Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement

How to Design the Sound

October 13, 2014 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

I had a pal in a bind the other day ask me how I designed sound at the storefront / independent / low budget theatre level.  As time was of the essence, and the subject was something I probably should write a book about someday, I briefly jotted down what I felt at the time were the most important tricks of the trade (that is, the cooperative trades of sound system designer, foley artist, sound engineer, and composer.)   

Keep in mind that this guide is provided only as a general guide for further inquiry to help you survive, perform your duties, and embarrass yourself as little as possible when you’re already in over your head on a project – it won’t actually help you make it sound good, which I’ve heard is important.  This will only teach you enough to be more dangerous than you already think you are.  Caveat, caveat, you hold me harmless, etc.

If you’re really short on time, here’s the essential mantras of this Tao de Sound.


(These mantras are surprisingly effective for all kinds of professional work.  Also, my general mantras for theatre like “Don’t be Stupid” and “Don’t Freak Out” also apply.  h/t The Cherub Program)

Here’s a few ways to apply these mantras to specific practical situations:


  • Make sure you let the team (at least the Production Manager, TD and the Lighting Designer) what you intend to do. If you place speakers in front of where lights are going, that’s a poor way to win friends and influence people.  If you bump a light, tell the ME or the LD so that it doesn’t.  More communication is always better.
  • At the Storefront level, most people don’t license music used in the show correctly.  Legal Hat:  This is not nice, nor is it legal.  That said, it happens a lot.  Even in the largest venues and the most popular productions.  No, fair use doesn’t apply.  Artist Hat:  DJs sample music all the time, sure.  But sampling isn’t the same as “playing.”   That means if you decide to skirt the law and be a real artist, you have an artistic responsibility to make this music your own, into something new, unique, beautiful, and perfect for your production.   Treating the show like your favorite iTunes playlist demonstrates neither legal nor artistic integrity.
  • One way to try to be nice:  If you’re not a composer and can connect with some local musicians who let you use their music (or better yet work with you to create new music), support them and at least make an effort to get permission and/or offer to promote their work and give them as much of your show budget as you can.  Ask them if you can sell their CD in the lobby.  Tell audience members how great the artists you use are, and encourage them to buy the albums.
  • Tie line is preferable to E-tape for securing cable, though my preference is for Friction Tape (the tape hockey players use around their gloves).  It ONLY sticks to itself, and is very reusable – a couple wraps around a bundle of cables every few feet both supports the cables and makes it easy to move or strike later.  Skip the e-tape, and you’ll thank yourself at strike, not least of which because the ME won’t try to throw his wrench at your head.
  • Tie line for wrapping cable should be long enough to start in your hand, wrap all the way around your elbow, then come back up into your hand. It’s easier to wrap the timeline completely around your trunk of cable once (which takes weight on the cable) then do a quick, tight shoelace knot over the pipe which is easy to undo and redo as needed.
  • The goal with securing your cable is to not wrap around or over lighting cable, because that is not nice – under is better.  It helps to load your stuff in before light hang!  Then you’re sure to be out of the way.  You will still likely need to secure your cable in a bundle with lighting cable, and in those situations you want to redo the ties as you left them.


  • Use QLab.  You can learn the basics in 15 minutes.
  • Load your files in and program a QLab cue list so that someone is operating the entire show off a go button instead of a hare-brained iPod library and volume control which invite confusion and error into the mix.
  • Plug your computer into a mixing board.  Plug the mixing board into your amps.  Plug your amps into your speakers.   If you have them, use goodies like audio interfaces, patch bays, and powered speakers.
    Think through the entire sound system from inputs to outputs, and make sure you have the equipment you need.  Do you have enough of the right types of cable to put your speakers and the booth where you need them to be?
  • Make sure your equipment is in the air, cabled, tested, and that you are ready to cue the show at least 12 hours before start of tech (advanced designers can live with less buffer, but this will help you plan for contingencies).  I try to be pre-programmed to a large extent before I start, but I’m always at least 5 cues or 5 minutes of show ahead of where we’re at in tech so that there’s a minimum of “holding for sound”.
    Give a clear cue list to the stage manager.  I give them cue lines and/or visual cues, cue numbers, and a description of what the cue does.  Walk them through any paper, dry, or wet techs to make sure they know exactly how things should be called.  If they need to wait a beat before taking a piece of music, tell them what you’re going for.  Preparing the stage manager to call the design is a huge part of making that design work, and it’s the core thing that beginning designers gloss over.
  • Ensure that the show computer is hooked up to the sound system, that it works, and that whoever is running the show knows how to turn it on, shut it off, and fix it if it explodes.
  • Make sure you are always ready to take quick notes that make sense to you later.
  • Be where you need to be, ready to do the job, when you need to be there.  #lifelessons


