The promise of Digital Dramaturgy, via #LMDA11

13 Jul

I mentioned in a previous post on the recent dramaturgy conference that we had a formal panel this year on digital dramaturgy. LMDA has dabbled in these waters in past years, but usually in smaller break-out sessions focused on how technology can help the curation of dramaturgical materials for the cast (replacing dossiers and binders), and also for the audience via installation dramaturgy (formerly known as lobby displays). I feel like we’ve reached a tipping point in the last two years though, as more theatres turn to blogs, facebook, and twitter to communicate with audiences. (I myself a about to institute a major change in the way I teach dramaturgy so as to better incorporate new technologies.)

One of the big questions in the use of social media by theatres and dramaturgs has to do with whether the methodology is sort of spatter-pattern pasted on to current practices, or whether the company/artist wants to more fully integrate these ideas. So, what’s the value of using the digital tech in service of the art, as well as in the contextualization (or even the content) of the art?

I think in many ways this runs us right up against one of the sticky wickets of theatres and social media — that is, who’s the voice of the organization? Is it the marketing department? The dramaturg? The artistic department as a whole? The generative artists? Some other staff member? All these options have their pros and cons, but often the choice is one of convenience rather than design.  Isn’t it mostly the person who has time in their schedule, the know-how to work the technology, and the inclination to do so? Marketing departments have a big stake in consistency of voice and control over content that reaches audience members, but artistic departments probably have more to say about the genesis and background of a given play or series of productions. Then there’s the issue of getting the generative artists involved — the playwrights, directors, actors, designers, etc.  My observations tell me that at smaller companies this is easier than at the regional houses, since the small guys are more flexible and DIY in general.

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At the recent TCG conference in LA, a session with playwrights Kenneth Lin, Kristoffer Diaz, Deborah Zoe Laufer and others addressed the intersection between generative artists (in this case playwrights – no surprise) and a theatre’s community outreach/marketing via social media. I was interested in Ken & Kris’ points of view on this especially; as playwrights of color they often feel not only the need but the desire to more thoroughly interact with the work the producing company is doing to reach under-represented audiences. The trick comes with getting the theatres to feel comfortable asking for this help, and the playwrights finding ways to be of use that are time- and cost-sensitive. It seems to me that social media platforms are great avenues for this, as the playwrights don’t necessarily have to be geographically in residence to speak with their own artistic voices via the theatre company’s various platforms.

Another crucial question, it seems, is how many platforms can an audience really interact with for any given production?  And is the company making smart use of the fact that people don’t really use facebook, twitter, and company websites in the same ways or for the same reasons? I for one am driven bananas by theatres that post the same message across multiple platforms without adjusting for resonance, voice, tone, intent, and manner of use. I’d like to see theatres do some more intricate and attentive work around how their audiences really access information, and why, and then get creative with using new media platforms to address the differences.

These ideas are scattered, I realize, but the biggest take-away from this session was the belief (as articulated by Toronto dramaturg Laurel Green) that as we move forward, it is absolutely without question the dramaturg’s job to get up to date on what’s happening and what’s possible with new technologies — not only in our methods of communication and contextualization, but also in terms of how the art is made on our stages. If we pretend that all answers and opportunities are revealed only through thematic research and the endless stream of words words words, we lose.

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