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Posted on March 18, 2020
France-Luce Benson brings people together. As our Community Engagement Coordinator, she connects folks with the Fountain, and groups with each other. How can we stay engaged from our homes?
“Social distance” doesn’t mean social media distance.
Let’s stay connected on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. We will soon be sharing with you new ways we can stay engaged as we walk through this period together.
We want to hear from you. You can email France-Luce at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on December 5, 2017
By Lauren Gunderson
Think of this pitch to a room of venture capitalists: “What we’re proposing is a scalable, repeatable product that makes vital intellectual and emotional wisdom portable, communicable, and adaptable and memorable. Everyone will use it and keep using it for millennia. We call it: storytelling.”
Posted on December 1, 2014
The social responsibility of art
by A. O. Scott
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.
For the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied — sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread and active despair — by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, the collapse of the middle class, Thomas Piketty, Janet Yellen and the gross domestic product in China, India and Brazil. Closer to home, I’m grateful for my luck and worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.
Strictly speaking, none of this has much to do with my designated area of professional expertise, which could reasonably be defined as writing about the stuff that people seek out to escape such worries and anxieties. Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.
But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts. What I’m grandly and abstractly calling “works of art” are more concretely and prosaically books, songs, movies, plays, television series, environmental installations, paintings, operas and anything else that falls into the bin of consumer goods marked “Culture.” These goods are bought and sold, whether as physical objects, ephemeral real-time experiences or digital artifacts. Their making requires labor, capital and a market for distribution. The money might come from foundations, Kickstarter campaigns or retail sales or advertising revenue. The commerce between artist and public is brokered by the traditional culture industry (publishing houses, television networks, record labels and movie studios) and also by disruptive upstarts like Amazon, Netflix, Google and iTunes. But the whole system, from top to bottom, from the Metropolitan Opera House to the busker in the subway station below it, is inescapably part of the capitalist economy.
And that economy, in turn, provides an endless stream of subject matter. Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake. All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. The history of European painting from the Renaissance to World War I is, in large measure, the history of power, wealth and social status. In the 20th century, film, theater and television tell the same story, as comedy, tragedy, thriller and farce. Class consciousness in Depression-era Hollywood ranged from tuxedoed and mink-coated swells in Manhattan penthouses to strikers on the picket line. Postwar Broadway was the kingdom of Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski, and as television became a fixture of middle-class homes, it chronicled the struggles and aspirations of families — the Kramdens, the Conners, the Jeffersons, the Simpsons — trying to achieve or maintain middle-class status.
And now? Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas? At a movie like “Snowpiercer,” which imagines a train speeding across a frozen, apocalyptic landscape as a microcosm of global inequality? At a television series like “Black-ish,” which illuminates the contradictions of upward mobility in a decidedly non-post-racial America? Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. In the past year and a half, I’ve written about how movies like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain” and “Spring Breakers” reflect our ambivalence about wealth and materialism; about how Leonardo DiCaprio has become the movie-star embodiment of that ambivalence; about the gentrification of Brooklyn and the eclipse of middlebrow taste; about the contradictory status of creative labor and the state of the working class as depicted in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
But I want to go further. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes. So I decided to ask them.
This fall I sent out a plea, accompanied by a questionnaire. My intention was to conduct a bit of unscientific research, and also to advance a discussion about what art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis, which at once resembles earlier such moments and has its own particular character. My questions were simple and far from new. The social responsibility of art has been a topic for debate since the ancients. But the answers that came back — from playwrights, filmmakers, rappers, poets and storytellers who have directly confronted these issues — testify to the complexity and the urgency of the issue. These thoughts — largely shared by email, and edited and condensed for space here — convey the sense of a conversation that is going on wherever audiences and creators grapple with the relationship between art and the world. It is my hope that what these artists have to say will provoke reactions from other artists and from readers, viewers and listeners.
Here is the panel discussion with artists on how they address social issues.
