An Interview with Jon Watts
As season three finishes up and we close in on QuakerSpeak’s one-millionth view, FJ editors Gail Whiffen and Martin Kelley walk across the office to interview videographer and director Jon Watts.
QuakerSpeak by the Numbers
- 908,506: Total views
- 44,647: Hours watched
- 116: Video releases
- 24: Percentage of viewers age 25-34
- 42: Percentage of viewers outside the United States
- 37,255: Views for the most watched video, “What to Expect in Meeting for Worship”
As of 10/2016
How did you come up with the idea for the QuakerSpeak video project?
I was a Quaker musician for several years, touring around the United States, playing at different Quaker meetings. It was a time when YouTube was really becoming a thing. If you were a musician, then you just had to make videos. So I tried my hand at making videos on YouTube and had a little bit of success, especially with one video that I made: a skit about a dance party happening in a meeting for worship.
It seemed like Quakers all over the world saw this video, and were commenting on it and talking about it. It’s interesting to me how one video that you post from one place can start a conversation all over the world. So I made some more Quaker videos.
I was making a music video at Guilford College. The song was about spiritual nakedness, and the video involved various people taking off their clothes and running around campus. Max Carter was a professor of mine at Guilford, and I really wanted him to be in the music video. I actually wanted him to get naked in the music video (he said no!), but I did get him to give a short lecture for the “Let’s Get Naked” music video. I asked Max to give me whatever he had, like a lecture on the history of Quakerism.
So Max Carter gave this very concise four-minute lecture on the history of Quakerism. And just as an aside, I posted the uncut footage of Max Carter giving this short lecture to my YouTube channel. It ended up being just as popular as the music video. I realized that there’s a hunger out there for concise, interesting, simple videos about Quakers that are accessible from all over the world.
What is it about YouTube culture that makes this video style work?
A lot of YouTubers speak directly into the camera, and they either say their thoughts or they’re sort of doing a stand-up comedy routine. It’s entertaining and so easy to connect to. I said, “Why aren’t there Quakers in the world doing this?” I realized that Quakers are too humble to do that: most Quakers are not going to flip open their laptop and think that the world really wants to hear what they think about spirituality.
So it takes someone like me calling them up and saying, “I really want to hear what you have to say, and I know that my audience really wants to hear what you have to say.” In some ways, QuakerSpeak is the Quaker vlog that never happened. I get to mediate those voices for the world; whereas otherwise, they might not have put themselves out there in that way.
During my Quaker discovery phase, I searched for “Quakers” in the iTunes Store and found a season of the QuakerSpeak podcast series by audio. The short three- to nine-minute podcasts closed with the mention of the QuakerSpeak.com website, which I found offered the QuakerSpeak weekly podcasts by video. I so much enjoyed the videos which used real Quakers! After becoming virtually acquainted with these friendly and thoughtful Quaker videocasters, and learning about what to expect during Quaker worship, I felt prepared to go to my first meeting. Thank you to everyone who participated in those—you spoke to me.
Amy N., new attender at Annapolis (Md.) Meeting
Let’s talk about the filming process. Do you do any kind of grounding in preparation?
Conducting QuakerSpeak interviews is a spiritual practice for me. I love sitting with one other person and having a really deep, grounded conversation about what they really care about when it comes to Quakerism and Quaker practice. What’s amazing about video is that we can have that really intimate one-on-one conversation and then beam it out to the whole world. So video offers the opportunity for anyone to sit in on that conversation. We start out each QuakerSpeak interview with a period of worship. So it’s kind of like holding that space in prayer, so that that person can give ministry in that moment.
A lot of people have written us about the QuakerSpeak project and said, “I can’t make it to meeting on Sunday morning. I live too far away from the local Quakers, but I’ve been watching the QuakerSpeak videos.” I feel like that affirms the groundedness and the spirit by which they’re made. Video allows you to really beam into that experience. It’s almost like you’re sitting in the room with that person who’s speaking. So it can be a worshipful experience. That’s really exciting for me, because that’s how I experience it when I’m doing the interviews.
QuakerSpeak is an interview series, yet one of the most distinctive features is that there is no interviewer. Was the choice of an absent interviewer stylistic or a result of some sort of Quaker humility?
