An announcement introducing The Center for the Theatre Commons at Emerson College went out in December 2011. Soon after an artistic director asked, “How does one become a Citizen of the Commons?”A few months later, another theatre practitioner asked, “If the commons is for any and everyone, how can Emerson claim ownership of it?” These are just two of the many fair and excellent questions we have been asked over the past year.
To help us answer these and other questions, we spent some time this past November talking with theatre practitioners that we identified, in different ways, as exemplars of the values, practices, and processes that we associate with the idea of a commons. We asked them to help us understand how our work is being perceived, and to help us clarify our language and communication around this new—Venture? Endeavor? Intervention? (We still aren’t sure exactly what to call it.)
The meeting in November helped us sort out many things, including one critical part of our identity:
We are not The Commons.
We are HowlRound: A Center for the Theatre Commons.
HowlRound exists to model a commons for the theatre.
We’ve been using HowlRound and “the Commons” interchangeably in the last six months, but moving forward we will be using HowlRound as the primary way of referring to ourselves.
This essay and the concentrated effort to more clearly define our purpose come with a debt of gratitude to this group.
How It’s Been Done
Historically, cultural communities formed around singular leaders and acknowledged expertise. An artist has a vision about what constitutes good theatre. He starts a theatre company. He curates according to his aesthetic. If he’s successful, he convinces others to begin to follow his aesthetic vision and a community forms around that vision. Marketing departments are tasked with selling the vision, and owning the vision becomes the job of everyone inside the institution. This notion of the auteur artistic director is one we’re familiar with, it’s how many of our theatre companies are currently structured.
A commons-based approach to theatre practice looks at this question of vision and ownership from a different direction. It is both an old and a new concept. Not-for-profit, tax-exempt status is actually based in the idea of a commons, the idea that making theatre in communities has a value that cannot be monetized. Zelda Fichandler used the language of the commons in her letter to the Department of the Treasury that defined not-for-profit theatre like libraries and churches and universities—public spaces of cultural value that could never be defined by market value alone. The idea of the commons in 2013 is easier to convey than ever before. The Internet has enabled the proliferation and participation in public, online spaces that have cultural benefits independent of market value.
While (relatively) easy to conceptualize, it’s backwards really, the idea of how a theatre commons comes to life. And the backwardness is both confusing and a reflection of a profound cultural shift in the role of organizations and professionals in shaping cultural consumption.
The platforms that we have created are not goods and services we are delivering to the field. Based on open-sourcing, peer-to-peer processes and community-sourced production strategies their value is only manifested, and they are only meaningful, to the degree that a community of theatre practitioners cocreates them with us.
We didn’t begin with an aesthetic vision. We began with a series of questions that included: What’s the purpose of not-for-profit theatre now? Who gets to participate in answering that question? And finally we asked how our purpose might shift if barriers to participation were minimized? What has bubbled up is the result of your answers to those questions—you being those who have put your hands up to participate in this effort of creating a theatre commons. You are defining the aesthetic and creating the vision.
The results of inviting a community to cocreate a vision for HowlRound have been stunning. We recognize in the voices of hundreds of contributors to the journal, the New Play Map, and the livestreaming tv channel, the power of finding myriad points of intersection, alignment, and common ground in the not-for-profit theatre. The energy coming from you propels us to continue apace.
What follows is a working statement of purpose and principles.
We want your questions and comments.
Your contributions will continue to define our work.
HowlRound—Purpose and Principles
Once we made the choice to produce our plays not to recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became, like them, an instrument of civilization. —Zelda Fichandler in a letter to the Department of the Treasury read into the Congressional Record on behalf of the tax-exempt status for American theatre.
Once the gift has stirred within us, it’s up to us to develop it.
—Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
HowlRound is committed to modeling a commons-based approach to advancing the health and impact of the not-for-profit theatre.
Statement of Principles
- We reaffirm the original purpose of not-for-profit theatre as our organizing principle, to understand theatre in the context of its communities, artists, and institutions as an instrument of civilization.
- We use a commons-based approach to our work that includes open-sourcing, peer-to-peer processing, and community-sourced knowledge that we share freely through internet-based technologies and in-person gatherings.
- We believe the value of not-for-profit theatre transcends market exchange.
- We embrace the concepts of open innovation and believe that the theatre field will be advanced only through the pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources.
- We, thus, strive to be a space where people can bring the knowledge and resources they are able to share and to use the knowledge and resources they need.
- We engage our role as global citizens and participate in international efforts that align with our commons-based thinking.
Storytelling as our Methodology
This article has reconfigured my ideas about theatre. What I once thought of as a collection of chronological productions, I now see as a living, breathing, sweating, screaming, timeless, and timely reflection of ourselves, our cities, and the craft of giving body to voice and putting soul under spotlight.
—Isaac Treeface commenting on the New Orleans City Series. Every month HowlRound works with local theatre artists to tell their city’s story.
We develop and design our platforms to converse, convene, research, and teach. By doing so, we strive to illuminate the breadth and diversity of the American theatre—and in particular to encourage the telling of stories by new voices, from new angles, and about parts of our field that are not often chronicled.
Converse: Using our commons-based knowledge platforms, we create, curate, and moderate a conversation around process, practice, and discoveries for advancing the field. All of these tools can be found at HowlRound.com and include the HowlRound New Play Map, #NEWPLAY TV (soon to be renamed HowlRound TV), and weekly Twitter Howls.
Convene: We make community space for gathering theatremakers around central issues of process, practice, and tension, creating room for new stories (often around old problems). We use commons-based practices for sharing outcomes and encouraging ongoing dialogue.
Research: We work with commons partners to identify practice-based research opportunities that promote opportunities for commons-based learning around how to better share resources, support artists, and create a healthier infrastructure. We gather field-wide data using the New Play Map.
Teach: We are developing a commons-based pedagogy that focuses on the role of the creative producer in fostering artist-centered and audience-focused impact in the theatre-making and storytelling for the twenty-first century.
We have created commons-based tools to model field-wide co-creation and open innovation. Our aim is to encourage field-wide:
- Increased sharing of resources.
- Alignments and efficiencies to free more resources for theatremakers and to minimize the cost of infrastructure.
- Value-generation that’s not based solely in market transactions.
- Reduced barriers to access and increased participation in the theatre.
- Creation of new tools and platforms by others.
HowlRound is modeling a commons.
We are not The Commons.
A theatre commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated with others committed to its existence.