Blog this, Canada: a theatrospherical State of the Union

Guest Post by Michael Wheeler of Toronto’s Praxis Theatrefirst in a series…

Simon Ogden and I are thoroughly 21st Century collaborators: I have directed one of Simon’s plays (twice), submitted another of his plays to SummerWorks (unsuccessfully), and we run parallel blogs in Toronto and Vancouver that have collaborated from early in their inception.

Simon and I have never met each other.

When Michael Rubenfeld asked me to write something for Works about “the internet, blogs and everything that’s going on in Canadian theatre” I was psyched, but immediately had misgivings: Why would a printed static document that contained my thoughts and observations be a good way to explore something that people are so interested in because of its ability to be dynamic, interactive and immediate? The solution comes in the form of a new collaboration between two people who have never met each other.

We’re going to have a conversation and we don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. The comments on this post will become a post on Praxis Theatre and the comments on that post will become a post on The Next Stage. In general we’re going to talk about what we’ve seen so far in the Canadian theatrosphere, where we think it’s going to go, and probably most importantly, what people haven’t figured out it can do. We’d like our readers to chime in too if you feel so inspired. Just be aware we reserve the right to print (or not print) your comments in the real world version of this online experiment in stocktaking.

Enough with the preamble!

This week in Toronto, NOW Magazine published its decade in review. Here’s what Jon Kaplan and Glenn Sumi had to say about performing arts and the interweb:

While the digital revolution hasn’t changed theatre much – sure, we can buy tickets online – it’s revolutionized comedy. Brampton’s Russell Peters increased his fan base exponentially thanks largely to social media sites, eventually becoming the first comic ever to sell out the Air Canada Centre. Today’s comics need a viral YouTube video.

What do you think? Have comics harnessed web technologies better than theatre artists? Is the fact that I am using “theatre artist” to describe ourselves part of the problem? Even if comics have used it better, I don’t agree that being able to buy tickets online is the only effect social media has had on theatre.

As blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media gain popularity they’re giving emerging artists a louder voice in terms of promoting both their work and the ideas that they represent. A $3000 publicist is not THE ONLY way to get your message out anymore. People often mistakenly refer to this as “free” marketing, which rests on the assumption that your own time is worth nothing, but it is certainly a new opportunity.

The other thing I think it has done is increase the sense of community that revolves around these tools. It’s easier to feel more of a part of things now: I can go to Daniel MacIvor’s website and see what he’s up to, I can go to the Event Page for a play I’m going to and see who else is going, I can debate the merits of Stephen Harper’s piano playing performance on the Tarragon Theatre Facebook Fan Page, and in general I can put more faces and personalities to names. The notorious “impossible to break into unless you went to NTS” inclusive theatre scene seems to be breaking down in the wake of all this unregulated interactivity

Over to you S.O.

(I have no idea if anyone ever calls you that.)

12 thoughts on “Blog this, Canada: a theatrospherical State of the Union

  1. Thanks M-Dub (if no one calls you that they should, it’s dope. S.O. just sounds like a shrug). It’s a topic that I have a peculiar amount of verve about, so this should be a good conversation. And hopefully an inspiring one.

    “While the digital revolution hasn’t changed theatre much…”

    Four years ago I made a prediction that the rise of the blogosphere would radically change theatre in Canada. Change it in the way practitioners thought about the way they produce work, in the way resources were shared and in the dramatic expansion of the audience base. At this point I’m prepared to say that I wasn’t altogether wrong in this prediction, but I would certainly excise the word “radically” from that sentence. The internet is proving to be a tough monster to wrangle for our particular discipline, the growth of the Canadian theatrosphere so far has proven to be relatively slow. That is, relative to tech-centric arts communities; photographers and digital artists have a surfeit of chatter to engage with on line.

    It’s essential here at the outset that we define what we mean by ‘the theatrosphere’, and what exactly it means when it uses the term ‘theatre blogging’. There are a lot of active theatre blogs that aren’t really part of the theatrosphere, these are self-contained sites – usually company blogs – that post solely on their own business. These are marketing sites, and have little or no interaction with the rest of the industry online. The theatrosphere uses social media for two distinct agendas – and yes, sometimes those agendas get muddied – to market our work, and to engage in dynamic, real-time conversation with our fellows. If you’re not connecting across borders, you’re not part of the conversation. This, in a nutshell, is the great hope of the core concept of theatre blogging: to create an inter-connected, self-supported, crowd-sourcing resource hub that anyone can plug into.

    To put it another way, the theatrosphere is a big ol’ cocktail party that’s always running. It’s a klatch full of a crazy array of personalities, from brash and irritating to gentle and wise. But always highly opinionated, and therein lies its true promise. I hear young theatre artists constantly complaining about how cliquey an industry independent theatre is, about how tough it is to break into ‘the scene’. What they’re talking about is information sharing; where does your audience come from, what is it about your process that works for you, how do you get to know the critics? Etc, etc. I don’t believe that we’re cliquey at all, actually, we’re an art form that does its work in little groups in little dark rooms that require a certain bond of trust to get the most from the process itself. We’re not snobby, we’re just busy. And we’d all like to meet regularly to socialize and network, but who has the time? Making the time to make connections is the next stage in the evolution of the indie theatre industry, and the internet offers the most economic solution to time-manage our networking and marketing efforts.

