How Goodman Innovation Group fuses tech community with arts community
With its latest play, “Ask Aunt Susan,” the
Goodman Theatre bridges the technology world with the arts community on numerous levels.
The production is the first to benefit from a two-year-old tech and startup community infusion throughout Goodman’s operations. That infusion has yielded changes in marketing, and it seeks to create props and sets using 3D printing and to bring a better supernatural feel to the long-running “A Christmas Carol.”
That’s courtesy of the Goodman Innovation Group, a tech-focused collective led by babysitter-matching site Sittercity founder and opera singer Genevieve Thiers and New Chapter Entertainment CEO Candi Carter. The group is a local innovation all-star team eager to provide feedback and suggestions about doing things differently. Among them: Chicago-based
Google engineering manager Brian Fitzpatrick; GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney and The Starter League’s Neal Sales-Griffin.
The group includes 12 core members, and it incorporates more experts as needed, depending on the project.
“We started out the group by just recruiting some of the best in town,” Thiers said. “We’ve been involved in everything from looking at tech inside the Goodman and helping them re-tool the brilliant stuff they’ve put together such as managing actor profiles and auditions, for example, to going on outings.”
After starting with traditional meetings and set agendas, the group “started focusing on creating networks of all these people Gen and Candi brought to the table and inviting them to come with their friends,” said John Collins, Goodman’s associate managing director.
The group has visited places such as Google. Members have had cocktail parties, social events and brief talks with tech and startup community leaders in which participants suggest ways to use technology to better market the theater and improve operations.
The group also serves as a sounding board for writers looking to incorporate technological themes into their work.
Thiers says she sees benefits for entrepreneurs who get involved.
“The tech community should be surrounding the art organizations more,” she said. “I do not think they yet understand how closely seeing art ties into the generation of their own ideas. It’s a wellspring of innovation. I’ve had some of the best ideas for my businesses while watching plays. You turn your brain off and whatever’s been hammering to get out finds a way out.”
“Ask Aunt Susan,” which opened in late May after four years of development and runs through June 22, focuses on Aunt Susan, a man who moonlights as an online advice guru and creates an anonymous — and troubling — for-profit sensation on the Internet.
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Because the play focuses on a startup venture, the Goodman Innovation Group in early March brought the play’s writer, Seth Bockley, to the 1871 tech incubator to discuss startup companies with entrepreneurs.
As a result, the completed script includes key information about financing and business jargon, said Henry Wishcamper, director of “Ask Aunt Susan.”
“Everybody eyed each other across the table at first, but two minutes in, it was just kind of like a free-for-all,” Thiers said. “They were so excited to be able to talk about how crazy it is to start a company.”
The talk also included 1871 CEO Howard Tullman, who, given the deceitful behavior of the play’s main character, dropped in and talked about situational ethics.
“We have staffers who could have found all sorts of information,” said Collins, Goodman’s associate managing director. “But to put (writer Bockley) in a room with Howard Tullman to talk about what he tells entrepreneurs these days was invaluable.”
Heidi Brown, co-founder of Options Away, was among the 1871 business leaders who talked with the “Ask Aunt Susan” writer and director about the intricacies of starting and growing a business.
"I like the fact that I can add something to that as opposed to just being a donor or a board member,” she said. “People who can code are usually artistic in a way. I think it’s a really good meeting of the minds.”
Some of the group’s ideas involve enhancing what the not-for-profit Goodman already does. That includes making better use of social media, New Chapter Entertainment’s Carter said.
“There is an opportunity here to understand the gold mine within the Goodman,” she said. “There is so much content within these walls. We’ve looked within the organization and the content landscape and brought some ideas of what’s possible.”
For example, Thiers said she has recruited Katie Astrauskas, a student at The Starter League, to help develop Web-based software for managing auditions.
Said Goodman Theatre Executive Director Roche Schulfer, who launched the initiative to appeal to a broader audience and more supporters: “Tech is enabling us to reach people in ways that simply weren’t possible, in numbers that weren’t possible. Word of mouth is what drives our business anyway. Technology allows us to get the word out there much faster.”
Playwright and director
Regina Taylor said she plans to work with the initiative on her new play, “stop. reset," which opened last fall at New York's Signature Theater. The play focuses on an African-American book publisher with an aging staff in need of increasing its technology use.
“The play is about technology,” said Taylor, a Golden Globe-winning actress and an artistic associate at Goodman. “What I’m doing is asking how we can experience that in a different way. I’m presenting it to the group to see how we can present other portals to the play.”
Not even a 40-year-old tradition at the Goodman Theatre is off limits to the innovation group. Thiers says she want to shake up the annual run of “A Christmas Carol” at the venue.
“I remember watching ‘A Christmas Carol’ and thinking someday I would be watching through my Google Glass and seeing an actual ghost — a hologram,” Thiers said.
Schulfer, Goodman’s executive director, is behind her on that. Actually, he was ahead of her on the idea.
“There have been 37 Christmas Carols,” he said. “I have been involved with all of them. From the first five years I’ve been saying, ‘I want a hologram in 'A Christmas Carol.’ They laughed and laughed. It was the annual joke.”
“But I am going to be around to see that happen. It’s going to happen. Marley’s going to be a freaking hologram before we’re done.”