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Archive for November, 2007

It’s All About the Story

November 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Tools

voyagercoverjpg_2big.gifWe’re gearing up at several of my theater companies for a couple marketing summits, using different strategies for that immense undertaking, but the research involved in the process into other examples of Chicago Theater marketing has got me wondering – why aren’t theaters the best marketers in town?

Marketing is essentially a storytelling excercise, as Lois Kelly describes in her book Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. You’re using the worldview and values that already exist in a potential audience member, and crafting a message that says “seeing this play is a way to express your values, share them, revel in them, and hell, change the world.” (for a concise summary of Lois’ 9 genres of marketing story, check out Guy Kawasaki’s blog. Or cross-reference Lois’ stories with Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. Ah, it’s great to compartmentalize everything you’ve ever heard into neat little categories.)

Theater is one of the most innovative, powerful, and cohesive storytelling formats out there. It creates shared experiences, unlike printed media; it’s cheaper to produce (and in general less ruled by profit) than film; it’s active and even athletic compared to the disembodied voices of Radio. In theater, you can tell stories with the whole human, for the whole human, and still engage the imagination of an audience.

On our good days, theater artists are some of the best storytellers out there. And Lois Kelly tells us that the only reason people buy anything these days is because they are convinced by a marketing story (she’s of course not the only one). If you get that Nintendo Wii, you will unite the generations and create a community and lasting friendships, complete with slow motion victory dances, and it’s all thanks to the ancient wisdom of polite Japanese businessman. So why can’t theater get a wider audience? Because while we are great at crafting innovative and complex visions in 50-seat black box theaters, we’re not always well equipped to tell a good marketing story – which by necessity needs to be dirt simple and loud.

I think there are three basic hurdles to successful storefront theater marketing. The first issue theaters tend to have is that the idealistic desire for detail and/or innovation in storytelling – which serves the work so well – often also leads self-marketing theaters off track. Let’s assume that you’re putting together a postcard for a show. With all the text and imagery fighting for our attention in any given day, you will be lucky to have 2 seconds to hook someone into hearing your message before their attention span shuts you out, so that 4 paragraph dramaturgical summary of your play on the front of the card probably isn’t going to cut it. Marketing messages can’t ever be complex. However, as with the example of the Wii and most television commercials, just because your message has to be simple doesn’t mean that the box it comes in can’t be detailed and exciting and be filled with all kinds of goodies and emotions. It’s just that the first thing everyone needs to get is a unified, simple message. Two Seconds. Bam.

The second hurdle is usefully segmenting the actual community and marketing to specific populations within that community. Storefront theaters are funny beasts in that despite a prevalent desire to speak to and for a community, they tend to become most successful (though anemically so) with the internal theater industry demographic. That’s often because the theater doesn’t have the time, resources, or statistical ability to understand the day-to-day needs of the community passing by their message. While they may connect with individuals in the community very deeply, they have a harder time understanding the various mindsets of the groups of people walking by their message on the way to work each day. I think theaters also tend to want to bring all people together, and in many ways they can be blind to people who don’t already appreciate theater. Over time, this has created a really unhealthy divide between theaters and general society that many other arts organizations don’t face. This problem is described a bit in Standing Room Only, another book on marketing specifically for performing arts organizations:

Most nonparticipants have consciously or unconsciously eliminated the arts as being of any possible interest or value in their lives. They have drawn a “cultural curtain” and have turned off to anything that is written or said about arts activities…

Nonparticipants harbor many inhibiting images of the arts as relatively austere and effete, effeminate, esoteric, inaccessible, too demanding of study and concentration, arrogant, etc. Coping with these attitudes is not easy, but progress is made when experience shows the contrary or reorients the negative value.

The third hurdle, as always, is resources – money and time. Successful corporate brands can flood the market and streets with tasteful, huge, attention grabbing posters and videos and websites on every street corner. They can hire marketers to do nothing but pound the pavement with their message and get ads, reviews, and blogs to feature their product or message. Storefront theaters, on the other hand, need to step up the creativity to find ways of getting a marketing story out to the world… anyone who’s ever distributed posters and postcards door-to-door knows how difficult this can be. I’m increasingly wondering how effective things like postcards are these days, given that there are much more leveragable outlets for promoting a message. Blogs, MySpace, and Facebook are all recent additions to the more creative ways of mass marketing, and of course assembling a powerful and dedicated board can eventually be a solution to the woes of marketing a show while you’re in preproduction.

