Kevin Broccoli is a serious man: artistic director of Rhode Island’s Epic Theatre, author of plays and monologues that have been performed by literally hundreds of actors, and an acclaimed director and actor himself. Yet nothing of his prior years of committed work in theater attracted the kind of viral publicity as his recent Kickstarter project “Pug-let: The First Ever All-Pug Production of Hamlet.”
Although a serious man about theater, Broccoli, like any good actor, is perfectly willing to seem ridiculous in its service, and his original write-up for the project on the Kickstarter website should have made that obvious: “I want to produce the first-ever all-pug production of Hamlet. For years I’ve dreamed of mounting one of Shakespeare’s most glorious works with nature’s most glorious creation: The Pug. This will be the first-ever (that I’m aware of) all-pug production of Hamlet. The actors will be pugs – even Gertrude. It will be an amazing theatrical event. Please help us bring it to life.” If that left any uncertainty this was intended as a joke, his summary of risks – “Keeping the pugs happy. Feeding the pugs. Finding pugs who don’t mind being a part of a five-hour play.” – and solutions – “I love pugs. We’ll use the money for food. We may have to let them nap onstage.” – should have removed all doubt.
Kickstarter’s original intention was to democratize the funding of art by patronage, a centuries-old practice that traditionally had been limited to the very wealthy: Michelangelo or Mozart, for example, were paid by the pope or the emperor to produce art or music. Naturally, democratizing funding will have the effect of democratizing results, and this point was made with a great deal of publicity by Zack “Danger” Brown in a proposal announced on July 3 to make potato salad with a fundraising goal of $10, a project that attracted 6,911 backers with total pledges of $55,492.
The potato salad project started Broccoli thinking. Pug-let was “something that just popped into my head. It took about a minute,” he said. “There must be other people doing this kind of wacky stuff on Kickstarter, and I realized there was a window of time,” he said. “I do all of my own press for everything,” he said, but for Pug-let decided he was “not going to do anything.” Aside from the Kickstarter page itself, he mentioned it on his personal Facebook feed and Twitter accounts, but, he said, “It was all a joke and I’m not going to push this in the way I would normally something I really wanted to happen.”
“I’ve noticed that the way the media has been working lately as opposed to the way they used to work” is influenced by a “Buzzfeed list culture” of herd mentality, Broccoli said. “There’s plagiarism and then there’s bad journalism,” he said, explaining that proper citation of bad information could not turn it into good information. “Take a source, reconstitute it, reprint it.” Pug-let began to attract attention from websites such as Mashable, which Broccoli said interviewed him via e-mail. Most other news organizations didn’t even go that far: There was “no fact-checking after the Mashable interview,” he said, and most others just cited the Mashable article. Eventually coverage of the Pug-let project reached major mainstream publications such as USA Today and “Good Morning America,” the latter contacting Broccoli, he said, only to seek clearance to use the photo of a pug wearing an Elizabethan ruffle that was on the Kickstarter project page. (It was a stock photo, so he couldn’t authorize its use.)
“The first person who had a conversation with me was from Buzzfeed. He was the only one to do what I would call actual journalism,” Broccoli said. “I’m being reported on and no one is talking to me.” He was unnerved. “When I’m only interacting with somebody digitally, how do they even know I’m real?” he said. “The ‘Good Morning America’ thing surprised me because I’ve done things like that, although not at that level, where they were very concerned with rights clearances. They only interacted with me via Kickstarter [messaging]; they didn’t even verify my e-mail address,” he said. “National articles to me were interesting. They sent me a list of questions and I tried to answer as ridiculously as I thought I would get away with,” he said. “I found the absence of communication really scary.”
Broccoli previously conducted a very successful Kickstarter project “100 Plays in 24 Hours: A Kevin Broccoli Fundraiser” in early 2012, reaching 51 backers who contributed $2,605, well in excess of its $1,500 goal. Broccoli said that the emergence of projects like the potato salad were a result of substantial changes at Kickstarter. It took him five days to navigate his earlier “100 Plays in 24 Hours” project through their clearance process, but only about two hours for Pug-let. He was trying to make that point, he said.
On August 2, four days before the deadline, Pug-let was fully funded by 196 backers contributing $5,035 toward a $5,000 goal. “I picked $5,000 because [I assumed] that’s a ridiculous number,” Broccoli said. “You can’t accidentally raise $5,000, but then I accidentally raised $5,000.” The contributors included a single $1,000 backer with a promised reward: “Ten tickets to the production, the chance to meet and play with all the pugs, and the director will personally cook you spaghetti.”
Pug-let is expected to reach the stage in September 2015.