HowlRound Brings Commoning to the Theater

American culture has been dominated for so long by Hollywood, Broadway and the nonprofit industrial complex that it is hard to imagine theatrical performance without the stars, the spectacle, the corporate investments and marketing hype.  What would it be like if theater were taken off its big-money pedestal and allowed to speak to serious social concerns, politics, ethnicity and the human condition as it is actually experienced? 

Welcome to HowlRound, a growing hub of the nonprofit theater world hat boldly bills itself as a “Center for the Theater Commons.”  HowlRound, hosted at Emerson College in Boston, is dedicated to the idea of “recouping the idea of nonprofit theater as an instrument of civilization."   

For those who participate in HowlRound, the commons is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental organizing principle and ethic.  As its website explains, “HowlRound is modeling a commons….. A theater commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated by others committed to its existence.”

In a world of shrinking foundation grants, government austerity and hyper-competition for entertainment dollars, can nonprofit theater reinvent itself as a commons?  I spoke with Polly Carl, director and editor of HowlRound, to learn more.  On the project's website, Carl describes herself as “a scholar and dreamer. A bicycle enthusiast, and tattoo 

aficionado, her most recent ink job features her pup Joey riding a blue Schwinn, tennis ball in mouth. She makes her ravioli from scratch.”

That's more or less what HowlRound is trying to do for nonprofit theater:  to make it from scratch. Carl is convinced that commoning is the most effective way to revive the creativity and relevance of theater for ordinary people.  “Sometimes you just have to let go of things that you think are really valuable [like conventional structures for nonprofit theater], and experiment,” she said. 

HowlRound was born two years ago when Carl, David Dower, Vijay Mathew and Jamie Gahlon decided that all artists should have more say in how the American theater is run. Carl explained that “market-driven institutions have left the artist behind financially, and artists can no longer control their destiny.”  

So why not try to amass a community of people dedicated to “the core principle that theater is for everyone”?  

To the organizers, the commons was a perfectly logical vehicle because it could help them attract the most diverse, intelligent, and creative participants.  Instead of begging for crumbs from the formal, hierarchical, market-driven universe – while compromising their artistic vision in the process -- HowlRound wanted to reinvent nonprofit theater on a sounder foundation.  It wanted theater to be authentic, innovative, community-connected and accessible to all.  What better way than to build a new commons?

The HowlRound organizers started by developing an online knowledge platform and by convening gatherings.  They fostered collaborations among organizations.  They promoted field-wide research.  They developed “new teaching practices to illuminate the breadth, diversity, and impact of a commons-based approach to theater practice.”

With amazing speed, HowlRound has become one of the country’s most robust new centers of conversation and creativity about nonprofit theater.  Its online journal has over 500 contributors and 25,000 readers.  Some 4,000 organizations and artists have put themselves on the interactive New Play Map, a national map of the new plays being presented and their journeys around the country.  (When I visited the map, it had 55 separate events listed for that day.)

HowlRound TV consists of peer-produced, open source livestreaming contributed by a global community.  More than 50,000 hours of it were watched last year. HowlRound TV’s self-declared mission is “to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively.” 

With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HowlRound has also seeded residential “commons producers” in eleven communities around the country to produce content that tracks activity in those communities. The idea is to make theater performances more relevant and engaging for people in their (non-Hollywood, outside of NYC) lives.  

And for spirited discussion, there is the Weekly Howl, a peer-produced, open access discussion about theater culture and contemporary performance.  Again, the commons is the framing narrative:  “HowlRound is a story of artists and theater makers sharing dissonant opinions, engaging in-depth dialogue, and promoting best practices with the hope of ensuring a vibrant future for our field.  Our stories live in a theater commons—shared resources available to all.”

Taking this vision a step further, next week HowlRound will host the first large-scale, formal gathering of the Latina/o theater community since 1986.  The Latina/o Theater Commons is a new national advocacy initiative that will bring together 79 Latina/o actors, directors, producers, playwrights, designers, and scholars representing all regions of the United States.

HowlRound is even exploring the idea of creating a new currency Culture Coin that could be used by theater-goers to help troupes rent rehearsal space, support individual artists and in other ways support artistic endeavors. 

Polly Carl confessed to me that skeptics in the foundation and theater world have nervously asked if HowlRound is a “communist” enterprise.  We laughed.  The traditionalists simply have no other reference points for open collaboration without hierarchy, commercial success and top-down control.  

But just as Hollywood and record labels now prowl the back corners of YouTube and social media hoping to find their next big stars, I predict that commercial theaters will soon be prowling HowlRound to spot hot new talent and ideas. Will the siren call of commercialism and co-optation be far behind?  

It’s not too early for HowlRound to start thinking ahead and devising ingenious ways to protect its integrity as a commons.  In the meantime, with enclosure still a distant threat,it’s time to revel in this very special commons and take inspiration from the great possibilities that lie ahead.