Personalize Me

By now, if you’ve been connected to the internet even briefly in the last 24 hours, you’ve seen—experienced, really—The Wilderness Downtown.

What?  You haven’t?  I’m so sorry—go now and experience it.  You’ll be back in a flash, trust me—and if you don’t come back… well… it’s probably more important for you to see the source material for this blog post than my second-hand consideration of it anyway.  (But please do come back.)

Okay… now that it’s just us who’ve been through that… visited that… oh, hell.  How do you even talk about it?  Is it a website?  Is it a music video?  Is it an old photograph album with pictures of your neighborhood in it?  Is it a place to write?  It defies description!

What I loved about the Wilderness Downtown interactive experience, for want of a better term, was how personal it was.  By providing a small bit of information about myself—my childhood address—I was essentially commissioning a unique, tailored-for-me piece of art.  Not the most moving or brilliant or even complicated piece of art, but one with plenty of engagement power—I was hooked right away.  (And when the writing prompt popped up, the hook got buried much more deeply into the flesh of my cheek.)  The images were clearly relevant to my life, but somehow—perhaps by their proximity to those images—the music, the flying birds, and the runner all seemed to connect to me, too.  It felt… significant.

As the last notes died out, and I sat there in admiring silence, the first thought that occurred to me was this: theater can do this, too.

Yes, of course there are key differences: theater is a shared medium—one-to-many, in conventional parlance, rather than one-to-one.  But why does it have to be?

For example: why couldn’t I write a play about the secrets that get revealed in our dreams, then ask every audience member to scribble a secret on a postcard when the enter, then integrate those secrets into a semi-improvised segment of the story?  Or invite audience members to upload photos of their immigrant ancestors, then build a simple slideshow to project those images behind a play about Ellis Island?

Think about Neo-Futurists audience members shouting out numbers, then increase the volume and significance of their choices until it becomes an audible representation of static—a sonic landscape supporting a movement-based piece about chaos theory.  That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking about.

Those are just a few ideas I’ve shared off the top of my head—there are, naturally, infinitely more.  But the well is largely untapped.  Why is that?

I think it might be partially because we think of theater as a passive experience: we fork over our dollars, settle ourselves in our seats, and expect to be carried away.  And of course, when that happens, that’s wonderful!  We’ve all been completely transfixed like that—if you haven’t, you haven’t been seeing the right shows.  But it doesn’t HAVE to be like that, not always… and increasingly, modern audiences welcome opportunities to interact with the art they’re experiencing.

More importantly, we live under a kind of false assumption that when we go to the theater, we’re all seeing the same story—but of course we’re not.  Confused?  Consider this: at the most basic level, we’re all sitting in different seats: we all view the production from different angles, literally seeing slightly different things.

But it’s deeper than that—much deeper.  We each bring our own life experiences to the theater, and those experiences—quite obviously—affect how we perceive the shows we’re seeing.  I recently sat through IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, laughing gaily with the audience, only to realize belatedly that both my wife and our theater companion, seated on either side of me, were crying.  (Boy, did I feel shallow.)  I’m sure the three of us would describe the play we saw in very different terms.  Can we even really be said to have seen the same story at all?  Largely the same, of course… but not entirely the same.

So why not take that even farther?  Why not (here’s another random idea) give everyone in the audience a sealed envelope with a randomly-selected zen koan in it, then instruct them to open their envelopes at some poignant moment in whatever story you’re telling them?  Would it matter if everyone was reading a different riddle?

The simple fact is that, whether we like or not, a great wave of personalization has descended upon us, culturally.  The website for virtually every clothing manufacturer used to be a simple electronic brochure.  Now it’s old had to be able to design your own shoe with your own features and colors, then save your settings and preferences for a return visit.  You and I can both use Google to conduct the same exact search at the same exact moment and we’ll still get different results.

Offline, the trend is also strong.  The generation of children born in the last few years will literally never understand the notion of having to be at the television at a certain time to watch a show, thanks to DVR technology.  Television is entirely on demand.  You literally can’t walk into a Starbucks and order “a coffee.”  Every single drink on the menu has to be constructed to your own personal preferences.

And why shouldn’t the world be this way?  It feels so much more organic and natural than the mass-produced assembly-line world we’re hopefully emerging from.  That’s why we like it!  It speaks to the strain of individualism that’s endemic to the American character.

What I propose, then, is that a genuinely American theater—as a by-product of this cultural transformation—will best survive if it adapts to incorporate personalization in some form: perhaps not as a core attribute, but as a featured alternative to a more traditional theatrical experience.  We can’t all be The Wilderness Downtown all the time, after all—a story well-told is still a story well-told, and it always will be.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Personalize Me”

  1. I’m wondering if you are familiar with Alternate Reality Games ( They are a way of telling potentially massive stories through much personal interaction, and I’ve been waiting for the day someone beats me to using the idea as part of a theatrical event. I think it’s food for thought for the ideas you’re exploring here. I’ve actually got a somewhat related post I’m hoping to finish today, or tomorrow for 2amt. There’s a lot we can do to reach out and actually touch our audiences!