There’s a fear that I get when I look at these hurdles in the context of my own theaters… I worry that creating a message that jumps these hurdles will also somehow cheapen the experience of theater at the same time that it makes it more accessible. I think that’s just stigma talking. Marketers, like all humans, sometimes cut corners in their work for less fulfulling clients. But a well crafted message NEVER waters down the product… it’s just a good, well-lit frame for the work itself. And thus, both framing and marketing are arts in themselves, with all the potential success and failure that goes with the territory.

In crafting a branding message, I like to think of the care Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan took in crafting the Voyager Golden Record, an audio compilation sent into space radio broadcasts a-blazing, in the hopes of contacting and sending a message of humankind to alien life. The message was, simply, “This is humanity. This is who we are. Hello.” But the container for that message was incredibly detailed and well thought out – based on the anticipated audience of alien life forms.

As described on the Voyager Spacecraft Website:

Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.

The spoken greetings begin with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and end with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Our audience is always alien to us. Theater folk are excited by that reality. The message we craft to reach them must be both simple and address what we know about them – their fundamental humanity and desire to connect with the people around them. This, I know: If we focus our efforts, theaters can be REALLY good at connecting with other human beings.

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For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago

November 21, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

Oh, if we only didn’t need money and could focus on art, right?

There’s been a number of creative web fundraising ideas floating around the storefront community – and theaters have been doing a pretty good job copycatting the ones that are easy to use (though it’s still unclear which ones are most financially effective for arts organizations).  There’s those good ol’ web marketplace affiliate programs like CafePress.com or Amazon Associates – where your patrons shop through your site for swag or targeted products or just plain anything – and the e-marketplace gives you a cut.

More recently, major search engines have gotten into the non-profit fundraising game and created programs like GoodSearch.com which donates a portion of its ad revenue to non-profits that send users their way instead of Google. And (perhaps in retaliation?) Google created Google Grants, which sort of works like free AdWords for non-profits and increases exposure. 

There’s never a truly free ride, of course. Affiliate programs are partially there for the benefit of the affiliate, but there’s a much bigger profit to be had in having minions convert their (high-value disposable-income-weilding) patrons into big, giant streams of fresh, flaming consumerism. As I described in Part I, these programs only generate reasonable sums of money for the affiliate when you start amassing a great big critical mass of users on your own, and before that happens, it’s just a trickle.  

But, Chicago Storefront Theaters don’t have a lot of resources to chase that money, so they participate in these programs on a small scale because they require very little effort beyond the initial setup. A little easy money is better than staring into the void of funding a show on the ensemble’s collective credit cards.

About five months ago, Chicago businessman (and actor) Steve Misetic decided to throw his hat into this ring.  Like most Chicago Theater cheerleaders, Steve was frustrated with the way that Chicago Arts Organizations often have to fight with the rest of the country for the attention of our local big businesses. He noticed that theater companies were throwing their patrons’ money to e-commerce companies in California, while local businesses spend ad money with national firms, and both seemed the poorer for it. The result of this frustration – his brainchild SaveChicago.org (which launches this Friday) – was modeled on the success of other affiliate programs and the success of locally powered sites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.  The basic idea, in his words:  

SaveChicago.org is the first online marketplace where local merchants and local consumers are able to find each other on the Internet.

SaveChicago.org mobilizes the audiences of non-profit organizations into a unified consumer demographic as members of SaveChicago.org.

Local merchants then pay to reach this first ever critical mass of local consumers on the internet.
SaveChicago.org then gives 50% of the money these merchants spend back to the non-profit groups who’ve helped us mobilize these consumers.

SaveChicago.org keeps local advertising dollars local and sustainable by re-injecting the money back into our local economy via non-profit organizations, instead of letting the money escape into Silicon Valley.

The website we have built is a completely state-of-the-art e-commerce site that basically does to local advertising what Ebay did to garage sales. We’re putting local businesses together with local consumers and splitting the money with non-profit organizations. No one has figured out how to do local advertising on the internet until now.

