“Discourse is my highest value,” P. Carl once told me. One way he put that value decisively into practice, building on his career as a dramaturg, scholar, and theatre administrator, was in founding and heading the online theatre journal HowlRound, a buzzing, often overflowing hub of curated content that since launching in 2012 has expanded the theatrical dialogue, spawned movements and initiatives, and occasionally stirred or moderated controversies in the field.
Jamie Gahlon (her last name, improbably but delightfully, is pronounced to rhyme with “balloon”) was on the team from the start, when the journal began as part of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., led by David Dower. That arrangement didn’t last long, but an invitation to move shop from Rob Orchard, who’d just taken over at Boston’s ArtsEmerson, led soon thereafter to a self-described theatrical think tank attached to a presenting house, housed in an educational institution. HowlRound.com was initially bankrolled with the company’s “documentation and dissemination” funds. Now, as a brand and a fixture in the field, it’s taken on a life of its own.
Indeed HowlRound may have gotten out a bit ahead of its organization’s plans and identity, and Gahlon—the organization’s new director, named after Carl’s departure earlier this year to pursue other artistic and civic endeavors—is hoping to adjust perceptions not only of the journal but of the whole range of HowlRound’s activities, which include HowlRound TV, a gaggle of convenings, and more. I spoke to Gahlon, a “retired actress” whose interests migrated over the years from scenic design to producing to being involved in a larger field conversation, over the phone yesterday about where HowlRound has been and where it may go under her leadership.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Since you were there from the start, can you tell me a little about what you thought the vision for HowlRound was then, and whether it’s changed since?
JAMIE GAHLON: I think the idea was that Rob Orchard had come out of retirement to found ArtsEmerson, and based on all of his years of experience working with theatres attached to higher ed, he was very interested in using ArtsEmerson as a laboratory, as a place to practice new models. When he and David Dower connected, where HowlRound really made sense was that he was seeing it as this place to talk theory in practice, and ArtsEmerson would be the lab where folks would kind of put those ideas to work. It was seen as two things that would reinforce each other and serve for mutual benefit. On the whole, over almost seven years later now, I think that’s been true. On a functional level, in the day to day, ArtsEmerson and HowlRound are pretty autonomous, but we’re a part of the same department—the Office of the Arts serves both programs. We’re like the left and the right hand. It’s always a little confusing to explain it to people, but I think that’s how I would describe it at this point.
Was the journal partly motivated by the sense that you were filling a void, writing about things no one else was? And in the years since, as the landscape of writing about the arts has changed so much, do you feel the needs of the field have also changed?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think the need that the journal was trying to fill at its founding was twofold. One, wanting to create a space for artist-centered discourse, and really at that point, it was a national space. It was pretty focused on the U.S., and wanting it to be open and accessible, knowing that, gosh, the internet can provide that, right? And two, wanting to create something that was not behind a paywall that could be perhaps a little bit more of a democratic space than many other things that were out there at the time.
Obviously, the landscape of really high-quality essays and thoughts about theatre practice has just exploded since 2011. And I think that the journal has shifted in response to the changing landscape, and we’ve made different choices along the way. We definitely had a couple of years, we call them our “years of the content firehose,” where our No. 1 priority was getting as many voices as possible out there, and trying to really make people understand that what we were trying to offer the field was a different model—that we were trying to offer a model where if you wanted to participate you could. And we were trying to operate in a place that was not a top-down editorial structure. Part of signaling that was really like showing the breadth of who is out there and what they had to say.
I confess that “firehose” is a word I’ve used for HowlRound content. There’s just so much!
Well, we’ve pivoted in the last couple of years. This past year in January, we publicly rearticulated our mission and vision and values, and made the decision to intentionally lower the amount of content that we’re putting out. Right now we’re really doing more like five pieces a week, and we’ve added a weekly wrap-up. That was honestly very much in response to the landscape. But what we’ve also done is tried to drill down on our editorial agenda—to name a little bit more, here are our values, here are the things that we are interested in talking about, and really trying to make sure that what we’re putting out there is in alignment with those values, because, to your point, there’s so many fantastic outlets out there and more are being created every day. And we’re really trying to say, “Here’s where HowlRound sees itself within the landscape, and here’s what we have to offer.”
It’s also really important to say that the journal is one of many tools that we offer that are a part of HowlRound. Obviously it’s the most sort of public-facing, but we also have HowlRound TV, we do in-person convenings, we have the World Theater Map, our latest tool, and we manage the National Playwright Residency Program in partnership with the Mellon Foundation. And we support the work of the Latinx Theater Commons, which is a flagship program of HowlRound. The journal, because it’s a content distributor coming at you every day, gets a lot of the attention, but when I’m talking about HowlRound I’m talking about the whole.
Can you tell me more about the convenings you’ve done? I know you had some funding to seek competitive bids for convenings you could support.
Yeah, the HowlRound Challenge is the name of the initiative, and our key funder there was the Barr Foundation, and those are underway. In the last year we hosted two of them. The first was a smaller gathering of the core producers for the Jubilee Initiative; that happened in December. The second one we just posted was on Theatre in the Age of Climate Change in June, produced in partnership with Chantal Bilodeau, Roberta Levitow, and Elizabeth Dowd. That brought about 30 folks from around the country and around the world to Boston for three days. It was really beautiful and it was really intense. It’s a big issue to tackle. There were a lot of really good ideas at the convening. We’ll see what sticks. And in March we’re hosting a national convening of Deaf theatremakers. Then, of course, we help to support all of the Latinx Theatre Commons convenings, but those are kind of all over the place. We were just in Chicago for the Carnaval.
As director of HowlRound, are you also the editor of the journal?
No, actually there is no named editor of the journal. We have a content editor, and we have editorial meetings every week, but the whole staff is involved. But there’s not a singular person who’s named as editor.
