Can Alli Houseworth ’03 save American Theatre? She’s Trying: One Tweet at a Time
by Richard Byrne ’86
photos by Marlayna Demond ’11
The annual Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference is one of the far-flung U.S. theatre community’s biggest stages for talking about the industry. And at the 2011 TCG Conference in Los Angeles, Alli Houseworth ’03, acting, grabbed the spotlight without using a microphone.
She did it on Twitter.
At the time, Houseworth was the director of marketing and communications at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – one of America’s best regional theatres. And the laughter that she heard during a session on the social media habits of millennials irritated her enough to weigh in on Twitter in real time.
“I really wish this audience would stop laughing at the behaviors of gen y,” Houseworth tweeted. Her intervention caused an instantaneous online sensation, kicking up enough fuss that her tweet was read out during the panel itself.
Houseworth struck again when she heard artists at another TCG session belittle marketing, tweeting: “I’m so over this conversation surrounding #newplays that implies all marketing directors are stupid and evil.” The clamor created by that tweet carried on far past the panel itself into a few days’ worth of intense discussion – on and offline – among theatre professionals.
Washington Post arts writer Maura Judkis also attended the conference. She noted on the Engine 28 arts blog that Houseworth “achieved an odd distinction…. She was able to redirect the conversation in two sessions by voicing her objections to panel discussions on Twitter.”
Reflecting on her insurrectionary behavior a year later, Houseworth says acknowledgement of how technology has changed theatre – and discussion about it – is long overdue. “All these shifts have happened since the early 2000s,” she says. “I don’t think theatre recognizes that – or the complexity of that.”
Houseworth’s voluble tweets are backed up by her string of successes in pioneering new approaches to customer service and use of social media in theatre. She has formed her own company – Method 121 – to push her ideas forward, and teaching jobs at Columbia University and American University allow Houseworth to evangelize to a new generation of theatre professionals.
Among Houseworth’s converts is influential Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, who credits the UMBC alumna with convincing him to join Twitter.
“Social media – and for me, Twitter in particular – have invigorated discussion of the theater to a point I’d call revolutionary,” says Marks. “For me, Twitter has provided deeper access to what’s on the minds of theater artists, and as a result, I think, it’s enriched my understanding and writing about the theater.”
TRYING ON ROLES
Houseworth came to UMBC in 1999 as a Linehan Artist Scholar to study acting. She commanded attention even in her initial interviews and auditions for the program and the scholarship, recalls Alan Kreizenbeck, a professor of theatre at UMBC.
“I was taken with her abilities,” says Kreizenbeck. “She was a strong, durable kind of person.”
Houseworth says that “it only took about a semester for me to realize that [UMBC] was an environment where the more I made out of it myself, the more I would get out of it in the end.”
For Houseworth, making a lot out of UMBC included stage managing a production in her freshman year, playing Lady Macbeth in a 2001 production of Macbeth and writing a popular column for The Retriever. But she says that her most important UMBC experience came not in a classroom but in Germany, when she accompanied a number of theatre faculty members affiliated with Maryland Stage Company on a trip to Berlin to put on plays by Samuel Beckett.
“I got to hang out with the faculty,” she recalls. “Wendy [Salkind] was in the show. Sam McCready was in the show. Xerxes Mehta directed the show. Greggory Schraven ’97 was there. I have these great memories of drinking beer with them in Germany when I was really young.”
Mehta’s memories are even more exact. “When the Maryland Stage Company took ‘Beckett’s Play’ to an international festival in Berlin in 2000,” he says, “I put what is Beckett’s most technically difficult and nerve-wrackingly demanding work in her tender hands. Allison was the key to its success. At the age of 19, she more than held her own in very fast company, controlling and cuing three fine professional actors, never faltering, never dropping a cue, pulling it all off with astonishing bravery and skill. Her technical control of that production was widely remarked upon in Berlin and in the Beckett press.
That experience confirmed for us all in the department that we had someone quite extraordinary on our hands.”
Houseworth took an acting degree from UMBC, but her career path eventually led her backstage, working in theatre administration at CENTERSTAGE, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and as an assistant to the directors of New York City’s largest theatrical publicity agency Boneau/Bryan-Brown.
“[Publicity] is a really interesting job, because in order to excel at it, you have to understand the big picture,” Houseworth says. The clients at Boneau/Bryan-Brown, she adds, “were every big show on Broadway…. I was in the room and saw everything and watched everything.”
One of the firm’s directors, Chris Boneau, taught at Columbia University. He wrote Houseworth’s letter of recommendation to enter the university’s prestigious theatre management and production program.
“By the time I was halfway through my time at Boneau/Bryan-Brown,” she recalls, “I knew that I only wanted to go to Columbia and only go to the producing program. I think he sold them on the fact that I was always questioning why things were the way they were, and that I’d be going to graduate school to find out why things were the way they were.”
A DIFFERENT CLASS
Steven Chaikelson, an associate professor of theatre arts at Columbia University, says that Houseworth immediately stood out at Columbia, excelling in classes in marketing and audience development.
“She was inspired by what we were doing in the classroom,” says Chaikelson. “We could see her blossoming in the very first year, and finding a niche in social media and the Internet.”
Indeed, one of Houseworth’s Columbia projects turned her passion for asking questions about audiences into one of her most notable professional successes.
