Friday Phone Call # 47
Jocelyn Prince, Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth
This conversation with Jocelyn Prince, connectivity director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in DC, epitomizes what I was trying to articulate in my recent HowlRound post and the conversation that followed from it. After this conversation, they opened their production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which we discuss here, and it went into an extended run. I really appreciate the approach here, integrating the concepts and tools of traditional community organizing into the process of producing the play. And that she's talking about this as something that springs from (and, in fact, is) her dramaturgical work on the play. It harkens back to another post where I was trying to articulate my thoughts about dramaturgy and producing. Jocelyn manages to pull all my muddled thoughts into a comprehensible package and practice, and it's exciting to see Woolly gaining mastery over this thing they've been investigating for several seasons now.
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David Dower: Hello Jocelyn.
Jocelyn Prince: Hi David. How are you?
David: I'm great. Oh you're good at this. Today I'm talking with Jocelyn Prince who is the Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth in DC. So I'm catching you in the middle of previews for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Jocelyn: Yes. We just started previews on Monday, on Labor Day, and we have our opening night this Friday evening. We're really, really excited about the show. It's shaping up to be a really excellent production. We've got lots of special events around the show and lots of things going on in our lobby. It's a really exciting project.
David: So those events and then what's going on in your lobby, those are ... I'm guessing that those are part of what you would describe as connectivity.
Jocelyn: Yeah. Connectivity the way that we see it here at Woolly is basically community outreach and audience engagement. I think about ways to engage our audiences and the community at large in DC and sometimes even nationally, beyond just buying a ticket, coming to see the show and going home. In our lobby for example for this show, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a hip hop theatre play. So we've created this graffiti wall, which is serving as a sort of Crowdsourced public art project where we're asking people to develop and tag their inner champions. We're asking people to think about what their pro wrestling persona would be if they were a pro wrestler in the WWE world. We've bene having a lot of fun with that in the lobby.
We also have this wonderful video game that was created through the Cyber Narrative Project that is actually aligned with the dramaturgical arc of the show. So that gamers can come into our lobby and take on the role of some of the characters in the play through this video game. And it's a really fun way ... It's a great promotional tool. The game is housed online, so we've been sharing it via social media. And there's also two playing stations set up in our lobby. So our audience has been having a lot of fun with that.
So those are two of the things that are going on in our lobby. We're also doing post show discussions for this show after every show. And we're trying some innovative activities in our lobby where we're asking audiences to self direct what types of questions and what types of themes they wanna consider from what they just saw on stage. And we're dividing them up into small groups and having them come up with reactions on whiteboards, and we're taking photographs of those reactions. Lots of activity going on in the lobby for sure for this show.
David: Wow. How do you ... What do you say to people who say, "the play should speak for itself, and I don't want any of this other stuff. I want you to produce the play, and I want the audience to see the play and then go home and make their own meaning." What's your stump speech for why connectivity matters?
Jocelyn: Well, I think there's certainly audience members who do, do just that. They just sort of come in, see the show and go home and that's fine. We're happy to have them engage with us however they want. But I think part of it is thinking about how our institution can be involved with the fabric of the DC community. And also thinking about theatre in terms of social change and activism. So that when we do partner with community organizations specifically, we look at what the organization is doing in the community, and we think about ways that we share values. And that sort of value alignment, I feel like is what is so important about theatre. Theatre has the potential to touch people and move people and move people towards making changes and social change in their communities, and so I feel like we would be really remiss as a nonprofit institution and an arts organization if we simply ignored the needs and the values and the interests of the people that we're trying to serve.
For example, for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, we are actually offering wrestling clinics for people who want to come in and spend an hour learning some folkstyle wrestling moves, and all of the proceeds from those clinics will go towards Hustle, Muscle and Mat Club, which is a wonderful youth wrestling club that is a nonprofit organization that works with low income youth. So that is a really, really exciting example of how to engage the community beyond just seeing what's on stage but thinking about how arts organizations can affect the lives of people outside of the theatre and also thinking about ways to find shared values with other communities that are working towards social change.
David: So you're actually conceiving the theatre with the responsibility to be a citizen.
