The Wooster Group
Over the 35 years since its founding in 1976, The Wooster Group has produced an extensive body of groundbreaking work. Its productions originate in the Group’s New York home—the 99-seat Performing Garage at 33 Wooster Street—and tour nationally and internationally. Led by Elizabeth LeCompte, the company of sixteen performers, technicians, artists, and administrators works collaboratively, weaving together text, movement, and technology to tell stories in a signature style that is celebrated for breaking the boundaries of conventional performance. The Wooster Group has an annual budget of approximately $1.5 million.
Our work was being created too much in a vacuum, without enough contact with our community. —LeCompte
In 2010, audiences declined for The Group’s New York run for the first time in seven years. Data showed that 56% of the audience had never seen a Wooster Group show before. Their existing approach—creating work privately at The Performing Garage, touring the production to Europe or Asia, and then bringing it to New York for a two-month run—wasn’t capturing attention. Their loyal audience was not keeping up with the Group’s shifting theater presentations and locations in New York City (including The Performing Garage, St. Ann’s Warehouse, The Public Theater, and for the first time in 2010, the Baryshnikov Arts Center). It was clear that contact with their audience needed to be re-imagined vis-à-vis technological innovations. The base tended toward the young, and it was clear to company members that they were not meeting the new generation where it lived—online.
Group members started asking serious questions about what the 21st century was demanding of them:
- How does a small organization thrive when people aren’t going to the theater in the same way?
- How can we maintain the intimacy of our slow-cooked theater productions, which often take three years to develop, when the financial model that used to support them is changing?
- “How could we use technology to get bigger and stay small?”
Company members were curious about the promise of web technology in helping them explore and design new artistic and conceptual approaches to audience engagement.
The Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts
The Wooster Group was accepted into Round 4 of the EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts and started the program in June 2010. The Innovation Lab is a three-phase program that provides a strong framework in which new strategies can be explored and prototyped in relatively low-stakes environments before a full launch. Read more about the Innovation Labor for the Performing Arts.
Their objective was to transform their website into a video blog containing daily video shorts to generate buzz around The Group’s work. The goals of the project were twofold: to enable The Group to create artistic work in a new medium, and to animate existing and prospective audiences around The Group’s unique aesthetic.
Shifts in Assumptions
For most of its 35-year history, the Group had assumed that even with a small marketing budget and no dedicated marketing staff, their shows would sell out based on strategies that used strong visuals (posters and postcards) and agressive PR. And for many years this worked. As the company’s audience grew, they began presenting their work in larger theaters, moving from the Garage to St. Ann’s Warehouse to the Public Theater. When they opened the new Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshinkov Arts Center, they assumed their audience would follow them—and expand. However, getting audiences to a new, unknown theater on West 37th Street was more of a challenge than they expected. They needed a more immediate and direct way to capture the attention of their following and to keep new followers engaged.
Another assumption was that this new online platform was likely to disrupt a way of working that had established over 35 years. Some were skeptical that they could use a group editing process, involving 16 people editing together around a computer screen, to create a good piece of art. What they discovered, however, was that having everyone involved was both inspiring and artistically valid. “I thought I would hate having all those people saying, ‘do this or don’t do that,’ but it was beautiful,” said one, while another quickly added, “It felt very Wooster-Groupish.”
Prototype #1 – FUTURE REAL MOMENTS
The Group began prototyping its interactive video blog at the Lab Intensive where the company shot a series of ten short sequences called FUTURE REAL MOMENTS. The plan was to create a “film-inside-the-blog”—complete with artistic through line and an extended arc that would attract more followers and encourage them to visit more frequently.
Prototype #2 – Tweezers
The Group also developed a series of “tweezers”(a teaser that is tweeted) designed to blur the distinction between art and marketing and attract people to the video blog as well as to live productions of its upcoming show, VIEUX CARRE. More than offering simple promotional information about the show, these segments were created as art pieces to reinforce and demonstrate the company’s artistic sensibilities.
Prototype #3 – Other Content
The Group also posted other content, including material from current rehearsals; behind-the-scenes footage; portraits of group members, associates, and interns; artists talking about their work; and archival material from past Wooster Group performances, video projects, and rehearsals
Prototype #4 – Website Redesign
A critical element of the prototype was a “dailies” section of the Group’s website. To anchor “dailies,” the Group continued to make daily videos, relying on the group process they had developed at the Intensive. In addition, they developed a custom video content management system to organize new and old blog posts into an intuitive and aesthetically pleasing interface.
Prototype #4 – Live Streaming
Perhaps the most ambitious element of the prototype was to test a live stream into The Group’s rehearsal room. Initially, the company used a single-camera wide shot to produce a completely unmediated recording of the room, but they quickly moved to a four-camera system and a presentation with a commentator. The live stream has proven challenging, in part because of the limited internet infrastructure at The Performing Garage. Also, the Group continues to wrestle with how to make rehearsal footage compelling for viewers and is still working to develop a style and methodology for adding broadcast commentary.
Obstacles and Enablers
In a meeting before the Intensive, LeCompte told the team, “We’re just going to make this project what we do.” The Group dedicated an hour a day—time taken out of rehearsal—to work on it. The web work had to be an art project in order to succeed, and LeCompte made it one.
By the Numbers
The impact of the video blog on The Group has been profound. Site traffic has increased by 77 percent—from 33,798 to 70,810 page views each month —with more repeat visitors —a 268 percent increase over the same period in 2010. Traffic referrals from Facebook grew from 471 visits to 11,750 visits, making Facebook The Group’s second largest referrer behind Google. The Group now has 4,067 fanson Facebook and 3,027 on Twitter. This increased activity has led to higher ticket sales. The Group’s 2011 production of VIEUX CARRE played to sold out houses (vs. 73 percent capacity for NORTH ATLANTIC in 2010). The company spent less for marketing, and weekly ticket sales income increased by 44%
A New Way of Working
Just as significant, however, are the changes the Group has made to its artistic model. While it continues to make its “slow cooked” work over longer arcs of time—now it also works quickly, making and distributing short pieces on a daily basis. A new position—the cinematographer—has been incorporated into the core company, and time has been carved out of the daily schedule for the blog. The final blog postings reflect the vision of the cinematographer within the consensual producing and artistic methods of the Group. The speed of the blog creation and posting provokes a more free-wheeling interaction among company members, where reactions are quick and majority rules. Technicians, administrators, and performers have equal say in signing off on the blog.
New Pathways to the Mission
Before the Lab, the Group described its blog and online activities as an “afterthought.” One member said that online activities “weren’t an extension of what we do.” Through the additions it has made through the blog, the Group has gone far beyond simply documenting and sharing its process in a one-dimensional way; rather, the organization has created a tapestry of online experiences that, when examined together, actually recreate its artistic process, using episodic pieces to make a whole, and drawing audiences into the video content over time.
Viewers jump into the middle of artistic conversations that are sometimes messy, and the material itself demands more than an academic response. Audiences don’t just see the process at work; instead, they are part of it as they navigate from sequence to sequence. For the company, this means that online activities are organic to what they have always done—another medium through which to express themselves artistically—rather than a simple delivery tool for promotion and information-sharing. The blog is alive and kicking every day.