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An Invitation that will Blow Your Mind

The Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center looks like somebody crammed Universal Studios Hollywood into a computer lab in Pittsburgh. Between gleaming classrooms, the hallways are lined floor to ceiling with pop culture memorabilia: album covers, lunch boxes, board games, bobble-heads, and lots and lots of signed posters. At the end of one hall, you can visit the “robot hall of fame”: full-sized figures from R2D2 to Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still. A couple floors down, you might find yourself seated next to Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C-3PO in the Star Wars movies, as he waxes philosophical about media and mythology. This is exactly where I found myself last September.

Exterior photograph of the Entertainment Technology Center
Photo via Wikipedia

A handful of theater folks from across the country had been invited there to consider joining an audaciously ambitious experiment. That conversation blew my little techno-phobic mind, and this week I have the good fortune to invite you, too. The invitation last September came from Karen Evans, a DC-based playwright and the founder of the Black Women Playwrights' Group. At the BWPG national conference in Chicago in 2008, the one-hundred playwrights surveyed identified digital media as an important area for their career development. So Karen sought out digital media experts interested in the performing arts.

Don and Chris have taught us that the skills a playwright uses to shape the audience’s experience are the same tools a software designer uses to lay the groundwork for a satisfying interactive tool. Vivid alter-egos, conflicts, strategically revealed secrets, and high-stakes choices make for a good play, and also a good video game.

She found Don Marinelli, Executive Producer of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center-Global. Don has a natural connection to the arts—in fact, he was CMU’s Associate Head of Drama until he began working with CMU’s Computer Science program in the 1990’s. Don joined forces with Randy Pausch – the late author of “The Last Lecture”—who taught a cross-disciplinary course on “Building Virtual Worlds.” In 1998, they founded the Entertainment Technology Center as a joint program between the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. Don and his faculty believe firmly that the foundations of traditional dramaturgy—role-play, improvisation, conflict, character, rising action—are essential to interactive digital media. And they believe digital media has made the Millennial Generation particularly ripe to engage with live theater, if we invite them in on their own terms. In Don’s words,

This transformation that has been brought about by technology is complete. What is it about our art form that I may think my students are missing, but which in fact they may be experiencing through other means? We lament they are not coming out to the theater—but they have taken social networking to a level where it is digital improvisation on a global scale.

And so when Karen asked Don if his students might earn course credit for working with playwrights to create interactive digital tools for the theater, he said yes. Don recruited Entertainment Technology Center faculty member Chris Klug, designer of Dragonquest second edition and winner of the Game of the Year Award. The three of them conceived an ambitious project that would not only prototype a model for collaboration between playwrights and technologists, but it would test how their digital tools functioned in two distinct markets.

And now, six months after that initial meeting in Pittsburgh, we’ve begun an experiment that includes three playwrights, three plays, six productions at six different theaters, and three radically different digital tools in development. After the playwrights and technology students complete their work, each play’s digital tool will be woven into two productions in two different cities during the 2012-2013 season. The theaters will collect data on how the tools worked to promote, enhance, and deepen the impact of the plays. And hopefully, that information will lead to more collaborations between artists and technologist – and more Millennials enjoying them.

We at Woolly Mammoth jumped at the chance to be a part of this project for several reasons: first, our Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz attended the BWPG conference in Chicago and he’d encouraged me to follow the progress of Karen and her members.

Second, the following season, we identified digital media as a vital new component of our Connectivity work—but we didn’t yet understand digital tools enough to identify the most effective ones and rally our artists, staff, and community around them. (Woolly’s current production of Jason Grote’s Civilization (all you can eat) provides a prime example of our learning curve. One digital tool we created has taken off like wildfire: we’ve asked experts and non-experts from across Washington to nominate the “greatest civilization ever.” The pairings will go head-to-head in live text and email voting a la NCAA March Madness; patrons can review each civilization’s stats online and fill out a fantasy bracket for a prize. But another digital tool frustrated our playwright, who was taken aback when he learned about a “Tweet-Up” from his own Twitter feed instead of from us first, and promptly Tweeted his surprise. Jason and I laughed about it in rehearsal last night, but “Twitter-gate” inspired a passionate debate in newspapers and social media about the expectations artists and institutions bring to the way digital tools interface with performance.)

The third reason we’re excited about this project is its potential value to the field. Karen and Don originally conceived it as a chance to gather data on an interdisciplinary experiment that could inform the practice of both theater and computer science. And so they always envisioned a forum to introduce the project to the public, share what had been learned so far, and begin to explore the project’s potential to be replicated by other theaters and technologists in the future.

