Founded from the spirit of the Occupy Movement, HowlRound Theatre Commons is pioneering new forms of performance.
After celebrating more than a decade of giving radical theater artists a platform to virtually showcase their ideas and forge connections, the team at HowlRound Theatre Commons are asking themselves and their contributors how best to play a role in ushering in a “Just Transition” in 2022, and what that looks like for the theater world, as they moves into yet another year where the ongoing pandemic continues to pose new challenges for the theater world.
“One thing that’s been [the most] challenging for the theater during the pandemic, apart from the obvious things like all the actual venues being shut down, is that most [people working] in the nonprofit theater field are basically freelancers. The playwrights, actors, directors, designers and technicians have had [to face] employment challenges [during this period],” says HowlRound Cultural Strategist and co-founder Vijay Mathew. “However, one of the positive things [that happened during the pandemic] is that many in the field are turning to online venues like Zoom and are more aware of inclusion practices like sign language interpretation, and that’s new.”
Founded in 2011, HowlRound is an online media publishing organization focused on amplifying progressive and disruptive ideas in the theater field and is based out of Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. The name HowlRound itself is derived from the term used for audio feedback.
“Like when you put a microphone next to a speaker,” says Mathew. “We are creating a feedback loop for the field of theater. Artists input their voices into the platform, and they become amplified, louder and louder.”
HowlRound was formed in the midst of the Occupy Movement, and in the same spirit, according to Mathew. At that time, theater artists like Mathew began to realize that the nonprofit theater world had become a reflection of commercial theater in the worst way—with the wealthiest theaters getting wealthier, and the poorer becoming poorer—and there wasn’t an online venue yet for those in the theater field to address the systemic issues inherent in both these extremes.
“In the United States, the nonprofit theater movement took off in the early 1960s with pro-social aims and missions, but through time and inertia, the nonprofit theater began to resemble commercial, Broadway theater. Because there was a lack of diversity, it became a monoculture,” says Mathew. “Nonprofit theater may have started with the intention of being a people’s theater, but it always remained an elite endeavor in wealthy cities with wealthy donors. HowlRound was built as a reaction to that and was set up to be countercultural.”
Once HowlRound was established, and more people in the field began contributing their voices to it, more people started joining the cast of contributors at HowlRound, and after more than a decade since its inception, the online platform continues to grow. Mathew has watched HowlRound have a slow and steady effect on the theater field at large, but he has learned over the years that bringing attention to problematic systemic issues and progressive ideas is a gradual process.
“For many years, the biggest topics [in the theater world] have been [about] gender and gender diversity, and race and race representation, and specifically how [these topics] manifest themselves in theater through casting,” says Mathew. “Also, just the embedded politics of what a rehearsal room looks like and the power distribution there.”
One of the inherent problems with the dominant power structure in the U.S. theater world, according to Mathew, is that it comes from the structure of Shakespearean theater, which evolved into what is known as the traditional theater model. When the playwrights and their script are the generative and primary authority in theater, the power structure of a production becomes hierarchical and standardized.
“Outside of the United States, playwright-driven theater is the minority form of theater,” says Mathew. “The traditional theater model makes it easy for nonprofit theater to become commodified and could almost [lead to nonprofit theater being] considered a bush league for commercial theater or television writing. In a sense, the U.S theater is just a development ground for Hollywood.”
The flipside of traditional, script-driven theater is called ensemble theater or devised theater. In ensemble theater, there may or may not even be a script, and members of the production could have numerous titles or responsibilities. Ensemble theater is more prevalent in Europe and manifests in forms like circus or street theater.
“These first nonprofit institutions in the 1960s in the U.S. were set up to do classic plays and not any other kinds of theater,” says Mathew. “So from then on, anyone who wants to be a theater artist has these set paths before them where they have to choose one specialization like playwright or actor. Wherever you are in the U.S., whether in Seattle or Miami, theater is standardized, and there’s not much diversity.”
HowlRound works with theater artists to compose essays and livestreams about radical topics in the theater world, or cultural issues in general like climate change and racial discrimination. They also offer virtual workshops and events like the upcoming Comedy Carnaval produced by the Latinx Theatre Commons.
“The Latinx Theatre Commons is a program that is specifically about changing the narrative in U.S. theater about who is making theater and where it’s coming from,” says Mathew. “[The Latinx Theatre Commons] use HowlRound to organize conferences and festivals hosted by various organizations that are part of the commons, and it’s been really impactful for bringing awareness to the rich diversity of Latinx theater artists who’ve been historically ignored by the white-dominated nonprofit theater world.”
Essentially, HowlRound is an open-source project for theater, similar to what Mozilla is to Firefox for software development. Mathew sees HowlRound’s structure as a replicable model for other sectors.
“I think the commons-based, peer-produced media publishing model exists elsewhere, and is quite common, but I don’t know of any other platforms like ours in the arts,” says Mathew.
With accelerated crises on the horizon, whether it be social, medical or environmental, Mathew hopes that the community he and his colleagues have built will help shine a light on concepts like commoning and the solidarity economy movement, and inspire more people to envision alternate forms of social organization moving forward.
“My hope is that theater artists with our focus and skillset will be able to provoke people’s imaginations about new ways of organizing and collaborating with each other and constructing society in a new way,” says Mathew.
Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.