The audience can’t hear me and they can’t see me; the cameras and equipment are focused on the interview subject. It was a stylistic choice: it’s simple to focus on one person; you don’t have to go back and forth in a conversation. But there was also a logistical element to the style: with just one employee running the project, it would be overly ambitious to try and set up multiple cameras and multiple angles.
When someone is trying to talk from the heart or trying to be a vessel for the Spirit, they need somebody praying for them. When I’m interviewing someone, I act as their elder in that moment. I’m trying to ground the space, empty myself, and really pray for them. I want this person to give the best possible answer that they can. I don’t know what that answer is going to be. I don’t know what that looks or sounds like. I can’t guess at the content, but I want it to be grounded in the Spirit. I want them to feel really good about the answer that they gave. I’m intentionally off camera, in part, so that I can be the elder. I can be spiritually grounding the space, and not have to worry about my own appearance or my own lines. I’m really playing the role of just being calm and holding that space with the other person.
After nearly 20 years as an active member of Herndon (Va.) Meeting, my wife and I retired in western Pennsylvania where the nearest Quaker meeting is 90 miles from our home. For three years I have sought ways to adjust to my situation, mindful of John Punshon’s words in 1987 that “it is impossible to be a Quaker without a meeting.” When I read the Forum and articles in Friends Journal, I find that my situation is not unique and that others are wrestling with similar challenges. Please know that while what you provide through QuakerSpeak might be seen by others as a supplement to meeting for worship, for me, it is a doorway that helps me define what it means to be a Quaker without the blessing of weekly worship together.
Dennis Jones, Franklin, Pa.
How do you decide on interviewees and how do you cut lengthy interviews down to four minutes?
We try and get a good blend of the weighty, seasoned Friends who have published books and given lectures about Quakerism, and also the Friends who are less visible and we haven’t heard from yet who still have something really important and interesting to say to us. I reach out to Friends who I’ve heard of and who I know about, and whose book I can read. I try and get comfortable with their ideas and their voice—what it is that they have to say in the world. If someone has less of a body of work for me to research, I talk to a few people who know that person. During the interview I try and pull out the message that feels most authentic and most comfortable and most passionate for that person.
I don’t always agree with the things that interviewees say during interviews. I’m not trying to pick the thing that’s true and that fits my agenda; I’m trying to pick the thing that was faithful. I’m sort of listening for where that person was being most true to themselves and most grounded and most real, and include that in the interview because that’s what viewers are going to connect with.
What about the music? We’ve noticed it has changed over the course of the three seasons.
Since I started working at Friends Journal, I’ve had less time to work on my music as a singer/songwriter, but I still want to play a lot of music so I’ve been focused more on instrumental music. As a filmmaker running a YouTube channel, I need instrumental music all the time. It’s been interesting to be both the music creator and the sort of content creator needing music. All the music that you hear in QuakerSpeak is instrumental stuff that I did in my free time. [Eds: You can download all of the instrumentals for QuakerSpeak at Jon’s Bandcamp page, jonwattsmusic.com.]
Several of the QuakerSpeak videos have moved me deeply. The recent one on serving on a clearness committee is especially timely, as I am on a committee which includes a newcomer and is meeting soon. I think the newcomer will be able to get a better idea of what it’s all about from the various speakers, rather than simply reading about the process or having us tediously explain it to him.
Claire Cafaro, Saratoga (N.Y.) Meeting
In 2013 you told us you hoped Quakers would soon “bum-rush the Internet” (FJ May 2013). How are we doing three years later? How do we make these videos useful for seekers who haven’t been introduced to Quakers?
When Quakers took so strongly to the printing press in the seventeenth century, it wasn’t to build a religion. They weren’t trying to fill up their churches or to keep their churches open. They were Publishers of Truth. They were trying to talk about what’s real. So we can talk about Quaker outreach but if we believe that meeting for worship is a channel for connecting to God, then our Quakerism is more than meeting once a week on Sunday.
My hope is that QuakerSpeak is at least real. None of the things that we do with QuakerSpeak is scripted. Viewers get a real, raw, intimate connection with the person that they’re watching. There’s so much out there that is scripted and intended to manipulate. I want people to be drawn to a Quaker meeting because they’re drawn to God and they’re drawn to connection.
What does it mean to be Publishers of Truth?
Quakers don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth, but we do claim to have some practices that bring us face to face with the truth. We want to advocate for a modern culture that isn’t constantly trying to distract us from that.