Posted on February 27, 2014
by Jonathan Mandell
“How do you make the magic?” students from a middle school in the Bronx asked after seeing their first Broadway show. Their attendance was an outgrowth of a conference Monday at TEDxBroadway 2014.
TED, which started as a conference thirty years ago and has expanded into something of a movement, stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design.” The dozen and a half people who spoke or entertained (or did both) at the third annual TEDxBroadway included representatives of all three fields—from well-known theater artists such as director Diane Paulus and composer Bobby Lopez, to tech or design oriented visionaries whom, one sensed, hadn’t been to a play since they were kids.
For all the sophistication of the presentations, all the speakers on the stage at New World Stages were addressing, in different ways – directly or by analogy, accessibly or obscurely—the simple question that the students asked after their first Broadway show: How do you make the magic of theater?
1. The theater experience should not just occur on the stage
“What is the theater experience?” asked director Diane Paulus, the first speaker. Too many people think of it as just the show on the stage—“You go inside, you arrive with friends, but once it starts you’re not allowed to talk to one another. You’re either deeply moved or you’re bored, but when the experience is over, you’re asked to leave.”
But the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University asked us to consider the history of theater to realize how much more theater can be—and should be. Greek theater, she said, was more like American Idol than it was like the theater we know today, taking place at competitive festivals. It was also engaged in the “civic, religious, social and political” life of the times.
The nineteenth-century opera house was a beautiful environment, much like our Broadway houses, but part of the reason why people went was to be seen. They dressed up; that was part of the experience.
Dan Gurney offered similar advice in a completely different way. A self-described “six-time United States Champion on the button accordion,” he played a tune for the audience, before describing his business, Concert Window, which enables musicians to record their music using only a laptop, and to make money by showing the resulting video online. Neither Gurney nor his business has any apparent connection to the theater, but his remarks included suggestions on ways for theater and theater performers to engage audiences online before and after the show— building “new digital native experiences” such as an “interactive video chat with the show’s director.”
Gurney seemed unaware of the regular live-streaming of theatrical performances by National Live and others, but he did say: “A venue has four walls, but that doesn’t mean that your whole audience has to fit inside them.”
2. Embrace your audience in innovative ways
Paulus took us on a whirlwind journey through recent shows, many of them her own, that illustrated ways of extending the theater experience by engaging audiences.
For the 2011 musical Prometheus Bound, a political protest play “inspired” (in the words of the blurb for the show) “by Aeschylus’s Ancient Greek tragedy about the heroic struggle of Western civilization’s first prisoner of conscience,” A.R.T. partnered with Amnesty International. “After the show, people stayed and had a chance to talk with Amnesty International volunteers.”
For the Broadway revival of Hair that Paulus directed, she insisted that the audience be allowed on stage, and had to fight the theater’s management to keep the ushers from shooing people off the stage too quickly at the end.
Witness Uganda, a musical this season at A.R.T. based on a true story about a volunteer for a project in Uganda, includes a discussion (she didn’t call it a talk-back) after every single performance. Paulus pointed out that the show’s creators, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews (who also stars in it), have created a non-profit foundation, Uganda Project to provide a free education and otherwise aid the children of Uganda, 2.5 million of whom are orphans.
3. Consider crowdfunding
In 2012, $2.7 billion was raised worldwide through crowd funding, $1.6 billion of it in North America, said financier David Drake, founder of financial media company The Soho Loft, and the amount being raised just about doubles every year. About 15 percent of that, Drake told me afterwards, has been for theater projects. Crowdfunding can be defined (but wasn’t) as the effort to fund a project by reaching out, usually online, to a large network of regular people who aren’t professional investors, are unlikely to be rich, and donate on average just small amounts.
For a crowdfunding campaign to be a success, Drake said, the fundraisers must
be connected to a crowd, know their audience, and put together a great video. The three biggest online sites for crowdfunding creative projects are Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub. Recent federal legislation, Drake said (and has written about), will make it easier for theaters to reach out and create a new network of donors.
