DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Entries in Theatrics (5)


Fan Centric Media

I work with, an interactive media company offering a cloud-based co-creation platform for storytellers and brands. The focus of our work recently has been what I like to call "fan-centric" media. Once known by the geeky acronym UGC (user-generated content), fan-centric media is, in a real sense, taking over the world. Of course, all media works because of some kind of mysterious psychic exchange between the artist and the audience, each working according to rules of the story form -- that's why adaptations of books into movies often annoy hard-core fans of the former, and movies into games, well, I digress.

The emergence of true fan-centric media has come about because of the Internet, and especially socialized media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc. Again, each of these and many other platforms vary in how they address the issue, but what is new here is the interconnection between content created by fans or average people with professional content. was born to support a story world, a fictional town called Beckinfield, where the residents were all fans of the show. Unlike an open UGC platform like YouTube, Theatrics invites fans to co-create a story by uploading content (video, images, text) in a contained and defined story world with guidance from the show creators and other fans. Over time, as content is uploaded and the story or experience grows, the general audience has many ways to access and experience the content. It's multi-dimensional.

Next week Theatrics will launch two new shows with some excellent partners. I will post more details when the content is released on Monday, but in the meantime, here is a presentation on the topic of "Fan-centric Media," adapted from a talk I gave at Story Code in mid-September 2013. (Story Code is the New York City transmedia meet-up.) Also presenting was Elaine McMillion with a reall remarkable interactive documentary about an Appalachian town, called HOLLOW. 

Story Code posted a video of the talk on YouTube (Elaine is first. My talk starts around 46:30). Here are my slides:


Join in the SteamPunk interactive adventure AURELIA

One of the most interesting genres of fantasy storytelling is steampunk, generally with characters set in the Victorian era when the world was powered by steam and enlivened by inventiveness in science and costumery.

If you're one of the genre's many fans, you should check out Lisa Walker England's Aurelia: Edge of Darkness, a steampunk-fantasy interactive web drama officially debuting online today on Inspired by her illustrated steampunk-fantasy serial Rise of the Tiger, the show invites anyone to create and develop a character to help tell the story of the doomed city of Aurelia.  With a run scheduled for 12 weeks, fans will create characters -- citizens of the city -- using Theatrics’ collaborative video communication platform. Their video and other content posts will drive the ongoing story.

Walker, who works by day as a digital marketer, has assembled a team of illustrators, performers, and supporters from her home base in Milwaukee. Many of her collaborators are afficianados of the live-action role-playing communities in the region, and have already begun to perform in character on the Aurelia site. 

She has also created a blog in order to share the backstage evolution of the project and the community which will help the story unfold, here.

Map of AURELIA, one of many back-story items to discover on the new show site.

Aurelia: Edge of Darkness follows the citizens of a self-sustaining, steam-powered city as they battle a deadly energy crisis.  Each week, fans will receive new calls to action that invite them to react to plot twists and tell the story from their character’s unique point of view.  Fans are also encouraged to post photos of the costumes, sets and props they are developing for their character to Facebook and Twitter with the hashtags #aurelia, #aureliaspoilers or #aureliaprops.

The story of Aurelia: Edge of Darkness begins after the once-utopian plains of Aurelia were transformed into a cold, uninhabitable wasteland, fit only for monsters and the almost dead. The citizens have been forced to flee to a central mountain where they have built a fortress and named it Aurelia after their lost home.  Inside its walls, their civilization has flourished through scientific inventions and the power of steam, but now, Aurelia faces a serious energy shortage. If the city’s boilers fall silent, another paradise will fade into Darkness.  As fans take on the personas of Aurelia’s citizens, they must overcome political intrigue, social unrest, and strange magical happenings to find a new source of power... before the lights go out, forever.  


The Fanthropology of Theatrics

The session was called "Unlock the Power of Fans" at Transmedia Los Angeles’ monthly meetup earlier this week, but I’ll remember it as the Fanthropology of Theatrics, because I learned so much about the way audiences are using the new collaborative storytelling platform that I was there to represent.


I kicked off the discussion with a presentation, embedded here, about how theatrics works, and was then followed by Jay Bushman, co-executive producer of ‘Welcome to Sanditon,’ the sequel to the phenomenally successful web series ‘Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries,’ a modern updating of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice. ‘Sanditon’ used Theatrics to invite fans to create their own characters who could engage with the story over a 14-week run.

The third panelist was Kris Longfield who describes herself as a “fanthropologist.” Such a perfect conflation of terminology! You instantly know what she does: she studies the behavior of online fan communities.

My client Theatrics has built a remarkable platform, but like any software tool, it’s only as good as those who use it – like world-class interactive visionaries Jay Bushman and Margaret Dunlap from Pemberley Digital (the fake company in their stories, which is now the real production company behind these great Austen transmutations.)

Jay reported than more than 200 videos from 130 “characters” inside the Sanditon story world were created in the first week, from which he built a very engaging compilation episode.


With more than 400 videos created by fans, Jay will edit another, and that practice will continue over the run of the series.