If this sounds at all convoluted, it’s because Steve is trying to bring together three very divergent groups together with a common marketing strategy – local merchants, local shoppers, and at this point, even the non-profits that the site is designed to support. His mission, other than the glory of saving chicago theater and culture forever, is to generate those deliciously sustainable and work-free revenue streams for non-profits on a local level – hopefully to the levels they require to turn off the fundraising (aka “begging”) bullhorn and regain some long-forgotten sense of dignity. He’s also learning the PR and marketing and e-commerce games as he goes (with professional PR support and a killer web developer), and trying to bring together two e-commerce models that haven’t worked together thus far – local savings sites like craigslist and national affiliate programs like Google AdWords – with the goal of creating a revenue loop that feeds back on itself and grows the local ad money pie for the benefit of organizations that can do some good with it.

All this wrangling, courting, and dreaming big has I think created a very interesting situation on the eve of SaveChicago’s launch – at least from my vantage point outside the down-and-dirty planning – and there’s a couple big challenges ahead for the site in its infancy. The first hurdle is to demonstrate a clear need in the community – not a need to support the arts, but a need for shoppers to find deals and for merchants to find those shoppers. Without this incentive, the whole growth mechanism falls apart – Google and craigslist built that kind of national name recognition after years of providing free, innovative services that were more convenient than the phone book and classified ads, respectively. In his initial planning, Steve envisioned companies like Starbucks spending their advertising dollars on his site to reach local shoppers. Put that way, there’s no reason for Starbucks to buy in to website marketing when they’re already reaching plenty of customers right on the street. To generate that need, Steve has created an Angie’s List-esque membership program for shoppers and promised deep discounts from member merchants that can’t be found elsewhere to those members. And Neo-Futurist and SaveChicago.org groupie Mary Fons points out, the merchants that will be the biggest beneficiaries of a program like this will likely be that mom-and-pop cafe down the street that need to get you to patronize them instead of Starbucks.

The second hurdle to make a system like this work is one that papa Google and uncle Craigslist actually created pretty organically, over time – a critical mass of market share. For merchants to want to give these secret, targeted discounts, they need to know that the people using SaveChicago.org will grow their businesses. That kind of patronage doesn’t grow overnight, which creates a third hurdle: To help grow the patron base, Steve will be leaning on the member arts organizations to help promote the site and drive traffic, patrons, and merchants his way, at least until the ad revenue is self-sustaining.

And the biggest hurdle of all? Convincing all three groups that SaveChicago is a brand worthy of their trust. Chicago Theaters are actually quite conservatively-minded businesses for the most part… their risk tends to be small (though proportionally huge to their income), and they tend to feed their creativity into the product, but not so much the actual making of money. The reactions from other industry types that I talked with to Steve’s initial volley of e-mails promoting the site were skeptical at best, and Steve’s language (which was still being retooled for branding and positioning, and of course betrayed his intense personal excitement) didn’t always help:

Subject: SaveChicago.org to make fund-raising obsolete: Launching November 23rd

Could you imagine getting checks in 2011 from a Fund-raising drive completed in 2008?
Take 5 minutes to register your non-profit with SaveChicago.org and earn recurring income from a one-time fund-raising effort.
no cost – no obligation
Launching on November 23rd, 2007

Savechicago.org is the first company in history to attempt to consolidate the supporters of non-profit organizations in order to create the “critical mass” needed to generate real advertising dollars. We want non-profits to stop begging local businesses for the 5% of their ad budget they feel obliged to donate to charity every year. We’ll get you access to the other 95%.

When the spam filters didn’t whisk away his audience, phrasings like “No cost – no obligation” sparked interest but didn’t inspire confidence, despite his best intentions. Since then, Steve has hired a PR rep and refined and focused his language a bit, which will make his merchant patrons a lot happier and his non-profit beneficiaries a lot more trusting. The first checks will also help to change that tune as well. Smirk.

So what does Steve have going for him? Some folks are already way on board, with a non-profit member list that already includes several high schools, hospitals and churches, hotshot neighborhood development organizations like Rogers Park’s DevCorp North, and a few representatives of the theater scene, including Barrel of Monkeys, Rivendell, The Artistic Home, and Raven, which has never shied away from closer neighborhood involvement. Steve’s also aware of what he’s up against. Which always helps.

