Culture Critical

How does one tell the story of something as vast and dynamic as American theatre? How can we trace the century-long thread that connects a non-profit founded by seven suffragettes to a contemporary cultural institution responsible for ushering thespians like Dustin Hoffman and Bette Midler, literary luminaries like Edward Albee, composers like Philip Glass, and even a president (Vaclav Havel) into the creative canon?

We began our partnership with American Theatre Wing in 2013 with the visual transformation of the organization’s digital experience. In early 2017, their team approached Athletics with an interesting challenge: to impel strategy and language to tell the story of The Wing’s identity and what motivates their mission. To approach this question, we would need to uncover and articulate the organization’s beliefs, values, and practices and to understand the connection between the Theatre Wing of 1917 and the philanthropic powerhouse of today. The underlying objective required fostering a coherent understanding of their immeasurable value in order to continue attracting the resources critical to all American Theatre Wing does.

Contemporary audiences tend to view a brand’s efficacy by its ability to compellingly and consistently express what it offers the world. The Wing’s story was one that needed not editing, but proper framing to form a narrative that is equally evocative, explanatory, and cogent, crafted with the uninitiated in mind.

The Wing’s vision is timeless and expertly upheld. This vision is to provide a service to the American people by progressing American culture; to empower diverse artists to tell stories that become important work, making personal truths political; and to do it all through the visceral immediacy of theatre. For actors, audiences, and admirers, through language, we sought to reveal this unwavering promise, to make known the patriotic vision that inspired Theatre Wing’s founding and has endured ever since.

Through highly collaborative working sessions, Athletics worked with the Wing’s team to capture the most essential elements of their organization — why it exists, how it fulfills this raison d’etre, and what this means on a day-to-day basis. Alongside our work, the organization underwent their own historical soul searching, they themselves unearthing new insights for the purposes of an organization-wide oral history.

Throughout, the written word was responsible for the heavy lifting. By creating a narrative framework that verbally codified the Wing’s principles, this core text could be continually referred back to as a guide for writing all site communications. Instead of writing copy to fit design, the narrative was cemented first. Language defines how information is presented visually on the new site. Every piece of the experience was contextualized and simplified through copy, with wireframes designed to amplify these descriptive moments. The Wing’s diverse initiatives were then organized into more intuitive categories in tandem with a site-wide communications overhaul.

For each of the Theatre Wing programs — grants, awards, training, and resources — landing pages and new language sought to highlight the impact of initiatives. The newly created Obie Awards site section explained, for example, how the Awards honor off-Broadway theatre in an unconventional structure designed to recognize diverse personas and productions. To illuminate the Wing’s Emmy-nominated documentary series, “Working in the Theatre,” we highlighted its position as the most comprehensive theatre series in existence. The Jonathan Larson Grants, which support emerging musical theatre artists, are contextualized through Larson’s own life—set in early-nineties New York (Alphabet City)—from which Larson drew inspiration for the characters and subject matter of “Rent.” This story comes full circle in describing the grant’s purpose to provide recipients with resources to put towards their creative development however they see fit.

Also key to this exercise was describing how, for a century, the Wing’s value system has persisted while expanding to address shifting social realities. This system of beliefs steeps the entire site experience. On the About page, the organization’s values are explained through specific initiatives. The History section of the site uses The Wing’s values as anchors to ground their chronology. Being an organization that ceaselessly practices what it preaches, we had to put words to the myriad of ways in which The Wing has leveraged theatre to advance human experience, empathy, and cultural growth.

The summation of our findings also led to a new description of the Wing’s “Approach” — or philanthropic philosophy. Surfaced on the Donate page, this Approach is designed to explain the Wing’s role in every phase of a theatre artist’s creative life cycle, from young adulthood to the highest level of career success. Alongside this, recent testimonials reveal the impact Theatre Wing has had on real theatre artists, personally and professionally.

If we have done our job, American Theatre Wing’s role as a performing arts authority in the American cultural oeuvre is more easily accessible than ever before. We’ve supported a newfound understanding of why Theatre Wing, amid numerous organizations in need of financial support, are so incredibly deserving of it. We hope to have done justice, in some small way, to the story of why, in the current political climate, giving every voice a platform for self-expression — the opportunity to tell personal and challenging stories — is so critical. Making the tangible ways in which the Wing empowers those whom brave, important national work comes from—America’s marginalized—proudly shared.

In this troubling political climate, The Wing will continue to do work that ensures brave voices are heard—nurturing into existence work that advances American culture and celebrating it into perpetuity. Theatre makers will project this message as long as they can. In fact, they already have. In the words of the cast of “Hamilton” to Vice President Mike Pence, “We, sir, are the diverse America.” The administration has already failed this group’s ask to “uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us…men and women of different colors, creeds and orientation.” Our faith, instead, lies in brave organizations like Theatre Wing and, enduringly, in the American people.

Athletics is proud to announce the launch of the new American Theatre Wing site experience.