Monthly Archives: October 2010

They Took Us Under Their Wings. Their Naked, Naked Wings.

When Alli Houseworth first told me I was invited to come to the recording for Naked Radio (a program of the NYC-based theatre company Naked Angels) I thought, “Sure. Why not? They might be naked, but they’re angels, so they’re probably nice”. Turns out…not so naked. In fact, NO ONE WAS NAKED. I know what you’re thinking, rip off, right? Well you are wrong, my friends. What started out as an adventure to NYC to see some friends and do something for work that didn’t entail spreadsheets or PDFs quickly became an awesome and valuable learning experience.

To start off, I may have many friends who live in New York, but I have no idea how to get around that city. It should make sense to me, I am a DC girl born and bred and I usually have no trouble navigating cities. But New York…foof. So when my friend Alice offered to escort me there, let’s just say…I jumped on it. After hopping on a couple trains which I could not tell you the name of nor where they go, Alice and I found ourselves wandering down 9th avenue, looking for John Marshall Sound. Right as we were approaching I heard a voice saying my name, and Alli was standing right behind me! She recognized my red suede boots, and thank goodness because I was not going to find that on my own. Alice went on to a pie-off (I KNOW. PIE-OFF), while Alli and I checked through security and found ourselves upstairs amidst many a Naked (but clothed) Radio star. After a while and many names (including Brittany O’Neill, Producer for Naked Radio), we entered the studio.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see those recording studios on TV I always picture Mariah Carey blasting impossibly high notes, gripping her headphones and waggling fingers in front of that fancy circular mesh thing and let me tell you guys…IT IS JUST LIKE THAT. I mean, Mariah wasn’t there, but there was a lot of potential for finger waggling. While the actors grabbed scripts and I tried to keep my face from falling off with excitement, Alli, Brittany and I all prepared ourselves with our smartphones to “live-tweet” the experience. We ended up spending over four hours in the studio. I laughed, I cried, I tweeted most of it (check it out at hastag #nakedwoolly). The highlight for me of course was when they needed someone to read two lines AND THEY ASKED ME. I mean okay, it was two lines, but come on. Like I am going to skip the opportunity to waggle. I hopped in there and stared up at the microphone which was probably a good two feet above my head. Enter tech man to lower it for me…..squeaking indignity all the way. But I got my microphone, I got my two lines, and I got some jazz-hand type finger waggles. A star was born.

But I digress. The point of bringing you into the studio with me, of telling you all of this, is to let you know that these plays are really. Effing. Good. I’ll admit I had my doubts. Radio plays? There is a reason no one listens to the radio anymore, even if these are technically for podcasts. How do you reach someone through a radio? Why would you want to give people an excuse to stay at home and be plugged in, listening to a play rather than going to see one at your company? We are all constantly plugged in. I never walk down the street without headphones; I catch myself thinking in Tweets and Facebook statuses (Katie Boyles, What’s on your mind?). I had a friend the other day comment on my Facebook and say he wished Facebook would add more buttons so he could electronically express his emotions about my status without having to type it out. But this is where we’re going; anyone who rides the Metro in the morning knows that, just look at the people around you. There is so little that’s stopping us from becoming entirely robots, why not make cultural experience a little more robotic?

After the recording ended, we headed to a bar for a Naked Radio/Woolly interview where Brittany addressed just that. She explained that she doesn’t know how exactly she feels about it, but for right now what is important is getting it out there. There are a lot of larger questions to ask, but at this moment, her priority is to extend knowledge in whatever means works for society today. I try to push down all my doubts and really think about this, and mainly what I can come up with is…she’s not wrong. Okay, that’s not the strongest statement ever made, but it’s what I have. I got into theater for a lot of reasons and have worked in many different places; I have acted, I’ve stage managed, I’ve directed, I’ve been a theater teacher, and now I am in marketing/communications. Throughout all of this, the one thing that has remained consistent is my belief that theater should always be a means for education. I don’t mean just children, I mean for everyone. While I know there might not be a lot you can learn from a smash 1940s Broadway musical, I want there to always be a type of theater available which you see and makes you think, reflect, and wonder. And that is what Naked Radio is doing for us and future generations: they are making it available. This I think is largely is what will make our “co-prodcasts” so successful. You have Woolly Mammoth, people dedicated to the production of new and “explosive” plays, and then Naked Radio, people bringing their own new and creative works from the stage to “the Digital Airwaves”. It’s a genius plan, even more genius than I think than we knew even sitting in that recording studio, and there’s something almost comforting in that. I may not know about our future robot children (be kind to your dishwasher), but at least I know that there are people out there who are dedicated to bringing audiences something new and are able and willing to evolve.

