Some New York playwrights might claim their work was inspired by the city itself, but in the case of 8 Million Protagonists, that premise is baked right into the show.
The off-Broadway play, which opens November 1st, was borne of a legion of New York-dwelling contributors who submitted their stories to a web platform created by agency Leo Burnett New York. It is perhaps the world’s first truly crowd-sourced play and the result of a massive collaboration between the agency, members of the theatre world, and some of the loud, hurried, boldly dressed, tourist-fearing masses who keep the city interesting.
Before 8 Million Protagonists began casting and rehearsing in earnest, the stories that inspired it had a home in NewYorkWritesItself.com, the story-sharing platform created by Leo Burnett, which went on to win a 2012 Cannes Gold Lion in the Branded Content & Entertainment category. “We started NewYorkWritesItself.com with the purpose that the best stories would be turned into creative content that people could enjoy on a larger scale,” says Chief Creative Officer, Jay Benjamin at Leo Burnett New York. “An Off-Broadway play felt like the perfect way to bring new stories to life in 2012, as a reflection on the theatre of the New York street, which is basically a source of reality entertainment all on its own.”
The first piece of content the agency created, with the help of The Village Voice, was an exhibition of limited edition posters, which were eventually displayed at the Art Directors Club in New York. The exhibition assembled various snippets of conversation and overheard street-chatter as a quotable letterpress poster series. “This first piece was a record attendance at the Art Directors Club,” Benjamin says, “which was a great sign that the idea struck a chord with people.”
Once the idea to stage a play began to take shape, the crew at Leo Burnett had a clear path toward what material to cull from the platform. NewYorkWritesItself.com was designed to be a community-moderated site where users could vote on favorite submissions; the most popular stories on the website served as natural indicators as to what scenes could be gathered together for a fractured storyboard.
“The creation of the play has been a very collaborative process, and everyone at the agency has touched the production at some point,” says Benjamin. “Once we had the best collection of stories, we worked with a great team of people with experience in the theatre world, including writer Caitlin Gallo and director Stephen Bishop Seely, who has woven the script together.”
The patchwork approach encompasses an overarching plot, but the heart of the play lies with its diverse range of stories and experiences from all walks of uniquely New York life. It’s a rather unconventional story, as you can imagine, which is bound to be the case in an attempt to showcase a typical day in a city that has no such thing. Perhaps the plot will change in the future, though.
“8 Million Protagonists could become an ongoing play,” Benjamin says. “After all, the great thing about a crowdsourced production is the script is continually evolving.”