Reviews, Theatre

Love Letter to ‘Venus in Fur’ at the Public


If you live in the Pittsburgh area, Whitney Maris Brown and Christian Conn deliver performances worth fighting downtown traffic for. Is there any better praise?

Certainly there is, and I give them both plenty in my little rave (including my use of the word “gut-thrumming”) at:

“Venus in Fur is a fascinating play that trades on a promise of sensuality to show us something far more interesting: two people who no amount of stripping will reveal the naked truth about. They must put on the roles of others to find themselves.”

Content Strategy, E-Learning

Help It Happen

Information is a stimulus. If you stimulate people and they can’t respond, that creates stress. That information is now bouncing around in their brains without an outlet. It’s not just a question of use-it-or-lose-it. The human brain needs to respond to a stimulus. If you give new information without the opportunity to act on it, the brain will find its own way to respond, or worse, start saving itself the trouble and ignore you.

Social media is the perfect proof of our need to respond. When people touch a new piece of information, they want to do something with it. They want to comment, they want to tell someone else. If people can’t respond, that energy goes into the wrong engine. Maybe they start paying too much attention to the fiddly bits, measuring the marigolds. Maybe they just get itchy synapses—but they aren’t receiving what you’re sending anymore. They’re busy responding in a way that isn’t helping.

Engagement and interaction are bedrock principles in adult learning, but it’s more fundamental than that. When children learn new things, they want to tell someone all about it, and they will, until they learn that they are supposed to be quiet or that grown-ups don’t get excited about the kind of things that feel new and wonderful to them.

Engaging that sense of wonder doesn’t mean teaching should be constantly entertaining. Learning doesn’t have to be flashy and pretty. That gets in the way of good learning just as much as boring and stuffy does. The key idea is to get down to what learning really is—and that is a person taking in a stimulus and acting on it.

Taking cues from good entertainment is smart, but the real key to engagement isn’t dressing up the content, it’s empowering our natural sense of the new and the power it gives us to act on it. Get out of the way of the stimulus-and-response dynamic. Let the brain’s natural impulses work. Allow people to successfully complete the cycle.

Too much focus on how information goes out and less on how people respond is ignoring the real work.


Wrong Rey, Star Wars!

The Force Awakens has a problem, and it’s Rey. The movie isn’t really about her, and I wish it was.

My heart looped as she flew the Millennium Falcon. When Rey took up a lightsaber, my arms twitched with a six-year-old’s eagerness to fight for the cause of the just and the good, not to mention the awesome. Rey is female and I am not, but that didn’t stop me identifying with her adventure. What did get in the way was how much of the film kept her at arm’s length, losing her point of view in the choices of multiple heroes and focusing on the mystery of her identity instead of who she was despite it.

The defection of trooper Finn after witnessing atrocity is a great story, but it isn’t Rey’s. I’d watch a film focused on Finn, but imagine the original Star Wars as a rollicking Han Solo caper interrupted by Ben Kenobi hiring him, with Luke just tagging along in the cantina. Rey’s lightsaber battle is epic, but it’s a reaction to the main plot. Imagine Luke’s X-wing chasing down Darth Vader’s TIE fighter in revenge for Ben’s death while Biggs and Wedge get to blow up the Death Star.

I’m a fan of The Force Awakens. Everyone involved truly deserves mucho kudos. It’s juggling a lot of laudable goals that make Rey as point-of-view character difficult to maintain. A silly production note about Rey learning something wouldn’t have helped either; the Ghostbusters don’t learn anything, and that movie is phenomenal. But the film’s handling of Rey’s identity mystery ultimately does a disservice to her as a hero, putting her in a box of plot objects that characters and audiences ask questions about, instead of exploring that mystery from her point of view.

In the end of Star Wars: The Search for Luke (spoiler alert!), Rey hands Luke the very icon of his own heroism. Rey challenges Luke to take up the mantle of hero once again. That image works, but the scene doesn’t; it’s a perfect ending, but for another story. That story is Rey taking up the mantle of hero herself.

The film almost delivers that. Rey makes choices that uproot her life and put her in mortal (thrilling) danger. She helps others (and she kicks butt). Like many heroes, she nearly abandons her quest, but doesn’t (without moping or whining, either). So, what’s missing? Is this really just a complaint that The Force Awakens is less simplistic than A New Hope?

Maybe. Maybe a modern story needs a larger cast of heroes to tell a tale with more complexity and nuance. In this case, it comes across as too many plot outlines trying to share the same film. I wanted to follow Rey’s story, see the world through her eyes, and be immersed in her choices and struggles.

The Force Awakens is about Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Han Solo, and Rey. But a movie about Rey, with those other great characters in it, would have really been something to see.


Never Say Instructional Design

As a consultant in the elearning field, I’ve structured information by semantic dependencies, the context of recall at the point of need, and the learner’s pre-existing map of the world. But I won’t say any of that out loud unless you force me to.

I desperately avoid talking training and education theory, because meta-language is the wrong music to listen to when crafting clear, detail-oriented content. Good training should be informed by sound theory, but it shouldn’t sound anything like theory. It’s frightfully easy to let the language guiding you become the language you’re guiding with, but that’s like hitching the horse to the cart’s blueprint.

A lot of adult learning theory comes down to recognizing that adults teach themselves. Good training doesn’t teach; it provides tools and guidance that empower active learning.