~Katie Boyles, Marketing Assistant

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Nightmare on D Street

My anxiety dreams always feel the same: I’m hurtling towards something bad, but the details keep slipping away. The moment I orient myself to the people and problem at hand, I suddenly find myself somewhere else, with someone new bearing down on me. In a nightmare, our terror often stems from the absence of everyday logic. Dreams are the realm of the subconscious, where fear and desire trump reason.

When we sense danger, our imaginations create scenarios that our calmer selves would never believe. House of Gold plays by these same nightmare rules: a six-year-old girl hurtles toward the beauty pageant from hell. But the details of when and where keep eluding her. She tries to practice her singing and baton twirling in time to please the judges. But she’s thrust from scene to scene by an associative logic that piles one childhood anxiety on top of the next. The faster she runs, the faster the ground gives way under her—until the dark heart of her household is unmasked.

In our culture, we tend to follow associative logic more comfortably on film than in the theatre. Since Sergei Eistenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, cinema directors have used montage—the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images—to make our minds draw abstract connections between scenarios. Throughout the 20th century, directors from Alfred Hitchcock to David Lynch have used montage to unnerve us. 

Remember the shower scene in Psycho? Janet Leigh has met her grim fate and lies lifeless on the floor: the close-up of her vacant eye merges with the bathtub drain as her blood washes away. This montage is a visual rhyme: two dark circles juxtaposed against each other. But the image burrows under our skin because the camera dislocates us from the object we thought we recognized. We believed we were looking at a bathtub, but we’re suddenly looking at a body. In 2010, our eyes have grown accustomed to these nonlinear leaps on film. But in the American theatre, this haunting technique has rarely been activated.      

House of Gold delivers this sensation live and in-person. The structure of the play is more like a spiral than a straight line. Playwright Gregory S. Moss calls it a conch shell, with a child at the center. We begin with the superficial icon of JonBenét Ramsey, and corkscrew into her experience until we see the world through the eyes of a six-year-old. Sitting in rehearsal these last couple weeks, I’ve been reminded of many films: the suburban underbelly in Blue Velvet, the house with a mind of its own in Carrie. Right now, the play most reminds me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo: the heroine is both alive and dead; the past and the present merge; fear and desire persuade us to suspend our better judgment. In the subconscious world of our nightmares, obsessions can be powerful enough to rend the rules of time and space. 

~Miriam Weisfeld, Director of New Play Development and Dramaturg for House of Gold

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You Have Seen This Girl: The Changing Face of Media.

I teach a graduate level producing and theatre management class at Columbia, and this past Monday we were discussing various technological and sociological shifts that have occurred over the last 100 years. We spend a lot of time on television, some time on telephones, mentioned magazines, and talked a lot about Facebook. The conversation naturally turned into a heated conversation about whether or not Facebook has made us into voyeurs—totally self-involved, relationship-less people who project their personalities onto social networking sites. And what does the consumer of such sites then do? Does this result in an overly sensationalized relationship? Is it false? Is a weak tie?

Then, a student asked a question: Is this a new way of behaving, or do we now just have the technology to leverage this obsessive behavior and make it more widespread? I’d like to argue that we have always behaved this way.  It is NOT the “new” media’s fault.

Isn’t it true that the media (print in particular) can only survive if consumed (bought)?  So, if people are consuming… let’s say tabloids in this case…then is the producer of the content to blame? Or the consumer?

~Alli Houseworth, Communications and New Media Manager

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Gregory S. Moss Seduced Me.

He and I have never exchanged more than a brief, casual introduction. I sat next to him at First Rehearsal. That’s pretty much it—as far as he knows. But, for the month of September, I did little more than obsess over Gregory S. Moss’s House of Gold. When I was reading all of the plays for Woolly Mammoth’s 31st Season, HOG, as we call it around the office, became for me linchpin of a daring season: a challenging play, original in its structure and content, deceptively hilarious, and uniquely controversial. Like the first time I heard about the work at Woolly, House of Gold promised the kind of experience that makes no promises, except to blow your freaking mind. And so, when it came time to select an Assistant Dramaturg on the World Premiere production of this funhouse nightmare, I was the first in line. I had no idea what I was really asking for.

