Now, some of you who know me as a scholar know that one of my major research interests is the entrepreneurial imperative of the American artist, or, in more plain English: the business of being an artist. A great deal of the business end of things is now happening online.
What follows are some (very) loosely organized thoughts on the relationships between the theatre community and the internet. (I may expand on specific segments of this post at a later date.)
Many theatre artists have personal websites these days. Artists as a rule have a strong interest in developing their personal brand. These websites serve multiple purposes. I would say their their most important function is as a B2B (Business to Business) marketing tool. An audience member might look up the website of an actor whose performance they enjoyed to learn more about them, but that will not get said actor work. The content of that website is really geared towards those who make casting and staffing decisions. This is different from the website of a theatre or of a specific production, which would be aimed more at potential ticket buyers or possible backers. The theatre may link to an individual artist's website as an easy source of more information on that artist's contribution for an audience member, but at that moment their participation in the project is already secured.
I've given guest lectures and research presentations on the actor's headshot as a B2B marketing tool, and that interest has expanded into how all these elements operate in the Information Age. I am mostly concerned with theatre, though it's important to realize that in many markets there is a significant overlap between those artists and technicians who work in theatre and those who work in film or other media. The main difference in the products is that live theatre is an immediate and ephemeral commodity, meaning that audiences pay to experience an event that cannot be recreated, while film production yields a fixed independently existing product that can be experienced (and redistributed) over and over. The place of the internet in an artistic community that creates an ephemeral product is multifaceted: it is an instrument that enables both commerce and conversation. I would argue also that these two things are linked.
Last year I discovered a podcast based course on internet marketing and got myself this certification while commuting to and from various rehearsals:
Admittedly, this does not make me anything resembling an expert, but it did give me a lot to think about (for the record, I found the program very worthwhile). Much of the current thought on internet marketing these days is about the community surrounding certain products. There is a theory that any social media presence of a business entity should divide its attention somewhere along the lines of 80/20, with 80% of their content being about other relevant material and only 20% being about their own products. As commerce and conversation are linked, this should be very easy in artistic communities.
Most artists and technicians work for several companies in any given year, in a community like Boston, a theatregoer or critic might see an actor at The Huntington or New Rep one month and Whistler in the Dark or Zeitgeist Stage the next. As it's imperative for theatre artists to see theatre, we keep seeing the work of our friends and collaborators. And we discuss them. On the internet. Like everyone else. And our twitter feeds exist as sources of information for both for our colleagues and our audiences. And talking/tweeting about what's going on in the community is part and parcel of the current age. What's new is that much of our shoptalk is now public. ("Public" may be an odd word, as there is only so much attention anything might get.) The nice thing is that social media allows companies to be public about their support for each other. One of the things I love about Whistler in the Dark is how supportive it is of the entire community, "a rising tide raises all ships" and so on (we all know that I am an Artistic Associate of that organization, so I admit my positive bias openly.) I can say the same of Israeli Stage, as their feeds always include information and reactions to events happening all over Boston. On a national/global scale, there are sites like HowlRound and 2AMt, that effectively serve as clearinghouses of ideas and ongoing discussions. Much of this is us talking to ourselves, but these conversations do help us get to know each other as artists in ways that were impossible just a few years ago.
Arts criticism is an important part of the conversation as well, as it is primarily addressed to the ticket buying public when written, but afterwards becomes part of the archive and outlasts the thing which it records. Thomas Garvey's The Hub Review for instance, provides a smart (and often controversial) cross-section and commentary of whatever is going on in the arts at any given time. In the age of Google & Bing, online reviews become part of an artist's online portfolio (for good or ill). It is now possible, or even likely in the case of a blogger with a large following, for more people to read a review of a show years after it closed, than to have actually seen it. In the case of major landmark productions, this is a given (as a historian, this is pretty handy). But now this sort of coverage is a possibility for any production attended by someone with access to the web.
Speaking more directly to commerce: the marketing and distribution of play scripts has changed drastically. Speaking just for myself, by 10-minute play, After the Hill, has been performed around the country since being published and licensed by YouthPLAYS.com. My documentary drama, Bystander 9/11, has also reached a far wider audience than it would have if I had to market it on my own. The pioneers of this model of course, are the good folks at Playscripts, Inc. I know many playwrights who list their available plays on their own websites (and have been toying with doing the same). Somewhere down the line I hope to do some in depth research on the specific phenomenon of online dramatic publishing as I know it has changed the landscape for many playwrights.
In the world of stage combat, I know that my friends at Preferred Arms and Gotham Armory get a fair amount of business off of the web. As a fight director, it's a great convenience to just send their links to producers I'm working with for specific weapon requests. (We're actually using a great piece from Preferred Arms for the Whistler in the Dark production of Fen that's about to open.)
There are of course, theatrical events that are designed to be accessed via the internet. I am sure that more people have seen my Gi60 plays on YouTube than have seen them live, and I myself have only had the chance to see one of them in person. There is a fair amount of critical theory out there about the internet broadcasting live performance (Terri Sneft is one of the authorities on the subject for those of you who are specifically interested in this), but I am not sure how many people have looked closely at the business side of this. It is possible to monetize a YouTube account these days, but I don't know how many theatre companies use this as a stream of income. There is also the phenomenon of the internet trailer (the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company have made some amazing ones), which now outlast the shows that they promote.
One day I'd like to teach a course on the ethnography of internet and theatre commerce. Ideally with a business professor. More on that when I actually get that to materialize.