Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tube Tuesday: Kevin Spacey MacTaggart Lecture

Welcome to my new bi-weekly feature, Tube Tuesday. I noticed that I spend a significant amount of time these days watching YouTube. From literary adaptations and history lessons to funny guys playing video games, I watch as much YouTube as "actual" TV (via Netflix and Hulu, of course). The ArtsTechHubs, an avid gamer, watches even more.

I'm starting this feature to dig deeper into the arts on YouTube. What's being said about our industry? How are arts organizations using it? What innovative new content are artists creating and how is YouTube helping them launch their careers?

This Week's Video

First up, the video that inspired this feature, Kevin Spacey's James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture from this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival. The video below is the full 45-minute speech. While I highly recommend watching in its entirety (it's well worth it), you can watch this one for 5 minutes of highlights.

My Musings

As I was listening, I couldn't help asking myself how the changes he was talking about are affecting the live arts, and more importantly, how can we respond more like Netflix and less like the network executives who insist on sticking to the old ways?

Here are my thoughts on a few of the quotes that grabbed my attention and got me thinking:

"Netflix was the only network that said, 'We believe in you'. We've run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch the series."

Musing the 1st: What is it about Netflix that led to a positive and supportive reaction to taking on the risk of two full seasons of an untested show?

First of all, Netflix isn't a network so they aren't tied to the network's usual way of doing things. Looking at the pilot system from outside the television industry, especially given the astronomical costs that Spacey outlines, it seems like a big waste of resources. One of those systems a business analyst looks at and says "There has got to be a better way!" So, when Netflix was approached by a group of creatives, with solid reputations behind them, who said that the best way for their art to thrive was to create it all at once and share it all at once, they decided to trust their expertise and take a risk with them.

Of course, they also had ample data about viewing habits for 27 million of their streaming subscribers, and folks on staff who knew how to analyze it. So, they knew going in that it was actually a pretty safe bet. For more on the how's and why's, check out David Carr's article from the New York Times.

Netflix isn't always so brilliant. Remember this epic fail
back in 2011? Image is from the linked blog.
It also struck me that this is one of the ways that technologists and artists understand each other: in both industries, big successes require big risks. Sometimes you land on something great, like the iPod or the iPhone, but sometimes  even Apple's products flop. In the world of technology, failures are an accepted part of the business plan and they're not as scared of flops as the TV network execs seem to be. As Netflix has shown, technology companies can be supportive and innovative artistic producers.

I think stronger relationships between technologists and artists can benefit the live arts too. Artists and organizations looking for commercial support should consider looking to technology companies (and techie friends!) as one of their first asks. These folks have the potential to provide technical as well as financial support (especially useful for mixed-media and live tweeted performances) and they understand intuitively that every show won't be a riveting success, meaning they will likely be one of the more stable and supportive patrons for an artistic cause.

 "The success of the Netflix model - releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once - proved one thing: the audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge like they've been doing on House of Cards and lots of other shows, we should let them binge."

Musing the 2nd: Audiences today are used to consuming media, when, where, and how they want it. Given that live arts are tied to a specific time and location, how can we give the audience more control over the experience, without sacrificing artistic vision?
A growing number of orchestras are giving their audience a say.
The Fort Wayne Phil polled its audience for a concert and
also made it a game, giving season tickets to the person who
correctly guessed the choices in a basketball-esque bracket.

Ask for audience feedback, input, and participation. For example, orchestra concerts that allow the audience to choose some of the work performed can help make classical music more accessible, engaging, and fun for audience members used to the freedom of choice provided by digital media. The choices don't need to be absolute - for me, and I'm sure a number of others who aren't intimately familiar with the genre, a choice of whatever classical piece I'd like to hear from the history of music is more overwhelming than fun. But I would love to have the opportunity to shape my experience by selecting between a number of offerings, any of which the ensemble would be happy to perform.

The obvious second question: How can the live arts let our audiences binge? How can we create binge-able, binge-worthy content? I'll admit I was a bit stuck on this one, and my wheels are still turning, but the next quote helped.

"The audience have spoken. They want stories. They're dying for them. They're rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, facebook, make fan pages, silly gifs and god knows what else about it. Engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them."

Musing the 3rd: Theatre is storytelling. Stories are one thing that we can give our audiences in spades. But after we give them an amazing performance of an engaging play with a rich story, how do we make the experience last? How do we enable our audience to continue to engage with our art after they leave?

We have to take a hint from the Emmy-Award Winning YouTube series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and create more accessible, engaging, lasting content surrounding the primary performance, and encourage the audience to get creative too.

Audience discussions after the show are great, but bringing them online allows interested audience members who couldn't attend or don't like speaking in public to participate too. In 2011, Woolly Mammoth in Washington, DC, created a blog for their production of Clybourne Park. The play, a continuation of A Raisin in the Sun, focuses on race and communities, a topic very relevant in DC where a number of neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification.  The blog posed the question “Is your neighborhood like Clybourne Park?” Then each week, WM staff wrote about a different DC community, giving residents an opportunity to comment. Creating a forum for theatre-goers to share how the performance affected them and related to them personally kept them thinking and talking about it long after the curtain closed.

Of course, you don't need a dedicated blog to start interesting discussions. When I was working on the marketing for Josephine and I at the Bush, this was our most popular tweet:

We got loads of responses and back and forth conversations with followers who were excited to talk about their icons and connect with Cush and the show on a new level. 

Finally, audience-created tie-in art should be encouraged and shared. I think that theatre frequently doesn't inspire the kind of Lizzie Bennett and House of Cards-style engagement Spacey is talking about because arts institutions frequently enforce the line between "professional" and "amateur" art. A line that is actually getting really blurry. To quote my academic advisor and Professor Brann Wry: 

"It gives lightness to our being to consider everything 'art.'"

Maybe a theatre could hold a contest to create a painting or drawing that will adorn the set of an upcoming show. Or if the production features a popular celebrity or iconic character or location, consider soliciting fan art and featuring the best selections in the lobby and the website. If an audience member likes a show enough to create a silly gif, share it and ask for more! 

After all, inspiring someone else to create is one of the highest compliments and best gifts the artistic community can share.

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