Joe Chisholm: Marquee Digital

Joe Chisholm (he/him/his – Afterglow, safeword.), a self-proclaimed “dork and computer nerd” moved to New York City in 2011. “That was before the Wix and Squarespace world had grown into its own. You had the choice as an actor to truly code your own website or there were a couple of companies out there to build websites, but they would charge ridiculous amounts of money” Joe explained. And so, he started teaching himself how to create a website. “The first one I built wasn’t great, but I started playing around and learning. It never really was meant to become a thing. It kind of just one day happened and friends were coming to ask me to build their website and then their friends would ask.” Thus, Chisholm Designs was born.

The business served as a creatively fulfilling outlet for Joe, especially in between contracts. “I work with Universities and do masterclasses talking to kids. One of the things I push now is during your time in school finding something you enjoy that isn’t your day-to-day actor training. That can maybe become a business in the city. I’m trying to erase the idea of a Plan B or fallback. That’s a really bad term or phrase; there’s an imbued sense of failure. When in fact, myself and friends that all created additional businesses for themselves, have all found that having both balance, support, and enhance each other. It gives me the freedom to not be working a temp job – I get to create my own hours and have the financial freedom to really focus on acting projects. And since the pandemic, [Chisholm Designs] has really just kind of grown exponentially.”

But Joe has kept even busier during COVID with the launch of Marquee Digital, an environmentally sustainable, ADA compliant, and accessible digital alternative meant to replace physical paper programs at the theatre. “That happened March 30th. I was on a run and there were rumblings of the theatre industry coming back. I was thinking about how every other industry is now using a QR code based system, so why not theatre? Our industry could really benefit from shifting in a paperless, more accessible direction. I talked to my roommate and Co-founder, Carlyn Connolly, and that conversation spiraled into a few sleepless weeks. By the end of April we had the demo created and sent out to a couple of trusted friends and industry people. As much as I said the website designing has been creatively fulfilling, I had never dealt with building an app-esque version of a browser platform, and it’s been a really fun and a super rewarding challenge.”

Other than being ADA compliant, allowing all theatregoers to have a more similar and equitable experience at the theater, Marquee Digital has the potential of connecting people directly with performers and designers by including direct links to contacts on social media and websites and increasing direct connectivity to local businesses for touring productions. There is even the potential of virtual activities during intermission. Moreover, a digital program may help drive down costs for theatre companies that are especially cost-conscious in a post-COVID world.  “We believe that now is the perfect time to make this transition [to paperless theatre programs]. At this moment in time, audiences will do anything and be as malleable and adaptable as possible if it means they can get back into the theatre. We acknowledge there will be grumblings. As much as we talk about accessibility, we mean that not just in terms of disability, but also ageism. So we are providing a desktop iteration of the Marquee a week before the show along with the option to print a one sheet version with basic information, for any audience member that may not have or want to use a smart phone.”

But what about the fans who collect theatre programs? Joe thinks there could be great success in adapting to the program model of the UK and the West End, in which souvenir programs are sold at the theatre that are produced specifically for the emotional experience of seeing a show.

“We’ve been trying to make the Marquee as user friendly and exciting and enticing as possible” Joe explained. “It can’t just be a glorified PDF on the page. We are excited to launch with Moisés Kaufman’s 7 Deadly Sins off-Broadway in June, followed by a number a regional theatres this summer. Theatre programs are the only part of our industry that haven’t adapted in the past 200 years. And I think now is the perfect time to change that.”

What else has been on Joe’s mind the past several months? “Hopefully now we all realize how much we have taken for granted now that we have been in a vacuum of it for a year-and-a-half and how much community building and healing this time offered that all of us will benefit greatly from as theatre is coming back. What’s inspired me the past couple of months? The first half of COVID was mourning the loss of theatre and what was. But the second half has been watching this metamorphosis of the industry, especially New York, and of accountability and asking questions about the foundations of Broadway’s business model and every other business model in the industry and poking holes in things that should have been dealt with a long time ago. That’s something I’ve been watching with a lot of respect. Building the Marquee was important to me to build space for those voices and introduce Middle America and the country and the world to these voices and ideas.”

“There is a little bit of fear now that the wheels are turning faster that the NY theatre scene will go back to what it was… a fear that we’ll go back to the Great White Way and the industry model that wasn’t working for most of everyone except a select, privileged few. I hope the questions we are asking continue on in the coming months and we see an industry that is more inclusive and open. It’s an artistic field, but specifically Broadway, and also off-Broadway, has become a machine with a corporate mindset. We have lost the opportunity of seeing a lot of incredible writers’ voices being heard because they weren’t seen as profitable.”

“We have all had time to sit and think and learn and it would be a real shame if we didn’t use that moving forward.” ·

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