  • “Anyone” includes but is not limited to you, your fellow designers, your assistants, the performers, the crew, the administrators who promote your work and sign your checks, and the audience.
  • If you are responsible for hanging, moving, or aiming your speakers and you haven’t done so before, consider that you’re about to dance on a ladder while holding 100 lbs above your head, and that perhaps doing this on your own is not the best way to learn how to do this safely and effectively.  Ask for trained help.  That said, if you must forge ahead and you know the task to be safe, here’s some pro tips (tips for pros.)
  • In venues with ceilings from 0 – 20 feet high, I still use a rope.  The rope I use is rated for 3-4 times the weight of the heaviest speakers I can lift, and is tied with a proper bowline knot to a rated quick link which I attach to the speaker.  I lift speakers with a team of two, one on the ground, one on a ladder.  I’ll run the rope over a supported grid pipe, hook the quick link to the speaker, have someone on the ground take weight on the speaker while standing away from the drop, move the speaker, secure the speaker in its new home, let in weight on the speaker, then aim the speaker with a guy line.
  • If you’re loading in speakers to a grid more than twice your height and you’ve never done it before, see also “Don’t Kill Anyone” Item 1.
  • Get a roll of tie line which will be useful for speaker aiming.   Typically speakers are secured to the grid with one or two rated pieces of chain and rated quick links and ideally a safety cable for good measure.  They can then be tilted with a long piece of timeline used as a guy line.  TIE LINE SHOULD NEVER BE USED TO TAKE WEIGHT ON THE SPEAKER.   Secure the guy line to a secure point on the bottom of the speaker, then attach that tie line to a different grid pipe, creating a triangle and aiming the speaker more directly towards the audience sections.  With practice, you can use the Rolling Hitch to quickly aim the speaker with a perfectly aimed, taut guy line that is easy to strike or refocus.


  • If you don’t know how to place speakers and/or read a groundplan, elevation, and light plot, you’ll want to get into the space and try to visualize where you want sound to come from.
  • Music that doesn’t come from the world of the play (non-diagetic music) tends to want a proscenium-y “wall of sound” feel – so hanging 2  left and right speakers off the grid or to the sides of the stage is a great start – if the space is proscenium.  If you’re in a thrust configuration, you may need to go to four speakers and play from the voms.  There’s a bajillion caveats to all that, but that will get you close enough to be nice and dangerous.
  • Visualize the shape of the sound to know where to put speakers.  Sound propagates from a speaker in an expanding cone  (you can kind of picture this by drawing a line from the edges of the speaker cone out – on average a 45º spread coming from the speaker.  Each speaker has different specs that you can look up online if you really want to know.  You don’t want those spreads to cross over each other in most cases, so usually you’ll tilt speakers slightly away from each other so that you have a minimum of overlap but still completely cover the entire audience – ideally with a stereo image.  If you raise the speaker up, you can angle the speaker so that more of the audience experiences the same volume rather than blasting people in the front.  So if you have a thrust configuration, you’d alternate Left and right signal to the four speakers so that every section of audience gets both left and right sound information.
  • Feedback should only happen if you have mics pointed at speakers that playback signal from those mics which pick up signal from those speakers which playback signal from those mics (see what I’m doing there?).  If you do have mics, try to design with only handheld SM58s, which are really hard to feedback, and most performers know how to use reasonably well if it’s that kind of show.  If you have wireless, you’ll probably need more help and budget, an apprenticeship, and you’ll also want to read Kai Harada’s excellent Kai’s Sound Handbook which will neatly cover the things you need to know for the next stage of your career.
  • Music that comes from the world of the play (diagetic music) probably doesn’t come from the proscenium, maybe, right?
  • Try each cue a good deal louder, then try it much quieter.  Repeat until perfect.
  • Sometimes music doesn’t always want to be the same level for the length of the cue. We call this kind of adjustment a “fade.” #youknowthelingo

Have further words of wisdom for designers in trouble?  I’d love to hear it.

Buy Me a Coffee?

A Year of Ideas into Action

January 01, 2012 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, projects, Teachable Moments, Uncategorized

There came a point, sometime during the Chicago TCG conference over a year ago, where I decided to go all in, where talking about building a better future for theater was not enough.  Maybe it was big audacious calls to action from folks like Chris Ashworth or the 2amt crowd.  If the purpose of a blog is to investigate your own ideas, internally, and then maybe others can benefit from them, I felt like I had completed a couple rounds of writing about the same challenges facing theatre and needed a completely new set of experiences to draw from.  As the slogan for the TCG conference said:  Ideas into action.

In the time between that moment and now, I did some stuff.  And now I’m finally beginning to process it.

May 2010 – Taking the Leap from Goodman.
I began owning up to a few facts.  I’m good at building and supporting ensembles, and I was not satisfied with the life I had chosen for myself as a full-time theatre technician and artist.  I had worked at the Goodman Theatre as a sound engineer, which both paid my bills and served as advanced training in collaboration, theatre operations, and programming.  At the same time that I was running about five to six shows a year, I was also designing about 15 – 20, and at a certain point running shows was no longer the source of wonder and excitement that had drawn me to it in the first place.  After mixing a Broadway-bound musical (Million Dollar Quartet) to prove I could do it and see if I felt fulfilled by it, I knew that my interests were increasingly in design, web work, and the leadership that goes, and that meant finding or building a leadership position.