4. Don’t punish theatergoers for being digitally connected
Until three years ago, the Apollo Theater in Harlem punished theatergoers for being, like much of the world, “connected 24/7,” according to Dexter Upshaw. “By definition,” Upshaw said, the Apollo’s famed Amateur Night is an “interactive show.” Yet, if anybody took out their mobile devices during a performance, “immediately, ushers would come and shine flashlights in their faces, and say ‘put that away.’”
We have to engage people where they are, Upshaw said, and where they are is in the digital realm.
Upshaw, hired to take charge of all digital projects at the theater, helped change that. Now every Wednesday at Amateur Night, theatergoers are encouraged to use their phones to tell them about the show, using the Apollo Amateur Night app. Upshaw is planning to expand digital interaction at the theater, with a forthcoming app for the Apollo in general Upshaw’s advice to theaters: Don’t think about digital last. Involve staff who are responsible for social media and other digital projects from the very beginning of any stage show, because they might be able to identify opportunities to use digital that can then be more seamlessly incorporated.
Upshaw’s presentation was part of a larger theme for the day, reflecting the fact that the “T” for technology in TED is first, and expressed by designer David Torpey: “Theater is about magic. Lets embrace technology and make it happen…” The potential of technology in immersive set design is overwhelming and beautiful.
Torpey also projected on the screen a quote from industrial designer Dieter Rams that designers “should and must question everything generally thought to be obvious…They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”
5. Make the neighborhood your lobby.
Craig Dykers of Snohetta, the firm that’s redesigning Times Square, offered an overview of their approach to the Crossroads of the World, which gets 42 million visitors a year. In discussing the “reimagining” of Times Square, he cited the work of Temple Grandin, comparing people’s movement to that of cattle. My favorite detail is how they embedded little shiny pucks in the ground to reflect the light of the marquees. The redesign’s main aim: “We want Times Square to be the lobby of the theater district.”
Yao-Hui Huang, founder of The Hatchery, “a venture collaboration organization” (probably translation: a business consulting firm), contrasted the competitiveness of producers on Broadway with the collaborative attitude and activity of the L.A. Stage Alliance, in which theaters share services and marketing.
Mark Fisher and Michael Keeler, co-owners of a gym that caters to the theater community, offered similar advice, more flamboyantly. Both also wore capes, and asked the audience to stand up and participate in a dance party for fifteen seconds. It’s easier to get in shape, and to build a business, if you are part of a community.
7. Collaborate some more.
Bobby Lopez, co-composer for Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and the Disney movie Frozen, was one of the TEDxBroadway guests who both spoke and performed— including, memorably, his Oscar-nominated song, “Let It Go,” from Frozen. If his presentation deviated from the norm, his presence was in one way the most apt—the entire conference took place in the theater in New World Stages that normally presents Avenue Q.
He played a song he wrote when he was fourteen, motivated by a medieval belief that when you sing a song, “airy spirits come out of your mouth and mingle with other people’s spirits and influence them. That’s what was special about music. I thought that was a cool idea.”
He explained how much he had to grow from his early attempts. Initially, “I thought it was cheating to accept help from someone else.
“I started to work with other people. My work started to benefit from other people’s talents, thoughts, ideas, qualities. Everything was not about me, and about how my stuff was going to impress people.” He said none of the work for which he is now known would have happened without his change in attitude.
“Every step in the writing of Avenue Q was motivated by: how do we help people with their adult problems?”
He said his growth reflects that of the character Princeton in Avenue Q, and Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon.
Both were self-involved guys who learn how to give and accept help. “Princeton learns that Kate Monsters is not an obstacle to his finding his purpose in life; making her happy is part of his purpose.”
8. Understand the connection between the arts and the sciences. Understand the need for diversity.
The cell phone was inspired by Star Trek— just one example out of many of art inspiring science, and of the connection between the two, said Ainissa Ramirez:
“The three-act play and the scientific paper come from the same seed.”