I had expected that my previous experiences as an assistant director in college, regionally and Off-Broadway would prepare me for whatever this process might demand. Wrong. Unfortunately, digging up critical analysis on Romeo and Juliet, or uncovering the significance of different flowers in the 17th century fell far short of preparing me for what lay ahead. First and foremost, you have to understand that Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has a dedication to the dramaturgical examination of its work that would make many theater companies around the nation blush. There is no reference left unexplained, no source material left out of the rehearsal room. The literary and artistic departments thrive on the notion that no stone should ever be left unturned. Every artist in the process is provided for. So, for that month I arrived early. I left late. I didn’t check my e-mail. I didn’t go to meetings. I just lived with the play.

Realistically though, the challenge of working as the Assistant Dramaturg on House of Gold came not through the rigor of the process, but through the nature of the piece itself. Day after day, I went deeper in to Moss’s House, uncovering eerie worlds of child exploitation and murder. The world that loves the beautiful victim, that forgets poor abducted, that paints children as sexual figures and that revels in conspiracy, demonstrates a frightening lack of self-awareness. For every article and study criticizing a culture obsessed with scandal and gossip, there are countless websites, message boards and newsstand tabloid rags dedicated to sensationalizing murder and perpetuating the obsession with young beautiful victims.

As with every experience I have at Woolly Mammoth, my role in this process has pushed me to a new professional and artistic limit. The depth of exploration taken by the entire team at Woolly typifies why it stands at the cutting edge of theatre in America. As for House of Gold, it still holds its sway over me. This is a powerful, hilarious, dark, completely original play—and that’s what pulled me in originally. And yet through this process I have learned that the real seduction of House of Gold is Moss’s ability to shine a light on a cultural obsession, at once speaking for victims and implicating us in their fate.

~Tom Bonner, Assistant to the Artistic Director and Assistant Dramaturg on HOUSE OF GOLD

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The Challenges of Marketing a New Play

Well, here we are. It’s the Friday of a CUH-RAZY week and I’ve assigned everyone else their blog topics and podcasts for the rest of the month, but mine—which was due to myself an hour ago—is still unwritten. Fail. The topic is supposed to be “the challenges of marketing a new play.” Maybe I should change the topic to “the challenges of writing a blog about the challenges of marketing a new play.” OK. Not funny, Houseworth…

But seriously… stay with me as I try to sort this out in real-time… OK, see, the thing is, a play is a living thing. Even in production, a play can morph performance by performance based on the audience that is in the house. But a new play—one that doesn’t have an audience as a partner yet—is constantly evolving.

I think most marketers feel lucky when they are blessed with one of the following:

  1. A starry cast
  2. A well-known popular script
  3. A script from a well-known popular writer

But, a non-starry cast, a new script, a young writer… it’s tough. Re-writes are happening daily. The words evolve, the story evolves, the characters evolve. The only thing to latch onto as marketers is the core of the play. What was the writer’s impulse? Why did they write the play? What LARGER story does he want to tell? That I *think* is key.

My previous professional life was all about the commercial world… sell sell sell… cast stars, it’s the only way to re-coup. But what I love about Woolly and about new plays is that I’m scared. To do my job I have to work harder.

I remember reading House of Gold at Woolly’s kitchen table this past June. When I finished reading it, my first thought was, holy shit (and not in a Huffington Post “Holy Sh*t Theatre” kind of way). I was nervous. Excited. I had read something unlike anything I had read before and I didn’t know how to talk about it. Crap.

So, we got Greg Moss on the phone and asked him that simple question – what was the impulse? What excites you about telling this story in House of Gold. And poof! It was like magic. I AM SO EXCITED TO BE WORKING ON THIS PLAY.

I think, for me, that most of my excitement lies in the unknown. Because we don’t have any “easy marketing things” to work from, we have to be creative. Really creative… really, REALLY, creative and I LOVE going there. There is a great divide in this industry between “marketer” and “artist.” But aren’t the very best marketers also artists…?

Frankly, geekily, I think there is something pretty awesome about being one of the first *administrators* to work on this show. I know, downstairs, that Greg, and Sarah, and David Zinn, and Matt Tierney, and the actors are plowing through the script working on the art of it all, but I think it’s our responsibility up here in the admin land to do the same thing. It feels rigorous, scary. I hope I do the play… Greg, Sarah, all of them… justice. When House of Gold has a life past Woolly, will people look to us and mimic the work we’ve done? I love that idea. One could only hope, I suppose.

It’s not easy, working at this level of unknown. But it IS thrilling, and terrifying, and intimidating, and… well… frankly it’s pretty awesome.

~Alli Houseworth, Communications and New Media Manager

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Playwright Greg Moss on the Inspiration Behind HOUSE OF GOLD

Alli asked me to write a little bit about what inspired the initial writing of House of Gold, which seems to be the first question anyone asks when they read the play. “What made you want to write about JonBenet?” I always hear in the question an edge of bewilderment, as if this were a strange choice of subject. To me, it seems natural.

