Rewriting the Script
Mapping the Development of New Plays in America
Why a New Play Map?
Theater holds a mirror up to human existence; audiences see themselves, their stories, and their worlds reflected back to them on stage. And these narratives unfold, imperfect, changing at every iteration, much like our daily experience. No story is perfect, and the way the theater field tells its own story of success and evolution is no exception.
The mythologies that are perpetuated in the theater world are many; Broadway is the only avenue to grant a play a long and continued life; one theater alone is often responsible for the success of a play; getting a play on its feet in a full production is the result of who you know, how you know them, and a touch of luck.
About five years ago, my colleague Vijay Mathew and I, both newly entered into the world of professional theater, began questioning the truth of these statements. What would happen, we wondered, if there was a place where the field could see itself, and its modes of production, reflected back to itself, in real time? Would the map of our infrastructure match the map in everyone’s heads? What new truths could be uncovered if anyone could see the theaters, play development organizations, universities, and artists who are all collaborating over time and geography to make a new play come to life? What could this quantitative data reveal about the way we make plays in the United States, about what’s working, what’s not, and the best practices we should be spotlighting for the field to replicate?
But now that cultural consumers have more choice (and perhaps less patience) than ever before, it’s vital that we as a creative community explore the opportunities offered by technology and harness the possibilities more quickly—the future and relevance of our art form depends on it.
Inspired by these questions and Nam June Paik’s installation Electronic Superhighway, and with the help and feedback from the theater community we created HowlRound's New Play Map—an open source map that seeks to detail just how a new play moves from the page to the stage. Anyone can contribute to the Map—artists, organizations, and theater advocates alike. Similar to Wikipedia and Ushahidi, the HowlRound New Play Map is only as good as the aggregate of its data.
While the Map is a work-in-progress, it has come a long way since we began working with web developers Quilted to create it in 2008. We have benefited immensely from the tremendous advances in mapping technology—from Open Street Maps, to Drupal’s content management system, and MongoDB, we consider the current version 4.0 of the HowlRound New Play Map a working prototype of what we dreamed of long ago.
Today, users can go to the Map and see what new play events (be it readings, workshops, or full productions) are happening today. They can search the map for specific organizations or affiliations. Most importantly, though, users can click on a specific play and see it’s journey through geography and time as it moves around the country from a theater to a play development center to a festival, to full production, and beyond. Artists and organizations have a user profile that displays pertinent information about their work.
What Does it Mean?
We inadvertently created the largest collaborative data-sharing project in the theater sector today. New content is added to the Map daily, and now that our data set is strong, the primary objective is to develop the proper lens through which to understand it.
Certain mythologies have already been proven untrue. For example, the journey of Deb Laufer’s play End Days slaps the notion that Broadway is the only path to a play’s long production life square in the face. Almost all play journeys show that more than one theater is responsible for the successful development and subsequent production of a play. In a largely not-for-profit sector where this kind of perceived “success” correlates to funding, it is more important than ever before to make sure all collaborators get the credit they deserve.
The other (un)surprising discovery so far has been just how much new play activity is happening in this country, by whom, and where. And it seems, as more people become engaged in this project, the more our mental map and understanding of our sector will continue to evolve.
Future Applications and Challenges
In the future, HowlRound's New Play Map could be a repository for scripts, contain a needs and assets functionality to promote resource sharing, or have a partner app that geolocates the new plays happening near you and recommends what to see based on your previous attendance. The possibilities are endless.
The theater field is notoriously behind the times in understanding how technology can inform practice. Many of the most well respected theater makers are self-proclaimed Luddites who view technology as a threat to the future of the form. But now that cultural consumers have more choice (and perhaps less patience) than ever before, it’s vital that we as a creative community explore the opportunities offered by technology and harness the possibilities more quickly—the future and relevance of our art form depends on it.