Crowdsourcing Kidcentricity

by Tim Jennings

in MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It Do It

Post image for Crowdsourcing Kidcentricity

(Photo from CTC’s 2013 production of Alice in Wonderland, part of the Kidcentricity initiative. Photo by Dan Norman.)

The core question that drives our project is a seemingly simple one: how can Children’s Theatre Company make the best work possible for a multigenerational audience that is increasingly interested in creating, not just responding to, art? This question has led us down several different paths over the last decade or so, most recently our Kidcentricity initiative, which brought artists and designers into elementary school classrooms to work with young people in the design of productions on our stages. With the support of an EMC Arts Innovation Lab grant, we were able to pilot Kidcentricity during the 2009-2010 season, with approximately fifty elementary school students from Highlands Elementary in Edina, MN collaborating with artists on the design of CTC’s production of Disney’s Mulan, Jr. Since then, we have extended this pilot to two additional productions, Alice in Wonderland during our 2012-2013 season and Shrek the Musical, which is part of our current 2013-2014 season. The artists involved were tremendously excited, inspired, and challenged by this profound engagement with young people. What is more, the young people who participated in the pilots formed a significant bond with the art, the artists, and the theater as a whole.

After two years of piloting this fantastic strategy for collaborative community art-making, we are now asking a new question: how might we use crowdsourcing models and technologies to bring the work of Kidcentricity to scale, creating a community-wide dialogue that feeds the artistic process and results in startling new works of theatre? We have experienced success with the Kidcentricity model, but also realize that it is limited in its scope. What is more, we recognize that participatory artistic experiences are increasingly important to our young audience, and will likely continue to be paramount as this generation becomes adults. With this in mind, we are seeking to develop a crowdsourcing model for our work that is truly community-wide and truly sustainable. For us, this means addressing the challenge of creating a digital dialogue with a multigenerational audience—from young people who have been using computers and social media their whole lives, to parents or grandparents who may have differing comfort levels with online platforms.

Our audience—and the theater-going audience as a whole—is hungry for engagement that goes beyond the traditional pre- or post-show activities. As a theater primarily focused on young people, CTC perhaps feels this pressure even more strongly. Our core audience has grown up accustomed to being creators—they post photos on Instagram, upload their own videos to YouTube, and can weigh in on virtually any topic through an array of social media platforms. We know that we must find new, more democratic ways to engage this audience, and we believe that the structure of Kidcentricity, combined with a revolutionary crowdsourcing model, could do just that. The support of a MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It grant gives us the time and space necessary to research and develop the technological and audience engagement tools that could make this project a reality.

We approach this project with the knowledge that numerous practical challenges stand between us and our desired outcomes. In addition to the primary challenge of selecting or developing the appropriate tools to bring Kidcentricity to scale, we also anticipate that creating a model in which artists are both engaged with young people and appropriately compensated for the work of this engagement will present challenges. Additionally, we know that creating a place of safe interaction and dialogue online may be challenging given the purposefully open nature of the project. In order to be effective, any digital tools or platforms we use must provide safe spaces for both young people and the intellectual property of artists.

CTC has never before attempted to create an ongoing, online dialogue between the artistic team and the community. We want our audience to examine the real issues, challenges, and problems that the artists are researching, exploring and attempting to answer on their creative journey. As a theater that consistently puts talented young people on our stages next to professional actors, we have learned how to create real dialogue in which the ideas of young people actively inform the artistic process. We see this every day in our rehearsals, and we know how empowering it can be for a young person to see their ideas respected and integrated in a way that benefits the work. Our research will move this process out into the community, welcoming audience-members of all ages to be part of the creative process.

Tim JenningsTim Jennings is Managing Director of Children’s Theatre Company. Prior to joining CTC, Tim served as Managing Director at Seattle Children’s Theatre from 2008-2012, and Roseneath Theatre in Toronto from 2000-2008. Tim has produced work garnering 15 Dora Award Nominations (Toronto’s ‘Tony’) including seven wins. Under his joint leadership with David S. Craig, Roseneath also won two Canada Council prizes, two Chalmers Awards for new play development, and had a play nominated for the National Literary Prize of Germany (in translation). Tim sits on the boards of TCG, the Minnesota Theatre Alliance, and the Ivey Awards.

The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.