Sanditon has managed to keep about healthy slide of the Lizzie Bennet audience, but not all of them are pleased at the team’s introduction of the interactive aspects of the story, as the comments on the non-Theatrics companion sites indicate:

I don't mean this rudely, but: Is there actually a point to this? Like, is there actually a *story* in this story? Or just random user interactive things like this? :-/

And in this corner:

I'll give all you Sanditon plot haters a clue......Your Welcome. Heh, heh. Seriously this_ series is what you MAKE IT. After all we are all just a PART IN THE PLOT. Do you get it yet? Good luck. ;>

Bushman surmises that lots of fans --  notwithstanding their age (young) and their relationship to digital tools (extensive) still want a linear narrative. It’s the 90-10 rule, said Longfield, e.g., only 10% of the audience in most fan communities actually contribute. The rest lurk, read, observe, consume.

She also noted that fan communities thrive within and against the aura of a “canon” – the official version of the story, its settings, characters and rules. Huge commercial properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter have immense fandoms, sometimes embraced, sometimes opposed by the commercial interests behind the canon. She noted that it may be harder for original properties to generate fan engagement communities in the same way as existing properties.

The Pemberley projects attract a fanbase that is overwhelmingly female and young. Bushman noted that most of the videos uploaded by young women included some form of apology – for their performance, for the quality, for their video skills. Male uploaders did not apologize. Clearly the social context for young women has an impact on how they interact in these kinds of fan communities.

Bushman opened the door to a fascinating ethical and legal issue for the show creator whose work invites user content with the disclosure of a particularly delicate incident that in which a young woman shared – in character – something highly personal that other fans did not like. Does the show runner or other fans have a responsibility to help? To police errant behavior?    

From the audience came one decisive question: “Just who are these people?” – meaning, is there a profile for the type of audience member who migrates into the world of co-creation that tools like Theatrics enables? Her research suggests, she said, some usual suspects like students who have time on their hands, bored housewives, and, counter-intuitively, a lot of lawyers. Tell that to Shakespeare!



Theatrics = Collaborative Video Storytelling


I'm thrilled to be involved with the launch of the beta version of a new collaborative video storytelling platform from

The product features tools that allow a storyteller or a brand to involve the audience in the creative process while providing a host of communications and management features unavailable on other platforms. 

Theatrics is throwing open the doors to storytellers and brands who'd like to experiment with this truly unique collaborative storytelling cloud-based software available.

The goal of the beta is to develop ground-breaking online interactive video productions that will engage their users -- customers, employees, fans, and audience members – in content creation. Use of the platform will be free during the beta trial. 

I'm working with Theatrics and prospective users of the platform to help build exciting new experiences. If you've got an idea, please email me or signup on the site to get a feel for the tools. Just as Wordpress is a tool set for bloggers, Theatrics is a toolset for video-based storytellers. Here are some of the ideas from companies we're working with:

  • A successful web video series wants to invite fans to create their own characters that perform and live in a new fictionalized storyworld 
  • A documentary filmmaker wants to conduct a contest for audience members to tell their own stories in video and still images
  • A franchise chain wants to create a new application that its affiliates can sell to customers featuring video tributes
  • A national brand with a salesforce in the tens of thousands wants to build a hub where they can share stories and inspiration
  • A sci-fi series wants to provide CG backgrounds for fans to use in creating their own in-story characters
  • A meetup group wants to challenge its members to co-create a new story and a new storyworld.

As Theatrics CEO Biff Van Cleve puts it: "Generation C is as comfortable with creating content as consuming it, so the Theatrics video storytelling platform taps into millions of people who are shooting and sharing video on a daily basis, enabling creators to engage their audiences to tell stories in exciting new ways." provides creators the opportunity to establish a story world, characters, and plot and the audience to participate by uploading video and blog posts as personas they create themselves. The process is seamless and easy to use. Additionally, the platform offers a second screen experience for studios and networks to give fans the opportunity to engage directly with their favorite shows and films – to actually create and play a character in an on-going, online story world. 

About Theatrics 

With offices in Houston and Los Angeles, is an interactive entertainment company offering a collaborative video storytelling platform that easily enables creators to incorporate and manage user generated content. The toolset provides creators the ability to push the boundaries of storytelling by controlling the story, characters, and vision, while the audience adds their own creativity by performing in the show and interacting with the story and other users. Theatrics partnered with USA Network for the launch of PSYCH The S#cial Sector and produced its first series, Beckinfield, as proof of concept. For more information, please visit: 


Beckinfield – The Haunted Town Where the Audience Creates the Story 

Residents of the fictional town of Beckinfield have a lot going on, what with all the ghosts and other supernatural intercessions that keep popping up. 

But the townspeople are nowhere near as busy as some visitors to "Beckinfield," a website that presents an ongoing sci-fi series about the town in a format unlike any TV you've ever seen.

That's because the story is told entirely by means of first-person video diaries – in-character performances created by users and upload to the site.

The Beckinfield story unfolds continuously -- a kind of never-ending soap opera for the YouTube set. Every audience member's experience of the story is individualized, since one's view depends upon which characters one chooses to follow and watch. A weekly edit -- "previously on Beckinfield" -- provides a summary of story highlights. The site's tagging and trending tools also help guide the user experience. 