How big is your HowlRound staff?
Right now it’s me and four full-time staff, and then part-time contractors.
People sometimes say this about American Theatre, which also has a small staff, but now that I’ve heard how much you do, let me say: It’s amazing how much you do with such a small staff.
Thank you. I agree. And I hope that the staff will grow, so don’t mishear me when I say that one strength of the model we’re operating under is that essentially we’re able to harness the energy of the theatremaking community. I mean, we occasionally solicit pieces, but in general people are coming to us saying, like, “I’m passionate about X and I want to write about X.” We’re basically facilitating that contribution to the field, in the same way that for HowlRound TV, organizations are coming to us and saying, “Hey, we have this event coming up and we think that it has resonance outside of our local community and that others should have access to the knowledge and the experience of what it’s going to be.” So what we do is we train those organizations in how to livestream. We help provide some level of marketing through putting a blog post out there, and we provide some level of on-call tech support which helps make it happen.
All of which is to say that the way that we’ve designed the tools, it’s really about sort of aggregating the field’s energy, and putting it back out there. I think how we’re set up really speaks to why we’re able to accomplish the sort of breadth and volume of what we do with that level of staff.
So I do want to ask about the journal and discourse and all of that. One thing you said earlier really surprised me; when I mentioned how much the landscape of publishing had changed, you talked about how much it’s grown. But from my point of view, as a career arts journalist, I see the field of writing about theatre decimated and ever-shrinking. That’s the changing landscape I feel like I’m always worrying about and responding to.
Yep, 100 percent, and I’m there with you. I think we’re talking about different audiences, though. You’re talking about critical discourse, about arts journalism. I think the lens that I was talking about was artists primarily, and theatremakers themselves talking about their own work. At HowlRound we very rarely have somebody who is a self-proclaimed arts journalist writing for us, right? It’s much more common for us to have a playwright, or a director, or somebody who’s working in education and wanting to share about the latest model they’ve created that they think can be useful for other people. So I guess, to clarify, I was talking about the fact that everybody and their mom has a blog, you know, and the fact that a lot more people have taken the means of production into their own hands, in terms of talking about their work. I think that’s different than what was happening when we first began. But to your point about art journalists and criticism and all of that—we’re in dire straits. I would say that’s exploding in a whole different kind of way.
More like imploding. I do know that over the years, critics have written for HowlRound, and in fact one time Carl had me curate a special issue on criticism. And of course I can’t forget the infamous Lily Janiak incident, in which her criticisms of California Shakespeare Theater led to…
Yeah, “An Apology.”
So did HowlRound feel a bit burned by its ventures into criticism? Did you all say, “Well, that’s not really where we want to go, that’s for other folks to do”?
Not really. We launched an initiative, NewCrit is what we call it. Initially it was an open call for folks who wanted to write, and then we had for a while a sort of defined group of writers. We haven’t technically disbanded that or anything; we still have pieces that we publish that we consider a part of NewCrit pretty regularly, but it’s no longer a defined stable of writers. Just like everything else, we kind of opened it up, and so people can pitch to write a piece that would fall within NewCrit. It’s definitely still something that we are interested in.
It’s not like we’re strangers to controversy at American Theatre, and along similar lines: How independent and critical can we be of institutions that we serve? But it’s literally in your values not to be too negative.
Exactly. That ties back to one of our founding principles in terms of the journal—that we were trying to enter the space in a spirit of positive inquiry. Which doesn’t mean it has to be like all rainbows and unicorns, but I think we’re trying to say that this is a space for civil discourse. There are plenty of corners of the internet to go yell. We’re really trying to create a space of dialogue and exchange; that doesn’t mean debate can’t happen, or that people can’t disagree. I think there’s a way in which that has framed all of our content from Day One. I think that definitely applies to the NewCrit initiative as well.
The critique I’ve heard of HowlRound, which I’d partly share, is that the founding idea—that everyone has something to contribute to the dialogue—is a lovely ethos in theory. But it turns out that not everyone does have something valuable or interesting to contribute to the dialogue, and not every voice deserves an equal platform.
Yeah, I think we have to talk about how we define “contribution,” right? A contribution for every person might not mean writing something. It might mean that you share articles and have a conversation about the salient points therein with your friends. It might mean that you are commenting on a piece. I’m thinking much more broadly in terms of contributing to a knowledge commons, which is what HowlRound is, and I really do believe that if somebody wants to participate, any kind of participation is a contribution of sorts.
But the point of the criticism is well taken. I think every single person on staff would say: Yeah, there’s probably stuff in the firehose years that, would we do it again? Probably not. But at that point our priority was about creating an authentic invitation to the community, so we felt very strongly that that was what we wanted to do. I think it also depends on where you’re coming from, you know?
Going forward, are there certain new things we should look for in the Jamie Gahlon regime?
First, I think it’s important to say that HowlRound has and will continue to be a totally collaborative endeavor—I’m not just paying lip service when I say I feel the community really helps set the agenda. We do have some exciting things coming up this fall. We are launching a whole new website, and a new brand, so that will definitely be a change—some would say long overdue. It’s all part of a strategic plan that we’re implementing. A lot of it is in response to feedback that we got from stakeholders and also to our own sense of what we believe HowlRound needs. We’re definitely trying to put our values forward more, and continue to speak about the value of commons thinking and commons behaviors, and trying to really put that more front and center. Basically, we’re trying to make it so that if somebody comes to the website, they can’t just mistake us for a theatre blog, which requires some fundamental shifts. Whether or not we’ll be successful with that—I mean, you tell me in a couple of months.
On a personal note, I understand you’re getting married soon?
Yeah, that’s very true. In 25 days, believe it or not—not that I’m counting. Oh my God.