Are Woolly Mammoth’s digital engagement efforts a glimpse at the theater of the future?


Stephanie Armstrong takes a picture with her smartphone of her Twitter remix in the digital-centric lobby installation at the Woolly Mammoth Theater. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

It’s about 15 minutes until show time at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but Anna Heller Sebok hasn’t made it to her seat yet.

She’s tinkering with a sleek installation in the lobby of the Penn Quarter playhouse for its production of “Stupid F---ing Bird,” an irreverent, contemporary adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s famed drama “The Seagull.”

The display encourages patrons to remix monologues from the original 19th-century play into 140-character messages for Twitter. Users build their snippet-sized prose by mixing up the words on a large magnetic board, and then they can send out their creations over social media using flat-screen Apple computers in the exhibit or by snapping a photo on their smartphones.

Heller Sebok’s cryptic, punctuation-free, mini poem reads:

I’m subject to believing and


Above, the Pinterest station in the lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre allows play attendees to get more information about the images, photos and ideas behind the look and feel of the stage. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

know you didn’t move lives

to believe what loves

you and yourse lf

She is happy to chat about her creation, she says, but first, “Let me just finish my Instagram picture.”

Once she’s done posting the picture with her iPhone, Heller Sebok, 25, says that her outings at Woolly have been markedly different from her visits to other theater venues around Washington.

“I say to my friends, ‘I feel more connected to the theater here than I do anywhere else,’ ” Heller Sebok said.

The reason for that loyalty, she said, is because of the unique interactive experiences that Woolly has developed as part of an effort to adapt and thrive in today’s performing arts climate.

Woolly is poised to put a combined $135,000 toward digital-centric lobby exhibits for three of its productions this year, including this one. Half of that money comes from grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Theatre Communications Group; Woolly is matching the rest through in-kind donations and smaller grants.

It’s not an insignificant sum for a nonprofit whose annual operating budget is about $4.5 million. But it’s an investment Woolly has deemed worthwhile as it wrangles with a challenge that many arts organizations are facing. In Washington and beyond, audiences tend to skew older, and that has put pressure on presenters and performing arts groups to attract younger patrons in order to remain relevant and viable.

For Woolly, luring millennial generation theatergoers has meant experimenting with a variety of outside-the-box events and tactics that center around a single conviction: Young patrons, Woolly believes, aren’t content to show up at theater and passively watch a production.

“They like interactivity, they like contributing content,” said Jocelyn Prince, Woolly’s director of connectivity.

And so the goal, Prince said, is “having Woolly be a place that you come not just to see something … You come to experience food and interesting sights and sounds. And [to do] fun activities going on in association with the play.”

It’s a strategy that bears striking similarity to the ones that many retailers have adopted in what’s been dubbed “the experience economy,” in which consumers covet a shopping trip that is a memorable event instead of a routine errand.

With its whimsical lobby exhibits and other distinctive events, Woolly is testing whether the principles of the experience economy apply not just to consuming goods, but to consuming art.

The Twitter monologue remixes are just one component of the lobby exhibit tied to “Stupid F---ing Bird.” There are also three “Pinspiration Stations:” One uses a large touch-screen monitor to showcase a Pinterest board maintained by Misha Kachman, the play’s set designer. It’s meant to give users an inside look at the images, photos and ideas that inspired the look and feel of the stage.

One pin features a historic photo of a dining table that clearly resembles the table seen in the set. The text alongside the photo reads, “Long and more luxurious table similar to the one in SFB. Found on the dust jacket from a Russian book.” Another vintage drawing is captioned, “An automatic inkstand which Conrad [the main character] possibly uses. Found in a Sears mail order catalog.”

At the other two stations, patrons are invited to use Pinterest on iPads to share which works of art have been transformative in their own lives. It’s a theme that relates closely to the play, since the protagonist is a playwright who is obsessed with crafting a play that will “change the world.”

The lobby exhibit was dreamed up and created by Alli Houseworth, a consultant whose company, District-based Method 121, specializes in providing arts organizations with digital engagement strategies.

Houseworth said that one of the most critical aspects of the installation’s efficacy is the presence of a team of people she calls “creatives.” These staffers, easily identified by their bright orange T-shirts, are charged with manning the stations and explaining to patrons how to use them.

“If you just stick a piece of technology in the lobby, it can alienate people or confuse them,” Houseworth said.

Given the experimental nature of the project, Houseworth and Prince have learned some lessons along the way. For example, they expected that most people would type out their Twitter remixes for transmission on the social network, but it turns out most people are simply snapping photos of their creations, like Heller Sebok did, and sending them out via Instagram.

Prince said that has helped shape their strategy for the upcoming lobby display for “America All Better!!,” a production by famed comedy troupe the Second City that opens on July 9. That lobby exhibit will be largely centered around Instagram.

Houseworth said she’s noticed that the exhibit for “Bird” is informing how some audience members interpret the play.

“It has been absolutely fascinating to see audiences come out after act one and go to the [set designer’s] Pinterest board and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that makes sense,’” Houseworth said.

“Millennials are always multitasking, and they also love to be co-creators,” Houseworth said. Woolly’s lobby exhibits, she added, are simply “giving them opportunities to do what they already like to do.”

**

Woolly is so committed to creating new ways to engage with its audience that it moved in 2010 to create a department dedicated to nurturing these efforts. The connectivity division, as it’s now known, has a budget that is separate from that of the marketing or artistic divisions.

“It’s a department that is still evolving, and there’s none other quite like it in the field,” Prince said.

Not all of Woolly’s recent efforts to create special experiences for audiences have centered around digital technology. Last September, during a run of a “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” a play about professional wrestling, Woolly held an hour-long wrestling clinic with a certified coach.

For “The Convert,” a play set in 19th-century southern Africa, Woolly offered a discount on services from a genealogist and African-American history expert so that theatergoers might trace their own historical roots on the African continent.

Even Woolly’s fundraising efforts seem to be influenced by the “experience economy” model. During a December-January run of performances of “The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One,” the organization hosted a New Year’s Eve pajama party fundraiser. Patrons were invited to show up in sleepwear, meet cast members from the production, and enjoy snacks from the catering company of renowned chef José Andrés.

“We don’t do traditional plays, so we’re not going to do traditional black-tie fundraisers,” said Martha Burson, development operations associate.

**

Woolly’s millennial generation patrons differ from older patrons in another key way: They’re not purchasing the subscription packages that long have been a crucial source of income for many arts presenters.

“We find that younger people are often not willing to make the investment to purchase a full, hundreds-of-dollars ticket package for a whole season,” Prince said.

So Woolly has introduced an offering called the “six-pack” that is a hybrid of the two purchasing models. “Six-pack” buyers get a bundle of six tickets that can be used in any combination throughout Woolly’s season. For example, an individual could bring five friends to one production, or she could bring a date to three productions. And they only need to provide the theater 24 hours notice that they plan to attend.

For patrons 30 years old and younger, the package costs $150, a steep discount from the $240 it costs older customers. Prince said the package allows theatergoers the flexibility they crave while also helping the theater achieve income stability.

“For theater to survive, we have to start really focusing on encouraging that next generation of theatergoers, Prince said. “And we have to make the case for relevance in new ways.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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