Houseworth’s project touched on a ritual that is part of the theatre going experience for thousands of people each year: the Theatre Development Fund’s TKTS discount ticket booth in Times Square, where patrons (many of them tourists) line up for cheap tickets to pricy Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.
Theatre Development Fund executive director Victoria Bailey teaches a class in audience development at Columbia, and Houseworth saw surveying TKTS patrons as a way of finding out what the audience wanted and needed.
“I think I was in a class and blurted something out,” Houseworth says. “Thousands of people line up outside [the TKTS booth] every day in Times Square. Has anyone ever asked them what they were thinking about their experience?”
Houseworth surveyed the masses and reported back to Bailey. She found that those waiting to buy bargain tickets had little information about what was on offer, and were easy prey for touts and scalpers. “The research was initially so provocative to her,” Houseworth says, “that she kept me on for the summer.”
Though Houseworth had a knack for using online tools to build audiences, Bailey was impressed with her student’s willingness to press the flesh to find answers.
“[The survey] was just the opposite of a virtual experience,” she observes.
Houseworth then helped Bailey and others develop a new way to help TKTS customers: The Theatre Development Fund’s pioneering Patron Services Program. The fund hired representatives in snazzy red jackets to work the line and offer impartial information for consumers. They also policed the scalpers and hucksters. The TKTS booth’s ticket sales (and customer satisfaction) shot up – and stayed up.
Bailey says that Houseworth was a driving force behind “building what has developed into a good, strong, and extensive program. She has a real understanding of the importance of new audiences and how to open up theatre to other people.”
Chaikelson agrees: “She is one of the amazing success stories of the program.”
He also pressed Houseworth to finish up her thesis so that he could hire her. “I’d been trying to find someone to teach a course on social media before social media was a big thing,” he says. “But I couldn’t find anyone who was a real teacher. I saw that in Alli when she was still a student. She was already grappling with big ideas and could communicate them.”
PREACHING THE POTENTIAL
On a sultry spring day in a classroom at Columbia University, Houseworth leads students through the case study of a fundraising campaign she created at Woolly Mammoth. The effort leveraged Twitter and Facebook exclusively to raise cash for the company – and she emphasizes that the idea for the “social-media only” fundraiser began not in a cubicle, but over a supercharged lunch debate.
“You probably won’t get your best ideas at your desk,” she quips.
Social media is an integral part of Houseworth’s curriculum. Students even tweet in class, using the hashtag “#alliclass” as they tap away on laptops.
Houseworth’s passion about social media isn’t restricted to classrooms at Columbia and American University. She has brought it to high-profile jobs at Woolly Mammoth and in an effort to rebrand Washington D.C.’s Helen Hayes Awards as a larger and more proactive group called theatre Washington.
“I love teaching,” she says. “But you have to work in the industry to teach well.”
Houseworth’s work at Method 121 – keeps her engaged in a broad range of projects. And her increasing profile as a leading voice in using social media to win and retain new theatre audiences continues to impress the Washington Post’s Peter Marks.
“One of the reasons she’s good at her job is that she’s a magnetic saleswoman,” says Marks. “When she talks about the glories of social media, she’s the digital world’s Professor Harold Hill. Except that what she’s selling is not a mirage. And so, at her urging, I took the leap, and I will always remember that she was the one standing up there behind me, on the ledge.”
But salesmanship is not Houseworth’s only strength. As she showed at the 2011 TCG conference, she is not afraid to take provocative public stands on hot-button issues in theatre.
Even when she’s not looking for controversy, it somehow finds her – as it did this past spring when circumstances thrust Houseworth directly into the middle of the biggest U.S. theater controversy in recent memory: the dustup over monologist Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Daisey’s pungent monologue about the chasm between the genius of Apple’s design and the often lamentable conditions in which its dazzling gadgets are manufactured in China was political theatre par excellence – engaging audiences deeply, selling tickets, and making a strong case for theatre’s power to inform current events.
After a long string of successes, the truth of Daisey’s account of what he’s found in China was called into question by the public radio show This American Life – which worked with Daisey on a broadcast based on his monologue. The radio program was retracted and a major media controversy over the relation between theatre and journalism ensued.
Houseworth was Woolly Mammoth’s marketing director when the show debuted on that company’s stage, and she was stung by what she saw as Daisey’s betrayal of the audience in marketing the show as “nonfiction.” So she committed an act of extreme anti-marketing: while en route from New York to Washington, D.C., she stretched out on the floor at Penn Station and typing out a blog post calling for a boycott of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs until Daisey offered an apology. (He later did.)
“Boycott Mike’s gorgeous, amazing piece of theatre that is based on a true story,” Houseworth wrote. “Boycott it until you get the apology that you deserve and do not ever, ever remount it or produce a work of his again until you know for sure what is true and what is not so your audiences are never ever mislead again.”
Chaikelson says that such stands are part and parcel of what makes Houseworth so influential. “She’s extremely smart and very gutsy,” he says. “She’s willing to put herself on the line for what she believes.”
Houseworth says that making the change she wants to see in American theatre requires self-interrogation and a willingness to speak out.
“It’s healthy to always be questioning yourself,” she says. “And the people around you. Why do you do things the way you do. Quite frankly, I don’t see anyone else doing it. So someone has to speak up. And I hope I don’t come across as always being right. I just want to present an intelligent opposing view.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UMBC Magazine.