Being the Showrunner

A month or so ago, when someone shared it on Google+, I wasn’t sure if I’d have time or energy to participate in iversity.org’s MOOC about “The Future of Storytelling.”  But when the course was starting up a week ago, several things came together to make it possible.  First, Brendan reminded me, with a comment on the share I’d made.  Then I got some very good, stress-relieving news.  Then I looked at the structure of the course and discovered that, unlike so many MOOCs that attempt – more or less unsuccessfully – to scale up the 20th-century notion of the university class, “The Future of Storytelling” is a lot more focused on learning than on grading.  And finally, once we’d reached the drop deadline in the Online Professional Development course I teach, I had an unusually large number of participants who had to drop and an unusually small number who would be staying in.

So the time would be available, the conditions were favorable, and the peer grading I tend to dislike (as opposed to peer feedback, which I love and value) would be absent.  The basic requirement for the course is a series of video lectures with automated comprehension-type quizzes – and the lectures are very engaging, and the quizzes relate to important aspects of the lectures.  And the eight creative tasks?  You’re encouraged to do them, and I plan to do them all, but there’s no time limit for them – and you can do them anywhere and post a link to them if you don’t want your work to disappear into the walled garden of iversity’s site when the course is over.  There’s also a very active Facebook group and a #storymooc hashtag on Twitter.

Week 1 was all about characters and plots and the development of storytelling over the millennia, and Week 2, whose video lectures I watched over the weekend, is about serial storytelling, particularly in television.  I hadn’t really thought about the different needs and affordances of storytelling in different types of shows … and I hadn’t thought about the logistical structures you’d need to coordinate things when there are multiple writers working with the same characters and situations over time.

Or, let’s say, I hadn’t thought about those issues in the context of television scripts.  But I’ve been thinking about them a lot over the past few years as the Tres Columnae Project has grown, and as there are more and more writers working with those characters and situations.  How do you handle things when a group creates an amazing, insight-filled story … but it kills off a character who will be important in future Lectiōnēs?  What happens if two groups produce amazing stories, but their outcomes are mutually exclusive?  It’s easy enough to make one (or both or all) of them a dream, but who decides?

I also discovered a title and role that I’ve taken on without consciously realizing it.  When it comes to Tres Columnae, it seems I’m the showrunner, the person responsible, in the end, for both the creative and the logistical sides of the production.

As soon as I heard the word, in an interview in one of this week’s “Future of Storytelling” lectures, it all made sense.  All kinds of life threads started coming together.

When I was a small child, I loved storytelling and plays and movies and TV shows and old radio dramas and books and all the other ways that you could present stories and characters, but my favorite part was developing the idea and orchestrating, but still participating in, the group that brought the stories from concept to actuality.  That’s a big part of my work as a teacher, of course: both orchestrating and participating in the work that our joyful learning community does together.  I never wanted to be the 20th-century-style director or producer, remote from and elevated above the actors, writers, and crew; I never wanted to be the 20th-century-style conductor, either, “just” beating time as the musicians in the orchestra played.  I remember vividly the first time I saw a performer-conductor, though I can’t now remember who he was … but the image of the pianist playing and leading stuck with me.  Later, when I was a college student and found myself “temporarily” in a performer-director role with a small singing group, I rediscovered how right and natural that felt.  But I never knew there was a name for this complex, hybrid role … never, that is, until sometime this past Saturday when the word showed up in that video lecture.

I had to watch it twice, just to make sure that I’d really heard and understood it.  And I’m still thinking about the implications … and now I want to see the documentary film!

In a weekly TV series, it seems, the first showrunner is usually the creator of the series concept, but over time, that person often leaves or moves on, and somebody else has large shoes to fill.  But the network knows, and the advertisers know, and everybody works to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible, that the quality is maintained, that the essence of the show continues even if the creator isn’t there or has moved on to a different role more removed from daily operations.  As the Tres Columnae Project grows, we’ll need to provide training and support and continuity for all the showrunners building joyful learning communities around the material.

But it’s a very different thing, being the showrunner, from being the boss or the source of knowledge or the gatekeeper or the other roles Ms. X and Mr. Y know how to play.  As showrunner, your job is to help creative people be creative – but to guide them so that their creative products fit within the overall framework of the show.  To avoid jumping the shark and losing the audience, but also to avoid the same-old same-old and the crashing boredom.

That’s a very different thing from a one-day workshop about using the textbook and available ancillary materials, the kind of training and support that traditional textbook publishers tend to provide.  But it’s also very different from throwing someone in and hoping they don’t drown, the kind of training and support that too many factory-model schools used to provide their teachers.  It’s all about creating a joyful learning community, about building things together, about shared ownership and mutual support.

I wonder what amazing insights – and what new aspects of this showrunner role – await us all today and in the days to come!

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Published in: on November 4, 2013 at 11:22 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] It’s very different from Ms. X’s yelling and labeling, and it seems to take longer … at first.  But I think it saves time and energy in the long run, both for the rest of us and for Z and the others.  It certainly makes for a more pleasant, productive atmosphere than Ms. X’s class!  And I think it’s part of the showrunner role I started exploring and pondering yesterday. […]


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