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.

Hello, I Am Thespis-App, I Will Be Narrating Your Play Tonight

Amid the whole debate about whether cell phones are appropriate in the theater are some indications that creative folks are going to be using the technology to drive narrative.

FastCompany came out with their 100 Most Creative People in Business list. Whenever something like that comes out, I always want to see if anyone from the arts and culture sector got included.

Indeed, there are some great stories about: Flocabulary which is using hip-hop to teach kids everything from history to math and science; Keir Winesmith who is using technology to deliver content of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, including to your cell phone anywhere in the world; Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the apocalypse (Westworld and Handmaid’s Tale, among others); and Hannah Beachler, production designer for movies Black Panther, Moonlight and Creed.

But it is the work of playwright and filmmaker Rodrigo Bellott I am referencing when I talk about productions which use social media and cell phones to drive narrative.

Bellott is now revolutionizing theater. His 2015 play, Tu Me Manques, about the suicide of his closeted lover, includes a live hourlong Skype conversation, projected on multiple screens, and live Facebook messaging. He was told by Broadway producers that it couldn’t be done; the possibility of losing Wi-Fi connection made it too risky. So he produced it in Bolivia, a country with what he calls “the worst WiFi in the world.” The sensational result (the biggest box office in a decade) encouraged hundreds of young Bolivians to come out, in a country not known for its LGBTQ rights. Now, Tu Me Manques is not only moving to Broadway in early 2019, it is a film, debuting at numerous film festivals this summer and fall.

Bellott is currently producing a play, a murder mystery, that will use a cell phone app as narrator.

I found a video (below) of Tu Me Manques which illustrates the Skype call and Facebook messaging. One interesting thing about the Bolivia production which was mentioned on FastCompany’s summary of the 100 Creatives was that Bellott had to use cellphone jammers to keep their signals from interfering with his Wifi. I wondered if that would be the case for the Broadway show or if the standards and strength of Wifi and cell phones signals would be distinct enough to make it successful.

It will be worthwhile to observe how he pulls off the cellphone app as a narrator for his next show. The murder mystery format seems conducive to any number of approaches.

Chatbot As Assistant Grant Writer

When I first saw this piece on Arts Professional about data driven decision making, I thought maybe the author, Patrick Towell, was cribbing Drew McManus and Ceci Dadisman’s recent conference session on the same topic.

He even referenced the gut trusting HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion/in Office).

I might have only had myself to blame having brought attention to it with my inspiring post on the subject.

But Towell quickly moves away from that subject to address a pretty significant barrier to using data to drive decisions–people’s comfort levels accessing, interpreting and using the data.

Towell cites respondents to a survey of people working in cultural organizations in the UK:

Some of those respondents work in an organisational culture that doesn’t embrace the use of data: “Data gets bad PR. The greatest barrier to usage is lack of fluency and comfort with data as a medium to tell stories.” For others it was systems being difficult to access and join up: “We can’t effectively understand or engage with our audience without tools to collate, analyse and use our audience data.”

Despite this discomfort, many respondents were eager to use data to support their activities:

Interestingly, many did consider its use in artistic and cultural programming: “Data could be used to inform our programming schedule, driving more revenue.” Audience development was an area where people saw a clear benefit: “Our visitor and sales forecasting is based in fairyland – better datasets and data analysis could be more realistic.” People also thought they could better justify the use of public money through more defensible evidence.

What Towell says his company has done is started to prototype a chatbot that will “sit over your data” as a “kind of Alexa for cultural managers” and help a wider range of people in an organization feel comfortable accessing it. The example they use in the screenshot of the prototype queries the chatbot about how many new members visited shows in December.

If they can get this to work, it would be awesome. If you were able to feed budget numbers into it so just about anyone could ask about revenue and expenses for different combinations of projects, it would make completing grant reports so much easier. Especially if it potentially spread to onus of completing reports around the organization.

The biggest hurdle I see is that funding organizations have such diverse definitions and conditions associated with their reporting, programming a bot AI to keep it all straight might be cost prohibitive.

Still, it is a pretty intriguing idea. Some time in the last couple weeks I saw someone mention they were visiting the websites of arts and culture organizations to see how many used chatbots to facilitate the sale of tickets. (Things like, “when are Thursday performances of Hamlet in June and July?”). The value of chatbots for public facing interactions is rather obvious, but I suspect few people have considered their utility for internal information sharing.

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.”

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