New Work, New York

What tech startups can learn from theater

Jeff Smith
May 26, 2014 · 8 min read

One of the best parts of living in New York is being in the midst of so many other things beyond just tech. As Twanna A. Hines put it:

Reason to Love New York #1,134,795 — Subway platforms contain more talent than some entire cities

It’s ridiculous and oh so true. New York is bubbling over with people imagining, building, and creating the new. Don’t get me wrong: Maker Faire in San Francisco is a blast, but making is a 24-7, contact sport here.

Of course, software is one of the latest things that they’ve really gotten into making in the city, but I think it’s pretty clear that they’re going to kick ass at it. One of the city’s obvious massive strengths is the rich community of folks already here working on amazing creative things. The sort of innovation that comes from truly radical thinking is de rigeur around these parts. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to talk a bit about theater before getting back to my usual bailiwick, tech startups.

Immersive Theatre

Problem/Solution is a recently premiered immersive theatre production. Conceptually similar to the tremendously successful Sleep No More, the show welcomes the audience into a “museum of problems” where the traditional boundaries between audience and performers are thoroughly blurred. While there are some places to sit, most of the time audience members wander about engaging with various scenes, dances, and other harder to describe experiences.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the production for me personally was the emergent consequences of radical free will in a theatrical context. Just like in real life, you can miss out on things in Problem/Solution. Were you interested in the scene about skin, beauty, and the magical powers of Lush cosmetics? Then you probably missed the masked dance on the other side of the space. When a character asks you to join them in a toast you can or you can abstain. As the evening comes to a close you may have been touched by a stranger, have been covered in paint, have joined in a dance, or-most interestingly of all-have done none of these things, choosing to decline each offer to engage in the performance.

Sea Songs

Song of the Sea is a pair of thematically-related shows, SIRENS and The Girl From Bare Cove, both largely written by the somewhat startlingly talented Jillie Mae Eddy and performed together in a single evening. The first is described as a “sideshow symphony”, while the second is called a “folk opera”. In a sense, both are somewhat traditionally structured musical theater productions, but the experience of seeing them has little in common with grabbing a performance of, say, Wicked.

In these emotionally fraught, at times, deeply disturbing productions, the performers are clearly not striving to leave you at a safe, comfortable distance from the problems on stage. The intimate staging and direct interaction between the performers and the audience leave you feeling complicit in the crimes occurring just a few feet away. Similar to Problem/Solution, the show literally begins before it formally begins, with the characters establishing a relationship with audience members before the nominal start of the show.

A powerful consequence of the human scale venue is the removal of the need for amplification except when dramatically useful. This is used perhaps most successfully when Eddy takes over the sonic volume of the space with her huge voice. Her all-to0-real cries for help are as unsettling as they should be, not just because of Eddy’s personal history with sexual violence. When the other performers join her in the more uplifting moments of the shows, you cannot help but be carried along on the waves of their support. It’s a powerful reminder of the dynamic range possible with an ensemble of voices-utterly unlike the vast majority of pre-packaged pop.

Learnable Startup Lessons

Viewing independent productions like these can be an amazingly educational experience for the sufficiently open-minded startupper. There is a very real sense in which each artist and artistic production is a sort of startup, born with no inherited resources, needing to justify its own existence to see the light of day. In many ways, the struggles of creating art make the work of making software look like a walk in the park. Brilliant artists can still be nearly starving while the makers of basically useless apps get acquihired every week. In greater challenges, greater lessons can be learned.

Do the difficult with friends

In talking with the performers behind Problem/Solution, they talked about the importance of being friends before putting together the show. This is far from uncommon in artistic circles, but it is often discounted in tech circles. Instead, we buy into capitalist fantasies like founder matchmaking services and events. Bullshit, I say. Do you think Larry and Sergey would have accomplished half as much if they had been strangers only just met via some third party? When you see performers who are totally comfortable with each other, it resonates in a way that the simulacrum of familiarity simply can’t. The great breadth of experiences available to audiences of Problem/Solution would not be possible had the creators not felt comfortable bringing their own separate, distinct experiences to the production. The most successful startups have many fathers; even that crank Paul Graham agrees.

