In 2009, four staffers in the DC offices of the Arena Stage launched a visionary effort to bring Peer-to-Peer production techniques and sharing economy smarts to the theater world. HowlRound is a visionary effort to create a knowledge commons for performers in the arts — and it has taken off.
What happens when you apply the tools of the sharing economy to the mission of an enterprising arts organization? Four American theater enthusiasts create a community of four hundred that quickly explodes into four thousand and, together, amass a new bank of resources available to all. This is the story of HowlRound, a center for the theater commons where artists and theater makers promote best practices, share dissonant opinions, and engage in dialogue “with the hope of ensuring a vibrant future” for the field of theater arts.
Vijay Mathew, a co-founder of HowlRound, and his colleagues, David Dower, Polly Carl, and Jamie Gahlon, think of themselves as “infrastructure builders who’ve enabled a self-selecting group of culture makers to produce a commons.” Using insights from both popular sharing-based companies like Airbnb and theories and practices from the commons movement, Mathew and his team have designed online platforms where anyone can share their knowledge, no matter their motive. But above all, HowlRound promotes access, participation, and organizational collaboration in their unique approach to theater practice.
In an interview for On The Commons, Mathew explains:
… it’s all about shared infrastructure. Say 100 theater arts organizations each have a livestreaming channel that costs $5,000 per year—that’s a lot of money, especially given the fact that one channel could provide enough bandwidth for the entire community. By aggregating the infrastructure and tools in one place, all 100 organizations don’t need to have their own livestreaming channels. In this case sharing is enormously efficient and cost effective.
Plus when content is centralized, it’s going to get a lot more engagement. People who contribute to HowlRound know this, which brings us back to the question of intention. What we’re finding is that not everyone who participates in the knowledge commons takes a stake in the entire community—and that’s okay. People have all sorts of different reasons for why they want to livestream something or write an article for the journal or put something on the map. Maybe they just want to get a job. When designed properly, the infrastructure can morph that self-interested intention into something that will benefit the whole. So for us, you don’t have to be a card-holding member of the commons to be a commoner. Our platforms don’t actually require ideological buy-in.