Plus? I think his idea is truly innovative and creative. If he can manage to implement it, he will at the very least create a locally-based version of an AdWords-like system, even if that doesn’t immediately translate into flowing rivers of cash for his affiliates. That “local” part of the business model is huge – if you’ve ever bought or sold anything through craigslist, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole human, dare I say theatrical, element to the transaction because at some point you’re not just exchanging money and goods, you’re coming into contact with a stranger. The time I sold my old iPod to a craigslister was, while brief, an incredibly exciting day for both of us. I used the cash to upgrade to a video model, and I left most of my music on the old one. And I have A LOT of music, so the buyer pretty much jumped up and down at the deal he got. That kind of excitement can only happen on a local level.

There’s a spark of something here – local cooperation, a spirit of being neighbors – that I think needs to continue even if Steve’s web experiment doesn’t pan out. Steve is also going to need to work his butt off to build that trust and enlist help. I know I moved to Chicago because of idealism like that, and I applaud Steve for thinking really big, and taking the big risk. I think there’s a potential renaissance out there for Chicago Theater and interdisciplinary arts, but it will take a big spark and plenty of fuel – and that means we need to build that fire together and share the wealth.

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The Business of Dramaturgy

November 17, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World

Dramaturgy Reminds You To Smile Dan Rubin – Chicago dramaturg extraordinaire – has written a great analysis of the role of a dramaturg.  Especially notable as far as this blog goes is that he is taking a role that is in many ways literary theater in its purest form and beginning to synthesize the art of dramaturgy with the business of better art.   

It should probably tell you something about the relative value that society places on the quality of entertainment that finding a paid freelance dramaturg gig (in theory a role that directly improves the strength of a project’s artistic vision) is incredibly difficult. More often, a dramaturg finds permanent work as a literary manager, which is a role more focused on artistic brand development – i.e. building a body of artistic work that also happens to be unified and therefore marketable. 

I try to approach my own work as that of a sonic dramaturg – someone trying to build a cohesive sonic vision that fits with the intentions of the director using only sound, and I’m not sure how that jives with Dan’s vision of the dramaturg’s role…. I suppose following the sonic or other sensual vision to great lengths could put me out of sync with the other design elements, which is always a risk, but it’s also extremely valuable to have the designers use dramaturgical thinking in addition to following their artistic impulses to make sure a vision is cohesive. Inexperienced dramaturgs can also sacrifice the human value of an impulse on the altar of things like overly dry period research, as if every world of the play being created in the theater were the ‘real’ world. Naturalism. Thunk.

But having an active, sensitive dramaturg on a show is like springing for a fine wine to go with that meal.  It brings out all the flavors that your chef (the director, I suppose?) has paired together on your plate.  It’s a heady combination.   I certainly can’t afford that glass of wine most of the time.   In a different culture, we might not be able to conceive of eating our food without also deeply enjoying, deep, rich, well-balanced flavors.  But of course, this is America, where life, food, and art are not necessarily experienced in depth.  Our moments are more often experienced half hour blocks in between commuting.  

I hate to say it, but until our culture changes Dan and his colleagues may need to keep their eyes on how they can be marketable talents rather than how their talents can be used to further the art.  How have you dramaturgs found creative ways to use your talents to generate rent money?

Depressed, anyone?  Well go out and hug your local dramaturg.

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Mellifluous Paint

November 13, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

So I guess we just saw one too many people texting from the third row that week.

We were trying to ease the burden on the poor box office manager at the Side Project and we decided to record a preshow announcement for the first time so the poor overworked ensemble could refrain from doing a hastily prepared curtain speech.

In recent years, preshow announcements have become part of the brand of the theater, not just a polite reminder to turn off your cell phones. They’ll announce the season, or invite people to participate in a survey. In the Side Project’s case, it’s a tiny tiny theater with 25 – 50 seats and some of the most intensely intimate staging you’ve ever seen. That’s the kind of “duck or the fight choreography might graze your cheek” image that we want to both cultivate and live up to – the brand we’re trying to reinforce. With a preshow announcement.