September 2010 – Marshall Creative goes full-time.
One of the central problems I have (and I share this with most theatre folks I know) is it’s not second nature to value my own time and expertise enough.  The saturated labor market does this to us, and when you apply the ancillary skills you develop when running a theatre company or two to another position, you suddenly realize you’re a creative manager who can deliver on deadline.  So:  very valuable.  An ensemble of theatre creatives – myself, Sandy Marshall (of Schadenfreude and Second City), my wife Marni (New Leaf Theatre’s production manager), Bilal Dardai (playwright and content writer extraordinare of the Neo-Futurists), Dan Granata (another accomplished theatre programmer of Chicago), Brad Dunn (of Metropolis Performing Arts Center), and for a time permalance graphic designer Steven Lyons (of Impress These Apes and currently enjoying a stint in a Second City revue on a boat somewhere in international waters) – went all in with this idea.  Right about the time this blog went dormant (last labor day) we opened up shop for a uniquely theatre- and comedy- powered agency, Marshall Creative, in an office downtown near the Merchandise Mart, with me first in the role of Chief Operations Officer and then focusing tighter on the Chief Technology Officer role.  Our work is in the areas of content creation, branding, and the technological support platforms that serve that content, our clients began in the arts and financial fields and quickly expanded through referrals into real estate,  health care, nutrition, and deeper into the arts.  In exchange for our using our creative powers, we generate full time salaries and benefits that are compatible with theatrical side projects – creating a lifestyle in a way that we can own and call the shots on.  While building any business is all-consuming for the first few years, Marshall Creative has the potential to let us create sustainable lifestyles with the freedom to exercise our creative and technical muscles by day.   And with several theatrical clients including Black Box Acting Studio (and some other big ones in the works), we’re still building technology that serves the theatrical community.

New Leaf – Sound Design leads to Producing
While my Sound Design career continues on, it became clear to me that my work is better when I have a strong relationship with my collaborators, and that led to me greatly focusing my work to a smaller number of projects that I invest more time in.  In particular, my artistic home of New Leaf Theatre has been the beneficiary of this attention as we produced a few ambitious projects and explored new directions for the company in the past few years, including laying down the technology foundations behind a more concerted audience development campaign.  While New Leaf has a reputation for quality productions and production values, it also has one of the smallest budgets in Chicago theatre, largely due to the institutional knowledge of its producing ensemble, equipment inventory, and great rent arrangements with its home venue.  That said, marketing and audience development remain huge challenges for the company, and ones that we must, must, must improve in the coming years if we want to continue to take pride in our work.  After all, what good is theatre if the audience isn’t there to share it?  That question is one I have started bringing, for better and worse, into my every sound design process of the past few years.  After all, we’re fighting for our work, our voice, and our ability to change people’s lives with a story, and we have this tendency to fool ourselves into achieving less than that.

December 2010 – Organizational Partnerships – Ranalli’s and Preservation Chicago
To that end, one of New Leaf’s initiatives in the past few years – led by our brilliant, fearless and intrepid Managing Director Eleanor Hyde – was to use our theatrical storytelling skills to their greatest benefit by partnering with other companies and organizations to mutually solve our company goals (an initiative we laid out on the New Leaf blog in December 2009).  Last December, we struck a deal with our after-show bar, Rocco Rannalli’s in Lincoln Park, to perform an in-restaurant off-night holiday show penned by our most frequent playwright collaborator, Bilal Dardai.  The result was Redeemers – a modern riff on the story of Bob Cratchit and Mr. Scrooge as told in a modern-day corporate holiday party.  The result was also a huge amount of off-night business for Rocco Ranalli’s in exchange for a free space.  We struck a similar partnership up with Preservation Chicago and performed an intimate reading of  our 2007 hit The Dining Room for a group of donors in the historic Glessner House museum in the Prarie District of the near south side of Chicago.  That fundraiser cemented new relationships with donors for both Preservation Chicago and New Leaf, and exposed us to a new audience who shared our love for unique spaces and architecture – people who love the stories hidden in the walls and delighted in seeing them come alive.  This kind of initiative is probably the most both artistically and financially successful program New Leaf has generated, and its the model I most hope gets picked up by others.  Because it’s easy and great for all involved once you get the hang of it.

2010 – 2011 New Works – Treehouse
In the spirit of seeing a problem and then working to fix it, Artistic Director Jessica Hutchinson brought on New Leaf’s Literary Director, Josh Sobel, and together they launched a unique reading series, New Leaf’s Treehouse, a program that focuses on “play polishing.”  For the past few seasons, New Leaf has opened a call of submissions for plays on a particular theme (for instance this year is all about “Critical Mass”) that are looking for their second reading and getting pushed forward in the development process.  Our plays are read with our audience in house, and then processed using a uniquely active talkback in which the audience gets on their feet, playing a kind of thematic battleship in which reactions and resonances are explored as a group.  Then, out of the slate of six treehouse plays, we produce one of them.  Yeah.  Again, we go all in.  In the last few years, our world premiere productions of Lighthousekeeping and Burying Miss America have both been products of Treehouse development.  In addition, we’ve helped develop some gems like Idris Goodwin’s old school hip-hop coming-of-age story How We Got On, which was picked up by Victory Gardens and is now slated for production at the Humana Festival.  Much of Treehouse is also available for internet consumption on New Leaf’s Treehouse Podcast.  After all, most of these plays are ready for production in other markets other than Chicago.