“Scientists and screenwriters are both:
Crazy about detail
Understand you have to fail to succeed.”
Ramirez, a former professor of mechanical engineering, is the head of Science Underground, a science education consulting firm. She focused on the need for a different kind of diversity in the theater—theater about science and scientists.
“Your mission if you choose to accept it,” she said, is to improve the connection between the arts and the sciences, which “will create something wonderful, and humanity will be better off.” Implicit in her focused argument was a more general lesson—the need for more diverse subject matter in the theater, and more diversity in general.
9. Realize that new forms of entertainment have changed would-be audiences
Games, said “gamification” guru Gabe Zichermann, have changed our very neurochemistry, so that we demand a constant rush of sensation. “We can’t even sit through 22 minutes of television without reaching for another screen”—Facebook or Twitter on our computer or mobile phone. How can people be expected to sit through two hours of theater?”
However, “we can use the power of games to our advantage,” he said, and urged the listeners to embrace games as a way to draw in an audience. He didn’t seem to say how, but he did offer what sounded like a really useful game: At a restaurant, put everybody’s cell phone on the table; the first person to reach for theirs has to pay for everybody’s meal.
10. Have fun
This was the explicit and implicit message throughout the day-long conference—a day that included spontaneous raps by Freestyle Love Supreme (pictured), magic tricks from Todd Robbins and jokes from Lea DeLaria:
By the end, though, Daniel Rehbehn was surely speaking for more than himself when he Tweeted: “My brain is hurting from trying to download so many ideas into my head from #TEDxBway.”
Jonathan Mandell, a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a third-generation New York City journalist who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He currently blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.
This post originally appeared in Howlround
Posted on June 22, 2012
by Jessica Broutt
I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous to see a show before, but I actually was anxious to see my first show at The Fountain Theatre. More than anything I wanted to love Cyrano. I wanted to tell people that the theatre I was interning at had this amazing show and that everyone just had to see it. And after watching last night’s performance, I can confidently do exactly that.
Though I had done a little research on the show itself, I really was not sure what to expect. And while I had peeked into the theatre before, being there just before a show was a completely different experience. People were speaking English and signing in American Sign Language, and laughing, excited to be there. The theatre filled up fast, and everyone seemed eager for the show to start.
When it did, I was delighted by how intimate it felt. While this should have been no surprise to me, since it is an 80-seat theatre, there was something about the way the stage was set and my proximity to it that made me feel like I was really a part of it all.
As the play started, I immediately wondered how I would feel about seeing a signed/spoken adaptation. Would it be distracting? Make the show difficult to understand? Well, I shouldn’t have worried. The second Troy Kotsur, the actor playing Cyrano, came on stage everything else seemed to melt away. I soon became engrossed in the story of Cyrano, a deaf man falling in love with a hearing woman. The unorthodox love story trumped everything else. The way this show was put together just worked so well. Sometimes Troy would be signing, and Paul Raci, who played his brother Chris, would be interpreting. Other times, both characters on stage where signing and there were two interpreters on the sidelines translating. I thought this would be distracting, but it wasn’t. Their voices came out as the voices of Chris and Cyrano to the point where I almost forgot they were there. It all just seemed to fit.
More than that, it seemed like everyone who saw the play was enjoying it immensely but in different ways. For instance, sometimes the actress playing Roxy (Erinn Anova) would laugh, this really charming laugh, and the hearing audience laughed too. Other times the actor playing Cyrano would sign something which the hearing audience might miss, but really struck a chord with the deaf viewers. And then there were those moments in the play, (which I won’t give away for those yet to see it), that are so completely universal, we all laughed together. It was an unforgettable experience.
