As a critic, I’m sometimes in the business of prediction: who is going to win what award, what production is going to sell well, what company is going to have the best season coming up.
And if I’m putting on my predictive cap, I’m going to say that [email protected], a new app developed by the Black Women’s Playwright Group (BWPG) and their president Karen L. B. Evans, may be the biggest technological game-changer that I have seen for theater in the 21st century.
[email protected] provides an SMS platform of dramatic writing for playwrights and audience members to set up, react, and interact with theatrical productions in a powerful and moving way. Karen is an accomplished playwright, produced locally at Theater J and Metrostage, but she’s also the head of BWPG’s Cyber Narrative Project, and I talked with her about the origins of this app and it’s huge potential.
Alan Katz: How did you get started on this app project?
Karen L. B. Evans: This project began as part of our Cyber-Narrative Project, which started in 2008. That year we had the first gathering of women of color who write drama in Chicago. It was a beautiful meeting with great names like Lynn Nottage, the Corthron Sisters and Lydia Diamond alongside women who were writing their first play.
We asked these women, “How can we help?” One of the areas that they expressed interest in was the digital frontier. We want in on the ground floor because this is going to give us opportunities that theater, in the way that it is currently structured, is not going to give us.
After talking with my mentor, Joe Melillo (the Artistic Director of BAM), the BWPG decided to pursue it by beginning the Cyber-Narrative Project. The model is to partner with universities, playwrights and theaters to create online content for theatrical productions.
We’ve had some good successes. We partnered with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center to create a website for Lynn Nottage’s world premiere of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and a video game for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Woolly Mammoth. And now we have this app, which grew out of working with the Hi-Arts Theater Festival (nee Hip Hop Theater Festival) and Chinaka Haj’s play about the shooting of Oscar Grant (an event dramatized in the film Fruitvale). We wanted to accompany the play with a method for people to write scenes on the subway (where Grant was murdered) so they could interact with the play. It was then we realized that this app had the potential to work with any theater production and enhance the experience of theater users.
So what exactly does the app do?
KE: [email protected] broadcasts 12-line dramatic scenes to your phone or tablet every weekday at 12 noon. You can comment on and share those scenes and, the most fun part, write scenes of your own scene in response. These scenes are self-contained, you’ll always understand what’s going on in that scene without any context. You can live 300 miles from the closest theater and still get these stories on your phone. Those [email protected] scenes can interact with the theater going on around you. So if your local theater uses [email protected] for audience interaction, you can receive 12 line scenes that set up the performance you’re going to see next like a trailer or expand the story after you see the play. Now, these stories are temporary. They don’t stack up on your phone; they have a 24 hour life. Very temporal, just like theater. You’ve got to show up. Just like theater.
Is it the same story that goes out to everyone?
KE: Because we’re in prototype, yes. We’ve got one channel for now. We’re going to be starting out with Marisela Orto’s The River Bride at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and so everyone will be getting scenes written by her for that play right now.
I hear you are raising funds for the app.
BWPG has launched an Indiegogo campaign to develop the final version of the app.
The prototype was funded by the Joyce and Ford Foundations. The Indiegogo campaign has several theaters sponsors. The lead sponsor is Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Other theater sponsors include Studio Theatre, Washington, DC, BAM, New York, NY, and 651 Arts, New York, NY. They are sharing news of the campaign with their patrons and donating tickets as perks for the campaign.
What about in the future? As we say in play development, what does the Broadway version of this look like?
KE: This is the fun part but we haven’t figured it out completely. Right now, I envision a user opening the app and seeing a list of plays across the country. They say to themselves, “Oh, I want to do Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.” Then they’ll push a button and get a week of scenes from that production. Or say, “I want to see Berkeley Rep’s production” so they could select by theater. Or “Ooo, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined! I love that play. Let me get a week of scenes from her to be broadcast to my phone.”
So, I envision a user being able to choose from a list of current productions or plays or playwrights that aren’t even playing now, but are important and loved. What I love about this app is that it fosters a love of words. It dodges the problem that ebooks have of being long and difficult to read on screens. These are short, punchy, easily consumable, and you can look forward to the next one.
You’re not going to get fully fleshed out characters, but isn’t there a lot of emotional distance that can be covered in just 12 lines?
KE:Yes! And that’s been a surprising part of my journey in developing this app. We have this 12 line play called “No Contest” and the playwright sets up her entire play in those 12 lines: the relationship between the main characters, the backstory, and how the story will go forward as well. 122 lines! Wow!
With the origins of 12 @12NOON in this play about the murder of Oscar Grant, it makes me think of how Twitter and other social media platforms have been tools for the advancement of social justice. What’s the potential for [email protected] along those lines?
KE: I think it could be electric. That’s a dream on my part: to get this up and get it reacting to what’s going on with the people around you and in your city or your neighborhood by writing a scene about it. There’s this play production out of Kansas, Justice in Embers by Michelle T. Johnson, a ripped-from-the-headlines play about an explosion that killed 6 firefighters there. This is what I’m talking about. This app can let people participate in a concrete way in productions like that. Writing more. Writing their part of the story. Writing to stay involved.
I love that this app has been made by women of color. Can you talk about how that has affected its development?
While BWPG has developed it and our demographic is women of color, it’s for everybody. Once it is public, it’s public, and it will take its own shape and form, so people can participate regardless of their gender or color. But it is fun to get a leg up. To be in at the start of something because it is something that we’ve made, that we’ve created.
And I certainly have gotten this response of, “Who do you think you are?” from people who think it is outrageous that a woman of color would want to create this app. For theater, women of color represent less than 2% of productions across the country. So, for me, this offers an opportunity for women of color to be produced, albeit in a slightly different setting, but still gather an audience. That’s important to me because they’re such wonderful playwrights. The fact that there are so many beautiful words left unread and unseen is just heartbreaking to me.
One of the things I love about this app is that it can act as a discovery tool for people who may live in a place where women of color or other underrepresented voices aren’t being produced this app can be a place for those voices to be heard.
And they can see some of their own life. We’ve heard the standard things about theater: it’s old, it’s dying, it’s not diverse enough. However true or not true those things are, this app provides a platform to get everybody’s stories out there for everyone.