Our first foray into the downtown DCA storefront space was a leap of faith for New Leaf.  We brought an untested world premiere play (a new adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s post-modern, kaleidoscopic tale of an orphan girl who learned to shape her splintering world with story) into a space with a larger palette gave our producing ensemble a unique opportunity to show what we are capable of in a large format – a story of what it means to hold on to childhood flights of fancy as we grow up and shape a new life for ourselves.  I am still fiercely proud of this story about storytelling in particular in New Leaf’s canon.  I helped to bring the play into the world by encouraging my friend, playwright Georgette Kelly, into the Treehouse fold and introducing her to a creative partnership with Jess Hutchinson and New Leaf, pouring most of my creative energies into sound designing it (all 450 cues), producing it with our company of seven, and creating and spreading marketing materials in the corners of time left over.  In the end, it gave us the opportunity to answer a question that we had always asked ourselves – what would New Leaf look like in a space with more resources and flexibility?

Choose your own extension
One of the advantages of being small is that you can take crazy risks and share those ideas with others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to learn from the experience.  In our case, we had availability to extend Burying Miss America – with not even much else in the way of rent – but were faced with the common problem of not knowing if we’d be able to get the word out in time to have any audience actually show up for an extension.  In the end, we put it to a vote, encouraging audience members and their friends to vote for a slate of show times.  If any particular slated performance got enough votes, we’d do an additional extension performance for that day and time.  This was the right kind of ownership for our audience – this encouraged people who were otherwise going to miss the show to help us promote it.  And it also made our jobs easier in deciding whether an extension was a good idea or not.  In the end, there weren’t enough votes to extend, which ultimately was a success for the program.  While the show received rave reviews, it also performed in the middle of a packed fall season in the midst of a down economy.  We were able to hear what our audience wanted.

What’s Next?
2012 began today, and while 2011 was a big year of earth-moving change in my life, 2012 promises to be more so.  We have begun to taste the fruits of our labor at Marshall, and we have a lot of dreams yet to turn into reality.  I know with absolute certainty that with the group of people that I’m working with, that they are the right dreams to be working on.

While I’ve been happily tapped with these new creative and productive outlets, it means that my writing here will continue to be intermittent.  That said, I promise a couple things:

This year I will continue my work to make things better and bring new ideas and innovations that help us spend our creative energies more wisely in theatre – to focus on art while covering artistic management.

I will make sure I can sustain myself and my artistic family so that we can continue to make things better.  Thank you all for the coffees over the years.  It’s been an amazing show of support.

Let’s make it more awesome this year.  Shall we?



Buy Me a Coffee?

In Which David Loehr and I explain the ongoing evolution of theatrical collaboration in social media and how 2amtheatre works

August 31, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, On the Theatrosphere

A video excerpt from the Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference:

Many thanks to Kyle Hamman (@khambone) of Strawdog for bein’ there and editing this video afterwards.

Buy Me a Coffee?

The Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference: a Retreat for the Whole City

August 11, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, projects

Hey there! I’m back. And boy are my arms tired.

In just a couple weeks, Theater Wit opens its (new, shiny) doors for the first annual Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference, a three-day series of discussions and mixers in the style of the TCG conference. The event aims to take a community crack at some of the common challenges that theater companies, artists, and administrators face. As Jeremy Wechsler, host for the conference, says, it’s sort of a retreat for all of Chicago theater right at the start of the season, when we need it the most.

Like so many of you, we miss the days of the League retreats. While our community has grown so much that a drunken weekend together in the mountains may not be so feasible, we do want to provide a home so that theaters of every size can come together to share knowledge, make connections and renew ourselves for the upcoming production season. A ton of Chicago Theaters got to participate in the TCG conference; it was fantastic to feel like we were a part of a national theater movement, but a lot of us there felt that Chicago’s theaters still had a ton to learn from each other.

The conference is $32 (tickets are available here) which ALMOST pays for all the catering, snacks, and refreshments that you get while attending the conference, and doesn’t at all pay for three days of Theater Wit rent. (Jeremy ain’t makin’ any money on this deal, I promise you.) The admission is almost certainly worth the knowledge that can be gleaned from the speakers, who appear to have all somehow landed on an accidental theme of “We’re giving you our blueprints.”

All conferences are tricky to navigate, so here’s some can’t-miss discussions and events to whet your appetite. There’s much more still on the schedule that I haven’t mentioned and more to be announced, so be sure to dig deeper than this overview.

Friday, August 20

8:00 pm – Conference Kick Off Party

Saturday, August 21

11 am – Second City Complex – Chris Piatt & the Paper Machete (Theatre 1)

If you missed Chris Piatt’s earth-shaking performance of “The Second City Complex” at World Theatre Day this year – the story of Chicago theater and Chicago theater criticism’s unshakeable sense of hubristic insecurity – now’s your chance to get the cliff notes. Chris’ take on the recent evolution of the critic-artist relationship in Chicago is about as mind-blowing as reading Richard Christiansen’s “A Theater of Our Own” and then having a chapter come to life and scream, “What are YOU gonna do about it, bitch?”

1 pm – Living your Mission – Martha Lavey (Theatre 1)

I love living my mission. I love even more hearing how other people do it.

1 pm – Theatre Advocacy 101 (Theatre 2)

Scarlett Swerdlow and Ra Joy of Arts Alliance Illinois talk about their ongoing arts advocacy efforts, and how to effectively engage government and decision makers and make the case for the value of your arts programs. This is the discussion I probably need to hear the most out of the whole conference. In a state where all social service money is drying up, we need to understand and believe in why we are valuable to this society.