Be some place, not every place

Both of the pieces in Song of the Sea have a strong northeastern flavor to them, each with a well-founded and meaningful sense of place to them. While the world of SIRENS is solidly fantastical, it is a very near fantasy world, the freak show at Coney Island. The New York-based performers have all likely been there, and Coney Island beer was a sponsor, serving at the show.

It reminded me of my experiences in startups outside of San Francisco, where people built things for people in places that they were only imagining. Often these “startups” were little more than sad, little cargo cults. Paul Orlando has a head-shaking summary of these behaviors on TNW.

Contrast this with Problem/Solution, which was inspired by and produced specifically for the space at WOW Cafe Theatre. As a creation, it is deeply married to a specific place in a way that is rarely encountered in business. To stage the production at all, the performers had to earn sufficient sweat equity in the collective by working on other artists’ shows. Off the top of my head, of the many people I know working on startups, I can’t think of anyone with that sort of deep commitment to a specific community in a specific place. If I did encounter such a startup, though, I’d probably be shouting at passing cars about it.

Talk to the audience

The fourth wall is a convention that has long been suspect within the theatrical tradition. Even though we’re standing up here shouting at the top of our lungs, we’re supposed to pretend that no one’s watching? Shakespeare did some magical things with his asides and soliloquies, and he was hardly the first one.

The Girl from Bare Cove has a narrator who speaks directly to the audience and brings them into a family torn apart by a mysterious violence, sharing that deeply personal viewpoint. But even before the audience filed in, the makers of The Girl from Bare Cove were reaching out to their audience, challenging them to get behind this production via a Kickstarter campaign. Thankfully they did, and now audiences were able to experience this unique night of folk opera.

Tech nerds have historically had a very hard time with engaging with their supposed markets. Steve Blank has done the community a huge service by formalizing an executable framework for actually figuring out what people want to buy, customer development. Despite the amount of popularity these principles have achieved in recent years, there is still always going to be a sense in which every startup fails because it fails to produce a product that enough people want to buy for enough money. Obviously this is harder to do than it is to say.

One solution that has more of a history than in business is co-creation. While the concept has become a bit more fashionable recently, its roots in the arts are far deeper. Think of commissions, site specific pieces, adaptations of shows to local tastes. Improv theater is all about meeting people where they are, making something on the spot based on what they offer and respond to. The performers of Problem/Solution welcomed the creative contributions of the audience into the production, starting as early as the RSVP form! No one audiences experience of the production could be the same as any other; the audience simply has too many different choices, too much free will for everything to be experienced in the exact same way more than once.

Can you imagine a tech company with that radical of an approach to its development? On the surface, it sounds like the pitches of so many user-generated, crowd-sourced, open-source startups. There is an element of customer/business co-creation there, I think it’s often quite constrained and narrow. Users are encouraged to create the inventory of content that the startup can’t afford to make itself. Users are encouraged to find the bugs that the startup can’t afford to test for. Users are encouraged to bring in the new users that the startup can’t afford to find and persuade.

In my mind, a startup looking to truly co-create itself with its users would take a far broader view. It would be in a dialogue with its whole community, and not just its target demographics. I think that it’s likely that such a startup would likely come from a group of people who are already friends, who have their own well-founded sense of community in the small. As I’ve said before, I think B Corps are a nice step in establishing some solid guiding principles, but they’re just a start. A company built with the authenticity and passion of your average independent theatrical production would probably be pretty amazing. Engineering hiring woes? These guys would not have them. People would be running campaigns just to get an internship at such a company.

Steps, baby or otherwise

This post has turned out much more aspirational and utopian than I had initially planned. What can I say? Interesting art has that sort of effect on me. Let’s bring things back down to earth. What am I really getting at? Here’s the recap:

1. Do the difficult with friends. You wouldn’t/shouldn’t have a baby with a stranger, so why would you build a startup with one?

2. Be some place, not every place. You don’t really live on the internet and neither do your customers.

3. Talk to the audience. Your customers are there for a reason; you owe it to them to understand why and have that influence the direction of your company.

Tractable Constraints

A breadth-first search for novel solutions to non-trivial…

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