Essays, Practice, Opinions

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I began my career in the regional theater at a very young age, working in various capacities including actor, playwright, literary manager, director of new play development, and other roles, artistic and executive. Since seeing a regional production of Amlin Gray’s, How I Got That Story, in the early 1980s (through which I began to understand the Vietnam War), my heart has been invested in the production of new plays. I have been fortunate to be involved with a lot of them, even writing a few myself, and working with some really fabulous artists, too many to mention by name. However, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the Internet and how it is (and is not) changing how we work and communicate and tell stories. While I still write plays, the production of digital media for the web has been my primary means of support for the past five years.

It’s remarkably like putting on new plays.

Today, I find myself looking for ways to create and experience new stories via new media. With text, video, audio, and interaction converging in increasingly accessible and portable devices, it’s exciting to think about what the classic form of drama, of a story acted out for others, might look like in the near and distant future. So, here are some reflections about new media as performance to share with those of you, who to my great delight and gratitude, are still making new plays.

Excellence is in the Collaboration
We often talk in website development about the separation of presentation from content, which echoes the difference between a play production and the textual medium of a play script. That separation enables a very efficient method of production. One person writes, another codes. One develops, another directs. Still, ultimately, no part of a play or a website is complete until it is combined, and made public. The content is eventually merged with the presentation, in a website or a live theatrical production. They have to achieve a combined excellence for the production to be a success.

Plays and websites begin with a core idea: “It’s a play about a guy who remembers the future,” or “it’s a website where people can talk about new plays.” We historically think of the person who articulates this into a “fixed” idea as the “author.” As intellectual property law defines, no one “owns” an idea; only a tangible expression of that idea. In today’s ultra-connected cultural production, we see lots of borrowing and stealing and tweaking going on, and multiple contributors to the “final” products. In theater, we call it “live,” in interactive development, we call it “dynamic.” In both cases, it implies spontaneity, interaction, and inherent changeability. It’s both collaborative and time-dependent. Moreover, because of the fluidness of live production and the ease of creating, editing, and duplicating digital media, it’s arguable if these forms can ever truly be fixed in a final version at all.

The Production Tells the Story
Once a project, digital or theatrical, is initiated, it goes through a pre-production development and design process. Art directors, like costume and set designers, render and present visual concepts. Content developers work on the text, i.e., the dialogue, often with a lead content developer or producer, much like a dramaturg or director, who asks the key question, “what is this site about?” Programmers work out the relationship of elements, the choreography and stage-worthiness, if you will, of the production asking “what database fields and relationships and forms and server calls will do what, and how fast can we make them?” They also anticipate audience’s expectations and reactions, and imagine if they’d prefer a drop down menu, a text field, or drag and drop touch screen method of response. What is the proper pace and rhythm for this material? Web development is quite directorial, and perhaps like an asynchronous rehearsal period. Discoveries and changes are made. Audio and video specialists provide movement and lighting and sound and texture and rhythm to the pages. Web developers, the ones who really know how to make the fine grain design and the code come together, are perhaps like the actors. They are the ones making the detailed artistic choices of gesture and movement and sound: How will the pages display, color and shape and font, top to bottom? What will happen when you mouse over that link? How and where on the page will the audio or video be embedded, and what will the player look like? What textual conventions are right for this website, of headers 1-6 and block quotes and ordered and unordered lists? Will images float left or right or center? It’s the web developers who are cramming to get things perfect in the “tech” rehearsals before opening night, the first public launch. As in new play development, there are often many different iterations, or versions, or productions as the original website continues to develop over time. Just like the trajectory of a successful new play—it might start in the regions, or a less search optimized website, and make its way through to subsequent larger and more commercial productions, or page rankings, evolving as it goes.

We Make Meaning Together
Both websites and new plays seek an audience. What is that relationship with the audience? Sometimes it’s a specialized audience; sometimes it’s a private audience. The audience can “subscribe,” or they can be a casual visitor or single ticket buyer. They can pay a premium, pay what they can, or be allowed free access (often supported by advertising). But all kinds of audiences now desire a more interactive experience—they want not only to watch, but also to be seen and heard. Perhaps the greatest challenge for both new plays and new websites is the growing competition for our audiences’ attention. We must remember that audiences are not passive, even in the traditional theater. They are constantly making choices, about what to watch, about verbal and mechanical response (clapping, laughing, and walking in or out the lobby doors).

Websites as Performance
Some good examples of relatively mature interactive websites that to me reflect the new play experience include Born Magazine, We Feel Fine, or JacksonPollock.org. These are sites that alter the perspective of being online and illuminate the human condition. Born Magazine combines literary text with cutting edge graphic animation and sound in a journal format. We Feel Fine aggregates all the “feeling” words posted on blogs in real-time and graphically represents them so that you can see the emotional pulse of the blogosphere. And simple, sweet JacksonPollock.org lets you paint like the artist, with your mouse as a brush. They are ambitious. They are artistic. They are generated by metaphors. They create an experience which tells a story and makes you think.

In addition to websites, networked digital technology is making possible the creation and production of a wide variety of creative expression. The video mashup movement shows potential as in this example by pop culture hacker Jonathan McIntosh who steals from film stereotypes to make a new statement about obsessive relationships in popular culture: “Buffy vs. Edward.”  There has been some theatrical activity, even ongoing companies and acting classes, with avatars in the virtual worlds of Second Life. And like a fine art e-book, a top-rated iPad app of 2011 is a very imaginative hybrid narrative/text/game called “The Fabulous Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.” New media is a field that is growing and reinventing itself.

Media, New and Old
Now, I’m not suggesting that new media can or should replace the live, un-augmented theatrical experience. But rather than rage against the machines, I ask you to consider the ways that being on the Internet or using a digital application is like sitting in the audience of a traditional or improvised piece of theater. Imagine that new media “supplements not supplants” theater, and that our culture is so diverse and vibrant that there is room for all kinds of personal and collective expression and reception. The printing press didn’t stop theater. Neither did film, radio, or television. And neither will the Internet. It’s just another way of making and distributing new work, new stories, new drama, new plays. And there are many exciting possibilities of combining these approaches. In creative, narrative digital media—as well as theater—it is the message, the content, the conflict, the core idea, the dramatic action being conveyed, that is the thing.

Take for instance, the very wired playwright Adam Szymkowicz, whose new “Compulsive Love” web series, about “a man being punched in the face by love,” is scheduled to start in Winter 2012. Does this mean Adam is no longer a playwright and playwright advocate? For heavens sake, I hope not. He is merely living in the times that we are in, and writing and producing for it.

The Imperative to Produce
Those of us who are passionate about creating new artistic work, whether it is in the theater or in digital media (or both, simultaneously) have to keep going. We have to borrow, steal, and reinvent old and new models of story production to turn ideas into experiences shared with others. We have to be tireless about finding new resources and supportive communities that welcome new work. Because we all need new dramatic stories (as well as old) in all media—to better understand and enjoy the stories of our own lives—past, present, and future.

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