2 pm – How about some Meat in the Well-Funded Stomach (Theatre 2)

Looking for a rumble? Look no further than Don Hall. If you’ve never seen Don live and in person and only know him from his acerbic online persona, I wouldn’t miss this chance to have a real heart to heart. He’ll be discussing one of his favorite radical visions of how it’s time to completely restructure how the arts are administrated. His chaotic glee, passion for creating excellent work, and provocative ability to question our community’s priorities are pure entertainment. There will be blood.

3pm – The Working Comedy Artist (Theatre 2)

Byron Hatfield has helped build The Pub Theater, one of many DIY operations that have found business models to support an ensemble of actual, factual full-time creative staff (The pub boasts a staff of 6 full time actors and 30+ part-time actors). If you’re looking to be pro in Chicago, find out here what level of community building it takes.

5:30 – Meetups for Artistic Directors, Managing Directors and Freelance Performers

So many awesome people, but which one should I go to? I’m just a designer, ho hum. No seriously, I’m crashing.

Sunday, August 22

10am – Embracing New Work (Theater 2)

PJ Paparelli, Artistic director of ATC, discusses his methods of bringing new work to production, from submission to commission to audience. It’s a subject that breeds a surprising amount of alliance (We Love New Work!) at the same time that it generates controversy (The New Work isn’t the right kind of New Work!), so it’s sure to be interesting.

11 am – Empowering Ensembles (Theater 3)

The question of the fate of ensemble-based theatres is one that has been very interesting to watch – and participate in – in the last few years in Chicago. Gwendolyn Whiteside of American Blues and Luther Goins of Actors Equity lead this discussion about what operational issues face ensemble-based theatres in the years to come. Not to stir up any undue controversy, but it’ll be very interesting to walk from the New Work discussion into this discussion – where you can see how the way we prioritize different aspects of the theatrical process (the development of careers and livelihoods for playwrights, actors, administrators, and designers) can – through the fault of no one – introduce stress, conflict, and compromise in our actual professional lives.

11 am – Cermak Creative Industries District (Theater 2)

Consider this discussion an opportunity to explore the ongoing “Burnham Plan” for Chicago Theatre. The Department of Cultural Affairs recently received one of several large new grants ($250,000) from the NEA to push forward with planning for the creation of a district entirely devoted to workspaces for the arts in all disciplines at Cermak Road and the Chicago River just west of Chinatown. Julie Burros, Director of Cultural Planning, City of Chicago (and League of Chicago Theatres board member) lays out the plan for future arts usage of this complex of four historic warehouse buildings.

The question of venues – Build Your Own, or Find and Adapt

The question of the long-term health of theater facilities in Chicago is one that is near and dear to my heart. At 1 pm, two critical perspectives are explored – building new venues and theater complexes, and how to use non-traditional spaces (which can be less expensive) effectively.

1 pm – So You Want a Space? (Theater 2)

Conference host and Theater Wit Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler has just been through the wringer. Specifically, the “thrilling bureaucracy” of inspectors, funders, vendors, and the government hurdles that all need to be jumped through to open your own refurbished storefront theatre. Participants will have access to Theater Wit’s entire project board, which includes budget figures, blueprints, problems met, and the operating costs now that the space is open.

1 pm – I Live Here Too – Place and Space in Chicago (Theater 1)

Sarah Mikayla Brown – in the midst of organizing venues in Pilsen for the Chicago Fringe Festival – and Madrid St. Angelo of UrbanTheater Company lead a discussion about how and why theaters come to choose artistic homes in non-black box spaces and in neighborhoods off the beaten path.

2 pm – Help Me Help You: DIY Press Relations (Theater 1)

Kris Vire, theatre editor for TimeOut Chicago, tells you how best to work with the press and prepare your materials in an age where journalists have rapidly shrinking salaries and rapidly approaching deadlines. All that even if you don’t have a dedicated publicist. The best advice always comes right from the source.

3pm – 2amt Theatre (Theater 1)

Just a personal little plug. I’ll be here, talking with my #2amt collaborator, David Loehr: WHO I WILL MEET IN PERSON FOR THE FIRST TIME LESS THAN 24 HOURS BEFORE THE DISCUSSION. How is this possible? In the internet age, anything is possible. We know: we’re bringing the blueprints for structuring all-inclusive community discussions like the national #2amt discussion and the local Storefront Summit, and how we can all reap their benefits.

5:30 – The Fool on the Hill: My top ten opinions on the American Theatre.

If your only experience with Roche Schulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman, has been pie charts comparing his salary with your company’s operating budget, take my advice: Listen to the man with wide open ears. He’s steered that particular ship through several economic crises, restored the theatre from near bankruptcy, helped found the League of Chicago Theatres, is an ongoing mentor and supporter of dozens of theatre companies beyond the Goodman — and all this after starting in the scene in the subscription sales call center. The real reason, though? Roche knows how to tell great stories about those moments of Chicago Theater History that you wish you were there for.

6:30 – Closing Party at Cooper’s

What better way to start our seasons, than together?

