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Curtain up on HowlRound, the theater knowledge commons

Open Culture

Screenshot of the HowlRound front page. CC BY 4.0

HowlRound was founded five years ago as the “knowledge commons” for the theater community to better include the voices of artists and creators working for inclusivity. The HowlRound organizers we interviewed, Jamie Gahlon, Vijay Mathew, Adewunmi Oke, and Ramona Ostrowski, exemplify the concept of the commons through their commitment to community action, creative output, and creating meaningful, lasting resources for artists and creatives working in theater and beyond.

HowlRound is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license and run through Emerson College in Boston. They gladly welcome contributors to their Knowledge Commons.

Why a knowledge commons for the theater community? What prompted this project? Why did you decide to license the content via Creative Commons?

When we started HowlRound in 2011, the US nonprofit theatre field was suffering from an imbalance of resources and scarce and elitist access to information and knowledge. It felt like many conversations were happening in institutions behind closed doors and leaving artists out altogether. In order to know what was happening in the world of theatre outside of your own professional network, you had to be invited into elite conferences and festivals. We adopted the model of commons-based peer-production (best exemplified by Wikipedia) and the Creative Commons license as a practical way to usher in, amplify, and reveal the incredible ideas, conversations, and experiences of theatremakers across the country—no matter their previous social standing and access to resources in this microcosm. We also used commons-based peer-production and the Creative Commons license as a critique of and an antidote to the capitalistic values that many nonprofits ironically absorb as organizational behaviors: competition, creation of artificial scarcity, advancement at the expense of others, and individualistic self-advancement.

Using and promoting the Creative Commons has been a way for us to community-organize our field around shared goals and concerns around collective advancement, and collaboration that benefits the whole.

You produce a lot of content but you also host meetups, chat on Twitter, and provide other community events and actions. How do you balance the online community on your site with the in person aspects of your work?

The online platforms (the Journal, HowlRound TV, the Twitter Chats, the forthcoming World Theatre Map) and the in-person convenings amplify each other; all follow the same model of commons-based peer-production. We see our online platforms and in-person work as complementary pieces of a whole. The agendas and content are shaped and managed by the same community of people who self-elect to participate. Our role as HowlRound staff is that of community organizers, facilitators, and systems designers.

What kinds of outcomes have you seen from the commons-based approach that you take?

The democratization and disruption that these platforms have created has made highly visible space for a multiplicity of viewpoints, perspectives, and practices.

It’s been truly revelatory in terms of generating a diversity of narratives about contemporary theatremaking that have been previously marginalized and unheard. People’s stake in and care of this commons is palpable. HowlRound has helped to incubate self-organized movements for equity and community advancement (the Latina/o Theatre Commons is a great example of commons-based practice in action). An orientation towards collective resources that can benefit not just a few, but many — is now our mainstream culture and narrative for this community.

What are you most excited about currently? Any collaborations that are particularly motivating or exciting to you that are upcoming?

We are extremely excited about The World Theatre Map, a user-generated directory of the global theatre community, which will launch in mid-January 2017. Theatre artists, designers, practitioners, and administrators around the world can create profiles, see each other, and find out what kind of theatre is happening in real-time across the globe, and in their local communities. Our hope is that this map will foster connections and collaborations in the global theatre community in a way that hasn’t been done before. All in all, it’s our largest foray to date towards building a truly international knowledge commons for the theatre. It’s also a true test of the commons model—it will only be as valuable as the data and information the community puts in it.

Posted 10 November 2016