Jocelyn: Absolutely. I think that any nonprofit organization, but particularly an arts organization, provides a unique opportunity to be a real citizen in the world. We're in the Nation's Capital, there's all kind of earnest people living in DC working to change the world and to change our society and working for the better good. And I think that we would be really remiss to ignore that. I do think that nonprofit arts organizations have a responsibility, a social responsibility to be participatory in the world and not just creating art for art's sake and only making theatre for theatre people. But to try to encourage new audiences to be exposed to the arts and looking at shared values and shared commitments toward social change.
David: Are you finding that the audience composition changes as you get deeper into or find a particularly resonant connectivity project? Are you able to see evidence in the composition of the audience?
Jocelyn: Yes. It's a complicated question for me to answer simply because I'm pretty new to the theatre. So, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is actually the first show that I'm working on completely on my own. We were midstream with the show when I first started from last season. But that's definitely something that we're looking to track. We do audience surveys, we pull marketing information and demographic information to figure out the makeup of our audience, and it's certainly a goal. We have a concept here at Woolley called audience design where we feel that just as it's important to design lights and sound and costumes and set for a show, it's also important to design an audience for a show for whom the particular production is going to have the most explosive impact.
For example, our fall show we're doing a beautiful play called You for Me for You by Mia Chung, who is a Korean writer. She's written this wonderful theatrical play about North Korea, and so I'm reaching out to lots of Korean organization, lots of policy shops who work on US-Korea relations. And people who are stakeholders and are really gonna find a personal and professional connection to what they're seeing on stage. And we feel like that's important, not only for those particular individuals that come see the show, but we also feel like that enhances the experience for our regular audience members, for our subscribers so they're sitting next to people who are having perhaps a deeper reaction or a deeper sense of engagement or response to the show.
David: This is not ... Just kind of stating an obvious thing, but for the listeners for whom this concept may be new, you are not the Marketing Department.
Jocelyn: Exactly. Yes, I am not the Marketing Department. I work very closely with the Marketing Department, particularly with ... We negotiate how many complementary tickets I'm afforded, how many discounts I can give out. My department works with Marketing on the communication aspect of creating mass communication items, e-flyers, that sort of thing to communicate with the organizations and the individuals that we're reaching out to. But, no, my department isn't monetized. So I'm not evaluated based on how many tickets were sold or how many group sales we have. A lot of it is anecdotal information, and a lot of it is just the qualitative, the quality of the engagement, the level of engagement.
David: And this is an investment that Woolley is making in relevance than really ... The theatre has decided that it is part of its responsibility I imagine. If you're not monetizing it, then there's some other value that's at play, and it seems to be related to the commitment to being a citizen, to being relevant in the community. And that this is a responsibility of the 501c3 basically. It's part of why you're in business.
Jocelyn: Yeah. Part of our mission statement, our tagline is, "We seek to ignite explosive engagement." And we're also very interested in civic discourse and I think that those two things are my guiding principles with connectivity. For example, we did a reading of the play, Eight, which is a play that takes a look at the issue of LGBT marriage in America, and so we could have just had a reading and invited people to come see it, but my department also put together an activism fair in our lobby. So we had organizations working around LGBT issues in the DC community, set up tables and provide information and offer people ways to organize and get involved with the issue. So I think that that's what I mean by explosive engagement. Engaging people not just in terms of being passive listeners or watchers or viewers of a show but also thinking about how they can incorporate what they're experiencing in their everyday lives.
David: What percentage, really round numbers, don't worry about it, the accuracy here. But just a sense, what percentage of your audience do you think is engaging you with these connectivity events in any given night, say at the theatre. How many people are engaging the wall or in the talk back, some things that you're talking about here.
Jocelyn: I would honestly venture to say seventy-five to eighty percent. Even before I got here Woolly has a reputation and has developed for of doing these sort of interactive displays and this interactive programming, and I think that our audiences actually expect when they walk into the theatre how to write something on a wall or stick a sticker on their shirt or wear a mask or play a game. I think that that's pretty expected. Our audiences also tend to skew younger than most theatres of our size. And so there's definitely, I feel, an atmosphere of play and of fun at Woolley. I think people come to Woolley expecting to have a really good time and to be engaged beyond just coming in watching a play and going home.