UPDATE: For those who want to follow the conference from home or their secret underground lair, many of us will be tweeting updates from the conference using the hashtag #ctac. Everyone here knows how to read and write hashtags by now, right?

Buy Me a Coffee?


July 15, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’m in the middle of my eighth summer teaching at this place, so I’m teching – no joke – 10 shows right now, but I wanted to take a moment to draw some attention to some folks.

So this whole Chase grant thing is complete. And Chicago theatres made their mark, and in several of the 15 cases landed in the top 200 of companies (thus receiving a $20,000) in creative ways that didn’t buy into Chase’s marketing mechanism. That’s $300,000 that Chase just dumped on typically small-to-mid-sized Chicago theatres. I find that fact to be awesome. However, I’ve also been a fairly vocal opponent of the community messaging behaviors that the grant tends to encourage, so the folks that I did end up voting for demonstrated some capacity for making the ask for votes their own.

The Neo-futurists first prompted me to support them by leveraging their campaign during the run of a show that directly and ingeniously interrogated the links and points of contact between arts, corporate structures and marketing (check out their “word from our sponsor” videos). In addition, they focused their requests for votes to facebook-ready laptops available in their lobby, rather than impersonal, overwhelming and disconnecting e-mail blasts.

Another group, Will Act For Food, outlined the specific uses they intend for the funds which included benefits beyond production value and replacing other grants such as Illinois Arts Council funding that have dried up or been delayed. Essentially, they added some transparency to the ask, which in turn makes them somewhat accountable as beneficiaries of the grant to achieve some measurable results out of their windfall. I hope that all companies who get funds from a community-voted grant demonstrate the same level of accountability to that community who votes for them, just as you would file a grant report to a granting association. That structure, I think, helps young non-profits with loose infrastructures gather some long-term support in times like these.

But all that’s just my opinion. It was a hard decision, and not one done without some hand-wringing, but my company New Leaf decided not to participate in the campaign because the methods we’d have to employ to win such a grant at this stage didn’t fit our vision of how we want to cultivate relationships with the community.

But let me tell you what does fit our vision: 84 People voted for us anyway despite the fact that we didn’t ask for their votes. And I’d like to thank them personally now. I don’t have access to the entire list (I’m curious to know if winners / administrators DO have access) but I’ll make do with what I can.

Thank you, Rebecca Zellar, for casting the first vote for New Leaf.

Thanks to Sally LaRowe, Jonathan Baude and the Theatre Seven folks who were one of the 15 theatres who won the grant, Ziza Bonszabrié, Emjoy Gavino, and Andrew Wilder who runs this great blog about making cheese.

Thank you @loehrbrarian.

Thank you Jenn Gibson, Amanda Bobbitt, Mary-Arrchie Theatre, and our board member Anne Sheridan Smith who is a part of Foiled Again.

Thanks to Joshua Aaron Weinstein of Livewire, Michael Pacas of Backstage, and Nicolle Iverson Van Dyke of GreyZelda.

Thank you to Pat Fries. Thank you to Nate Burger (a.k.a Monday). Thank you to Camden Peterson, one of my NHSI students who’s now all matriculated and ME’d for us on a show. Thank you to my intern Sarah Ramos who just moved to Chicago and is now a kick ass sound designer who you’re about to hear about.

Thank you to Lindsay Bartlett, John Taflan, Brenda Kelly and Katie Genualdi.

Thank you to blogger / playwright / tastemaker Rob Kozlowski.

Thank you to Lee Keenan, who is not related to me except through our love of theatrical design.

And thank you to everyone else who spoke up for us while we focused our energy elsewhere.

Your ongoing relationship and in many cases partnership with us is worth more than $20,000. A lot more. And I just wanted to say that.

Buy Me a Coffee?

Welcome to Chicago, TCG

June 16, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, On the Theatrosphere

Attendees of the 2010 Theatre Communications Group conference are beginning to arrive at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago.

It’s the culmination of a lot of behind the scenes work, collaboration, and getting things done over the past six months from some great theatre artists and in particular artists who administrate.

There’s a conference site outlining the metric tons of topics and ideas being explored during the conference.

There’s a twitter hashtag where many conversations that start at the conference continue after hours and virtually across the country.

There’s a multi-media site featuring introductions and other content generated by Chicago Theatres (from the League and programmed by yours truly) which features introductory videos to many theatres in Chicago and video and images of moments captured from the conference.

There are surprises.

There’s a boat.

There’s this dude.

I hope you’ll tune in and join in this weekend.

Knowledge is best when drunk deeply.

Buy Me a Coffee?

The Chicago Theatre Recipe

May 22, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

A few nights ago Dan Granata and the Chicago Artists Resource threw a little Chicago Theatre history lesson over at the DCA storefront space (“Do it myself: Five Decades of Theatre that Works“) featuring three veterans of the storefront movement: Steve Scott of the Goodman, Jackie Taylor of Black Ensemble Theatre, and Sharon Phillips, Managing Director of the legendary Body Politic.

The whole event was taped and I’m sure a bunch of us who were there will be posting the full video once it’s out there. For theatre nerds and folks who want to someday produce in Chicago, it’s a concentrated dose of both the sense of family and interconnectedness that exists in the Chicago theatre community. At the same time, it’s a timely reminder that the essentially young, DIY spirit of Chicago leads to a lot of history repeating itself.