I encourage anyone who has yet to see Cyrano to attend as soon as possible. It is a very rare and wonderful experience to see a play with such a well-written story be carried out with both a remarkable cast and well-placed technology weaved throughout. Not only does it fit into our modern world perfectly, acknowledging the growing role of social media, but it gives a voice to a world most viewers don’t typically see, a world they should come experience immediately!
Jessica Broutt is our summer intern at the Fountain Theatre from UC San Diego.
Posted on April 4, 2012
Our upcoming world premiere production of Cyrano is a funny and romantic tale about a brilliant deaf poet in love with a hearing woman. Set in a modern city, the play also dramatizes how technology helps and harms how we communicate. The influence of the internet — email, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting, blogging — all play an important part in the story of Cyrano.
The new play asks some relevant questions about life and love in the Electronic Age:
- Do all of our electronic devices make us feel more connected, or more alone?
- Is it easier to text someone than have a real face-to-face conversation?
- Is the “you” on your Facebook page or website or blog the real you? Are we our avatars?
- What effect does all this technology have on our ability to have personal relationships? How does it influence our self esteem, how we see ourselves? How we perceive reality?
Since her pathbreaking The Second Self: Computers and The Human Spirit in 1984 psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle has been studying how technology changes not only what we do but who we are. In 1995’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle explored how the Internet provided new possibilities for exploring identity.
Described as “the Margaret Mead of digital cuture,” Turkle has now turned her attention to the world of social media and sociable robots. As she puts it, these are technologies that propose themselves “as the architect of our intimacies.” In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation. Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. Turkle suggests that just because we grew up with the Internet, we tend to see it as all grown up, but it is not: Digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it.
Enjoy This Video, as Turkle Asks: Are We Connected, But Alone?
Cyrano April 28 – June 10 (323) 663-1525 More Info
Posted on March 23, 2012
by Charles Isherwood
Aside from its implicit critique of the notion of valuing a man’s life by the rung he occupies on the ladder of commerce, other elements in the play resonate freshly today. Among the most famous phrases, recurring in the dialogue almost like an incantation, is Willy’s fervid emphasis on the importance of being “well liked,” once again using a quantitative measure to establish a human being’s inherent value. His son Biff, Willy asserts, will inevitably rise in the world, despite the moral failings they both swat away like pesky gnats, because he is “well liked,” not merely “liked,” as is Charley’s studious son Bernard.
Thanks to the explosion in social media, being “well liked” has become practically a profession in itself. Adults as well as teenagers keep assiduous count of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and surely are inwardly if not outwardly measuring their worth by the rise or fall of the number. People are turning themselves into products, both for profit and for pleasure, and the inevitable temptation is to equate the popularity of your brand with your fundamental self-worth.
Many of us are willingly becoming versions of Willy Loman, forever on the road — that is, online — selling ourselves and advertising our lifestyles: describing the meal we just consumed at a restaurant (with uploaded photograph of course) or the trip we’re planning to take. A social-media gadfly (or, say, me) might suggest that there are vestiges of Willy’s tormenting self-doubt in the need to advertise every moment of our life so assiduously, as if constant Facebook updates could vanquish the inner voice whispering in Willy’s ear that his life is built on sand.
The play moves us on any number of levels, perhaps most fundamentally as a mid-century American version of that classic dramatic archetype dating back to the Greeks: the family in mortal conflict with itself. The Loman family’s conspiracy to support Willy in his delusions — at least until Biff decides he has to destroy his father’s illusions to save himself — is drawn from true filial and marital love, and it is in observing how little this love can do to save Willy that the play is most devastating. He is too consumed by the belief that his failure to succeed, and to inculcate success in his sons, has somehow disqualified him for full membership in the human race.
Despite Willy’s delusions and moral evasions, Miller always insisted on the nobility in his struggle. “The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind,” he told The Times during an interview on the occasion of the Chinese production. “Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.” His contradictions and his failings are all human and all common, which is why the hallucinatory last day of his life will always retain the power to command not just our pity but our respect too.
Charles Isherwood writes for the New York Times