David: Let's talk about you for a second and how you come to this work. I wanted to talk with you specifically because the organization's doing such amazing things and then you've come into it and kept it going. But you've had your own history with this work prior. What brings you to connectivity in your own work, Jocelyn?
Jocelyn: Sure. By trade, I'm a dramaturg. I started my very first job in the theatre was I was a literary intern in the Steppenwolf Literary Department for Ed Sobel, and after that I started doing production dramaturgy and literary management work at theatres around Chicago. I got my MA in Performance Studies at Northwestern University, which is a program that really focuses on social change and social justice as it relates to performance. And then I've also done a lot of community organizing work.
David: Yeah, there you go.
Jocelyn: I worked at YWCA doing some organizing. I also was a field organizer, a staffer on the 2008 Obama campaign. And so there definitely is a piece of me that is very interested in activism and in community organizing. And what's so great about connectivity and why I was so interested in this job and coming to Woolley is that it combines those two interests of mine. A lot of the thinking that I do around programming and outreach for the show, I'm using my dramaturgical hat thinking about what is this play really about. What conversation does this play wanna have with the community? And then I get to put my activism hat on and think about well how can I organize stakeholders and audience members around this production. So I really think it's a perfect job for me given my experience. I'm the type of person, I've always looked at my resume and just thought, wow this resume makes no sense. I've done all these different things, but I feel like I finally have found a job that incorporates all of the skills and experiences that I have.
David: I think the community organizing piece is just one of the most underrated skill sets that anybody could have. I did a number of years as an organizer as well and it completely informs everything I'm doing now even thirty years later. There's this notion of neighborhood and community and citizenship that embeds everything and then how do you be in dialogue with the people that you're actually in community with as a theatre artist. It makes such sense to me that it would all begin from here and yet we don't tend to it. It's also dramaturgical. You're not inventing a whole series of events that have nothing to do with the play, you're actually dramaturging experience of the audience out beyond the rehearsal room.
Jocelyn: Exactly. Exactly. A lot of the same questions that I asked when I was working on productions as a free-lance dramaturg, I sort of ask those same questions when I'm thinking about programming. What's the conversation this platy wants to have? What are the themes, what's the spine of this play, what are the main ideas? Thinking about the viewpoints of the characters. Does the protagonist win? Does the protagonist lose? All of those things go into my thinking in terms of what programming and what stakeholders would be appropriate to engage.
David: Is there ... And maybe it's too early for you to tell because it is your first solo flight there. Do you get a sense, at least from the conversations around the theatre, that there's a confidence that all of this also builds audience? Or are these really entirely separate endeavors? There's no questioning, no even peeking around the corner to see, are we building audiences through all of this work?
Jocelyn: I definitely think that building a younger audience is definitely a goal for us. It's in our strategic plan as an institution. We also just received a very large grant from Theatre Communications Group to technologically enhance our lobby. And one of the main goals of that grant is to engage younger audiences in the theatre experience. And we're thinking about developing better evaluative methods and tracking methods to document the audiences that we're building. But I definitely think that building new audiences is an important goal of my department. And I think it's an important goal of, should be of any theatre institution because, as we know, that the survival of theatre in America rests on having younger people start to attend theatre and to get engaged with arts organizations. So definitely a major goal.
David: And yet you don't actually feel the pressure to monetize that. You're not having to even tabulate the number of people who show up again to another play after you've designed the audience for this one?
Jocelyn: No. I don't feel pressure. I think that you're right that there's definitely a confidence that by doing these activities and by doing this type of outreach, the offshoot will be that new audiences will be built. The monetization completely rests in the Marketing Department. The way that we think about it is that when I do my community outreach, I'm reaching out to individuals and individual community organizations for the most part, whereas our Marketing Department is reaching out to people in a mass way. And it's not as individualized and it's more about quantity. Where I'm looking for more quality, sort of deeper strategic and long-term relationships with the community.