One thing that Sharon Phillips said really stuck and clarified for me the core components of the ingredients of a thriving theatre company in Chicago, which frankly could be applied anywhere. These ingredients are so simple as to be a bit of a “no duh” but the revelation of them was more of a “awesome, so the rest of the noise can be let go.”

There are three things every theatre company needs to thrive:

1) Heart.
You can call this what you want. Passion, Love, a “Fuck you I’m doing this” attitude. It’s the force that makes a company move to this town with an axe and Meisner training to grind. It’s the force that makes that company drop $6k on their credit card to put up a show in a hole in the wall. It’s the force that then makes that same company five years later confident enough to make the claim “No freaking way am I dropping $6k of my own money on this anymore. People need to PAY for this work.” If you don’t have enough of it, you close. And yes, it makes you look crazy.

Heart is the primary fuel of all theatres in Chicago, in that when a company doesn’t have enough of it any more, shuttering the theatre is not long behind. This life cycle is in some ways a bittersweet gift: if a theatre loses its heart, better to close before the integrity of the theatre is lost than to keep it alive beyond its usefulness with more artificial business practices. Unmanaged heart is often in direct competition with a stable, well-incomed lifestyle.

2) Close cooperation between artistic collectives
If nothing else, this is the factor that has made Chicago a unique theatre town. Having this level of cooperation is the one benchmark that determines if Chicago is the best place in the world to generate new work and new artists. I should add that I don’t think that Chicago owns the core principle of cooperation, and if another city comes along with the same level of city-wide collaborative culture then THAT will be the best place in the world to make theatre.

After learning a lot more of the historical context of the last thirty years from Steve, Jackie and Sharon, it’s clear that there was a surge of this kind of cross-border cooperation during the early seventies that supported the massive success of Steppenwolf and David Mamet. Just from the example of Black Ensemble Theatre and the Goodman of the time, there was all kinds of cooperation happening in those years from casting to emergency venue maintenance to business development to fundraising. Sharon Phillips told a story where Body Politic had run out of money for the last show of their season, and all the other theatres in town put an envelope for $1.50 donations to Body Politic in their programs, effectively saving the theatre through community support.

At some point, the level of cooperation began to peter off in the 90 and 00s, decades which saw the number of theatre companies in Chicago rise from around 120 to 300. Cooperation is harder when there are more relationships to manage. The existing relationships ossified within the older theatres, and it became harder for a new, small company to find a place in the market. After several 5-year lifecycles of small theatres, the community effectively ceased to remember itself and began to trade in legends of the Steppenwolf rehearsal church basement in extravagant, hushed tones rather than the remarkable, yes, but human-sized spaces and events that they actually were. The three panelists and much of the audience noted a change in the air in the last few years, however – a sense that the community is coming together again. Maybe it’s simply that economic crises breed more cooperative theatre, but I hope this means that we can learn to cooperate on the more fundamental level that existed in the 70s. That will require one thing of us: that we know, care, and invest in each other. Which leads to the final ingredient.

3) A deep, lasting connection with a unique audience
This is the final, elusive ingredient that becomes very challenging in a 300-theatre town, and I think it’s the area where most of Chicago’s theatres have to improve or face destruction. There are a handful of theatres that have have incredible success with the connections to their audience, connections which have developed after years of consistent excellence and resulted in passionate, sometimes rabid support from their fans. In particular: Court Theatre has the strongest geographic connection with its audience, the in many ways isolated neighborhood of Hyde Park, and its programming matches the demographics and intellectual tenor of the neighborhood closely. Having sat in on several of their talkbacks in the last year (in full disclosure, I’m about to open a show there tonight) I can say with confidence that Court has one of if not THE most enviably engaged audience a theatre could have. Talkbacks have become a point of empowerment for the audience, and over years many patrons have gotten used to seeing their feedback and perspectives during previews result in changes in the work itself. It makes those talkbacks very well attended.

But not every theatre gets to be the only game in a neighborhood like Hyde Park, and for the glut of theatres that operate on the north side of Chicago, uniqueness comes not with pure geography but with stylistic and thematic uniqueness. Sometimes that uniqueness comes in the form of investing in the aesthetics of individual genius – like the Hypocrites’ Sean Graney, or the Organic’s Stuart Gordon before him. Sometimes a collective of artists can articulate an aesthetic beyond the vision of one individual: Timeline Theatre is another theatre that marries a reputation for quality with a narrow focus on programming inspired by history. That flexible focus on history as touchstone for the core audience is important to keep in mind. While many other theatres excel at storytelling – hundreds of them, in fact – that touchstone trains the audience to keep engaged with the specific theatre company rather than the shows they happen to be doing at that particular moment.

My own theatre, New Leaf, as we close our ninth season operating in Chicago (Curse of the Starving Class closes tonight), is at a crossroads with this final piece of the puzzle.

We have found a way to articulate and be proud of our passion.

We have created a way, somehow, to create consistently excellent work. I can call it what it is because of that heart.

We have forged incredible connections with the rest of the artistic community, and are fed by those connections on a daily basis. New Leaf’s artistic friends are incredible supporters – from the guest artists on our stages, to companies we collaborate with like Backstage, Theatre Seven, The Side Project, the Goodman, WNEP, TUTA, The Plagiarists, Strawdog, Will Act For Food, the League of Chicago Theatres, and the ongoing Storefront Summit.