Is that too simple? A good communicator ignores the simplistic but favors the simple. “Put a man on the moon,” is a simple sentence, but the goal isn’t simplistic. If the rocket was perfectly designed, but the human element wasn’t worked out, the mission would have failed. I make sure I’m not just slapping engines on an ivory tower but actually landing my crew on the moon by keeping this simple sentence in mind: Don’t mistake the tools for the trade.

All the adult learning theory won’t help tone-dead content. Talk at learners like empty cells in a spreadsheet or mistake the metrics for the audience they quantify, and the blank stares will win. Good instructional design needs science—screenplays take formatting and story structure, good sonnets don’t ignore scansion—but where the science stops, the art of communication has to finish the job.

If it doesn’t, there’s just a really expensive rocket and a lot of trainees left swimming in space.

Creative Consulting

It Monies! It Awfuls! It’s Supermovie!

I have no opinion of Batman Vs Superman because I don’t want to have one. I saw Man of Steel and learned something: I’m not interested in paying for my own unhappiness. I can find stuff to base fascinating complaints on all by myself. I certainly won’t reward the production of unwatchable nonsense just so I can parade around in my clever-costume wittily spouting innumerable proofs that I should have stayed home.

Money is worth something. Producing a movie people want to see even if they all agree it’s awful, that’s just good business. I’d say it’s short-sighted, but data suggests that’s myopic. The second and third Star Wars prequels made money. Man of Steel didn’t keep BvS ticket buyers home. The studio clearly had a strategy, and that’s good for them. I also want to see Wonder Woman get some well-deserved screen time, but I think I’ll wait for a movie that does her justice, rather than sit through one that’s using her to prop up the big boy’s blah-blah.

There’s no such thing as bad press, in fact, today we seem to prefer bad press, and I think it’s killing us. Some things deserve to be ignored, and we, as a people, should try that strategy more. How you use your time is who you are, and if you love to hate the spectacle, the sellers of spectacle will gladly keep serving you things worth hating.

I’ll admit this post is a performative contradiction. I’m talking about something I’m saying we should stop talking about, and as Ellie says in Contact, “As a scientist, I must concede that.” Except I’m an ex-philosopher. Inspired by Wittgenstein, I wish this conversation was a ladder I could kick away, a language game played so we can get above it and never play it again.

But as Ellie is forced to say: “That continues to be my wish.”


King Content, Meet Emperor Experience. 

Content is a tool. Keeping it in the box doesn’t accomplish anything.

A lot of content about content covers the importance of having a strategy and things like funnels. They aren’t wrong. There’s no point in great content that doesn’t move the audience closer to the clicks that pay the bills.

Before you get to those nuts and bolts, here’s a topline strategy: Don’t think about your content as content. It’s like writing good TV. You can craft a moment that works perfectly on the page, or you can craft a moment people will be talking about tomorrow. Sharing on social media. Using as an example of what they mean in the middle of an important conversation next week.

That sounds easy, but just like anything, you need a way in. And that way in is thinking about experience. Not the experience of the content, that’s facile. The experience of living. The human condition of wanting another experience. Market research tells us key demos are trending away from consuming things and toward consuming experiences. That’s a trend to get ahead of by taking to heart.

People respond to content that gives them a way into new experiences they want. That they need. People like to share content that helps them show who they are, but they champion content that helps them become who they want to be.

Sounds like I’m selling hope, but it’s not that feathery of an idea. It’s the ground level to build your waterpark full of content funnels on. People want concrete experiences. It’s like a good diet. It’s the opposite of garbage in, garbage out. They want to take something into themselves that gives them options, abilities, ideas, choices.

That’s what you want, too. You want content that wakes the audience to action. Content that frees them from all the “no” and “later” and “meh” that stops their forward motion. You want to give them the power to say yes.

Give them tomorrow’s experience. So they can click the click that matters.


The Unending Work

As tools go, poetry seems like a yarn horsewhip.  It can’t break the raw skin of the most newly-molted post-modernist, much less wake the dead. Writing it is like an addiction to dirt, easy to satisfy. Promoting it is like picking through the trash for soup cans in the hopes of someone being on the other end of a string telephone.

Still, I think poetry is worth reading. The focus of poetry explodes things so we can see how immense and full and bottomless even simple ideas are. Poems are thought experiments that free language from the conventions of usage so it can harness itself to a higher task. Verse is the work of the shaman, recovering what we have lost of ourselves and discovering who we can still become. Poetry is the process of dressing and undressing ideas so we can understand each other.

It may not pay its way in a transmedia empire, it may lack branding, pre-awareness, or come packaged with nostalgia begging to be leveraged, but poetry is still worth our attention, if only a few minutes a day. As the age of interconnection empowers us to share more and more content, we find ourselves at the bottom of deeper and deeper heaps, breathing through thinner and thinner straws of self expressed in a few comments over here, a few pictures we like over there.

Poetry is something worth adding to the pile, I think. It’s that one note of flavor that makes the whole dish. Add reading a poem to your to-do list, and watch the weight of all those molehills on your shoulders transform into a mountain worth climbing, and yourself into a conqueror of summits and the skies beyond them.

My poetry blog has little chance of becoming the literary equivalent of xkcd, and I’ve given it up forever more than once, but when I work on poems, I feel like myself.