David: You bring me back to the phrase that I just loved in Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift. He talks about the gift exchange, and in a way what you're making is a gift exchange here in the sense that you're creating the kind of experience that these communities can't create on their own. You're making your commitment of your space and resources to make this impact that they can't make on their own. But that the gift economy creates community out of mass, where the market, sort of the monetized, the market exchange economy creates basically mass from mass. If you mass market and you get people in the building and then they go back out of the building and they go back into the mass, you haven't actually created community, they've all been there at the same time. But they didn't act with each other. They didn't coalesce around an experience in any way. But what you're making is a community night in that theatre out of this stuff.D
Jocelyn: Yeah, exactly. We like to think about our shows as events. We don't like to think about them as you're coming to see a play. We think about it as you're coming to experience an event. Not only is there an event with the play, but there's also other events. We just started this program called House Lights Up, which is a series that the connectivity department curates of standalone programs and standalone events that are related to the shows. One of the things that we're doing for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is we partnered with an organization called Trivia Kings and we're doing trivia nights at bars and local clubs around town that are pro-wrestler themes. And the prize for that is a couple of free tickets to see Chad Deity.
I think that you're exactly right. Building the community around a play, thinking about who needs to be in the audience to bring energy and meaning to the show, to the play, to the conversation the play wants to have and just trying to create this sort of total audience experience for each play. What can we do to accent, to extend, to deepen the experience of each audience member?
David: What would you say ... At this point anybody who's listening is thinking, I need to be doing this in my theatre. What would you say would be the easiest places to begin this work? You guys have developed very elaborate ... You've been doing this for a number of years. Not you, but Woolley's been doing it for a number of years. The position existed before you got there. And you've developed the capacity and the ... It's in the water there now. But what would you say if you were to consult with me for a second about how could I begin. Where are some of the easiest places to start?
Jocelyn: That's a really tough question. I think I would start with ... I would probably say to start with the mission statement of your theatre.
David: Oh listen to you. That's a great answer. Go, say more.
Jocelyn: Look at the mission statement of your theatre and figure out ... Think about how it fits into how you as an institution fit into the community that you're located in. And is there a way that you can extend your mission beyond just putting plays on stage? Are there pieces of your mission that you can take out into the community. Like embedded in our mission for example to use Woolley as an example is civic discourse and plays that are culturally and socially relevant. We don't just think about that in terms of, let's put up culturally relevant shows that may create some discourse, we wanna take that relevance and take that discourse out into the community and invite the community to bring their ideas and their responses back to us. Just sort of create a dialogue. So I guess my best advice for a theatre thinking about creating a connectivity or an outreach department would be to start with the mission statement of the theatre and see how that aligns with the community that you're located in.
David: And I really wanna point out because we have a lot of self-producers who listen or people who are really just starting companies, what you're doing and this is actually really your job but what Woolley is also doing, you're producing not just the play, you're producing the impact.
Jocelyn: Right, exactly.
David: You're not leaving the impact to chance. And these things are all connected both to your mission and to the artistic choice when you made it, and you're taking the producing responsibility all the way through to that impact.
Jocelyn: Right, exactly. And a lot of it too, back to your question, is just meeting with people. I spend a lot of my time outside. I probably spend about fifty percent of my time outside of the office meeting with organizations that are doing work that's related to the shows that we're producing. And figuring out what is going on in the actual world that's related to the world of the play. Like you have the world of the play that you're producing, but what's going on in the real world regarding these issues. And I think that the meetings that I have and sort of listening and not going into these meetings with a specific agenda really, really helps inform my work as well. So I think getting to know the community, going to community events, getting to know people is also a really, really good place to start as a guidepost.
David: I do need to just, on my soapbox for a second about this, because the ... I think we read it quite often in the mainstream press, certainly from the critics in the mainstream press, that this type of activity they find ancillary. They actually find in some cases they would go so far as to say it's annoying. They want the press release, they wanna see the play, they wanna write their review and they want that to be the end of the experience. And they don't understand what all this energy's for and they actually find it in the way. And I think some classic theatre-going patrons find it to be annoying that there's all of this other energy going on. Just let me see the play. But in many ways what's important here is you're dealing with the culture as it exists, the world as it is, you're dealing in the real world as a citizen of that real world, and this is the type of environment that is actually making theatre relevant to people who aren't currently so sold on it that they just need the experience and to be left alone.