  2. I’m not familiar enough, clearly! That looks fantastic — and ambitious. I can’t wait to what you write about… and I agree, completely, that there’s a lot more we can do. The more we think in those terms, furthermore, the more we’ll exercise muscles for creativity that are, perhaps, too flabby.

  3. First off, thanks for The Neo-Futurist plug. I’m on the Neo-board of directors and have a google alert on all things Neo-related, so I got sent a link to this post. (Gotta love the personalization of Google Alerts! You can have Google email you when a pre-determined search term gets posted on the web).

    Secondly, WOW. Wow. Wow. Wow.

    My brain is still wrapping itself around The Wilderness Downtown. Wow. I mean, wow.

    I left your blog, “watched” the website. “Watched” it again, and again, and again… and again. I eventually came back to your blog and kept reading.

    I definitely agree with you about theater as a personal and potentially personalized experience. The Neo-Futurists have been providing me with constantly visceral theater experiences for about 11 years now (hence eventually joining their board). Unfortunately, I haven’t found too many more companies out there with that same quality. I’ve found it here and there in specific productions, but not as consistently as the Neos. This isn’t a Neo-Futurist rant here… I’m just sayin’ that I agree with you and I want to experience this more.

    Again, about The Wilderness Downtown… WOW. THANK YOU for sharing!

  4. First of all — hello! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve just followed you on Twitter; feel free, if you like, to do the same to me.

    I’m so glad to have introduced you to The Wilderness Downtown; I continue to think about the possibilities for me as an artist, and I’m almost at the point where I’m ready to seek active collaborations with others willing to explore the genre with me: my thoughts have exploded that quickly.

    I love how you, like me, struggle with how to describe the experience. Did you “watch” it, or did you help to actually create it? Both, I think, and that’s what amazes me. (I hope you don’t mind — but I’ve just Googled you, and in finding Reflections of the Muse, I can see that you’ve considered similar duality-based questions: artist AND subject.)

    I’d love for the Neos to try that sort of thing; I’d love to work with the Neos to do it. I know it’s possible. In fact, I’m sure it’s even easier than we think.

    In any event, I’m glad you’ve found them and that they’ve found you. I’m better you’re both lucky to have each other!

  5. As a ten year stage veteran, I certainly concur with the notion to a point. I see it though as a tool as opposed to a method. An occasional experiment that ought to be welcomed, but not overdone. Some degree of personalization would undoubtedly bring more life to certain theatrical venues. But at the same time any given company should also keep the 4th wall very much alive for at least half of it’s productions.

  6. It’s definitely a tool to be employed in a select manner, I think. Not to be overdone… but it may only be the beginning of a larger movement in which we rediscover (not re-invent) theater.


    You mentioned number-shouting for Neo-Futurist plays, and I will elaborate: For dynamic, ever-changing personalization in theater, specifically, theater that embraces current events, true personal narrative and the challenge of in-the-moment, physical tasks; Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind by the New York Neo-Futurists is a challenging combination of universal and specific non-illusory theater. No fourth wall, one to many, one to one, speaking to different people on diverse perspectives all in one beautifully chaotic hour. Thanks for the mention, Gwydion, and if you haven’t seen it, blog readers, go!

  8. I’d never heard of The Wilderness Downtown. That was really interesting. Although the skeptic in me was a little paranoid about putting in my actual childhood address, so I cheated a little. 😉 Still, it was moving to see a place where I once lived and I liked the song. And that may be one drawback of personalization. Some people are a little reluctant to share publicly. Although maybe it’s a generational thing. I do like the Ellis Island idea.

    But I definitely agree that we bring our own life experience to the theatre. There are certain parts of a play, certain characters, that I might focus on because of who I am or situations I’ve been in or because they remind me of people I know. To other theatergoers, they wouldn’t mean the same thing.

    I do think there’s something sad, though, about the personalization trend. We’re all wrapped up in our own interests and there’s less opportunity to discover something new. I think that harms theatre because that means increasingly the only people reading about what’s going on in their area are already theatre fans.

    And it is pretty amazing to think that kids today will never have to wait for that one night a year when The Wizard of Oz comes on TV!

  9. Here’s the thing, though — the Neo-Futurists work (which I admire a great deal, incidentally) is personal for the artists who create it… but the only way in which it’s personalized for audience members, as I understand it, is in the selection of numbers, which is really a meaningless choice, ultimately… though it does create a “personalized vibe,” at least.

    What I’d like to challenge the Neo-Futurists to do — and I’d be thrilled to come join the band for a week or so of play-making, if anyone’s listening 😉 — is explore some of the audience-centric personalization models I’ve posited. If any group is up to the challenge, it’s a group as inventive and flexible as the Neos.

  10. There is definitely something that’s lost with personalization — or maybe the better way to say that is that the choice of personalization comes with benefits as well as costs.

    I’m thinking of the image of an entire family crowded around a Philco radio, back in 1946, listening to stories together. Nothing personalized about that… but the shared experience and the singular importance of that one story? Very powerful.

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