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Opposite Ends of the Interactivity Spectrum

April 19, 2012

Interactivity is so much the rage these days both in journalism and in the arts that it's starting to make things like the business of going to see a traditional play or ballet look really old-fashioned.

It's a sign of the times that two out of the three just-announced Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge awards are going to organizations that source content from members of the public. (The third is a university-based project, and therefore also distinct from the regular media setup.)

And events in which audience members are actively involved (like the one I'm planning around Drinking Songs on May 16 under the auspices of VoiceBox in downtown San Francisco) are springing up all over the place.

Take the Feast of Words: Literary Potluck event which I attended at SOMArts Cultural Center a couple of nights ago for instance. These monthly events, in which esteemed local literary figures and chefs partner to present a meal and a reading around a particular theme, are now a regular part of the SOMArts Calendar and are selling out.

The theme of Tuesday's event was "Leap of Faith," and it involved a reading from writer Beth Lisick and a meal created by chef John Ingle.

I personally have never much enjoyed attending author readings -- just because someone can write well, it doesn't mean they can read well in public, and not all literary works lend themselves to being read aloud.

So what was great about the Literary Potluck was that the highlighted author reading was only a small part of the overall proceedings.

The rest of the evening was taken up with eating Chef Ingle's yummy meal (consisting of kale, shrimp and various other healthful ingredients), sampling potluck treats which audience members contributed to the event in exchange for a reduced entry fee, meeting fellow attendees at the big family style dining tables that had been set up in SOMArts main gallery space and participating in writing exercises. Some audience members even got to share their work with the group.

Though the soiree was low-key and felt at moments a bit like playtime at kindergarten, it was a lovely blend of activity, creativity and socializing.

This was all very different in feel from last night's performance of an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men at Theatreworks in Mountain View. A traditional theatre experience requiring audiences to sit quietly in the dark and applaud at the end, Robert Kelley's production would be deemed utterly unfashionable by today's crowd-sourced approach to cultural product.

Yet by my estimation, the experience was equally worthwhile. What I valued most was what the staging of Steinbeck's famous 1937 novel about people eking out an existence on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in rural California revealed about the story.

Although the use of Latino accents for Lenny and George didn't quite work in terms of creating a parallel between 1930s rural workers and today's workforce (more of the other farmhands would have needed to be Latino to make the conceit make sense) Kelley's production enabled the status and power games between the characters to seem all the more pronounced and moving. That the ensemble cast managed to draw us deeply into Steinbeck's narrative was what I valued most about it.

In a sense, experiences like this production of Of Mice and Men are interactive, at least to a degree: While audience members don't get to jump up on stage, they are transported to a different world which forces them to negotiate between the one being portrayed before their eyes and their own. That's a kind of interactivity.

To conclude: I'm not going to write off the more traditional arts experiences just because they don't involve theatergoers swinging from the chandeliers. But I'm interested in ways in which interactivity can be explored.

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