What we have not done is found that unique touchstone that will allow us to make theatre for a unique group of people, an audience that shares not just our passion for the theatre and storytelling but a passion for this kind of theatre – theatre that celebrates and renews and reinvents the space in which it is made.

Maybe I need to invite a bunch of architects to the show.

The recipe is simple: Figure out the people that you do this for. Do it well for them. Keep doing it well for them.

Buy Me a Coffee?

Sound in Rehearsal

April 27, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Sound

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to a discussion with a number of – I’m gonna say it – legendary designers and engineers (Rob Milburn, Andre Pluess, Toy DeIorio and Goodman sound head David Naunton) and equally heavyweight Chicago-area Equity stage managers to talk about a common challenge that we now face as technology rapidly evolves: when, whether, and how to use rehearsal and placeholder sound effects in the rehearsal room. While the technological challenges nearly solve themselves as new solutions and software rapidly evolve, the ethical challenges of maintaining the right support of all artistic processes in the room remains something that isn’t discussed as a community as much, and it was wonderful to witness some of the most experienced minds in the city tackle the problem.

Some of my takeaways from the discussion, which must have synthesized the collected experience of nearly a thousand productions:

– The challenge of incorporating an element as young as sound into a rehearsal process boils down to the entire team’s ability to effectively estimate the scope of the resources required to achieve a smooth level of operation. That means: know how many people and how much time it takes. There’s no one-size-fits-all process that works for every production, and if a stage manager is tied up running sound cues that means they’re not on book or capturing blocking changes. Especially in devised-work shows where sound playback is as integral to the development of the work as music is to a musical, a reasonable estimate of the labor required to effectively run rehearsal sound needs to be made, and the theater needs to make a programming decision with those costs in mind as to whether rehearsal sound should be incorporated. In many theaters right now, this estimate of priority and expense exists in a limbo, and by asking SMs to “just press go” we may still be at risk of asking SMs to do so much that they’re unable to do the core of their jobs.

– The line that both stage managers and designers seem to want to draw in terms of who takes what is that designers want to manipulate cues, and stage managers don’t like manipulating cues. However, everyone acknowledges that stopping creative flow for a director or cast by saying “let’s not do that until the designer weighs in” is often counter-productive. The ideal solution seems to be either a) theaters and designers evolving the contracted relationship to secure more of the designer’s time so that they can be contracted with in-rehearsal development time (which might be seen as an early tech, for better or worse) or b) creating a basic technological infrastructure to have a more 24-hour turnaround of new sound cues and programming files in rehearsal. This would allow stage managers to adjust things like cue timing in the moment, and allow designers and directors to have to have more close communication about how cues need to evolve.

– and yes, because I know Chris Ashworth is listening in, all of the sound designers and many stage managers in the room said one word about how to solve this particular technological need: qLab. Which is to say: use software with a high level of flexibility and repeatability (the Go button is always the Go button) and a minimum of cost. So great was the buy-in for qLab that for the first time I’ve seen, it was mentioned that for many reasons it may make sense for theaters or SMs to invest in Macintosh rather than PC computers for the simplicity that the mac platform lends to this and other processes – to say nothing of the flexibility mac offers in being able to run windows. This is not to say that it is suddenly the SM’s responsibility to supply equipment for the operation of the theater – I made a point of saying the opposite, in fact. But if SM & Sound Designer is on the same platform for the first time, suddenly that kind of communication gets a LOT easier and more virtuosic.

– The picture of this system looks a lot like what I and other designers have been using for short-timeframe or remote designing (yes, because we’ve overbooked ourselves):

  • Laptop running a free sound program that both designer and theatre/SM have access to
  • Web server or site through which designers can upload cues to the SM
  • Data files updated when needed that contain the cues and programming so that SMs can ‘just hit go’
  • A quick-and-easy manual or lesson to help SMs or their assistants with the technical challenge of downloading and loading the new version of the show file
  • A minimum of two speakers – just to be loud enough to be heard – or more as specified and provided by the needs of the production

– Back to the question of finding better ways to estimate the NEED of rehearsal sound, there is the problem of our eyes being bigger than our stomachs. From the director’s perspective, and often the sound designer’s perspective, having the ability to have complete working prototypes every step of the way would be great. Also great: enough staff to reassembles and reworks that prototype into different configurations whenever we want to experiment. Of course that bumps up against the financial limits of the theater and it’s production management’s creative job to find ways of getting as much experimentation as possible to be able to deliver a quality product that’s under budget. Sound has evolved SO rapidly in the last ten years that every theatre, production manager, director and sound designer have a different method of determining the exact time and money cost of that reworking and retooling a sound design. If a team won’t be able to be virtuosic with implementing rehearsal sound, sometimes the right answer is: hold off. Especially when dealing with new works, if a play’s text is going to be evolving until late in the process, a good sound designer will often get better results by NOT weighing in until the breath of the text has been worked out in rehearsal – sometimes in that last week before tech. Again, every one of these decisions is a case-by-case estimate of need that has to be done by the whole team for each production.

What’s worked for you?

Buy Me a Coffee?

  • Favorite Topics

  • Blogroll