Flipping the Stage: show me more ugly

Earlier this week, Dr. Shawn Graham forwarded me on this website and project, knowing about my interest in theatre. This post is going to talk about that project, and I’ll be using both my history/theatre and digital history hats!

St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program is undertaking something that to my knowledge, is pretty unique in the performing arts world. Their using social media platforms and tools, like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat, to give the public and audience members a behind the scenes look at the making of “Ash Girl”, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. They’re calling it “Flipping the Stage.” Here’s an explanation of what they’re doing:

Typically a theatre production is experienced for a narrowly prescribed moment—the 2-2.5 hours of performance. “Flipping the Stage” looks to lengthen and broaden the theatrical experience for the students involved in the production as well as the broader PCA department and SLU campus population by offering in-depth exposure to the production via the cast, crew, and production team.

The program was developed through the Digital Initiatives Faculty Fellowship Program. Through Flipping the Stage, they showcase the production work that goes into a show. They’ve broken down their posts into different themes/categories, including “Mystery Monday” “Technical Tuesday” “Wisdom Wednesday” “Funday Friday” “Selfie Sunday.”

The photos and snapshots show pictures of the cast picking apples together, costume mock-ups, pre-show rehearsals, script readings, inspiration, game nights etc. Here’s a snapshot of some of their posts (you can see much more through their website.)

This is a pretty brave step. Showcasing what goes on from script to stage is never easy. This kind of transparency excites me, as it’s something that I think a lot of historians are calling for in the field (and are reluctant to do). Talking about these decisions and negotiations is something I tried to do with my MRE script, and in the reflection I’ll be writing.

What the St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program is doing deserves applause, but there are some issues with it as well. I’m confident that someone involved in the Flipping the Stage program has  A) already thought of these issues, and B) will likely write/present about them at some point, but since I haven’t seen anything as of yet, I’m going to throw in my 2 cents, coming from a historical/theatre perspective, and combined with some of the things I’ve learned thus far from my Digital History class.

The biggest issue is that they’re buying into the idea that by using things like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, the public is getting a “real look” at what is going on in production. Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever we post something on the Web, we’re performing.  Think about how many selfies you’ve taken when you have a huge pimple on your chin…None? Yeah, not surprising. Knowing that the images we’re taking are going to be seen by others causes us to automatically filter ourselves. We all want to look like we’re living happy, fabulous, and fulfilling lives.

Not surprisingly then, the majority of the Flipping the Stage content shows a happy, fun cast. While I am in no way saying that these people weren’t happy when these photos were taken, I can’t ignore the fact that there aren’t too many photos/videos that show a stressed out director, dealings with a difficult cast member, budget issues etc. This is because we don’t often have the knee-jerk response to whip out a camera when people are fighting, and things are going wrong. However, those are the realities of theatrical production. Nothing every goes 100% according to plan, there are always hiccups.

I’d argue then that in carrying Flipping the Stage forward (which St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program should 100% do, because again it is an amazing initiative), they should strive to catch more of these kinds of interactions. Leave the camera running during rehearsal, capture those creative differences. Because it’s those things that will be interesting for public, the conversations that happen surrounding blocking, readings, and character development, that show all the minute decisions that go into a production. All the little negotiations that shape how an audience will learn a story.

Congratulations to the cast/crew of The Ash Girl, and to St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program for being bold and brave! Keep pushing forward, and keep up the good work!