5by5 | The Critical Path #15: The Theater of Disruption

With this interview, we begin a journey into the world of entertainment and the forces that are re-shaping what most of the world hires daily for recreation. We will talk to actors, writers, producers, distributors, and media execs. We’ll get perspective on what I expect will be a big year for television in 2012 and prepare for the new era to follow.

In this episode I talk to actor Hoon Lee[1] about the challenges of disruption in the creative arts, and theater in particular.

5by5 | The Critical Path #15: The Theater of Disruption.

  1. Soon to be the voice of Master Splinter on the to-be-re-released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series. More about Hoon here: IMDb.
  2. Read more here: Building identity – Hoon Lee: a black sheep because he was artistically inclined
  • sebi

    I want to hear you talking about stuff!

    • Hoon Lee

      Me too!

  • Another great exchange.  And this comment is extra long for a reason. 🙂

    Around 51 minutes something Hoon said triggered a reaction in me, regarding exploring interactions that feel native to the internet, the online narrative, and that the “primary carrier system” online is text, as it is on Twitter, Facebook and mobile devices, and how it would be interesting to “go back to text” and explore it’s affinities with radio. As we all know, when we read books, as when we listen to radio and podcasts, we read text and hear words. And one of the things that makes books and radio a great experience is that we take the words and in effect “dehydrate” them with our own imaginations and backfill the missing visuals with our own unique and personalized visualizations which are a key part of the experience.While this is great for books and radio, there are other areas where this just doesn’t work at all, areas where precision and accuracy is paramount.  One such area is app development.For example, an experienced iPhone app developer has a working and precise 3D model in his/her head of how the world of objects and frameworks fit together, how messages fly around, how objects delegate tasks to one another, along with an understanding of the various “patterns” that good programmers adhere to.But what happens when a new person comes along and wants to learn?  We unfortunately rely on text because of its **supreme convenience.** An analysis of all the app development learning resources out there, which I am an expert in, reveals that it’s virtually all text based, with the occasional 2D visualization.  Even videos are keynote presentations of text with occasional 2D images.The result is that it takes many months, if not YEARS to bring someone up to speed.  It’s horrible, and what ensues is a lot of confusion, with wrong models being constructed in the student’s head which must to be broken down and reconstructed repeatedly in successive approximation (and you know how hard it is for humans to break a bad habit or relearn someone’s name they’ve learned incorrectly. :-)Fast forward to the optimal way to communicate, and you have two people sitting in chairs with special helmets they put on to transfer knowledge between them, or perhaps the Vulcan mind meld might work too.Well, a practical solution that’s waiting in the wings (in hopefully the near future) are all the as-yet unavailable tools that can make it child’s play to visually explain and communicate things that are in each of our heads, and just bypass words and text.  Imagine the possibilities!We now have tools that have democratized desktop publishing, image processing, capturing and editing video, and the visualization tools Horace uses.  But we still have a long way to go getting tools that’ll allow us to visually communicate the rest of the things we can see in our heads in 3D. Until then we’re stuck communicating the subtleties and visuals in our heads by translating them into words and embarking on the laborious process of doing our best to get the listener to understand what we mean.The point I’m trying to make is that text is everywhere. I’m using it now because I have no choice. But most of us don’t see how woefully inadequate words can be when we want to express ourselves.  When some of us are trained to constantly look for errors in communication, it can be a painful experience.  I don’t watch the news anymore.  I believe that oversimplification is the greatest challenge of the 21st century.When I talk about this, I always end with “I’m waiting for when Pixar’s visualization tools are finally available on my iPad.”I know this is a long post, but why do commenting systems want me to compress this comment into four paragraphs?  Horace mentioned that “the system inhibits innovation.”  Well, think about what text inhibits, much less the places we use it.The remarkable painter Chuck Close says that severe constraints encourages creativity.  But it’s just one point along the spectrum.  Twitter caused me to say something to Horace that could be taken the wrong way the other day because I was overly concise.  Grrrrrr.  :-)Well, I’m trying to point a light on a big open area that’s sitting right before us just beyond reach, waiting to be explored. What will happen when we have tools that make it easy to move beyond text and words when we communicate and share with each other?Text is the stone age, Pixar is the future, and the gap between the two is waiting to be filled and will unleash amazing things when the tools are available to most everyone.  Exciting!

    • Most people are rather bad at visual communication. It takes practice and refinement, and I am not aware of formal training in this outside of the performing arts. Seems like we should all have yet another distribution requirement as undergrads to give a reasonable presentation… When my wife enrolled in New Mexico Tech, there actually was such requirement: “Introduction to Technical Communication”. Mostly they just learned how difficult visual communication can be. Alas.

      (I don’t mean to hog this forum, but this episode really hit home. OK I’m done now. Thanks!)