In 2010, fourteen years after the fact, JonBenet’s story is still everywhere – not just in sensational supermarket tabloids, but also frequently in legitimate magazines and news sources. Every six months or so some new revelation crops up in the case, putting her image back on the front page.  As recently as last week, the Boulder Police Department re-opened the case, once more seeding JonBenet’s image throughout the country, online and in print.

This sustained attention indicates that many Americans from various backgrounds are deeply invested in this narrative. It is a story we want to tell ourselves. But it’s the myth and image of JonBenet that fascinates us, not the known facts of the case.  We are drawn to the mystery, the indeterminacy of it, not its documentary representation. It’s not facts we want.  The case’s perennial appeal lies not in what we know, but in all that we don’t know (but can imagine). JonBenet’s story is not one we can process rationally, in a town hall meeting or in a legislative forum. Her image is lodged in our dreams.

So, if so many people want to talk about her, still, and if the nature of that discussion is to be imaginative, rather than rational, then it is the obligation of the theater to stage that conversation.

When I was at Brown, my teacher and mentor, Paula Vogel, had this piece of advice for playwrights when looking for a subject: “Write about the thing that is right in front of all our faces; the thing that everyone is looking at but no one seems to see,” she said. I think of this often while working on House. To me, it means that playwrights are like archeologists, not looking to the past, but, instead, excavating the present moment. Among the civic uses of theater, one may be to create a place to present the artifacts, myths and totems of our current moment. By framing these images in a new way, making them appear strange to us, we can evaluate them more critically. They can, in fact, provide us with some information about who we are.

In the end, the play isn’t really about JonBenet, who, as a real person, is barely known to us. It’s about what we, as a community, find fascinating and compelling in her story, her image, and her myth.

 

~Gregory S. Moss, playwright

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Special Feature: Results of Social Media Fundraising Campaign

Let’s be clear. Few people care about my personal Facebook status update. If I’m lucky, a small handful of my 595 Twitter followers will see a Tweet of mine. This is not a defeatist observation, it’s just the way it is.

In the first several minutes of The Social Network—just after the co-founders have completed Face Mash (the site that arguably inspired Facebook)—a big decision must be made: who do they send the site to in order to make the greatest impact? Then, the actor playing Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerburg turns to his partner and says, “The question is, who are they going to send it to?” Aha! The question may seem simple, but it is the backbone of any successful campaign that leverages the power of its users. Nobody cares about what you send out. It is not about you, after all. It is about the power of the group. Who are they going to send it to? So, what can you possibly do to get them to care?

On September 21st, 2010 around 5pm a small group of Woolly staff members gathered spontaneously in the office kitchen for some casual late-in-the-workday searching of snacks or caffeinated beverages. I was there, along with Tim Plant our Director of Development and Jen Anthony, the Campaign Associate. As I cracked jokes about social media (as I like to do to ruffle feathers), nothing seemed out of the ordinary until Tim said to me, “Does anyone actually raise MONEY using social media?” A simple dare, and it was on.

It started small. I said, let me use the Size of the Gift platform that the devo department had already used during the run of In the Next Room or the vibrator play. The platform allowed users to customize their own webpages and email it to their friends asking that they donate to Woolly. My tactic would be that I would personalize it and send it out over social media, and only over social media. The bet bar started low.

Raise $100, Tim said. I scoffed. $500. And what would I get in exchange? The pay-off started internally. Have Tim bake you cookies. Bake the office cookies. I suggested that he wear something weird. It was Jen who suggested the I Heart Social Media t-shirt. Yes! But, $500? Seemed easy. Sort of. So I raised the bar: $1,937. Why? It was the number of Facebook fans we had at the time. The messaging could be spun so that it read that all it would take to meet goal was for each fan to donate a dollar.

The energy in the kitchen raised. Jen suggested Tim wear the shirt to work one day for me. But it wasn’t enough. This type of campaign isn’t about me, the individual, it was about something larger. The payoff had to reward the group. And so, we landed on a two-pronged pay-off. If I won, Tim would wear the shirt in public, have his photo taken in it while he stood in front of DC landmarks (which would be posted on Facebook) AND he had to wear it live, in front of our closing night audience for vibrator, while giving the curtain speech. And finally, he had to join Twitter because making him a believer is only one step. Turning him into a user is another. And so it began.

(You can click HERE to see the link to the customized page I made.)

