Essay by

A Virtual Theater Movement

Essay by

Not merely individuals, but communities and nations, put their cultural good taste in evidence by building opera houses, galleries, and museums. These show that a community is not wholly absorbed in material wealth, because it is willing to spend its gains in patronage of art. It erects these buildings and collects their contents as it now builds a cathedral. These things reflect and establish superior cultural status, while their segregation from the common life reflects the fact that they are not part of a native and spontaneous culture.
Art as Experience by John Dewey

A number of years ago as board chair of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company in Minneapolis, I tried to help them organize a “virtual capital campaign.” The idea came from the Artistic Director, Michelle Hensley, and I thought it was brilliant! The Ten Thousand Things campaign would raise money for an artist’s fund, to pay actors more and commission playwrights to get to know the company. Michelle wanted in on the capital campaign action that was happening in the theater real estate boom of the 90s and early 2000s, but she didn’t want an actual building. She wanted money for the artists that bring these spaces to life. Michelle had always made theater in existing spaces with minimal design elements; spaces where people were often forced to congregate but with limited access to the arts—prisons, homeless shelters, senior centers.

I instantly visualized the entire campaign: a virtual floor plan, blueprints of how this money would be spent and who would be occupying each room of our virtual theater; marketing tools that would include invitations to our virtual opening in the shape of a little square paper theater. Inside the box you would find savings accounts with artists names on them, health insurance vouchers for artists, and little tiny replicas of paychecks made out to artists with big dollar signs filling in the amount section. It would be like toy theater!

I knew how to run a capital campaign; I had been a part of one at the Playwrights’ Center when I was its development director. I knew TTT needed a feasibility study and I knew we needed to begin seeding the ideas with potential donors to gauge the support we could count on. We did raise some significant funds on artists’ behalf, but the idea of a virtual building fell completely flat with donors and foundations. They couldn’t wrap their heads around a virtual anti-building capital campaign.

Not surprisingly, Michelle’s visionary moment was ahead of its time. Those same foundations that were pouring money into buildings and endowments for art meccas only a decade ago are now suddenly very aware that something went awry and big buildings and big institutions don’t necessarily trickle money down to the artists that work in them. There aren’t too many funders of the arts that you could talk to now who would argue that putting money into buildings should be a twenty-first century priority. In fact, if you look at some of the major foundations who have supported the arts over the years with deep pockets, you’ll see that they are all shifting gears in their giving and giving directly to individual artists. Certainly the Ford Foundation (USA Artists), and now the Doris Duke Foundation, are leading the way, and smaller foundations like the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust have made their own mark on this trend.

As Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts, says in his letter introducing a major new funding initiative from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that will significantly shift the foundation’s funding priorities away from projects, endowments, and institutions and toward direct support for artists, “While many foundations enter long-term relationships with organizations, few seem to enter comparable relationships with performing artists.”

If the recent past for the not-for-profit theater was about institutional bricks and mortar and that trend has presented itself as problematic in this twenty-first century economy, how can we build something enduring, transparent, and transformative moving forward?

Spontaneous Culture
I’m not going to argue that spaces for people to congregate don’t matter. Spaces are a critical part of our experiences of art and they should be places where spontaneous culture lives and thrives.

Spontaneous culture demands creativity. For Dewey, spontaneous culture is the stuff of everyday life, and it’s also what fuels the artistic imagination. Artists, by necessity, create stories and objects that reflect our “common life.” A recent example of a creative response to a spontaneous moment comes from Syria. The New York Times posted a story about the expression of Syrian artists to their country’s political crisis that included this amazing video of finger puppets—finger puppets because they are easy to smuggle through government checkpoints.

