Jack Uldrich
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The Future of Theatre … Is Bright

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Earlier today, I received a call from my local theatre—the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis—asking if my family and I would be signing up again for the 2008-9 season. Because the theatre is fantastic and my children love it, it was an easy decision to renew. (The fact that my mother-in-law is the director of Pueblo, Colorado Sangre de Cristo Arts Center and my sister and brother-in-law are actors in Chicago also provides a strong familial reason to continue to support the arts). (In another shameless plug, my sister, Catherine Glynn, will be starring in the performance of 10 Virgins at the Chicago Dramatists this spring, and my brother-in-law, Jeremy Van Meter will, I think, again be performing at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer.)

Near the end of the conversation, the representative asked me if there was anything else I’d like to see from the theatre in the year ahead. After a moment of thought (usually I just want to get off of such calls), I said “yes.” I told her I would like to see the theatre continue to take risks and experiment with new technologies.

The person kindly jotted this down and the conversation ended. Truthfully, I don’t have any grand ideas for the future of theatre, but since I gave a very short presentation to the Theatre Communication Group last summer I have been intrigued by the opportunities theatres have to explore many of the new emerging technologies which I regularly write about in this blog. I also believe theatre is one of the few forums where people can safely, reasonably and responsibility discuss many of the societal, moral, and ethical issues which these new technologies are likely to raise in the coming years.

First, let me scale it back a little and say that I don’t think that all theatres are the appropriate forum to try risky new things. In the Children Theatre’s case, for instance, I think they are very successful and I wouldn’t advise they do anything too risky that might unnecessarily alienate their loyal customers.

What the theatre—and others like it—can do, though, is new employ technologies to market themselves to a wider audience. For instance, new social network tools offer a wonderful opportunity for local theatres to reach out to new people and audiences. They could also social networking as a way to recruit new members.

New algorithms and software programs can also be employed to scrub databases and find new connections between demographic groups that might be interested in certain performances. For instance, High School Musical (which is not a personal favorite of mine, but my young daughter loves it) might have been even more successfully marketed to teenage boys for whom the sporting aspect of the performance was appealing.)

Social networking tools can also help playwrights and directors scan the environment for ideas, topics and themes which may better appeal to their existing customers or, possibility, new ones.

New technologies can also be used to engage customers in deeper and more meaningful ways. Virtual reality sites such as Second Life are growing in popularity and it is possible for theatres to use the technology to provide interested audience members richer detail about the context of the story or, perhaps, to explore the personality of certain characters in more depth. (In this way, the audience might come to have an even stronger emotional response to the performance—and thus the theatre in general.)

High-speed, broadband Internet access can also be harnessed in a similar way. For example, while I understand why it is preferable to bring students to the theatre so that they can experience the rich emotional context of the theatre first-hand, I also know that in this age of educational budget cutbacks that that might not always be possible. Therefore, why shouldn’t theatres reach out to schools through the Internet and instead try to bring the theatre to them?

Another innovative example would be for theatres to use technology comparable to the ”Magic Mirror” to engage people in the lobby of the theatre before the performance. It could also be used to sell them tickets to future performances or even advertise promotional products.

Technology can also be used to better serve patrons. For example, mobile communication technology could alert show-goers of restaurant/bar availability in the proximity of the theatre on the night of the show and even offer them electronic coupons. Counter-intuitively, the same technology could be used to entice people in neighborhood restaurants and bars (who weren’t planning to attend the theatre) to go see a show. (For example, if a 7:00 p.m. show is only half-filled why not send out an electronic coupon offering tickets for a 15% discount?)

These, of course, are just a few ideas. I am equally excited about the potential for more avant garde theatres to explore and incorporate innovative technologies directly into their productions. To this end, a theatre in Florida last year made use of ”virtual actors.” (Note: The actors were real—they were just performing in venues thousands of miles apart.) Others could experiment with the idea of incorporating more scents into their productions or still other might want to get creative with new warerobes — such as these.

Beyond that, though, I am of the opinion that theatres must begin addressing many of the uncomfortable questions which future technology portends for society. I have written before about the possibility of living to 1000 and human-robot relationships, and I recognize that these are sticky issues which are not easily discussed in everyday conversation. Still society can’t bury its head in the sand over these things (although many will try), and the theatre is the perfect venue in which to explore the complexity of these issues.

For this reason alone—as well as others I cited—I believe the future of theatre is bright.

Jack Uldrich is a writer, futurist, public speaker and host of jumpthecurve.net. He is the author of seven books, including Jump the Curve and The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business. He is also a frequent speaker on future technology and future trends, nanotechnology, innovation, change management and executive leadership to a variety of businesses, industries and non-profit organizations and trade associations.

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