I started small, posting the link on the Woolly Facebook Page and sending it out on Twitter, then sharing and re-tweeting on my personal pages. We got a few gifts the first day, accounting for almost 20% of the goal. Over the next several days gifts slowly rolled in, and the link got re-tweeted and shared on other Facebook pages. After a few days, the $1,937 goal started to seem totally lofty. Enormous. Too ambitious. People started asking me what would happen if I lost. Lost? Well, we had never really discussed that.

Then, something sort of extraordinary happened.

As the deadline date drew closer people outside our network chimed in and began to help out by sharing the link on their own pages and tweeting it out, sharing messages like: “Social media fuels the arts” and “Help us test SM’s fundraising effectiveness and give to a groundbreaking DC theater at the same time!” In the last 24 hours you could sit and watch the donations increase at a seemingly exponential rate. Aaron Heinsman, Director of the Annual Fund, and I started shrieking in the office and texting each other as we saw the numbers grow larger as we sat at home. Then, at 11:58am on October 1st – five hours and two minutes before deadline – we met our goal.

Here are the stats:

  • 156 gifts were received for a total of $2,209, making the average gift $14.
  • Gifts ranged form $1 to $100. (Note that it was not possible to donate just $1 on the custom website. One person emailed us complaining about this fact and made a $1 on the normal Woolly online donation page. Another gave $1 in cash.)
  • Gifts were received from 23 states.
  • In the last 24 hours, 74 gifts were received, accounting for 64% of all donors.
  • Last-day gifts totaled $1,044, accounting for 47% of the income goal.
  • The social media Size of the Gift campaign raised nearly twice as much money as everyone who participated in the regular Size of the Gift campaign combined.

However, in addition to some pretty surprising (and thrilling!) income goals, some interesting stats on the social media front popped up as well:

  • Over the course of the campaign we acquired 66 new Facebook fans and 66 new Twitter followers. (Slightly higher than average.)
  • After sending it out only over the Woolly Mammoth Twitter Feed, the “It’s Not the Size of the Gift…” link was re-tweeted 135 times, and got 355 click-throughs.
  • After posting the “It’s Not the Size of the Gift…” link on the Woolly Facebook Page, it was re-posted on others’ walls 172 times.

For me personally, the impulse of the idea was just fun. I’m obviously a big fan of social media and think it’s being underutilized in the American theatre primarily because so many people and organizations think of Facebook and Twitter as simply marketing and communications tools. They are not.

Now that the campaign is over, I can’t stop thinking about it. Within hours of it ending people started asking “what’s next.” Questions popped up on the #2amt feed that Friday night saying that this campaign was a success but it was jus a bet. What if the stakes were higher?

Quite frankly, I don’t know what is next for me, or for the development department. Maybe it’s a flash mob? Or Tweet Seats that actually work? Maybe Devo will fund an entire campaign for new plays only using Twitter. Maybe I’ll never send out another press release again. I often think that there is only so much planning that can go into this kind of work. “Successful Spontaneous Initiative” might be a bit oxymoronic in this industry.

But sometimes—and oftentimes when it comes to social media—you just have to seize the moment of the idea and just try it out to see what happens. And, as you go, do your best to track it. Do you best to push it into being successful—in whatever shape success means for you. In this case, the campaign was a success. We raised the money. Tim has a Twitter account. He publicly humiliated himself. The Woolly staff got behind an idea and had a ton of fun. We had a champagne toast, all of us, because it took all of us. A cheesy statement, but true: I could not have done this alone. I needed the network. Additionally, it was proved that social media can be a powerful tool that everyone in a company can utilize. And, finally, maybe we proved to you the same? And maybe you will be inspired to try something too?

But, like Zuckerburg says in The Social Network, sometimes one success isn’t good enough. Facebook doesn’t end. Twitter won’t end. These things changed the world, the way we communicate, the way we behave, for better of worse. You have to keep growing, and creating, and trying, and failing. That’s been the mission of Woolly for 31 years. A spontaneous online social media fundraising campaign was just another way to adhere to that mission, and the funds that were raised will support both our artistic and connectivity outreach – like producing the world premiere of House of Gold and funding possible future new media campaigns.

And, so, for our next trick…

Follow us on Twitter at @woollymammothtc. But be warned: the next time, it might not work out so well.

~Alli Houseworth, Communications and New Media Manager

Tim Plant gives a curtain speech in his "I Heart Social Media" T-shirt

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How did you hear about Woolly’s social media fundraising campaign? Leave a comment and let us know. Did you give? If so, tell us what motivated you to do so! We love hearing from our readers.

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