Suffice it to say: the Beckinfield user is an engaged user -- whether choosing to perform or just watch. 

The performers of course are all unpaid. Some are aspiring actors; others are amateurs from all around the world. More than 4,000 of them have registered since Beckinfield's "soft" launch at the SXSW conference in March, 201l. 10% are actively uploading content on a regular basis.

New members are presented with an online form, just like any social network sign-up process – but in doing so, they create their character. Once a user starts uploading video clips, they receive a weekly newsletter -- a sort of serialized story Bible. Actors are encouraged to reflect plot points in their performances and to collaborate with other actors to create interrelated story threads. 

"The show is written and plotted, but not scripted," says co-founder Bob Gebert, an actor, director and writer who evolved the idea while helping fellow actors promote themselves using YouTube.

"Just like reality television," he said, somewhat sheepishly.

Or a cross between Desperate Housewives and Dungeons and Dragons, as one Beckinfield actor put it.

A more relevant precursor is the 2006 YouTube hit "Lonely Girl 15," which initially seemed to be the webcam confessions of troubled teens, but turned out to be professional actors playing roles with improvisational brio. LG15 was groundbreaking, not only because of the mass trick that its creators played on viewers, but because the then-new YouTube platform enabled viewers to upload their own video reactions, creating a crazy-quilt structure for the experience of the story.

Lonely Girl 15 Reunion at Vidcon 2011

While YouTube itself was becoming the venue of choice for a new class of entrepreneurial performers, many L.A. actors saw online video as a means to get noticed within the industry -- a low-budget "American Idol" for actors. 

So Gebert began coaching actors to create improvisational monologues to showcase their talent, a process, which had evolved into a web site where 25 actors created characters -- all situated in a fictional town. 

"It ran for about five weeks," said Gebert, "but there was no plot, so the whole thing just fell apart…. I learned that you need an ongoing story." 

Gebert pitched the idea to Tracy Evans and Biff Van Cleve, interactive producers from Houston, where Gebert had run an improv-based dinner theatre. The three co-founded Theatrics in 2010 to develop the underlying platform and support the storytelling being showcased with the Beckinfield story, which Gebert writes. 

Theatrics has raised $1.4 million of seed funding to develop the site, most of it from investors in Houston whose previous experience has been in the oil business -- certainly a rarity in the go-go world of Internet start-ups. 

In January they stormed San Francisco’s MacWorld/iWorld, where they turned the stage into yet another scene set in the town of Beckinfield, the finale to an in-story competition to cast a local production of the "Legend of Beckinfield."  

An actor named Michael Town, playing a character named Farmer Roger Teddy was the winner of the "ultimate online audition", a prize worth $10,000 and the chance to star in a play being produced inside Beckinfield. Very Pirandello!

The MacWorld gig provided exposed the company to the Bay Area's tech community, and netted coverage by Mashable and some meetings with new investors, according to Gebert. 

It will be fascinating to see if there's an appetite among tech investors for a story-centered platform like Theatrics, which has dubbed its concept "mass participation television."

Theatrics' blend of user-generated content, Hollywood visibility, social networking, and guided story structure is quite unique, raising a lot of fascinating questions as story forms continue to evolve. For instance:

Could such a platform be used as a transmedia companion for conventional television series, creating a kind of video-based fan fiction? I can imagine this for the adventurous network or cable show-runner (and, I can also imagine the meeting with the network lawyers). 

  • Is Theatrics a social network for actors or a consumer viewing platform? Ideally, both, of course, but clearly to date, the tilt has been to create "an intimate experience for actors, a dream stage for them," as Gebert puts it. Theatrics has invested in "backstage" tools to attract and support actors, who, after all, are creating the content. The next challenge is to attract a viewing audience to the story these actors (and the site team) are co-creating. It may well be that the audience appeal of role-playing games and virtual worlds will trump the conventional divide between audience and creators.
  • Will this story-driven viewing experience scale? Social websites like Facebook and YouTube are built on the 80:20 rule, e.g., they attract vastly more members to consume the content produced by a small minority of "super producers," as a recent Pew study noted
  • What about curation? I suspect that audience growth will be capped unless the site embraces some form of user-generated curation, enriching the story container for the view-only visitor and the more active participant alike. The web is aflame with different tools that allow users to edit, curate, and shape the presentation of content--- a natural consequence of the proliferation of content. Of course, curation can also lead to the "hot chicks" problem -- telling a story based entirely upon, shall we say, non-story elements.
  • Finally, is the co-creation movement trending up or flattening? What started as an academic analysis of the customer-created value in business, we are now seeing considerable heat applied to the co-creation paradigm in all sorts of business. The  question is how long it will take to attract and retain an audience to these new forms of collaborative, participatory storytelling. (As with this site by transmedia innovator Scott Walker.)

Go ahead: Test drive Beckinfield and see what you think. If you have the time and inclination, create your own character and see what happens. (I thought I would , but I chickened out).