Dewey tells us that it’s large cultural institutions that try to fix that spontaneity in time and place, and in the fixing, the life blood is drained from the art. Museums for example, reify the, “furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears” of cultures past. Yet as Dewey points out, “In their own time and place, such things were enhancements of the process of everyday life,” and represented “all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living.” Our fascination with these objects of the past comes in our recognition of their artistry, but what we lose in that museum moment of appreciation is the sense of the present tense. Once we memorialize the finger puppets, their impact will be in the memory of the past not the life-blood political urgency of the present.

We had a great conversation on the Weekly Howl a few weeks back about the difficulty of theater being responsive to a political or cultural moment. It’s true, writing plays in a timely fashion and developing them fully takes time, but this isn’t the only thing that makes spontaneity a problem for our theater cathedrals. Season planning processes driven by marketing campaigns are often happening two years out from actual productions, and overpriced tickets and massive operational overhead that diminish artistic integrity and budgets are other reasons for our institutional “segregation from the common life.” Cathedrals are places for statuary and memorials and homage. But they are less likely to be hotbeds for innovation, risk taking, and cultural transformation.

Don’t get me wrong, both past and present matter. In our hyper-responsive Internet culture we lose our history; everything is new all the time. I read so many blog posts where the author seems to be in a historical vacuum, putting forth ideas as if they were entirely original. But the sense of immediacy that technology can create, the idea that everything can feel live and immediate all the time, can reinvigorate our sense of the spontaneous in art making. Virtual creative spaces can function as a healthy antidote to the bricks and mortar blues that threaten to overtake our field and our art making.

So, how do we activate existing spaces and create relevant new ones? How do our work and our passions not become isolated from everyday life? How doe we create intersections between our lives and stories and the places where we share them? How do we move out of our cathedrals and build public squares that celebrate “common life”?


If the recent past for the not-for-profit theater was about institutional bricks and mortar and that trend has presented itself as problematic in this twenty-first century economy, how can we build something enduring, transparent, and transformative moving forward?


P. Carl. Photo by Mike Ritter. 

How to Endure
Dewey understands the why of cathedrals, the reasons we’ve put so much energy into cultural meccas. We crave form and stability in a world that feels chaotic—Form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached . . . wherever there is coherence there is endurance. The first wave of the regional theater movement relied on bricks and mortar as part of their spontaneous response to necessity. And they were successful in achieving something that continues to endure. And endurance matters. It’s mattered to all of us who have benefited from that coherent and lasting vision. Bricks and mortar as a road toward achieving the vision of the original impulse made sense then, but less sense now.

Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus
As many of my interactions with artists take place in the virtual world, I ask myself or I should say, we ask, (because this thought comes out of way too many late night conversations with David Dower) whether the regional theater movement of the twenty-first century will be built right here, online?

For those of you who have been actively participating in the #newplay conversation via this journal, Twitter, and on many other play development sites and theaters, I might argue they embody the spontaneous culture lacking in some of our big cathedrals. And these are virtual spaces where artists provide the life-blood of the conversation about the work and the process and the future.

In his book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators,futurist Clay Shirky talks about the twentieth-century phenomenon of free time, the result of post World War II rise in education levels and the fact the people started living longer and working less. This free time led to massive hours of the solitary, and one might argue, unproductive act of television viewing. We took our free time, what Shirky calls the “cognitive surplus” and channeled it into the one-way activity of watching. This comfort with simply watching is something that theaters have banked on for their survival, and it’s the reason that the first post World War II generation of consumers have been the life blood of the regional theater movement.

But as Shirky points out, and as we’ve discussed in many ways in the #newplay conversation, this form of engagement is no longer satisfactory. The virtual world allows us new forms of participation and new ways to get in on producing and performing our own creative acts. We no longer have to look on awestruck at the talents of others on stage or behind a screen. Our cognitive surplus can be harnessed in much more fulfilling ways.

Shirky asks a key question about these relatively new circumstances we find ourselves in. Will our creativity be merely about more personal expression or will our creativity be geared toward a larger purpose? What will we smuggle across the borders? What will we risk, toward what aims? As Shirky points out, “how much of the value…will be merely communal (enjoyed by the participants but not much use to the community at large) and how much of it will be civic”?