We’ve already learned a tremendous amount about the opportunities and challenges of these collaborations. The first puzzle the three playwrights encountered was how to choose the right digital tool from the dizzying array the technology students could build. CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center trains its graduate students to design and build video games, virtual reality platforms, special effects for film, and everything in between.

Exploring the possibilities with the playwrights was like seeing Indiana Jones stand before pile of golden goblets trying to choose the Holy Grail. Ultimately, each playwright considered the purpose that the digital tool would serve for the two theaters, for the audiences, and for the play itself. Some tools will be used before the show, some after, and some during the performance itself. Lynn Nottage conceived an interactive website for her play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark—audiences can use it to learn more about the characters’ world before or after seeing the show. Kristoffer Diaz chose an online video game for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—players will be able to play as the main character and send the game to their friends in order to build buzz and curiosity about the show. And for his play Look Upon our Lowliness, playwright Harrison Rivers is beginning to develop a live text-message system that will allow audience members to receive text messages characters send each other during the play on their own phones. But choosing the right tool was only the beginning. The project is an ongoing effort to bridge the vocabularies, work habits, expectations, and cultures of the two disciplines. In Chris Klug’s words:

“The artistic goal is to create the foundation of an interactive toolkit for theater productions, initially using the specific needs of the chosen productions as a forcing function to get the toolkit on its feet. The technical goal is to create a flexible content database entry and storage tool which is architected to be a repository for many types of content (web pages, audio files, visual files, etcetera) and then, during production, deliver the content in whatever form the theaters desire. Technically speaking, it is a first step towards a Content Management System for theater productions.”

I’ll be the first to admit that my own clumsiness with computers (I have two antique typewriters at home, and I’m writing this on my boyfriend’s laptop) initially made me intimidated by and even skeptical of the idea. The most frightening aspect for a playwright, Karen volunteered, was the notion of ceding narrative control to the audience. By definition, interactive tools allow the user to shape the experience: you enter a digital environment, assume a persona, and make choices about whom to interact with, what information to access, and when to change or end the experience. However, Don and Chris have taught us that the skills a playwright uses to shape the audience’s experience are the same tools a software designer uses to lay the groundwork for a satisfying interactive tool. Vivid alter-egos, conflicts, strategically revealed secrets, and high-stakes choices make for a good play, and also a good video game.

Now that the playwrights and technology students are in the thick of it, we’re trying to take note of all the other questions they encounter: as the playwrights write text and the students write code, what’s the best way to combine the elements, exchange notes, and adjust? What tracking mechanisms should the students embed in the tools so that the theaters can capture data on user experience and use it to promote and enrich the productions? And perhaps most importantly, how can we talk about this project with potential funders, audiences, and future collaborators who have trouble imagining something that’s so far outside the box of the traditional theater experience? We haven’t answered these questions yet. But by sharing them with the public, we hope we’ll start to identify some colleagues—and some new acquaintances—who can.

This Wednesday afternoon, Woolly Mammoth will host the public launch of the BWPG-CMU-ETC-Global cyber-narrative project. In front of theater colleagues, tech professionals, and supporters, we’ll demonstrate some of the tools in development and begin the public conversation about how to make the project successful, informative, and replicable by others. Karen, Don, Chris, and the students will be here with Lynn, Kristoffer, Harrison, and representatives from several participating theaters. So far, Dallas Theater Center, The Movement Theatre Company, About Face Theatre, the Goodman Theatre, the Geffen Playhouse, Victory Gardens, The Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Penumbra Theatre, and Intersection for the Arts have joined the experiment alongside Woolly. Best of all, HowlRound TV will livestream the launch on Wednesday at 1pm EST. So try some digital interactivity yourself, tune in, and tell us what you think!


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This is fantastic, Miriam. Over the past five years, transmedia storytelling has blossomed, and theatre is finally embracing it. Many theaters, including Performance Space 122, are including it as part of their missions, and recently, the NEA began funding transmedia projects. I'm eager to tune in tomorrow and hear more about this program. Also, I'm super happy to hear you're partnering with the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center. It's the perfect place to incubate such a program. For over a year, I've been writing about transmedia storytelling and the integration of other platforms with theatre. Here’s my contribution to last year’s TCG “What if…” blog. http://www.tcgcircle.org/20...