Getting Started with Digital Dramaturgy: What You Need to Know About Tumblr

On the ticket page for every show in the Public Theater’s season, there is a link on the right-hand sidebar: “Digiturgy”. The header reads “Byte-sized content used to further explore the themes and ideas present in The Public’s plays.” It is dramaturgy, but given an online-exhibit presentation.

Tumblr is not a new social media or micro-blogging platform by most standards. The first live version, created by web developer David Karp, launched in February 2007. In 2013 it was purchased by Yahoo for 1.1 billion dollars, at a time when comScore reported 47.9 million unique users of the site, cementing it as a major tentpole in the social digital space. In 2014, it was announced as the fastest growing social-media platform. As of this writing, Tumblr self-reports 380.3 million pages, and 155.4 billion posts.

Recently, Tumblr has garnered attention from scholars, dramaturgs, and librarians as a social network site that offers a visually appealing experience, indexed results in search engines, and the functionality of a publishing platform. While some of the stats can be mouth-watering to digital marketers (an average of 14 minutes per user per visit!),  the site offers unique capabilities for displaying dramaturgy or other visual exhibits for performing arts institutions. We’ve examined how the platform is being used in the field, and some pros and cons to consider before jumping in.

Custom Visual Displays

It’s not just organizations like the Public Theater; many higher-education programs include Tumblr pages for students. It can give some formal structure, allow professors a metric to give grades, and allow school administrators to see what’s happening in the classroom. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, students post interviews with cast members alongside essays on the historical context of the work and photos of the scene shop. The Woolly Mammoth Theater also used to have what they branded as “scrapbooks” for its shows, although there isn’t one to be found for their current season.

A typical Pinterest board

A typical Pinterest board

Rather than the ephemeral nature of a physical display in the lobby that, depending on the medium and the organization’s capabilities, might not be stored anywhere, there is an online portal with information ready to be accessed and perused. It is incredibly fast to create a page and audience members do not need their own account to access it, as opposed to a Pinterest board. If they have an internet connection, they have the page's content. There are also some beautiful, free themes to use that make it more customizable than a Pinterest board or Instagram profile.

Not Exclusive to One Organization

Although it's possible to create a custom URL, an arts organization cannot host its own site. If the Tumblr server goes down then so does the audience's access. 

And, Tumblr is extremely limiting with regards to connectivity to other social media platforms. It’s possible to link to an Instagram account or a WordPress site, but that’s about it. (The WordPress auto-feed feature almost always messes up formatting anyway, so it’s not worth the hassle).

Ultimately, the problem is, Tumblr isn’t a very good marketing device, at least from a point-of-sale standpoint. It is great for brand building and creating a space for people to take a deep dive into available content. Analytics, however, are few and far between as compared to the overload of information provided by Facebook and Twitter, and discoverability is very low. Case in point, I spent over 30 minutes trying to find The Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Tumblr “Scrapbook” for its 2013 show Rodney King, a page I knew to exist.


So, why create one? For some theater-goers, it's a chance to read up on a topic after seeing a show. Instead of starting over with a Wikipedia search, they can go to a theater's site and find everything related to the show. Tumblr is also a fair compromise if the organization doesn't have access to a lobby, or another space to showcase physical dramaturgy. A theater can create a Tumblr page quickly without having to muck around in the website's backend for every new show. Tumblr is also extremely multi-media friendly, so instead of sticking to just photos for Pinterest and Instagram (and changing out links in bios), it's possible to mix text content with images, videos, and audio. And don't underestimate the power of archives. Tumblr offers a level of permanence. Pages or content can continue even when the season ends. After a couple of years, with no extra steps, a theater can have a self-curated archive of activity that's easily shared. 

Tumblr pages can offer a digital time machine, not only for past shows and the seasons, but also of creative team information, cast interviews, and the production's perspective. It can potentially serve as a fascinating library for patrons, and an incredible resource to instill institutional memory.



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