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New Media as Community Theater—All the World’s a Stage

I am a total sucker for community theater, especially musical theater. What I love isn’t so much the corny show tunes or the predictable story lines, but the players’ infectious energy for taking risks. I was reminded of this a few weekends ago when I went to see a local production of Godspell.

Because I have an artsy teenager who does tech crew, I’ve sat through lots of high school musicals over the past few years. I always come away shining with true admiration for the kids on stage. As we all know, adolescence is really tough. There’s probably no time in your life when you are more prone to self-doubt and insecurity, and there’s no time (at least for boys) when your voice performs less than predictably. It’s easier to blend in with the crowd than to call attention to yourself. It’s easier to not set yourself apart.

Godspell featured kids and adults, but most of the lead roles were played by grownups. Some of them I knew casually from town: Our kids once went to preschool together, or were on the same soccer team, or whatever. Suddenly, up on stage, I thought I recognized a woman I was surprised to see there. She was swaying her hips and belting out “Save the People” with surprising gusto, and I realized with a small shock that I knew her, too.

Actually, I didn’t really know her—but we had both been spectators at our daughters’ softball games one summer a few years ago. To be honest, I never really had much to say to her, and she didn’t have much to say to anyone else, either. She always seemed a little… tense. Conversation between us was always stilted and quickly settled into silence; then we would spend the rest of the game focused on, well… the game: squinting into the setting sun at our own girls at bat, slapping mosquitoes as dusk settled, until it was time to go.

So watching her there on stage, I couldn’t help but marvel at this whole other side to her: fully mic’d, belting out a tune up from her toes; boogying and swinging her hips so convincingly that she could have given the flirty Mary Magdalene a run for her money. In other words, I came away feeling like I knew her a little better. I caught a glimpse of something she hadn’t revealed before.

I was impressed with her willingness to put herself out there, to look a little foolish, to be—like the teenagers—a little vulnerable. It’s easier to blend in with the crowd than to call attention to yourself. It’s easier to not set yourself apart. And yet, here she was—setting herself apart.

Her performance was far from perfect—in truth, her voice faltered and she sometimes stood as awkward on the stage as on the sidelines of the softball field, unsure of where to place her hands. But who cared?

A year or so ago, I heard an interview with Dave Winer, who spoke, among other things, about the nature of so-called amateurs. Dave, who played a lead role in developing many digital tools like podcasting and RSS feeds, said: “Amateur is not below professional. It’s just another way of doing [media]. The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur….

“If you’re an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else.”

In that interview, Winer was talking about traditional journalists versus more grassroots media—like citizen journalists or bloggers. But you could also apply his words more broadly to writers who pen blogs or create other kinds of digital media.

Here’s why I fully embrace the digital revolution, and all of the user-generated STUFF it spawns:

1. Folks who previously didn’t have voice—or, more specifically, a platform—now do. In other words, like the community theater players, all kinds of people have a stage, if they want one. The “unbundling of all sources,” as Dave calls it, has given voice to lots of folks previously shut out of the conversation.

“They are not all gadflies or flaky—some of them are scientists, economists, professors, ex-captains in the Air Force,” Winer says. “They can be knowledgeable people, and you have to figure out how to qualify them, but they are now making themselves known.”

2. Those who do climb up on the stage reveal themselves at a more fundamental level. Just like my acquaintance who risked showing a sassier, freer, funner side… bloggers can’t help but reveal themselves to their audiences. Fake bloggers don’t resonate. If you read a blog long enough, you get a clear sense of the character of the individual behind it. Blogs are honest in a way that professionals aren’t.

There are those who are freaked out by amateurs on the airwaves. Some argue that things like blogs and social networking are, at best, self-indulgent rubbish and, at worst, an assault on our culture and our values.

It’s not a perfect new media world, of course. There’s lots I like about the connectivity and access, and lots I don’t. It places a great onus on all of us, and challenges us to study up for a higher reading level in media literacy. There’s a crazy-high “signal to noise” ratio—lots of people yammering, but not saying anything substantive. The pundits say we need better yardsticks for authority and trust.

All legitimate issues. All great points. And yet I wouldn’t change a thing. The band long ago struck the first note. And it can’t be un-played.

