A Conversation with HowlRound
Discussions are had by those who show up. HowlRound has been showing up to facilitate conversation about theater since its inception at Arena Stage. Now at Emerson College under the leadership of its original team plus some new recruits, the online commons has been disrupting our views about the performing arts online and in-person through positive inquiry.
Helen Schultz: How do you end up at HowlRound? These aren’t jobs you necessarily train for or think about going into when you study theater.
Vijay Mathew: In the summer of 2007, I got the directing fellowship at Arena Stage in D.C. Through the course of the year, I met David Dower and Jamie [Gahlon] was there too. I told David that I wanted to make it more of a producing, behind-the-scenes fellowship. Then what happened was at the end of that year in 2008, at that moment, David Dower was able to get Arena Stage to be a cooperator with the National Endowment for the Arts new play program, so we we’re administering that program for the NEA, running its application process and its panel, and then eventually documenting the results of this grant over the two years.
Jamie Gahlon: I started in 2006 in the fall, part-time. Then after the NEA, kind of in tandem with the NEA, we got this grant from the Mellon Foundation to start the American Voices New Play Institute, and that in combination with the work we were doing with the NEA became the precursor to what is now HowlRound. The Institute was founded in 2009, and then we stayed at Arena doing that work in 2012. And in January 2011, we officially started HowlRound as the Journal. And then we moved here; we basically moved everything with us from Arena. And so Vijay, Carl, David, and I moved here from D.C. up to Boston to be here at Emerson. That’s how HowlRound as it was currently conceived came to be.
VM: In terms of the platforms that are still in existence from the original start, there is TV – which was the New Play Development Program TV, then New Play TV, and now HowlRound TV – and then there was the New Play Map which we started in 2009 once Mellon funded this thing called the American Voices New Play Institute. And then, a year and a half later, we started the Journal, the HowlRound.com Journal.
JG: The other thing that we had been doing, since 2007, was having convenings – in-person gatherings that we were hosting about topics that felt important for people from our field to be discussing together. And so we were also doing that.
Ramona Ostrowski: And the Twitter chats, which used to be under #NewPlay.
JG: So in terms of how we ended up here, for Vijay and I, it has been a sort of journey of many different roles and different versions of an organization that is now HowlRound but began at Arena Stage.
RO: I got this job last April, April 2015, and I had been working at a local arts services organization and as a dramaturg at a local company and was sort of feeling like I was interested in not focusing quite so locally in my career, so not necessarily just working for one theater company, which had been my goal throughout college and for the first few years of my career. So when the HowlRound job opened up and it was clearly a chance to interface with the field more broadly and think about the trends of the international theater community rather than doing a deep dive into one theater’s season and dig deep into individual plays, but to think more broadly it felt like a really exciting fit for me.
Adewunmi Oke: I had heard about HowlRound while I was in grad school, and it was probably spring 2012 when someone in the dramaturgy part of the department was like, “I read this HowlRound article,” and I was like, “What is that?” Throughout grad school, some of the articles from HowlRound and some of the livestreamings that were happening, they turned into the conversation, and I was like, “Oh. Okay. Cool.” I actually started the job last July, and when I was applying for it, I was just so happy there was an opportunity with HowlRound because I was like, “Oh my gosh – this is them!” I wasn’t when I was applying to stuff after grad school I didn’t think I was going to get anything in theater – I had applied to different theater companies in Philly and Atlanta and just nothing was coming through and happening. And then with HowlRound I was like, “Oh my gosh – I know about them!” and just to be a part of them, to work with the different platforms and work in them, has been really beneficial.
HS: A lot of all your roles and the work that HowlRound does has to do with tech, and the role of disruption in theater.
VM: I think the key idea, to boil it down, is using the internet in its most powerful way, which is empowering and enabling everyone to have a voice and everyone to produce content and have a voice through that. It’s all peer-production. Just that idea is basically how all the HowlRound platforms work and are designed. What that allows is for an incredible power shift, it allows for democratizing, and it allows for previously unknown perspectives to be amplified in a way that they’ve never been amplified. And so that deals with gender parity, and every kind of issue that the theater is facing.
JG: And also, practically speaking, the power shift is an intentional power shift; it’s a really intentional means of making sure that no voice is privileged over any other, which hilariously in the theater scene is still really radical while you think it would be at the forefront of all of these sort of countercultural alternative movements in some ways. At least in America, it has been replicating these sort of dominant power structures and hierarchies, just like in all over the world; we’re trying to use the internet as a kind of means for that democratization to happen in a way that is quicker and more connected than sort of in-person reality could allow.
VM: These ideas are changing this dynamic of democratization that the internet has enabled. It’s really social media platforms and YouTube in earlier days – YouTube and Twitter and Facebook that used that technique on social media, of allowing everyone to be a media producer. However, all – because they’re corporations – to leverage this media and leverage this collaboration to gain a profit by selling advertising, by selling attention. What we’re doing differently than that: we’re using the same technique, but leveraging this attention and all of this media in order to do something good besides just making money, to help the future. So we call it common space peer production as opposed to profit-motivated production.
AO:: I think the cool thing about social media and the internet at large that really benefits us is the idea that there is no geographical boundary. Anyone can pitch an article for us, and as a team we figure out whether or not we think it’s a right fit in terms of the issues that our authors dole out. Anyone can livestream – if you’re interested in livestreaming, we’ll teach you how to livestream over the phone. If you’re in the area, you can come by. I think this idea of not having geographical boundaries and I think that’s something that, with theater specifically, if you don’t see a show in New York, you miss it. If you can’t get to Chicago to see a new play, you miss it. It’s something that really drew me to HowlRound, this idea of erasing boundaries, erasing those borders, and being able to traverse them in ways that you couldn’t do if you were just like in isolation.