So we needed something, and it was midnight, and I got a little slap happy.

The announcement in question.

You know you sometimes do something and it strikes a chord?

For the love of god, I love technology as much if not more than the next guy, but blackberries can remove you from that wonderful human contact we were just talking about. Stop texting in theaters or we will find a way to paint you!

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For Free, part I: (In it For the Money Mix)

November 12, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

The first check I got from Google AdWords was more than a little intoxicating.

It had been a hard financial month. I had just gotten married and settled down in our six month old condo (with its six month old mortgage), and I was off from my regular gig for two months. It was our first really lean month in a while, our savings were being tested, and while my life was leading me to dream about the future and children and picket fences, my numerous “volunteer” theater projects were starting to look like the biggest hurdle on that road.

One of those volunteer projects was backstagejobs.com, which Patrick Hudson had been doing out of the goodness of his heart for nigh on ten years. And when I say “doing,” I mean manually entering every contact, job, and spelling error on the site – and the site was powering human resources for a national storefront theater movement. It all funnelled through his poor Pentium II laptop, and his full-to-overflowing inbox. Like many others, I got I think my first three jobs out of college from the site, basically launching my career, and the opportunity to relieve this Atlas of the theatrical world though an automated redesign was reward enough.

But then, after the redesign was working and Patrick started blinking his eyes, wondering what to do with his time, he did what he could to compensate me – he handed me over two months of his google AdWords revenue.

And in that moment, I believed money really could grow on trees. It wasn’t an outrageous amount of money, but it made the difference in that month’s mortgage payment. And all this from a completely free site, that doesn’t charge either the poor starving artists looking for jobs or often the equally starving theater companies looking to hire them. Where the hell was all this money coming from? Who was advertising to this market that almost by definition didn’t have disposable income?

It turns out, the economy really can evolve. The market is rewarding companies with innovative revenue streams like Google. The model is basically: Provide a free service, and then get a large chunk of a potentially national or international market share with that free service, and then make your living through selling ad revenue for the sheer number of people just LOOKING at your site. In Patrick’s case, it’s a small compensation for the number of hours he’s already logged building and maintaining the site, but at the same time it’s a useful way to fund his child’s education.

Before we proceed, do me a favor: I don’t have the readership to justify the effort to make this blog a podcast, but I don’t want to deprive you, the reader, of the full storytelling experience here. So head on over to Amazon and order Joni Mitchell’s For Free or just play it if you’ve got it. Thanks. Life’s too short to not enjoy it.

getimageexe.jpgThe first time the economy shifted in such a basic way for American theater was the advent of film. (and I should warn, now that you have this great dramatic underscore rolling: what I am about to say probably has a great deal of ‘truthiness’ to it, but it’s all theory and not so much fact) At the time, there was a premium on the most skilled (read=famous) talent, and people would come far and wide and lavish extravagances on such a talent, and that talent would also tour around to ease the burden a bit, so you’d go to Des Moines instead of having to hoof it to New York. You could make such a name for yourself if you were a big personality, had a clear voice, and could fill the stage with your presence. That economic reality nurtured a style of acting that we now refer to as “Overacting.”

charlie_chaplin.jpgThen, suddenly, performances could be recorded, and seen in every city in the nation. Better yet, you could get up close and personal to the talent. Suddenly, the money changed directions – actors still needed presence, but they needed to be sympathetic and human-sized as opposed to larger and life. And, with expanding markets, projects that were populist and frankly lowest common denominator would suddenly have a great priority to the new studios – if you could bring a film to every market in the country, it better well APPEAL to every market in the country. Over time, the old ways get stigmatized and financially anemic, and the new ways get all that intoxicating money, fame, and – given enough market share – power. Meaning we have a lot of populist entertainment these days, and media conglomerates running way more of the country than they should, because they can literally control access to what people hear, see and read.

But there’s hope yet. Have you noticed how the content peddled by the movie industry has started to suckrepetitively – lately? Have you noticed how recent FCC changes show that cable companies are beginning to scramble for your attention?

Hear about that Writer’s strike?