Total Annarchy

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31 Responses to New Media as Community Theater—All the World’s a Stage

  1. Nice metaphor, Ann.

    And it takes me back to life in a New England town where you actually see people outside of their usual context…

  2. Nice metaphor, Ann.

    And it takes me back to life in a New England town where you actually see people outside of their usual context…

  3. Mack Collier says:

    “1. Folks who previously didn’t have voice—or, more specifically, a platform—now do.”

    This is exactly what I love about blogging, and I NEVER think they’ll be too many voices or too much noise.

    Two years ago almost no one knew who David Armano was in the blogosphere. Now he’s a total A-Lister. I never want us to get to the point where the next Armano thinks that there’s no use in him or her starting blogging, that they could never stand out and develop an audience.

  4. Mack Collier says:

    “1. Folks who previously didn’t have voice—or, more specifically, a platform—now do.”

    This is exactly what I love about blogging, and I NEVER think they’ll be too many voices or too much noise.

    Two years ago almost no one knew who David Armano was in the blogosphere. Now he’s a total A-Lister. I never want us to get to the point where the next Armano thinks that there’s no use in him or her starting blogging, that they could never stand out and develop an audience.

  5. Toad says:

    So if this was American Idol, you’d be Paula ;)

    I think the one thing all the naysayers forget is that most people don’t want a voice. They don’t want to blog or post videos or even voice their thoughts on Twitter.

    But for those few who do, the new media landscape offers a real opportunity. It allows those who might have been denied a voice due to their lack of prominence or opportunity to establish themselves as a result of their work. Be they bloggers or filmmakers or singers.

    And I have to think that’s a response to our being fed up with the current “experts,” with feeling that the media was too easily manipulated, that the entertainment industry wasn’t giving us anything interesting, etc.

    Because dissatisfaction with the status quo is at the heart of any revolution.

  6. Toad says:

    So if this was American Idol, you’d be Paula ;)

    I think the one thing all the naysayers forget is that most people don’t want a voice. They don’t want to blog or post videos or even voice their thoughts on Twitter.

    But for those few who do, the new media landscape offers a real opportunity. It allows those who might have been denied a voice due to their lack of prominence or opportunity to establish themselves as a result of their work. Be they bloggers or filmmakers or singers.

    And I have to think that’s a response to our being fed up with the current “experts,” with feeling that the media was too easily manipulated, that the entertainment industry wasn’t giving us anything interesting, etc.

    Because dissatisfaction with the status quo is at the heart of any revolution.

  7. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks, guys. And Mack — I love the fact that nobodies can be somebodies. I love the fact that everyone CAN be a Who.. if they want… or at least they can give it a shot. I love the leveling of the field.

    And Toad — As I told you, you so nailed me with that first line….. do you know, I *almost* didn’t bother to publish this because I felt like I sounded like an effin New Media cheerleader… !! That’ll teach me….

  8. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks, guys. And Mack — I love the fact that nobodies can be somebodies. I love the fact that everyone CAN be a Who.. if they want… or at least they can give it a shot. I love the leveling of the field.

    And Toad — As I told you, you so nailed me with that first line….. do you know, I *almost* didn’t bother to publish this because I felt like I sounded like an effin New Media cheerleader… !! That’ll teach me….

  9. And it’s not just blogs – or text-based ones – of course. With the continued surging popularity of video and cool services like qik.com the platform, voice, and opening up all get taken to a whole new level.

    Then I think about things like CNN’s iReport and the platforms such things open up for “the rest of us” and things start to really blow up…

  10. And it’s not just blogs – or text-based ones – of course. With the continued surging popularity of video and cool services like qik.com the platform, voice, and opening up all get taken to a whole new level.

    Then I think about things like CNN’s iReport and the platforms such things open up for “the rest of us” and things start to really blow up…

  11. Pingback: New Media and community theater: Parallels | New Tech Heroes

  12. Tom Kephart says:

    Thanks, Ann! Outstanding post.
    I’m a community theater actor, tech and director as well as a blogger. Actually, I’d never considered the parallels you describe, but I see where you’re coming from here.
    It isn’t about amateurs versus professionals to me. It’s about the opportunity to participate in a world where those opportunities were often limited to those who had access to the necessary technology.
    Exciting stuff….

  13. Tom Kephart says:

    Thanks, Ann! Outstanding post.
    I’m a community theater actor, tech and director as well as a blogger. Actually, I’d never considered the parallels you describe, but I see where you’re coming from here.
    It isn’t about amateurs versus professionals to me. It’s about the opportunity to participate in a world where those opportunities were often limited to those who had access to the necessary technology.
    Exciting stuff….