    And yet we still lack a true National connectivity. Or even a regional one. I have amazing connections in my niche across the country (not even counting the inspiration and assistance I get from theatre bloggers in the US – which has a busier if not a more comprehensive blog community – and the rest of the world), but the actual amount of theatre practitioners walking into this cocktail party is shockingly small. Engagement is so easy to measure on the blogosphere, because the platforms themselves tell you when someone is talking to you or about you. There is still only a handful of engaged theatre bloggers across the entire country. I know of exactly zero East of the Rockies until you hit Toronto, then a couple in Ottawa and…that’s pretty much it. Where are the theatre bloggers, Canada? Edmonton? Winnipeg? What’s up?

    As for the question of comics marketing themselves on social media better than theatre, well, maybe. But it’s kind of apples and oranges, stand-up comedy is YouTube friendly, it fulfils it’s core objective – to make you laugh – on the computer almost as much as it does live. But theatre’s objectives – to make you feel, connect, respond viscerally – just don’t translate that well to 2D. Televised theatre looks like crap, unless it’s shot well and then it suffers the iniquity of being mutated into a different medium. On top of that, the public at large understands stand-up, it’s something they already want, while they still mostly think of us as tight-wearing, Elizabethan-blathering bores. So we have to get mighty creative with how we sell ourselves on the web. It’s happening, there are some wonderful explorations in digital marketing going on in our corner of art, but it is truly in its infancy. To grow it’s going to need a movement. We have to find some way of selling the power of blogging to the world of theatre, to create a true National presence. To brand independent theatre as a mighty, united force to be reckoned with. And then the people will come.

  2. Simon, I certainly agree with what you say in terms of comedy being a much friendlier video medium. I haven’t figured out any way to create a video to promote a play reading festival so if someone has ideas I’d love to listen.

    I know for me that I’m a lot less engaged in blogs, even my own, because of needing more time away from the computer and from Twitter. Twitter’s much less time consuming way of receiving and conveying information. I’m not sure if that says something about me or if that’s a trend in general. The more growth there is, the more overwhelmed I feel by it all.

    I’m curious to see where this experiment between the two of you leads. I’m one of those lucky people who have met both of you and have a ton of respect for how the two of you manage to stay engaged in the blogosphere on top of all the other things you do.

    • Thanks Michael, Simon.

      “While the digital revolution hasn’t changed theatre much…”

      I don’t believe it’s supposed to change theatre at all. It just changes the way people interact with their audience. And it changes the way people can build a larger audience.

      Why do people spend $3000 on PR? Eyeballs. Plain and simple.
      You’re paying for a connection to connections with eyeballs.

      PR allows you to get the word out. But as is always the case, a good review or any review is never guaranteed. And you’re left to rely on your existing network.

      But what if you could extend your existing network?

      That’s where the beauty of the digital network comes in. It’s essentially a highly-accelerated networking tool. The concepts are the same as offline, it’s just the tools that have changed.

      The tools allow you to build your own network of eyeballs. Eyeballs that have the potential to become a paying audience. This is something not available to us before. Now we are in a position to be our own publishing channel.

      This means we’re responsible for getting our own message out.

      But how do we do it?

      To me it starts with engaging your existing audience. Ask for feedback about what you’re doing. Open up the dialogue. This is essential for any business to survive. You need to know the people you serve so you can better serve them.

      This is where it gets cloudy for most people.

      I’m not talking about bending your art to appeal to the masses. What I’m talking about is allowing people an entry point to your art so they feel a deeper connection to it.

      In order to influence people you must know what already influences them.

      For example:

      Let’s say your a theatre company that focuses solely on producing Jacobean plays. Ok. Great.

      Now I don’t know a darned thing about Jacobean plays. And now matter how many times you mention Jacobean plays, I’m still not going to be interested.

      But I am a pretty big U2 fan.

      What the does that mean? Well, I’ve just given you insight into something that interests me. So this is information you can use to perk my interest in Jacobean plays.

      So now as I sift through my inbox/twitter stream/facebook feed ignoring all the posts about Jacobean plays, my eye focuses on this, “Why does U2 owe its success to Jacobean plays?”

      Now you’ve got my attention with something I’m interested in. And you’re relating it to what you’d like me to be interested in.
      (No, I don’t know what the relation is between the two. I’m sure we could find one. But I’m just illustrating the point.)

      So as MK asks how do you create a video to promote a play reading festival? I’d start by talking to people who’ve attended in the past. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Why did they come?

      Then see what type of info people would like to find out about the reading. Maybe they want to know about the people in the readings. I don’t know. And neither does anyone else until we ask.

      Then you put together a video that answers those questions. Think of it as a behind the scenes type video. In fact, create a transcript and audio version as well. Then you have all three media options covered.

      So no the digital revolution hasn’t changed theatre. But it has given us the tools to change the way we connect to people. People that can become part of what we stand for.

      Dave

      • Right on Dave. Or to quote Sherlock Holmes : “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay.”

        Always talk to your audience, as much if not more as you talk to your artists. They will tell you all you need to know.

        You just have to know what to do with the data once you’ve got it…

  3. Twitter’s really got you, eh? I totally get it, there’s been a real waning of the blogoshpere since twitter tipped. And that’s probably a good thing, full posts tend to be fewer and farther between, but the quality has escalated.

    Another tick in the win column for twitter.

    There actually were a ton of theatre co’s here that had never blogged that jumped on twitter, it’s my sincere hope that it proves a gateway to full blogging. Because I’d really love to hear about their work from the artist’s perspective.

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