Quality Character Development And World Building Is Not A Game (Actually, It Is)

If you are a person of a certain age, you may find that the love of Dungeons and Dragons you secretly harbored as a youth is finally gaining some respectability thanks to shows like Stranger Things and common interests with video gaming, anime/manga, cosplay, comic books, etc which has insured its presence at conventions across the nation.

Even if you aren’t particularly enamored of the game, as people interested in artistic and creative expressions, you might do well to pay attention to the storytelling elements of games like Dungeons and Dragons and think about how you might tap into this practice as a method of creating new work.

To be clear. I am not necessarily talking about creating new work based on fantasy settings. I am just thinking about the fact that there are a lot of people out there engaged in the process of world building and exploring what makes for an interesting story and character traits/backstory.

Right now there is an explosion of groups creating 3-4 hour videos of their gaming sessions on a weekly basis.

While I haven’t had an opportunity to evaluate them all, for me the current gold standard is Critical Role which features “a group of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons and Dragons.” What I appreciate about them is the amount of effort they put into the game. They follow the rule about showing and not telling in the process of fleshing out their character.  There is still a lot of out of character, off color commentary, but they definitely have invested themselves in their roles and upped the stakes for themselves in terms of embodying flawed rather than clearly heroic entities since they moved into a new campaign in January.

Another long lived, though intermittent group is Acquisitions, Inc which started podcasting games a decade ago. They have a “spin off” group called The C Team that videocasts session on a more regular basis.

Wizard of the Coast which owns the Dungeons and Dragons property has really been supporting this trend  with their own groups like Dice, Camera, Action. In the last month, they drew attention to other groups like UK based High Rollers; all female gaming group, Girls, Guts, Glory, and new Chicago based group Rivals of Waterdeep.

Wizards is making a pretty clear attempt to show that everyone can enjoy participating in creating stories and building worlds regardless of race, gender or geography. In the process of checking out those participating in a recent roll out event at the start of June, I discovered some members of a relatively noteworthy group who podcast their adventures lives within 20 miles of me.

It has all got me thinking about different opportunities. These might consist of checking out local groups and inviting them to present one of their gaming sessions publicly in one of our spaces.  Or as I suggested earlier, consider if there some project we could collaborate on which tapped into the world building and storytelling process.  The result could be anything from a dramatization of a local story to periodic pop up of multi-media experiences projected on the side of buildings and other structures to public art installations.

I really see this as a tool/process to involve people in a project who might not normally feel they had the capacity or permission to create and contribute.

Opt In To Learn How The Show Ends

In somewhat the same theme as the post I made last week about Tu Me Manques  which uses social media to tell the story of a relationship, I had also come across an article in May about Pirates & Mermaids, a one person show about a long distance romance that “unfolds through texts between the two main characters, shared photographs, and good old-fashioned storytelling by the fire.”

What drew me to the story wasn’t the use of social media in the show. The show doesn’t appear to rely on the availability of live Wifi like Tu Me Manques does. It was the way the production company, Poorboy, was using social media to keep connected with their audiences. In the case of Pirates & Mermaids, it was ending the show with a cliffhanger that created some incentive for providing your email to Poorboy.

After the show finishes, audience members are offered a postcard where they can share a message about the performance and share their email address with the production team. Those who opt in receive two follow-up emails from Cameron that lets them know what happens next.

It is a creative and fun way of engaging audiences beyond the performance by building the story into the marketing. Plus, it’s a smart way to build a mailing list because it encourages people to opt in to email communications by giving them something more than a marketing message that they can really to look forward to. The messages that come back from audiences give an insight into audiences’ emotional investment in the story.

One thing I should note is that they tend to do the show for small groups of people so they already generate a degree of intimacy with audiences. The postcards and emails they get in response are more often addressed to the character, Cameron, encouraging him onward rather than commenting on how well the production team did their job. They have had about 150 performances over the last six year and have an email list of 800 people which they say represents 75% of their audiences opting in to the email list.

Some quick math indicates they are performing for audiences of 7-8 people (the article says they limit site specific shows to a max of 15) so this is hardly a cynical attempt to trick people into helping them fatten their marketing database. They say their email open rates for the show are 75%-80%, which is better than the open rates for their other productions which use different social media techniques to connect with audiences.

According to the article, they do transition people from the show email list to their newsletter. The piece doesn’t really mention whether they specifically ask if people want to be included in the newsletter list or not. My guess is that since the production company is based in the UK, it will need to be very deliberate in how they handle those email addresses now that new regulations went into effect across the European Union at the end of May.

In any case, their process represents an option for engaging audiences that people might like to explore a little more deeply.

Culture Is There For Those Hostile To It, Too

Just came across Oskar Eustis’ TED Talk, “Why Theatre Is Essential To Democracy.” He talks about the how so much of the work Joe Papp did with the Public Theater was about expanding access and telling important stories that were being muted.

Eustis goes on to talk about how he has been trying to extend that mission as the current director of the Public Theater, taking shows out to the five boroughs of NYC and to NJ rather than expecting people to come to them in Manhattan.

I wrote a little about this when I covered Eustis’ keynote at the 2016 Arts Midwest conference where I wrote,

He also mentioned despite doing so many free productions in Central Park, they discovered only their prison program and the shows they trucked out to the five boroughs of NYC were the only programs that were serving a mix of people that reflected the demographics of NYC.

In his TED Talk, Eustis mentions how the curtain call statement by the cast of Hamilton  to then Vice President-elect Pence had spurred calls for boycotts of the show.

I looked at that boycott and I said, we’re getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed this boycott petition, they were never going to see “Hamilton” anyway. It was never going to come to a city near them. If it could come, they couldn’t afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket, they didn’t have the connections to get that ticket.

They weren’t boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, “Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit cultural institutions,” I’d be telling you the truth. You’d believe me. We in the culture have done exactly what the economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of the country.

With this in mind, he says next Fall the Public Theater is going to take Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, on tour to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Sweat is based on interviews Nottage conducted during visits to Reading, PA where she also helped create the multi-media, site specific production of This Is Reading that I have written about before.  (Be sure to read Margy Waller’s account of the production which I link to in both articles.)

Eustis describes Sweat as,

…about the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs.

Eustis give us a lot to think about when it comes to bridging the gap between the ideals expressed in mission statements and grant proposals and translating them into action.  He could have easily concluded boycott efforts wouldn’t hurt Hamilton ticket sales one whit, ignored the disapproval and continued on. Instead, he concluded there was an unmet need and a problem that needed to be addressed and started to put a production together to respond to them.

The approach isn’t going to be one of, “we are Broadway and we are here to illuminate your poor benighted souls,”

We’re partnering with community organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people that we’re trying to reach, but that we find ways to listen to them back and say, “The culture is here for you, too.”

“Love You, But I Would Love You More If Only…” In Public-Private Partnerships

This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.

The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.

Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.

Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.

Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.

Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.

Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.

What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.

I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.

Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.

My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.

It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.

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