The 3 Most Important Things I Know About Digital Media I Learned in the Theater

We were crammed in the back room of The Black Door on 26th street. An oval of 7 actors sat in front of a packed room, scripts in hand, reading a playwrights newest work. It was hot. The play was long.

The playwright stood to the side gazing adoringly at the actors as they spoke his words out loud.

The audience fidgeted.

The dramaturg fumed.

“He didn’t look at the audience once!” she seethed after the event finally ended. “Everything he needed to know about his play was right there in the audience!”

Lesson 1. An Engaged Audience is a Lean Forward Audience

Karen, the dramaturg, brought to my mind one of the most important things my college acting professor taught me. My professor rarely watched the actors on stage — her gaze was usually focused on us, the audience. When a scene began we were almost always leaning forward in our seats, eager to witness our classmates’ work — but invariably there would be that moment when the class would LEAN BACK. That was the moment she stopped the scene and went to work. The moment we all leaned back was a physical signal the audience had unconsciously disconnected from the work in front of us. That moment when the connection that pulled the audience forward dissipates, that is the moment the audience transforms from an engaged participant, to a lean back observer.

(No coincidence that back in 2007 when online video first took wing the new media community often spoke of a “lean forward vs. a lean back audience”)

This moment of unconscious disconnect isn’t fatal in the theater because your audience is physically captive. But online, no one “leans back”. Online, the moment the subconscious disconnects from the content in front of them, the user clicks away: to a new tab, a new video, a new channel — to their next lean forward experience.

This moment of unconscious disconnect isn’t fatal in the theater because your audience is physically captive. But online, no one “leans back”. Online, the moment the subconscious disconnects from the content in front of them, the user clicks away: to a new tab, a new video, a new channel — to their next lean forward experience.

To create digital media that your audience will actually watch you MUST keep them leaning forward. How do you do that? Whether you are making a video, a story or a livestream — every moment must raise a visual or literal question in the viewers mind. Don’t ever let your audience get ahead of you . We sometimes refer to this technique as creating “authentic clickbait”. Digital audiences are sophisticated, eager and participatory.

Move fast, be interactive, be visual, raise questions. Be authentic. An online audience is a lean forward audience. Online, there are only engaged participants, and people who click away.

Lesson 2. It Doesn’t Matter if you are Performing in a Black Box, as Long as it’s an Immaculate Black Box.

I’ve performed and produced in some pretty shitty spaces cuz… New York. So this means I have asked people I care about to leave their homes and come to these shitty spaces. And once they are there, to relax and pay attention to the show that we have gone to great effort to produce and which we are hoping will resonate with them.

So what is the first thing that you do when you are inviting your audience to that shitty blackbox? You make sure your audience feels taken care of. How do you do that? With mops, brooms and dustpans . You make that shitty blackbox SHINE like the top of the Chrysler Building. You print signage and have a welcoming committee. You make your audience feel, from the moment they step out of the alley and into the theater that tremendous time and care has gone into making this experience professional and meaningful and that you are inviting them in to a unique expression of your creative vision.

Your digital media is your black box theater in a sea of a million black box theaters. You have to dig deep and present media that is reflective specifically of you — of your cause — of your brand. No obvious templates. No by the numbers editing. Your online audience needs to know why this event or video is special, that you specifically want them to be there, and that you have made it a priority to engage them.

It’s subconscious. It’s more expensive. It’s critical for:

  1. Audience building in the long term
  2. Viewer watch times and shares in the short term

Lesson 3. Does it Work?

This one goes out to Bob Krakower. I was sitting in one of his acting classes in LA. We’d just watched a scene and before any of us could offer our critiques Bob jumped in...

“Stop! Stop thinking about how you would do it. Stop thinking about right or wrong. All that matters is ‘Did you believe them’?

I loved that. It gave me permission to let go of all my own ideas and judge what was in front of me by the only thing that in actuality mattered. Did I believe them?

For digital media I transform “Did I believe them” to “Does it work”.

I think of this every time I see the first draft of a project. Does it work?

“Does it work” absolves me of the preconceived notion of what a project should look, feel, or sound like and gives me the space to take my creative’s vision at face value. This is the hardest of the three rules for me. Everything that leaves our agency is a reflection of me and my team. It is HARD to let go of the shiny perfect object that I foresaw in my own creative brain, to instead experience with an open mind the vision that lives in our creative’s brain. It is also a critical step in nurturing and arriving at great work.

I try to walk our client’s down this path as well, as they too have creative brains and always, often without even realizing it, have created a vision in their head that they subconsciously expect to see reflected back to them.

The critical question is not — does it look like what I imagined it would look like, but instead, and very simply, Does it Work?

If I were to sum up the difference between theater and digital media it would be this:

In theater:

  1. Your audience provides a constant, living feedback loop
  2. Your audiences will respond when you treat them with respect and care
  3. Authenticity and specificity are the tools of great work

In digital media

  1. Your audience provides a constant, living feedback loop via either real time engagement or clicking away
  2. The audience is visually sophisticated, technologically nimble, and has endless alternative entertainment options every second of every day
  3. Authenticity and specificity are the tools of great work.

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Collective Agency

Collective Agency

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