention to decentralize the arts? How can the arts help enhance and shape civic dialogue? How do we use 21st century tools to address the growing imbalance in the distribution of resources and create more opportunity for artists?

The transition from “Me” to “We”

Since the founding of the Institute in 2009, we’ve been struggling and experimenting to figure out our relationship to the field we’re trying to advance. In this historic period, the world’s problems are at the forefront of many artists’ minds—along with their own individual survival—and the potential of the Internet is no longer theoretical or aspirational, but has demonstrated its civilization-redefining impact.

Enter “The Commons.” Our mission is “to advance the infrastructure for new work, nationally.” We’re challenged primarily by disparities in how resources are distributed among institutions and the artists that they seek to support. These resources are not just financial, but also include knowledge, information, expertise, and social capital—resources that are a lot harder to quantify and understand than budgets and funding sources.

At the same time, the problem of the distribution of knowledge and information is also much easier to immediately tackle than the distribution of financial resources. And it’s in that tiny opening—the gates of opportunity—where we’re discovering that the strategy for developing a knowledge commons has transformative power. Enhanced civic discourse rooted in identifying shared values and shareable resources can dramatically improve the health of the arts eco-system and it’s not a costly proposition.

100 delegates in the US new works community collaborated on ideas and feedback for the New Play Map's development copy. Photo by Flordelino Langundino.
100 delegates in the US new works community collaborated on ideas and feedback for the New Play Map's development copy. Photo by Flordelino Langundino.

This is unfamiliar territory. We’ve had to rethink our notions of conventional branding, identity, and behavior. If we are going to become stewards and stakeholders of a collectively shared commons, along with thousands of other organizations and artists in our field, we have to start thinking of ourselves as a “We” and no longer as a “Me.”

Our theater economy, like much of the larger world, is based on the primary assertion of the “Me” in order to gain dominance, win funding, and social capital—a “Me” that usually asserts itself at the expense of someone or something else. This is all very ironic for theater folks, because we work in arguably the most collaborative and collective art form. Theater exists only in a shared and present tense exchange within an imaginative space that both artist and audience create simultaneously. This shared experience and community between artist and audience makes it a quintessential “We” cultural activity.

Old School vs. New School

In the transformation from a “Me” to a “We” microcosm, there is potential for us to address the 99 percent problem in our field. It’s a matter of scaling our theater—making talents and practices in the way we design our institutions, infrastructures, and relationships with each other. In making theater we innovate and generate new ideas by riffing as a matter of basic artistic process. Our goal is to create a community where everyone participates and contributes, regardless of their station in the 20th century mono-cultural vision of the world. So, we promote and educate each other about each others’ work. We pool resources and become more efficient at using the resources to benefit the whole. The founding, older institutions of the regional theater movement (or the ”1 percent”) that have benefited from a disproportionate amount of resources over the years shift their behaviors to leverage their still-active 20th century social capital to benefit other institutions and artists outside their immediate circle.

The notion of the commons allows for a widely distributed 21st century “open sourcing” of the Institute’s mission to advance the field. Open sourcing assumes a “we” in its very structure. We seek to build an Institute where “we” is encoded in its DNA.

The Knowledge Commons

We seek the “we” potential in Internet technologies as we build our knowledge commons and we search for the idiosyncratic, alternative, or ”off-label” uses that serve the particular needs of our community. For example, we exclusively use Twitter’s hashtag ”searching” feature instead of the ”follow” feature in order to source and share our field’s news and information and to engage in conversation. #NEWPLAY is a tag that the Institute intentionally introduced a couple of years ago as a ”non-proprietary” tag for everyone and anyone to use for sharing information and conversation on new theater works. The act of choosing a tag that wasn’t only about our organization was a significant step away from the “me” to the “we.” The typical behavior in our field would have been to choose a tag that corresponded to the organization’s name in a conventional brand-promoting, empire-building gesture. The tag serves as a knowledge aggregation tool: our field’s ideas, information, conversations all under one tag that can belong to all of us. Currently, the hashtag is able to exist both autonomously from us and at the same time interdependently, using a true commons dynamic. The hashtag in addition to being a technical aggregation tool has also taken on a symbolic meaning representing our field’s aspirations to advance the field collectively. The word “#NEWPLAY” is often used in tweeted sentences as a noun as well as in language outside of the context of Twitter (see screen capture of the Playwrights’ Center). The fact that the tool has also become a symbol of a shared mission aptly describes the concept of a knowledge commons as not only being a resource but also a certain philosophical orientation and set of values.