Responsibility and Hopes for 2012
I find our virtual connectedness in this field heartening and hopeful. This new HowlRound site is a community offering, and effort to make more virtual space to consider new infrastructures for our field. If you think about the origins of the regional theater movement, our founders didn’t just harness energy, they harnessed a huge funding initiative by the Ford Foundation and they built something necessary, transformative, and lasting. I think we’re being presented with a similar moment now, a coming together of the tools and the resources to build something “coherent and enduring” to use Dewey’s words, with artists leading the charge.

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Re. Polly's notion of the 'virtual capital campaign': Firstly, YES.

Secondly, I think the next step, in the move to funding artists directly, is to reverse the relationship between building and artist. At present, as Outrageous Fortune underscored, playwrights "submit" to theatres, who then ignore those script piles (and waste the time of interns and literary managers) to program writers with whom they already have relationships.

I suggest that funding should go directly to the generative artists, who can then audition theatres, producers, buildings (with their own funding in hand) to see where their work truly fits and with what structures and people they would like to work. This way, the infrastructure would of necessity suit the art, not the other way around, and the business of theatres would then be to create homes for the artists they would dearly love to attract. The conversation about audience would have to happen in a passionate and hard-headed way between artist and potential producing collaborator.

I think the old cultural-materialist (dare I say Marxist) point is pertinent here: that control of the means of production is key to understanding how social systems work, and access to it is the way in which things can change.

I'm so darn with you. Been wanting this for years. The infrastructure that the digital world can provide to live theatre is research and development of textual content and pre-production practices and planning. Virtual literary offices. New ways of collaborative scripting. Virtual reading series. More diversity of voices in distribution and publication. Sharing best practices for new play production from different regions. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but running the baby a nice new warm bath. Thank you Polly and David and everyone who's engaged. Let us know how we can help!

Really well said, david. And i would add, at the intersection of your comment and polly's great essay here, that i hear in 'virtual' and the reference to shirky and "civic" an invitation for us to think of theatre activity not just as plays but as process, as creative practice and as purposeful deployment (to borrow, david, your energetic verbiage) towards an understanding that buildings, once a sign of impact, now are only one part of our form's occupation of public space and civic imagination. The virtual will help us claim strategies, relationships and collaborators as we, individually and collectively, use liveness to offer visions and vision-ing, all in partnership with whoever outside of the arts we are savvy enough to learn from and engage.

Forgive me, Doug, but I think you are thinking too small here when you jump immediately to a live v. recorded debate. I think the real potential now has to do with the democratization of the infrastructure, the opening up of access to this infrastructure through these tools newly available to the common wealth of the regional theater movement. Yes, because we are artists, much of the time exploring the uses of these tools will focus on performance/creation. Just as the first regional theater buildings were primarily activated as tools for artistic practice. But the founders were also up to something more enduring than the individual performances as we are here. A means of developing a nationwide infrastructure for the advancement of the form: its aesthetic range, its community and cultural impact, and its capacity to sustain the artists of the form in their inquiry. Now the questions of how the new spaces created online are coherent with the past, how they extend that original inquiry, how they depart from it- and to my mind primarily how they return us to the original impulse of creating a national infrastructure for the advancement of the form-- need to be engaged outside the distracted frame of "live beats recorded, video is not performance," and such. We're artists- we'll do our thing and use the tools available to us. But what will we create that is coherent and enduring, in the way our forbears did with buildings?  I have a sneaking suspicion the bricks and mortar of our time will be digital and they will mark an evolutionary moment in the regional theater revolution-- the moment when the movement knits its physical infrastructure together with its virtual infrastructure to create a truly national theater community, unbounded by geography, unfettered from the gatekeeper/hierarchical/competition/scarcity based limitations that have overtaken the founding impulses and led the buildings to mistake themselves for the point. They are pieces of the puzzle, aspects of our capacity, and assets of the commonwealth. But their relevance is intrinsically bound up in their deployment toward the original purpose, and their importance in that effort is coming to be matched by the puzzle pieces, capacities, and contributions of the virtual spaces.

