This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and February 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

HowlRound: A Case Story in Cultural Commoning

Commoning is at bottom a process by which we enter into a participatory culture and can sketch an idea of how we want to live together as a society.

- David Bollier & Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning

HowlRound is a free and open platform for theatre-makers worldwide dedicated to amplifying progressive, disruptive ideas about the art form and to facilitating artistic, intellectual and personal connection between diverse theatre practitioners. HowlRound aims not just to change the conversation, but to change theatre practice and its influence on communities around the world.

In 'Patterns of Commoning', Bollier and Helfrich write: "A commons must arise from the personal engagement of commoners themselves. It is unavoidably the product of unique personalities, geographic locations, cultural contexts, moments in time and political circumstances of that particular commons." This is certainly true of HowlRound.

Created in 2011, HowlRound is a non-profit organisation based at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Our founding came at a time in theatre practice where we saw too many voices left off our stages, not represented inside of our institutions, not recognised for their substantial contribution to our past and present. We set about creating a group of tools that would amplify voices and issues chronically under-represented and unheard in the theatre. Our name, HowlRound, is a technical term for what happens when you place a microphone next to an amplifier. It’s the sound of a feedback loop.

We found an organising principle in the commons as a social structure that invites open participation around shared values. HowlRound is a knowledge commons that encourages freely sharing intellectual and artistic resources and expertise. It is our strong belief that the power of live theatre connects us across difference, puts us in proximity with one another, and strengthens our tether to our commonalities.

The World Theatre Map at www.worldtheatre.orgOur current tools—a journal, a live-streaming video channel and archive, an open-source World Theatre Map, and in-person convenings—facilitate connection and conversation across geography, aesthetic and cultural difference.

Zelda Fichandler, one of the founders of the American regional theatre movement, wrote in a letter to the Department of the Treasury in support of the tax-exempt status for American theatre: "Once we made the choice to produce our plays not to recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became, like them, an instrument of civilisation."

Zelda articulated beautifully what those of us working in the arts understand innately: that theatre (and other public spaces of cultural value) cannot and should not be defined by market value alone. Despite being rooted in counter-cultural ideals, the American not-for-profit theatre risks being co-opted by our hyper-capitalist mores. For us, this is where the true value of cultural commoning comes in. It provides an alternative model and framework for creative action that promotes values necessary for influential and meaningful theatre-making:

  • generosity and abundance - all are welcome and necessary
  • community and collaboration - over isolation and competition
  • counter-cultural ideas and leading-edge research that challenges - and seeks to revolutionise - the status quo
  • diverse aesthetics and the evolution of forms of theatre practice
  • visibility and accessibility for under-represented theatre communities and practices
  • global connection - local communities becoming global practice
  • timely discourse - work that addresses the most pressing issues of our time such as climate change, migration, and racial, gender and class equity.

The Latnix Theatre Commons National Convening 2013HowlRound is an invitation to any theatre-maker who wants to participate—anyone can pitch an article for the journal, propose to livestream an event on HowlRound TV, or join and contribute information to the World Theatre Map. The beauty of a cultural commons is that it encourages access and participation. And in so doing it democratises things like social standing and hierarchies that may normally prevent folks from contributing. Since our founding, we have published over 2,000 articles by 1,000 authors and have roughly 45,000 readers each month. HowlRound TV has amassed over 6,000 archived on demand videos, and viewers have logged a total of 7.5 million minutes of viewing time. In its first six weeks of existence 800 people from forty-eight countries contributed to the World Theatre Map. While these numbers are impressive, the breadth, depth, and diversity of perspectives and people that they represent are far more important. New self-organised collectives, such as the Latinx Theatre Commons, have formed in response to and in part because of HowlRound. Cultural commoning has allowed HowlRound to amplify the experiences of marginalised communities and to reveal the richness of our collective theatre-making past and present.

While we steward a primarily online space, we know that our work lives and breathes in real life - in communities of theatre-makers speaking face to face about an article they have read, in ‘watch parties’ for HowlRound TV events, in the implementation of programs modelled after those featured on HowlRound, to name a few. Commons are social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships. This is what we’re after, really—to harness the amazing power of the internet and our digital age to create connection amongst theatre-makers so that we can all benefit from each other’s experience, and ultimately create a more socially relevant and just theatre and world.

Jamie Gahlon,
Co-founder & Senior Creative Producer, HowlRound, Boston MA

Jamie GahlonJamie Gahlon is a cultural organiser, producer, and theatremaker. She is the Senior Creative Producer and a Co-Founder of HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community based at Emerson College in Boston. She manages the HowlRound day-to-day operations, and is a co-creator of the World Theatre Map, co-administers The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Program, and regularly produces theatre convenings around urgent field-wide issues. Prior to her work at HowlRound, Jamie co-launched the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage, where she worked for five years. She also worked prior for New York Stage & Film, and the New Victory Theatre. She is a proud member of the Latinx Theatre Commons Steering Committee and the Committee of the Jubilee. Jamie holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service with a focus on Culture & Politics from Georgetown University.

Next week, on Wednesday 22 November 2017, Robert Livingston, Director of Regional Screen Scotland, asks what we mean by the term 'cultural democracy'.

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Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: The World Theatre Map at, The Latnix Theatre Commons National Convening, October 2013 in Boston, USA hosted by HowlRound.