  • Dan Benjamin is great to listen to, a comfortably familiar sounding board when Horace has a finished product to talk about. But so much of Asymco’s genius is a process of discovery. Which is why listening to thought leaders bounce ideas around can open the door to new ways of thinking about {mobile communications, computer programming, the television}.Inviting people on to talk is a risky business. I had a really hard time following Episode 14, but this one — HOON LEE IS SMART ARTICULATE THOUGHTFUL INTERESTED.!! Happy dance.Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my social circle is half computers, half performing arts. I’m getting all of them to listen to this one.

  • and — remember 1993 when the CD-ROM suddenly enabled bulk digital content distribution? The game/puzzler MYST was a great success as a new narrative. And we were all trying to crack that one, perhaps serialized novels again distributed to email subscribers, or (presaging World of Warcraft) turn-based RPG communities via email (or snail mail)… Did you know that many young people deployed in the US military participate in mail-based, episodic narrative? Have been for decades. Now I suppose it’s all immediate via electronic communication. I don’t know. But old narrative traditions are very resilient.

  • Anonymous

    This made me think of what could be done with live classical concerts:

    I’ve some experience in live classical consert production. I actually have a small concert hall in my house, and in 7 years from 1975 I offered 7 concert yearly, with the best musicians I could find. The conserts was financed by public funds.

    During the 7 year of high quality concerts, however, the public diminished from a average of 60 to 20. And at twenty I decided to quit.

    After that I’ve always been looking for ways to revive the classical concerts, and your discussion gave me some ideas.

    Based on my experience I very well remember the immense value of the natural sound and sight. I even denied the National broadcasting in Norway to tape concerts.

    But also the silent communication between the musicians and the public are extremly valuable; When you come to a concert, or theater, you know you have to be present in your mind. You have to concentrate just here and now. In recorded music you can always take a break, and listen better another time. But this can easyli become a false strategy. I, at least, almost never go back to the recorded stuff.

    The reason I prefer live radio and TV to recorded ones may be just that. I know this is a one-time happening, and that’s make me aware, awake and consentrated.

    Finally there is also communicated other experiences both ways. The musicians often feels if the public is “taken”, and that inspires them even further.

    Here are some ideas that may also relate to theater:
    – You cannot provide people with real sound and view. So we have to educate people to come for that.
    – We can give them the next best experience: A realtime performance.
    – Broadcast every performance in realtime world wide. 
    – Just accept a finite number of viewers.
    – Perform you show in all the worlds continents so that people can come and experience you live.
    – Make economic productions with for instance Apple devices
    – Distribute a season globally as an app. 
    – Let people reserve realtime and real shows from the app.
    – Let people pay a small amount for each show.
    – Use youtube recorded shows to create interest.

    Another great show Horace, and as always you make me productive.

    • Hoon Lee

      Some good, provocative thoughts here. Some of which are being implemented by orchestras and opera companies already (though on a smaller scale). I’ve yet to see theatre attempt some of these things although I think that has much to do with our union constraints.

      One thing your suggestions touch upon is the idea of live performance as a unique occurrence. While one may never be able to replicate the sort of charged air that exists only in a given physical space at a given point in time, one could still celebrate the unvarnished beauty of the singular performance.

      There’s also something to be said for the idea of iteration in itself being a meaningful part of artistic expression. People who love Hamlet will have favorites and loyalties but are more likely to see many versions of Hamlet performed by a huge range of actors. The works are made familial by their common text but the iteration and the variation are meaningful and rewarding. These are aspects of live, iterative performance that might be exploited as well.

  • Anonymous

    How to make your podcast more internet-like? For instance: 
    – Make the show realtime (as other 5By5 shows)
    – Use twitter with a hashtag for the show and do some live communication
    – Offer us a live conference where we could meet you, Dan Benjamin and other active listeners?
    – Finally make an app, that promote this enhanced podcast experience.

  • Anonymous

    I need to have Siri listening to the podcasts so that when you mention a URL or Twitter account then it would store those sites or perhaps even bring them up during the podcast.

    “Leslie, I just detected a Twitter account for John Doe. Would you like to follow?”
    “Remind me later.”

    Perhaps also allowing me to pause the podcast so that I know what you’re speaking about.”Siri, Horace just said gemanatapaculhumalaptapus. What does that mean?””Actually, he said statistics are a good thing. Would you like me to rewind the last minute of the podcast?”
    “Yes and define statistics.”
    “(sigh) would you like me to switch some nice soothing music instead?”

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like you are working through your thoughts in unfamiliar territory. I don’t know what to suggest regarding live performance because I am one of the millions who are turned off by the trends in live theater that Mr lee described.