Jocelyn: Right, right. Exactly. Exactly. I really think that theatres who aren't doing any outreach at all are operating at the detriment of the American theatre. In order for the American theatre to survive, we have to engage new audiences. We have to show American culture and American society that the arts and that theatre is relevant to their lives. Otherwise, the theatre is going to die. I feel like connectivity work, community engagement work is ... It's essential to the survival of theatre as we know it in this country.
David: You're an activist in your bones. There's just no point to doing anything that doesn't activate, right? When you're an organizer, there's just no point doing anything that doesn't move something forward. In doing, even the notion of doing theatre for theatre's sake is ... it's not even a half of the equation. It actually doesn't exist as a something that's worth the time, energy and money that we all as a culture spend on it. If we're not actually after something, some kind of impact in the world, what are we doing?
Jocelyn: Exactly. I feel exactly the same way.
David: They're very lucky to have you. What's the next thing that you're most excited about. You've got Mia Chung's play coming up and what else ... What are some of your other big connectivity highlights in the season?
Jocelyn: Well I'm really excited about For You for Me For You, we have engaged ... We've actually branched out so we're now engaging people internationally. We have an amazing North Korean dissident artist who now lives in South Korea coming to DC for a week and a half to spend some time with us. We're gonna do an exhibition, a gallery exhibit of his work in our lobby. He's gonna be doing some presentations and special events around town while he's here. His name's Song Byeok, and he has an amazing personal story. He grew up in North Korea and was a propaganda artist for the North Korean regime and then he eventually escaped and fled to South Korea where he creates now this amazing, hilarious, ironic beautiful acrylic paintings critiquing the North Korean regime. We're all thrilled to have him with us coming up this November. So, that is I would say the thing I'm most excited about that's coming up. We also-
David: You for Me is about Korean sisters, right, who get separated in migrating? Is that right?
Jocelyn: Exactly. It's the story of two North Korean sisters who are very sick and starving in North Korea, and they make the decision to try to escape to the United States. One makes it, the other one doesn't. But it's -
David: Spoiler alert.
Jocelyn: Yes. Spoiler alert, exactly. But it's -
David: That happens in the first ten minutes. That's okay.
Jocelyn: Yeah. It's a highly theatrical, almost fatalistic, imaginative play and it's actually quite funny, which you wouldn't expect from the subject matter. We're really excited. It's Mia's first professional production. She recently graduated from Brown, and we're so thrilled to be premiering this play. We're also really excited about later on in the season a new piece by Mike Daisy called American Utopias, where he is looking at American-created utopias like Disney World and Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street, Zuccatti Park, just ways that Americans have tried to create utopias for themselves and why we do that. And are they feasible and how they work and how they don't. So we're really thrilled about that particular production.
David: So what've you got in the hopper for your connectivity work on that one?
Jocelyn: What's really exciting is that we'll be ... It'll be the first time that we'll be using some of our technological grant money to technologically enhance the lobby. So one of the things that we're thinking about is creating a sort of museum exhibit that's technologically based, giving a history of these types of utopias and also inviting audience members to using digital media to create their own utopias. Thinking about what type of society they would like to live in in a perfect world. So we're planning some really interactive digital lobby displays for that show, which should be really exciting.
David: Well, it's just great hearing everything that ... the way you're thinking about it as much as what you're doing. And the fact that the organization is sponsoring and helping to develop this thinking for the field is really fantastic. Thank you. I always go long, and I always regret it, but I'm glad we went long. And I hope ... We'll check back in as things are going on. I'll also link people to the Cyber Narrative Project that created that video game along with a couple of other pieces. And direct people toward both your website and the play. And all the best to you.
Jocelyn: Thank you so much David. I appreciate that.
David: It's delightful. So, good luck.
Jocelyn: Okay, thanks.
David: Bye, bye.