But surely, as theatre artists, we know all too well the deficiencies of the new virtual world! Theatre is an art of physical presence: the sharing-of-real-space is primary, much more so than the sharing of now-ness. A decades-old production of a centuries-old play can certainly move us; a video of a play never will. We can put virtual tools to our use, but ultimately, performance is what must save the world from its growing intangibility, ghostliness. (That's why I do it, anyway.)

On the contrary, a video of a performance surely can move people, else film and television wouldn't thrive. I won't claim that a video can replace the experience of seeing something live, but it is a great way to reach out and meet audiences on their terms, in their homes, on their computers even, and show them what we can do.

With recordings, our focus should be on demonstrating--trumpeting the fact--that no matter how much one may enjoy this recorded performance, it's exponentially better in person. That way, we make a more persuasive case to these potential audiences than by hiding away in our walled gardens, insisting that they can only experience our work on the inside.

I think what Polly is hitting in her post and what I believe in fully is balance. She isn't saying that we need to get away from sharing actually spaces, she is quite literally saying in here that actually spaces are important and should be more abundant and shared. What she is also saying is that we should be utilizing these tools to our full advantage in the sharing of ideas, processes, platforms, and development. We need to balance the idea of building massive spaces with building virtual infrastructure.

The idea is that we don't just need to keep doing what we are doing, but we need to think bigger, bolder and broader in the upcoming years. Just in the small utilizing of tools I have come up with ideas and formed partnerships with people from all over the country that I could never do just by spending my time building a literal space.

And on another note some things don't need a permanent space, some need temporary space, but permanent thought processes or permanent virtual worlds to create and discuss.

What I am saying is that yes virtual and actual are different like you are saying, but no one is saying replace one with the other. I am saying look where your true need is and work on creating both, but your energy might be better spent getting funding for a virtual theatre, and not a literal theatre these days.

We've got to have some late night conversations, clearly. You've tapped into a lot of ideas here that we've been talking about at 2amt, both out in the open and amongst ourselves. I'd go on here, but I think the ideas are worth a post of their own...

What about underpriced seats to a play about immigration "In The Book Of..." by John Walch opening at precisely the time of mobilization to take down the harshest immigration law in the country HB 56 in Alabama at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival? Just when The Southern Poverty Law Center and Birmingham Faith Ministries are training people to successfully oppose HB 56 how could an "institution" put resources into producing such fresh material? The facade of the building is indeed brick!! In fact the building itself is a kind of Taj Mahal built out of love for a woman who loved Shakespeare. And yet it is no museum or cathedral because real artists make vivid living plays there. Zeitgeist is a good word. I notice we all love these elderly, sometimes ossified words.Yet I will cut them from my Shakespeare texts to give productions a chance to live with the kids!!! Instead of saying that spontaneous culture is lacking, I'd say it's living!! At the same time you have to notice that the wealthy, leisured community don't just want to watch plays. They want to be in them. So here in Montgomery they are investing a season's worth of donations in a community church conversion so that they can dust off some golden oldie plays. Now which is the museum?

This is wonderful. Thanks.

I love the idea of investing in this "naive and spontaneous" energy because it seems native to our form. Theater is ephemeral, volatile, fluid--as much as we try to fix the form of a play, its spirit and energy shift with each performance. It's the energy of conversation & zeitgeist, the thing that flows through the community of artists and audiences.

I love the idea of using that energy rather than the building that contains it as a synecdoche for the art itself. Because that sense of liveness, electricity, flux, is what sets theater apart from other cheaper and more convenient forms of entertainment. And it's also what I love most about theater.