World Theatre Day 2009: reflections on a (long-distance) tribal gathering

World Theatre Day 2009 has come and gone, but as the song lyrics go,  ‘the memories linger on.’  And the achievements do too. You can see what I mean at the World Theatre Day blog and its Tumblr feed of images and sounds of the celebrations around the globe. WTD got the online treatment for the first time this year – and it happened, as these things do, as a result of a conversation.

At the start of this year, a few of us theatre types who maintain a presence in various online social networks had been tweeting, carrying on audio conversations and blogging about the potential social media has to create theatre projects, to market productions, to get audiences engaged with artists and creatives – to deepen the ‘theatre experience’. We talked about how after-show conversations in a virtual theatre ‘bar’ might happen via Twitter, or an audio conversation tool like Utterli. We touched on live-tweeting performances – and yes it has happened – but the conversations were largely about getting the word on theatre beyond local operations and into the wider sphere.  And there, suddenly was World Theatre Day coming on March 27, an opportunity and a challenge. WTD, a child of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), has been around for ages (since 1961) but it’s never had much of a profile – again beyond local celebrations. We thought we’d change that by spreading the word online.

In many ways, this particular project was an experiment, and planning was a vital part of the process – we know all about production meetings after all!  The ITI people were happy for us to create a World Theatre Day blog which would serve as our hub.  The ITI website was then in the throes of a long-overdue redesign, and very little up to date material was available online when we began our own strategic planning for World Theatre Day.  As a facilitating group we had to meet, to ‘web conference,’ and wildly varying time-zones notwithstanding – we’re talking Canada, the US, UK and Australia – one of the first tasks was to find a tool to facilitate our real-time conversation. We ended up with Citrix’ GotoMeeting which proved to be the app to beat, at least for our needs. It’s simplicity itself to set up and operate. If you’re looking for a good online meeting tool – no video though – then give Gotomeeting a whirl – there’s a 30 day free trial.

Email kept the team in touch between meetings while a World Theatre Day Twitter account, hashtags, and Facebook did a lot of the viral marketing for us. We talked to colleagues locally, and word of mouth followed. It was sweet to see RTs on Twitter from total strangers, watch the website hit-counter climb especially in the last week, and get some interest from the wider media. The Guardian online picked up the story, the Mayor of Chicago even declared March 27 ‘World Theatre Day’ in his city.  The old approach – think global, act local – was never more apt than in this project.

The team found, as we’d suspected, that most of our local theatre groups had never heard of World Theatre Day. Describing what it was intended to achieve – a recognition and celebration of theatre’s power to change lives – was easy enough. Persuading individuals and groups to mark the day was something of a minor challenge. Everyone is busy; most are overworked in the theatre, so the goal was to mark the day in a way that was right for the particular group, and which involved the least amount of effort. We decided to focus on simplicity as the key to getting people to respond. Maintain the tradition by reading this year’s WTD address by Augusto Boal at curtain, talk to the audience, throw a party; we shared ideas on the blog, and produced a downloadable getting-started kit for groups to use. But you can’t keep the creative spirit down, and many did mark the day by doing something extra-special or surprising.

What eventuated was a helluva good time in various places round the world, as well as a profiling and confirmation of theatre in local and in the wider global community. Some of what we did was silly, lighthearted stuff – we flashmobbed a laugh-in, stood on books that lift us up where we belong. A group danced in the street in India.  Others read or performed Augusto Boal‘s WTD address. Many performed or went to a play, or after-partied. Rehearsals were opened up, tickets to shows discounted.  All reflected on what we do as a tribe or called for change in public policy for the arts or demonstrated in a live performance of political art.  Performances were live and online.  For a whole 24 hours – and longer as the time zones crept around March 27 – we shared theatre together. It was a good day.

Something has been started here I think. The facilitating team have yet to meet to debrief on the day, but I have no doubt plans for WTD10 will be somewhere blowing in the wind – soon. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt in my mind that this first experiment in spreading the word on World Theatre Day has been successful. Enjoy the Tumblr feed – it’s a performance in itself.

PS At least one person didn’t get the point. Kelly Nestruck (the Guardian online again) asked ‘Who cares about World Theatre Day?’ calling it ‘a depressing little event.’  We’ll cop it sweet!

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