So to be Publishers of Truth is almost a dare to ourselves: that we’re listening, that we’re trying to find that seed, that we’re hearing that inner still, small voice. And then if we don’t find the truth there, we’re not going to publish it. We’re not going to publish something because we have a schedule or a deadline, or because our funders think that this should be the message. We’re going to publish it because it’s true. And if anything, that will be the most attractive thing for people to Quakerism. They’re going to see these people are real. These people are trying to find the truth, and that’s a rare thing.
QuakerSpeak is a project of Friends Journal. How does that relationship work?
There’s a lot of overlap between the work of QuakerSpeak and the work of Friends Journal. You can find accounts for both on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and Friends Journal even has its own YouTube channel. We get higher visibility and reach different audiences on our separate social media outlets.
It’s been really great to bring this project to Friends Journal because I get different eyes on the videos before they go out. At the first Friends Journal staff meeting of every month, we all sit down to watch my rough drafts. It’s a viewing party: I make popcorn, and we watch the videos on a big projector. The videos are in a raw form at that stage: I might not have added music, or the cuts might be kind of awkward. I get a lot of feedback from the Friends Journal staff, mainly about content and how it’s ordered, and we think a lot about the titles of the videos.
I’m not the only one who works on the QuakerSpeak social media posts. When I have the video finished and uploaded, there are several other members of our team who help get the Facebook posts out, send the newsletter out, and proof the transcript and the closed captioning. And those are all really important jobs. It’s great to work with a team.
For the past ten years I’ve been practicing with a Buddhist tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh, who is the teacher of this community, said, “Don’t become Buddhist. If you were raised Jewish, stay Jewish. If you were raised Christian, stay connected to your roots.” When I came back from a visit to my sister’s church, I looked up Quakerism online. I found QuakerSpeak and Friends General Conference and Quaker Finder. I went to Scarsdale Meeting for the first time and just kind of sat in the back. It felt safe and spacious, and I felt like I could come just as I was with questions. The QuakerSpeak videos convey that broad, spacious, safe environment.
Ken Johnson, attender at Scarsdale (N.Y.) Meeting
Can you explain the role of partners in the project?
Over the course of the past three seasons, Friends Journal has been blessed with some really amazing collaborators on the QuakerSpeak project. This past season, season three of QuakerSpeak, we collaborated with Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas. We also collaborated with American Friends Service Committee, with New England Yearly Meeting, and with Quaker House. When QuakerSpeak partners with an organization, I work with its staff to come up with some video ideas that will hit on some of the mission points of that organization, and also be attractive to our viewers. We want to tell people about the work that that organization is doing, but not have it in a way that is just an advertisement. It’s been a real blessing to be in these conversations with other Quaker organizations, because it’s really broaden the scope of the work that we are aware of and that we are covering.
Our main QuakerSpeak partner is really our viewers. If it weren’t for our viewers, no one would be watching these videos. The people who share QuakerSpeak videos on Facebook and who forward them to their friends are really the reason that we’re getting close to a million views on the channel. It’s a really grassroots kind of approach.
As clerk of Care and Counsel Committee for my monthly meeting, I was delighted to see the most recent QuakerSpeak video on “How to Serve on a Quaker Clearness Committee.” I immediately sent a link to all of my committee members, as this is a major part of our committee’s work and there’s always room for improvement. I’ve published links to other QuakerSpeak videos in our meeting’s monthly newsletter when they spoke directly—or indirectly—to something that was stirring in meeting at the time.
Phil Jones, Chestnut Hill Meeting, Philadelphia, Pa.
Finally, why is the project called QuakerSpeak?
The term “Quakerspeak” is a word that Quakers often use to mean insidery language or jargon, something that only Quakers would understand. We kind of wanted to play with that term a little bit by calling this project QuakerSpeak. Often our videos are discovered by people who have never heard of Quakerism before. So even though we’re trying to dive deep and really explore some of the depths of the practice of Quakerism, we’re also trying to make those concepts accessible to people who are just hearing about Quakerism for the first time. So in our version of Quakerspeak, we try to avoid jargon. We try to avoid insider language that’s going to lose a newcomer. But we still do want to go deep with it, so we’re kind of trying to redefine this term Quakerspeak. How do Quakers speak? We speak authentically, we speak from a grounded place, we listen deeply, and we speak from the heart. That’s real Quakerspeak.
A QuakerSpeak video version of this interview!
Faces of QuakerSpeak