The Role of Theme in the Winning Hack at Storycode's Hackathon 2012

The Grand Prize winners of the Storycode Hackathon that was held in NY on the last weekend in April 2012 (as reported by Michael Humphrey in Forbes on May 6th, 2012 and by Amanda Lin Costa in the Washington Post on May 7th, 2012) created an "immersive theater experience" that combined current technology (interactive websites and social apps for smartphones) with traditional live theater to suggest a dystopian future where online dating is used by the government to repopulate the globe.

Here's a short video from team Cupcakes and Rainbows that sets the post-apocalyptic scene:

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The best of the seven teams that competed in the hackathon (as judged by a jury that included representatives from VH1 and Disney as well as app designers and the NY Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment) came up with a live "Meet and Mate" seminar - where audience members could experience the horror and fun of post-apocalyptic speed dating - with the experience extending onto online platforms as well. 

Of particular interest to me, as someone who is expanding his live theater and filmmaking to include online experiences, was the fact that each team in the 36 hour Storycode competition was assigned a theme: In this case "courage." 

As my students will tell you, I am keenly interested in the role "theme" will play in the New World of cross platform storytelling. 

Many experts (from Lajos Egri to Francis Ford Coppola) have talked about the importance of the search for "answers," "big ideas" or central organizing principles in creating great dramatic work. 

I suspect that the search for the big ideas that animate the entire work - and that engage the audience - will increasingly be recognized as a valuable tool for storytellers working on projects that are interactive and that unfold across numerous platforms. 

The winning team at the 2012 Storycode Hackathon - Gyda Arber, Brian Fountain, Allen Hahn and David Gochfeld - at first toyed with extreme scenarios where the elements of "courage" could be tested - before settling on "'small moments of courage' like telling someone you love them" as their central organizing principle or theme. After that initial decision, the winning team created a live "Meet and Mate" performance where the risks of dating - and the courage humans must muster to date - were amplified and tested on different platforms. Specifically, in addition to the central live event, a web-based interactive experience was created - as were online evidence of a government run dating program and a telephone-based speed dating experience that live audience members and the online audience could both share. 

With live experiences like "Meet and Mate" - it's becoming increasingly possible to imagine a future where a notice would be posted at the beginning of a live (or movie?) theater event inviting the audience to interact: "The Performance is About to Begin, Please Turn On All Electronic Devices." 

As noted above, theme is emerging as a key tool in building many of these multi-channel interactive experiences. 

The increasing importance of theme for New World storytellers makes sense: When chunks of the narrative are dispersed across different platforms - and the audience has multiple points of entry - the 20th century's favored storytelling tools - e.g., a single linear narrative (with beginning, middle and end) - must give up some of their pre-eminence. 

A single narrative spine is great for stories where the audience is passive. However, a single linear plot may no longer be the most important organizing element of a story when the experience is interactive (e.g., each user can reshape an open-ended narrative, or each user can choose how to experience the widely-dispersed pieces of a pre-determined story, etc.). Theme and character dilemma (with each character conflicted in ways that relate back to theme) may carry more weight. 

The relative importance of the storyteller's tools - in particular, the role of theme as a tool for creating interactive non-linear stories - may be changing. This doesn't mean that all the other tools (e.g., character, plot, conflict, etc.) are no longer relevant. Or that technology is now leading the way. 

Here's what the Storycode Hackathon winners told Michael Humphrey: "We all know a well-told story when we see it, regardless of how it is presented to us. The part that never changes is that the audience has to care. If they aren’t invested in the story, then no amount of razzle dazzle can save you."

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