USC’s Engine 31 Pops Up at Humana Festival

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(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

At this year’s 37th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, KY, arts journalists will work as a team to report on the festival’s plays, artists and culture. They’ll publish their written and multimedia pieces online and engage visitors through social media, under the auspices of the LA-based USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

But when the festival is over, the journalists will head back to their respective homes and jobs — in cities and in newsrooms across the country.

This is Engine 31, the fourth in a series of pop-up newsrooms created and run by USC Annenberg’s Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism programs, and Douglas McLennan, arts journalism professor and founder of ArtsJournal.com. Ten handpicked arts journalist fellows from around the country will join Anawalt and McLennan in Louisville April 4-8 to cover the final weekend of the Humana Festival, which began on February 27 and runs through April 7.

The Humana Festival of New American Plays features new, American full-length and short plays, performed at the Actors Theatre in downtown Louisville. This year’s full-length plays are Gnit by Will Eno, The Delling Shore by Sam Marks, Cry Old Kingdom by Jeff Augustin, Oh Guru Guru Guru, or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You by Mallery Avidon, Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Sleep Rock Thy Brain, conceived by Amy Attaway and Sarah Lunnie and written by Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn. Also on tap is a program of three ten-minute plays.

While the fellows have already begun doing light research and reporting and setting up the Engine 31 website (engine31.org), the majority of their work will take place during those five days in Louisville. Once the festival ends, so does Engine 31.

Engine 28, the first of Anawalt and McLennan’s pop-up newsrooms, was funded by an NEA grant in 2011. The fellows (some of whom are returning for Engine 31), united in Los Angeles to cover Theatre Communications Group (TCG)’s annual conference, the Radar L.A. Festival and the Hollywood Fringe Festival simultaneously. Engine28.com ultimately had 200,000 visitors and the project was covered by the Guardian, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times and more.

While Engines 29 and 30 were, respectively, a project-based forum that focused on visual arts more than on theater and a collaboration among fellows, media partners and graduate students, Anawalt says Engine 31 is a “cousin” of the original Engine 28. Like Engine 28, Engine 31 will bring together a diverse group of arts journalists to cover a single event over a short period of time. The goal is to engage as many people as possible through the website and get the attention of major media organizations.

Engine 31 is funded by a $25,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Though the budget is “shoestring,” Anawalt says, she felt it was important that the fellows’ travel expenses be paid for and that they receive a salary for their work.

Given recent massive layoffs and downsizing of arts desks at publications around the country, Engine 31’s founders think it could prove to be a model of the future of arts journalism.

“If you think about it, it just simply makes sense,” Anawalt says of the idea of a temporary, pop-up newsroom. “Pooling resources and aggregating sources, pulling together a newsroom to cover a festival where much is happening and then people disappear back again into their worlds, it’s such a sensible thing.”

Part of the appeal of covering the Humana Festival is simply to spread awareness of the event.

“For me the motivation really is going last year and seeing the quality of work, and how stupendously exciting it is to see American theater, American actors, American directors who we all know are living their lives on the edge. The training level is extreme,” Anawalt says. “And while they’re all here at the same time, wouldn’t it make sense for us to be here at the same time?”

On Engine31.org, the team will create content in the form of written pieces, reviews, interviews, videos, radio pieces and more. Some of the fellows will be in the theater lobby after each performance conducting interviews. They’ll also aggregate other content and social media about the Humana Festival and experiment with games and interactive elements.

For the arts journalists, Engine 31 offers the chance to get back to doing what they love — finding and telling stories. As publications’ budgets shrink, fewer journalists get to choose their own assignments or collaborate with each other in a traditional newsroom setting, Anawalt says.

“When people are together, especially seeing the same thing and doing the same thing, something magical happens,” she says. “That’s really what reporters like to do. They don’t want to be ‘assigned’ necessarily. They want to discover stuff and then tell people about it.”

If other nonprofits or charitable foundations want to fund similar coverage of other events, the Engine 31 model will likely be replicated in the future. But for now, Anawalt, McLennan and the fellows are focusing on the experience of going to the Humana Festival and producing exciting, high-level content with their peers. Anawalt is hard-pressed to think of any scenario in which Engine 31 would be considered a “failure.”

“Who knows what 31’s going to be? We don’t know.” Anawalt says. “But that’s the blood that goes through my veins. I don’t want to know — I just want to discover it. And then tell you about it.”

The Engine 31 fellows are:

Chris Arnott,
 New Mass Media

Anthony Byrnes,
 KCRW

Rebecca Haithcoat,
 MySpace

Lou Harry,
 Indianapolis Business Journal

Chris Klimek,
 Washington City Paper

Jenny Lawton,
 Studio 360

Steven Leigh Morris,
 LA Weekly

Rachel Neubeck,
 Nuevo Creative

Michael Phillips,
 Chicago Tribune film critic

Suzi Steffen,
 Oregon Arts Watch

Humana Festival of New American Plays, April 2-7. Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202. $20–$294. actorstheatre.org.  502-584-1265.

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