What Can Tumblr Do for Theater?
Last month, I walked into Woolly Mammoth a half-hour before a showing of the hilarious political farce The Totalitarians, and my eye started twitching. Ticketholders were chit-chatting and milling around with beers in the theater’s lobby, but it didn’t look like a lobby. It looked like a campaign office—half-drunk Red Bull cans, slogan brainstorming sessions, clipboards and voter rolls and passive-aggressive emails and all—and I was having traumatic flashbacks to a college summer vacation spent working on the sinking re-election bid of a New Hampshire congresswoman. By the time the theater doors opened and I found my seat, I was already deep in the frazzled, incestuous haze of a political campaign—a perfect mood for the show I was about to see.
Open up a program at any given play and, if you’re lucky, you might find a statement from the dramaturg. It’s an analysis of the research that informed the production, a primer on the play’s historic and social context, meant to deepen the audience members’ understanding of what they see. Woolly Mammoth is taking that impulse a step further. In addition to physical installations at the theater this season (and, in the case of The Totalitarians, a full campaign website), the company’s offered a window into its dramaturgy with Tumblr-hosted “scrapbooks” for many of its shows, including Arguendo, Detroit, and Appropriate.
The scrapbook for Woolly’s current production, Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man take on the life of Rodney King, includes news clippings from recent reports of police brutality, a timeline of the 1992 L.A. riots, a collection of documents used by the jury that acquitted the officers who beat King, and a video of King’s oft-quoted “Can we all just get along?” address.
“We’re…using it as a place to collect and share news media about events that relate to the themes of the plays and pieces, so it is an interesting mix,” says Woolly’s communication coordinator, Michael Love, who manages the Tumblr. “This way, our patrons can make personal connections to the themes in the show, based on their own interests.” This isn't the first time Woolly's tried to bring conversations about its programming onto social media: In 2012, the theater chose three theater enthusiasts to live-tweet a few rehearsals of Civilization (all you can eat), drawing criticism from playwright.
The elements of the Tumblr scrapbook add up to a familiar media narrative around Rodney King (and race, and masculinity, and police violence). It may not tell us much about King as a person, but that’s part of the point: To deconstruct King’s mythology, and Smith’s piece, we need to understand his place in popular American history. Smith himself did most of his research for the show on the Web, studying his subject from the outside in. “Rodney King was an invention of the media. He was held up as a political symbol,” he says. “I think my task is to reveal the man within the symbol.”
Woolly’s foray into Tumblr might have an upshot beyond transparent dramaturgy. Tumblr’s users are notably young, and often, theatergoers in this town are not. When I saw a staging of The Admission at Studio Theatre on a Friday night in May, my partner and I, both in our mid-to-late 20s, looked to be the youngest ones there by at least a decade. That play, co-produced by Busboys and Poets and Theater J, tackled Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, a painful grappling with history that might have been best served to a rising generation of citizens and leaders. And when I left, even after the post-show Q&A, I wanted more. I spent the rest of the night poking around the results of a Google search for Tantura, a Palestinian fishing village where an alleged massacre took place in 1948, which inspired The Admission’s central conflict. Had the production team Tumbled, I certainly would have followed along.
A social media account might not be enough to hook a young, hyperconnected generation (I’m avoiding the word that starts with “m” and rhymes with “perennial”) on theater, but it’s a perfect example of an organization meeting potential patrons where they’re at in an authentic, meaningful way. And for a story like Rodney King’s, which is fraught with complex issues that can’t be fully fleshed out in 90 minutes, an accessible collection of source material can make the difference between a passive, applauding audience and an informed, galvanized one. May more theaters Tumbl away, I say.
Photo by Patti McGuire
This post has been updated to clarify that the production of The Admission at Studio Theatre was produced by Busboys and Poets and Theater J.