    What seems to have happened is that Hollywood has successfully trained its audience to value what only it can do!  What’s happened is that big time legitimate theater is now trying to deliver an imitation “Hollywood blockbuster” as a live show! Geez. They can never win by playing Hollywood’s game. They have to find a way to play their own game and win on their own terms. 

    I would suggest that they need less technology, not more. More humanity and less artificiality. That’s the one thing that Hollywood’s high tech plastic can’t deliver.

    Here’s a brief example of a profoundly disruptive movie of 50 years ago: A British director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, was getting pissed because a little runt B-director called Castle was making good money making cheap black & white horror pictures, with a lot of ballyhoo. The A studios had spent the decade trying to fight off TV by presenting a larger and more costly style of production — a style that cannot be shown on TV. They actually reached for 3D (in 1953) and invented widescreen and the spectacle type of snow — the Technicolor “sword & sandal” stuff, for example.  

    Hitch even made a 3D picture in 1953 and a bunch of costly widescreens with A-level stars. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart. By 1960 he wondered what would happen if a master director and showman (such as himself) made one of these cheap little black & white horror pictures, in the style of William Castle.

    He very deliberately kept the budget for “Psycho” down below a million dollars and shot it using the crew for his TV show, not his A-list crew for his Technicolor productions. 

    He actually had a very difficult time even getting it made because the studios were convinced that it would only be an embarrassing flop. He only got it made by putting up a lot of the money himself.

    Of course, that one turned out to be the revolution. It’s been so long that people forget how “Psycho” repudiated the big-budget formula that Hollywood had been using for the whole decade.   “Psycho” was revolutionary because Hitch took it the other way. He gave the public the same low-budget black & white show that they could see on TV but he took the story in a direction that no TV network could ever touch. The narrative is crucial, as you both said.

    Up ’till then, the villain was rational — even well-dressed– (think “North by Northwest”) but in “Psycho” the bad guy was flat out crazy. That’s a whole lot scarier. It turns out that that is exactly the world we faced in the 60’s. It touched a nerve that all the 50’s widescreen shows could not deliver. That’s where we got the modern horror picture: Hitchcock’s B-movie.

    I suppose that today the live stage has to figure out how to offer an alternative to Hollywood’s game, as Hitch did 50 years ago. In this case, I think its that the Live Stage has to offer humanity instead of technology. Hollywood already has cornered the technology market (e.g., read Ebert on 3D) so you have to gamble that there is a latent audience for something else. Play to your strengths!

    • Hoon Lee

      Very interesting. My wife is a big Hitchcock fan. I’ll ping her on this.

      I completely agree about theatre needing to “win” on its own terms. But, as I started to discuss with Horace, it might be that narrative entertainment is the continuum that we look at, rather than theatre vs. film or live performance vs. recorded performance. If that’s the case, then what’s interesting to me is to look for the Hitchcock of Internet entertainment.

      Your point about content is interesting because I think it touches upon one of the difficulties I personally have in using disruption theory as a lens for theatre and the arts: the range and breadth of content or narrative (to me – let me make that clear) implies that the “job to be done” is wildly varied. It’s part of the challenge (and enjoyment) of trying to examine my industry from this perspective.

  • Anonymous

    So let’s set the price of a generic theater ticket at $500. Akin to the price for conference admission. How could we persuade prospective audiences that it has even more value in their lives? Maybe even to their livelihoods. Interesting. We place high economic value on what makes us a living. Less on what makes a life.

    • Hoon Lee

      There are large cultural issues at work here clearly. I would argue that for a vast majority of Americans “what makes us a living” is in fact how we largely define “what makes a life”. The value of culture is often judged by commercial metrics. 

      Give Broadway ten more years at the current clip and we’ll get to the $500 mark. But it will further remove theatre from the realm of the everyday experience and continue the trend that pushes theatre, classical music and opera into more and more rarified territory.

      The value of art will increase when its positive impact on daily life is clear, intuitively obvious and demonstrable. In a predominantly commercial society, it will also need to offer clear financial upside as well. 

      How we communicate the value of art is part of this conversation (and potential conversion). Why do we call organizations “non-profits”? What bias does that betray? We speak of the lasting cultural impact of films like Star Wars but Star Wars’ success is inextricably linked to its groundbreaking product integration.We have metrics to determine how much money The Lion King made in a given week, or the opening weekend of the latest James Bond but we have very few conversations about the potential cultural impact in the present or the future. I’m not saying these ideas aren’t present – just that they are difficult to organize. The metrics are difficult to identify without the benefit of hindsight. And probably impossible to agree upon. 

      But I’m not sure that’s a fight I want to fight personally. I think my energy is better spent trying to create mechanisms, frameworks of thought or methods that encourage artists to iterate more rapidly and more freely.