At 37 years old, Jordan Roth is the youngest player in a field dominated by older men. He has spoken passionately about bringing the business of Broadway into the 21st century; anyone who has visited one of his Jujamcyn theaters in recent years can feel the change. Drinks in the home of Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld, photos allowed at Let It Be in the St. James, audiences wandering around onstage for The Testament of Mary at the Water Kerr: These are things that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. The result is a thriving chain of Broadway theaters that currently play host to three Tony Award-winning Best Musicals. Could Roth take his knack for new ideas to another kind of business?
Earlier this month, Roth unveiled Culturalist, a new website that features top-ten lists ranking anything from "Best Show-Stoppers in Broadway History" to "Best Names in the NFL." Its arrival raises the question, is the internet really suffering from a dearth of lists? Facebook is awash with listicles from Buzzfeed and its imitators: "18 Wise 'Yahoo Answers' Responses By Rainer Maria Rilke", "The 33 Greatest Mysteries on 'Breaking Bad'", "28 Cats Having a Way Worse Day Than You". Hundreds appear on the internet daily, as if magically cranked out by a factory run by Willy Wonka. With Culturalist, Roth aims to do much the same, but he's laying off the Oompa Loompas.
Part online magazine and part social network, Culturalist calls upon its users to create their own lists, transforming the passive consumer of content into full-blown editor. But with so many lists and just a limited amount of hours in the day, we wondered if there was really room for something like Culturalist. TheaterMania asked Roth how Culturalist fits into his plan for world domination.
Why did you create Culturalist?
I have always been passionate about and focused on broadening and deepening the cultural conversation. How do we get more people talking more substantively about culture? Culture is theater (of course), but also movies, music, books, television, restaurants, food, retail, fashion, NASCAR, cupcakes — culture defined very broadly. I started thinking about the ways we can talk about culture and got very focused on top-ten lists. Top-ten lists are ubiquitous and very sticky. As universal as they are, I didn't find a satisfying way of engaging with these lists. If they're in print, there are very few ways to engage other than to have a conversation among friends. Online, maybe you can write a comment or vote something up or down. You're sort of nipping at the heels of the list. You're not engaging with the list. You're certainly not changing the list or registering your own opinion. So in that way they become the end of a conversation, rather than a beginning.
So how is Culturalist different?
You make your own top-ten list as part of a conversation. You may begin the conversation by setting up the topic and the parameters and then sharing your opinion. I respond by saying "here's mine." So I too am having a deep dive into this topic, followed by the next person and next person after that. We can have this individual-to-individual conversation or we can look at the aggregate, which begins to show a collective wisdom around a topic.
What is the purpose of the aggregates?
Our sense of culture can operate on an individual or communal level. Culturalist allows both ways in. You can say, "Here's my list or my friend's lists," or you can come up to the aggregate and see what the community thinks. The aggregate is the collective wisdom around a topic.
Unlike a Buzzfeed list, there's no text explanation for Culturalist top tens. Is it really fostering a conversation or is it just people talking at one another?
Stay tuned for that feature. That's on the way. I would say, though, even in these few days that it's been public, we see that happening on Facebook and Twitter. We will very soon be incorporating that kind of conversation directly on the site.
Is the goal of the site to have a barometer of public opinion condensed into various top-ten lists, able to be sliced and diced based on demographic?
Yes. I absolutely think that is a direction as a user feature. If you're looking at top-ten best pizza places on the Upper West Side, you probably want to know what New Yorkers think about that. You may be doing a list on top-ten places we should take Joe for his thirtieth birthday. You probably only care about what your friends think about that. With broader topics, you will want the entire community's opinion. That's exactly the idea.
So it can be a very valuable tool for users. Can it also be seen as a tool for business?
I absolutely think that is there. I would say that our focus on this moment is building a remarkable user experience. I believe that a remarkable user experience creates remarkable potential value for brand partners.
So how does the site make money?
The user experience builds the value. That value may be data, as you suggest. It may also be the opportunity to connect with users and customers around their passions, but in a wholly organic way to the conversation.
What's the incentive for users to make lists?
We want to allow our users, all of us, to be the editors of our passions. You are creating a magazine spread of what you love or what you believe or what you're interested in. We all want to be heard.
Have you brought any of your experience at Jujamcyn to your work on Culturalist?
All of it. I think this is exactly why we are all culture. In our lives we take our professional and personal experiences and that's what allows us to grow. I try to put what I learn every day into everything.
Three of Jujamcyn's theaters are hosting Tony Award-winning long-running musicals.
Thank you for noticing!
How do you go about choosing the shows to which you rent?
I have three questions I ask. The first, is it uniquely theatrical? Does it make sense of the fact that it is live? The second is, does it matter? Do we need this in the world? That shouldn't sound spinachy. It doesn't need to have some mega-heavy social relevance. We need laughter too, absolutely. But is it laughter that is going to resonate? The third, is it commercial? Is it going to sell tickets? We are the commercial theater so we sit at the nexus of art and commerce. On any given show, if we get two out of three, fantastic. If we get three out of three: homerun. This is a business of instinct and speculation, so they don't always work and that's OK. It's an honest booking if we can say, we believe at this moment that this show is going to resonate in several of these three areas.
What is the relationship between Culturalist and Jujamcyn?
Me. Culturalist is not a Jujamcyn project.
Where do you see Culturalist in five years?
Oh my God, I love that question. I see it being the go-to place for culture conversation. I see it being the place where everyone says what they think and love about everything.
That's very ambitious.
Well, you gave me five years!
I guess that's about fifty in internet years.