Hashtag "#NEWPLAY": takes a leap from being a technical term for categorizing and aggregating to becoming integrated into the the field's common language as a symbol of collective action. (From <a target="_blank" href="http://www.pwcenter.org/newplaylive.php">Playwrights' Center</a> in Minneapolis.)
Hashtag "#NEWPLAY": takes a leap from being a technical term for categorizing and aggregating to becoming integrated into the the field's common language as a symbol of collective action. (From Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis.)

The notion of the commons has helped us to think through and adopt “most efficient uses of resources” as a new value—a 21st century value for the theater field. #NEWPLAY TV is another Institute contribution to the knowledge commons. It’s a live-streaming web channel—an open-access, shared-resource for sharing work and ideas anytime and anywhere in the country. Having one channel for the entire community pools resources and aggregates audience. The more artists and organizations participate in this commons, the more developed and cross-pollinated the audiences become.

#NEWPLAY on Twitter is the advertising mechanism for building awareness of events on #NEWPLAY TV, and is also used to foster audience participation. For example, panels can take real-time questions from #NEWPLAY TV viewers. #NEWPLAY TV makes work and conversations accessible that were once only available to the privileged with travel budgets. This open-source or commons method of coordinating a resource is novel in the institutional theater field. This is another example of the irony of the once radical regional theater movement. The movement developed the institutions and its institutional culture, which has in turn repressed theater folks innate capacity for resource-efficient, collaborative, and collective enterprise.

Some of most exciting ways of engaging this technology come from ideas suggested by users, such as “watch parties.” We discovered that what we thought would be a potentially isolating experience doesn’t have to be. Watch parties have cropped up across the U.S., in conjunction with the live event being streamed. Those watch parties or satellite gatherings have then, in return, fed back into the central event being streamed. The first occurrence of this happened in February 2010 when we were hosting a convening in DC on “devised” or “ensemble” work processes and we livestreamed a demonstration from artists. A theater company in Los Angeles organized a “watch party” to collectively witness the demonstration and their real-time tweets were absorbed and became part of the conversation in the room in DC.

Our first commons project, the New Play Map, emerged as a result of numerous but unsubstantiated claims that it “took a village” to bring a new play to production. We decided to track exactly what resources made new plays possible by creating a map. We planned to display and map out the infrastructure for new work across the U.S. to visualize how projects and artists move and circulate within and between their supporting organizations. Initially, we thought our staff of three would collect and enter data in an old school, top-down model of information dissemination. But it didn’t take us long to realize the immense amount of work that would require. It left us wondering what the hell were we thinking. How could we presume to create a map or a global representation of the entire field all by ourselves? That map would by nature be limited to our particular scope of experience and point of view.

<a target="_blank" href="http://newplaymap.org/">New Play Map</a>: Our community's self-authored map forever changes our collective mental map of the field.
New Play Map: Our community's self-authored map forever changes our collective mental map of the field.

So then we looked to the self-reported, crowdsourcing models of the Ushahidi mapping project and Wikipedia to develop our own open-access system and author–generated collective map. Once the technical apparatus for collecting information and mapping knowledge for it was in place, the New Play Map designed itself. It is now the largest on-going collaborative Internet theater project in the U.S.

<a target="_blank" href="http://newplaymap.org">New Play Map</a>: Formerly isolated and siloed organizations' data gets aggregated to tell a collective story of a play's development.
New Play Map: Formerly isolated and siloed organizations' data gets aggregated to tell a collective story of a play's development.

Its major impact in these early stages has to been to bring visibility to organizations and artists that were previously invisible. The real world and immediate consequence: new relationships and knowledge exchanges and a permanent breaking of the old geographic walls and professional silos. The mental map we all have of the field is forever changed. In a field that is historically segmented and seemingly mono-cultural, the first and easiest step toward unveiling a “map” that is more diverse than you could ever imagine is through the implementation of open-access knowledge commons projects that internet tools enable.

Theater’s contribution

The commons notion of coordinating and sharing resources is so much more than just a different way to transform an economy. It is a catalyst for cultural change that implicates our emotions, relationships to each other, and our ways of thinking about our purpose in the world.

Our work is inspired by the founders of a movement that we are responsible for making relevant in the 21st century. We hope to use the very strengths of our industry—the sharing of the creative impulse in intensely collaborative rehearsal rooms—to reimagine a sustainable model for making art.

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