Fail again. Fail better.

My Early Attempt at a Media Startup for Theater

Did you ever get the impression you set your goals in order to set yourself up for failure? That was pretty much my thought process as an undergrad when, coming from a family consisting of people who rarely if ever had genuine career goals, I had to choose one for myself.

Growing up, and throughout high school, I wanted to be an act0r. After trying that out in the most amateur of ways, I decided I enjoyed analyzing theater much more than I enjoyed actually performing. My major misstep off the stage, however, was after my first semester of journalism, realizing that I’d much rather be a critic. This was it! I finally made a choice about a career that people have actually made a living in! Reality hit me quick. The field of criticism was also a field that was exceedingly difficult to maintain a living in.

My undergrad thesis was about the history of criticism and where the field was heading, and it didn’t look good. The one glimmer of hope was from Andy Horowitz and his post Re-Framing the Critic for the 21st Century: Dramaturgy, Advocacy and Engagement. In it he lays framework for critics to engage with the organizations that sponsor or present the artwork.

Much of my research for my thesis also discussed how blogs and social media have made everyone a published critic, which can actually be a huge benefit to criticism as a whole. We can now build a broader conversation and framework criticism writ large. There is still the problem of how to monetize and therefore allow people to make a living off of it.

In order to solve this problem I accidentally kind of lost focus and looked at the artists that would benefit from critics/reporters. I was thinking about the situation in terms of solving too many problems within the framework of the world I live in, putting out all the fires because it was just a concept in my head, rather than something I put down to paper and map out.

Once I went about putting the thing together, I focused on the wrong side of the exchange. I should have been focusing on critics rather than artists. Moving in that way, it made me realize what I was missing.

I interviewed a few early- mid career level theater artists, trying to figure out how news has or hasn’t benefited them or their work. After interviewing five artists, I found one common denominator. They all were looking for a platform that would help them find reliable collaborators and share articles both within their field or related to their field, as the more progressive organizations and artists were working on intersectional issues and funding streams that involved both the artistic and urban development.

I wondered why Facebook didn’t do all these things. It did for me. I curate my own feed, follow who I feel is important to my work or what I want to learn, and unfollow or don’t follow anything that doesn’t. I get updates on events and I know generally as much as a very busy person could know about the work going on in various networks. But I never think about how much work that’s been as I’ve been slowly working towards perfecting my feed over time.

“Doesn’t Facebook do everything you’re looking for?” I asked an artist friend.

He responded by explaining that while he curates his feed, not everyone else does. Also, it takes a lot of time to perfect your experience on Facebook. The process should, by his account, be simpler.

So that was something, I guess. It needs to be simpler.

The second step of my process was visualization of the community, stakeholders, and entities that regularly negotiate with the community. The theater community writ-large is a small but highly complex community of artists, producers, set-builders, electricians, educators and advocates, to say nothing of the audience, suppliers of materials for sets, journalists, reporters, etc. And frankly there are more than a few single people in the “theater community” to which all the above titles apply. Yes, all of them. I don’t have the numbers here but I think it’s a good bet. This was one of the major problems with choosing “early to mid career theater artists” as a community.

When visualizing ways in which the artists I talked to could solve their problems about simplifying or enhancing Facebook. Here I started utopian visions of artists being able to have open source scheduling where everyone would be open enough to insert potential scheduling times, and video conferencing. This appealed to the everyday problems my community faced but nothing regarding platform.

While I was doing research into actual numbers/theoretical arguments in the community, I tended to find a lot of research about the death of criticism and theater journalism, perhaps a little too much from my own library. I was back to where my initial instincts began. Perhaps going back to the drawing board with critics/journalists in the field might be the next step. All the other elements in expanding the community might be best to add as it grows.

Exploring ideas put forth by Animating Democracy, a project by the national advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, in tandem with the conceptual frameworks of Andy Horwitz of the arts analysis website Culturebot, I propose changing the way criticism works. I’m interested in combining the functions of dramaturg, journalist and critic as I will use avenues facilitated by web-based platforms to create a more in-depth exchange between theatre artists and audience. An “embedded critic/journalist” evolves from exclusively assessing the final product of creative work and becomes part of the process from conception with a focus on three main areas: dramaturgy, advocacy and engagement. As dramaturg, an arts writer will work closely with a production staff to develop the intent of the work and document processes online.

Using various theories of theatre I will examine works as a kind of “macrodramaturg,” contextualizing the work and the history of a given social issue or movement without the limits of analog methods of documentation and research, democratizing the process from the very beginning and letting the audience into the genesis of the work. The next step, advocacy, includes basic social media outreach paired with educating of potential audience members and connecting outside source material, universal truths or social issues that inspired the piece.

Finally, engagement includes the analysis of the final product by written exegesis and open dialogue with the audience via internet platforms and non-hierarchical discussion.

This might be where the work I’ve done for this failed project involving early to mid career artists may come in. To have an income-based payment for some services like video conferencing, scheduling, and advertising for projects (and also for academic programs, lighting companies, publicists, etc), may be a way of monetizing a platform where critics and journalists could make a small living and maybe even charge for content, if it’s specific enough. I’m still hopeful that engaging the entire theatrical community in a more immersive way will help facilitate what theater artists often strive to do: consider the challenges and questions of life in a more dynamic way.