  14. Ann Handley says:

    Nicholas — Exactly. Even small, portable tools and gadgets help — like the Flip “soccer mom” video camera.

    Tom — Thanks for your two pesos. Of course, I couldn’t agree more….it’s all about opportunity, if you want it. That’s a huge shift from the way it used to be — where platforms were controlled and therefore only accessible to a few.

  15. Ann Handley says:

    Nicholas — Exactly. Even small, portable tools and gadgets help — like the Flip “soccer mom” video camera.

    Tom — Thanks for your two pesos. Of course, I couldn’t agree more….it’s all about opportunity, if you want it. That’s a huge shift from the way it used to be — where platforms were controlled and therefore only accessible to a few.

  16. Chris Laning says:

    Ann,

    As a podcaster ON community theatre, the parallels you draw could not hit any closer to home. I am ashamed that I never drew this conclusion myself. Great insight. The podcast gives me voice to a certain extent, but also allows me to give back to the art I have so long enjoyed by giving voice to others involved in it.

    In fact, I would love to have you come on the show sometime and share your observations with those in community theatre…it just may help some of them understand new media better and how they too might apply it. Just shoot me an email if you be interested in that.

    Thank again.

    Chris Laning, Co-Host
    “Your Neighborhood Stage” national Community Theatre podcast
    http://www.NeighborhoodStage.com

  17. Chris Laning says:

    Ann,

    As a podcaster ON community theatre, the parallels you draw could not hit any closer to home. I am ashamed that I never drew this conclusion myself. Great insight. The podcast gives me voice to a certain extent, but also allows me to give back to the art I have so long enjoyed by giving voice to others involved in it.

    In fact, I would love to have you come on the show sometime and share your observations with those in community theatre…it just may help some of them understand new media better and how they too might apply it. Just shoot me an email if you be interested in that.

    Thank again.

    Chris Laning, Co-Host
    “Your Neighborhood Stage” national Community Theatre podcast
    http://www.NeighborhoodStage.com

  18. “If you read a blog long enough, you get a clear sense of the character of the individual behind it. Blogs are honest in a way that professionals aren’t.” This is what I love about participating in the blogosphere, the personal voice I get from each blogger when I read them.

    I love to sing, and when I am up on stage as a singer, I do reveal a different side of myself. I think blogging and social media can help others reveal the hidden gems they have to share with the world. We all have value and something to share that at least one other person (or perhaps many!) will find helpful.

    Thanks for the thought, Ann!

  19. “If you read a blog long enough, you get a clear sense of the character of the individual behind it. Blogs are honest in a way that professionals aren’t.” This is what I love about participating in the blogosphere, the personal voice I get from each blogger when I read them.

    I love to sing, and when I am up on stage as a singer, I do reveal a different side of myself. I think blogging and social media can help others reveal the hidden gems they have to share with the world. We all have value and something to share that at least one other person (or perhaps many!) will find helpful.

    Thanks for the thought, Ann!

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  22. Vera D. says:

    Talking about the world is a stage and especially point 1, the real question I have is what is the commission percentage taken out of sales over on http://www.buyoutsidethebox.com and why is this not clearly and openly stated?

  23. Vera D. says:

    Talking about the world is a stage and especially point 1, the real question I have is what is the commission percentage taken out of sales over on http://www.buyoutsidethebox.com and why is this not clearly and openly stated?

  24. Sean Howard says:

    What an amazing post, Ann!

    I love how you expose your own deep dark secret (love of community theatre) and tie it into the passion that drives us.

    But we expect brilliantly written works from you. What I didn’t expect was the range of new voices in your comments and trackbacks. So cool!!!

  25. Sean Howard says:

    What an amazing post, Ann!

    I love how you expose your own deep dark secret (love of community theatre) and tie it into the passion that drives us.

    But we expect brilliantly written works from you. What I didn’t expect was the range of new voices in your comments and trackbacks. So cool!!!

  26. Ann – managing three blogs, a facebook account, and being president of our local community theatre – I absolutely LOVED this post. Great observations, as always.

  27. Ann – managing three blogs, a facebook account, and being president of our local community theatre – I absolutely LOVED this post. Great observations, as always.

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