RO: It’s been so interesting – we’re going through a strategic planning process right now, and so we did a survey of various stakeholders: readers, writers, and livestreamers and just people we’ve intersected with. One of the things that we’ve heard is that people are hungry for us to do more convenings, more in-person gatherings. So as amazing as the internet is – and realistically, as we move to a more international focus, our main platforms probably will be digital – I think there’s also a hunger to see people face-to-face. To share a room and share ideas too.
HS: I feel like so many conferences in theater are focused around software and business – all people who use AudienceView, all people who use Tessitura. But you bring together underrepresented artists. What sort of conversations and actions come from those gatherings?
JG: From the beginning, our convenings have really focused on trying to bring together people who share some common ground in terms of issue at stake, but it’s never been focused; it’s always been focused on hot button issues, or issues that feel like they’re bubbling up in many different places and are affecting many different parts of the sector. We usually start by figuring out who needs to be in the room. I don’t mean specific people – I mean like what is the sort of DNA the room needs to look like, what should the artist to producer ratio be, are we looking for people from a specific region or are we trying to make this a truly national conversation? Do we have varying levels of experience in the field? Are we getting people who are all working in the same aesthetic or are we focused on making it intentionally broad in that way? A lot of what ends up dictating the types of conversations that we have is actually making that room full of people that can represent different perspectives on the same thing, and engage in meaningful and productive dialogue. The other thing that we do particularly well and has been a focus of ours is really trying to structure the conversation in a way that can be productive and action oriented, but also can allow for the kind of grey areas that do exist and the nuances that do exist within a topic. We also livestream every convening that we have, and so that’s a really intentional thing. We’re trying to be really transparent about not only the conversation that’s happening, but also make everyone that’s in the room physically feel as though they’re a delegate for a broader community that they’re representing so people feel like when they can find a way to look beyond their kind of individual eye, their own self, and think about the broader implications of being in that room and what they can do by being in that room, not only for themselves but on behalf of other people who can’t be in the room because of capacity, economic barriers, geographic barriers.
HS: At the trans theater convening, you had people like Carl, who’s hugely prominent, and Will Davis in the same room as people who are more emerging. You’re bringing people together from all these different perspectives and I think that feels like a physical manifestation of what HowlRound is.
VM: Totally. And that’s what the soul of disruption is about at HowlRound – no longer maintaining this old hierarchy, and this scarcity to the conversation and who gets to have the conversation and who has access to what knowledge is produced from that conversation. And so, in the very beginning, making these convenings accessible to the very people who didn’t have the resources or didn’t have the connections or didn’t know the right people to get in the physical room that we were filming it, tweeting about it, make broadcasting basically everything that was happening in this formerly very private, scarce room where these conversations would happen. That changes social dynamics hugely. It allows that knowledge to do more and to advance more.
RO: One thing that we did for the trans convening and we do as much as possible for convenings is to pay for everybody’s travel and housing, so that it is truly accessible for people who don’t necessarily have personal or institutional resources to travel to be a part of those conversations. We’re really just trying to break down as many barriers as possible to get as many perspectives and experiences in the room as possible.
HS: So much of theater criticism is so snarky and negative. HowlRound has a guiding editorial policy of “positive inquiry.” Could you talk more about that policy and why it exists?
RO: We have this policy not just in our articles, but in our comments section as well. We really don’t do a lot of moderating, but the community as a whole has one of the most generous and respectful environments that you’ll find in a comment section almost anywhere else on the internet. A lot of times the comments section becomes a sort of second article – so many people are weighing in differently and the author is responding and it’s a real conversation. The times that we do step in and delete comments and tell that person why is when they’re making a personal attack against the author, like saying “you are stupid” instead of saying “this idea you’re laying out is problematic.” Or that they’re speaking in a way that shuts down the conversation – it’s hard to respond to “you are stupid,” but it’s really easy to respond to “I don’t agree to this idea that you’ve laid out here” or “I don’t understand the way you went about this” or “in my experience, I’ve done this differently and it worked out” and stuff like that. So I think that sort of expectation that we set up not just in the content that we publish, but in the way that we center the conversations around it has been really positive and really worth it.
HS: HowlRound has had so many articles about Hamilton. A lot of the conversation around the show in these articles has been that the diversity of this past season is not reflective of the theater world as a whole – we have so far to go. Could you talk a bit about how these new representations in commercial theater are both helping, hindering, or changing the conversation you’re having here? And how non-theater people are getting in on that conversation?
JG: On that level, I think Hamilton is a good thing. I saw the show, I thought it was incredible and life-altering and all of the things, all of the good things. In terms of HowlRound, we’ve have a lot of pieces about Hamilton and I am proud that they haven’t all be one note. They haven’t all been “this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.” We had a really smart piece by James McMaster called, “Why Hamilton Is Not The Revolution You Think It Is” and it’s a deep dive look into Hamilton’s politics and what the representation means through certain lenses and even how the story is told. I think there are as many different opinions about Hamilton as there are people in the world right now. But, on the whole, in terms of what I think it’s doing for the American theater right now, I think it’s fantastic. Are you kidding me? There’s a bunch of New York public school kids who are getting to see the show and are getting to see a show in the first place, period – which is a sad statement. The world of arts education in our country… But that’s great. I think that the story is an important story to be told, and the way that Lin is telling it is brilliant. Masters of craft.