Jordan Roth has the critics on his side. The Broadway producer and president of Jujamcyn Theaters is responsible for such hits as The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Jersey Boys, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. With Tony and Drama Desk Awards under his belt, Roth wanted to take on a critical role of his own—except with a twist. He founded the website Culturalist, which aggregates "Top 10" lists from its users on any and all pop culture topics. (Hello, Best Beards in Hollywood.) The result is an ever-changing, always relevant list that showcases the collective Top 10 on that given subject. We chatted with Roth to get a better understanding of the website—and to learn how his lifelong relationship with theater inspired his founding of the pop culture collective.
BB Man: What do you think is the public's fascination with lists?
Roth: They are finite. What’s interesting is that there is a tension in a list. It is at once bite-size and consumable. You can inhale it whole and get it in one gulp. At the same time, ten items on a well-defined topic is a pretty deep dive. So that tension of the bite-sized consumable and the deep dive makes them irresistible.
BB Man: How does the site actively keep up with pop culture?
Roth: People will always build or revive a list when that topic is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When celebrities pass away, like Robin Williams or Philip Seymour Hoffman, there is a chance that a list already exists for that person’s performances, and when something notable like a death or major event happens, they resurface and people share those on social media and it becomes a nice tribute or documentation. It’s a good way to share your opinions and feelings about anything that’s going on.
BB Man: What inspired you to start Culturalist?
Roth: I wanted to use the service. I have a very clear memory of sitting with the paper, reading some year-end theater lists and thinking “no-no that’s not right,” and “I want to make my Top 10 list, and I bet if we all made our lists, the collective list would be better, more informed, and more insightful than any one of our individual lists.” Those two ideas became Culturalist.
BB Man: What can Culturalist teach critics or publications about soliciting feedback?
Roth: I think whenever someone says “Here’s what I think,” it should be followed by "And what do you think?” It should be an invitation and not a proclamation. If an expert makes a list and the system invites response lists—asking people to see how they differ or what they learned or can teach—it’s equally exciting for the expert to learn something from the collective.
BB Man: How did your work in theater inform your founding Culturalist?
Roth: The creative impulse is to convene conversation, to invite response. I think that is on a macro level, where the impulse of theater and the impulse of creating Culturalist are quite similar. We create catalysts for conversation, for response, for engagement. In theater those catalysts are on stage created by artists and on Culturalist those are lists created by anyone. They are both personal expressions and invitations to response.