Well lo and behold – web-based media is changing the rules again, in a big way. Just one tiny reflection of this is how DVD sales and free web access to TV shows has created a a richer and more focused viewing experience than cable and may have actually improved TV serials content as compared with film content. (TV allows for more character development than film due to running time limitations, so it follows that TV can nurture more complete, human characters than film – if the producers get the hell out of the way of the desires of the audience and writers.)

Equally promising – You Tube has created an outlet for user-targeted content which has created some really exciting projects that would never have gotten past the producers in the old days. And those projects are now being funded piecemeal directly by the users who want to see them. The audience’s energy and money is actually fueling the performer’s ability to perform their content.

Sound familiar? Audience Interacting with Performer… hmmm… The secret to this new model is volume, which is the big hurdle for theaters, since each show has a finite number of physical seats and in most cases a single physical location. But let’s take another look at this web theater idea. Throughout this admittedly biased little diorama of history, one thing has remained constant: The public will congregate towards what they want to see and hear. Since most of that pesky attention and money was removed from the equation of theater business back at the turn of the century, Theater has always been a haven for artists and audience looking to drive at deeper human truth and experiment/experience a bit more with the craft of entertainment than mass-market profit-driven companies would ever tolerate. They played their clarinets for free on the sidewalks, and if you happened to catch them, you experienced some breath-halting live-changing moments, that were then gone forever.

People love to have those cathartic moments. I could argue that cathartic experiences are what we want to buy when we see a movie or even when we get that double latte instead of the simple cup of joe. Especially in bubble-gum terror-scared times like these, we trust those moments and use them to recenter our priorities. Theatrical truth and human connection are finally valuable again. It’s what people want, but finding it is difficult, because we’ve become more compartmentalized. People literally are addicted to their iPods and computers, trolling the internet for a blog post or a video that will give them that sensation of human connection. To not create performances for them simply because they’re not looking in the place you’re going to be performing just seems silly.

I also think people are fundamentally smart. They don’t trust the content that is created simply for profit’s sake. They don’t really believe that they can make $20,000 in a month without doing something fundamentally immoral and/or dangerous. They want to interact and create, and theater and the web are far better at allowing that interactivity than film and TV can be on their own. Reality TV? Come on. That’s a silly substitute, but it was the best TV could come up with. How sad is that? People trust people who do things out of love, and they can smell if you’re doing something just for the money. If you see a street musician who’s damn good, you’ll stay and maybe take his card, and download his mp3s from his website, because you know he’ll keep playing even if you were to just walk by.

This new web-based financial model rewards the hard-working and clever street performers of the world. You can now travel the world, dance like a fool, and get paid for it, as long as you do it all the way. In the final analysis, this system is harder for big conglomerates to control arbitrarily for profit and allows for individual tastes and aesthetics to flourish in ways that weren’t possible before. Markets aren’t limited by physical location anymore, they’re delimited by personal interests, so they tend to reward individual and local flavors over nation-wide flavors-of-the-month. Web attention and traffic are also ephemeral, and they reward interconnectedness, which according to the Google Page Rank Documentation is ultimately a factor of trust, volume, and quality.

There’s been a few first gasps of theaters and theater organizations trying to tap new media market business plans, and in part II I’ll outline a little bit of the strategy behind them, and how they may be able to succeed – or crash and burn. Till then, thanks for funding my pipe dream by purchasing wonderful music from my site. Tee hee!

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Buzzwords of Doom

November 10, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, productivity

picture-1.png“Community Culture, Online Collaboration, Web 2.0, oh my!”

I think a lot of theater artists hear enough of this crap in our day jobs, and by the time they get to places at 8:00 pm and when they take the spotlight or hit that go button, they embody that force in the world that wants to smash corporate culture and servers back into the stone age. We scream, “feel something HUMAN, dammit!”

And alas, in that moment we miss the boat.

I just read an interesting summary of the current corporate-sector debate about Web 2.0 technologies and how exactly to implement them from Regina Miller at Future Tense. (Are they the dawning of the age of the aquarius? Are they another stock market crash in the making?) I think of this standoff between IT professionals and the corporate culture marketers (yeah, I know you’ve got it at work too) as similar to the self-supporting tension between theater technicians and artistic management.

We need each other, and we need to work together, but boy is there some unnecessary disrespect that gets flung around between us.

Here’s what’s going on, as far as I can see: Technical folk live with this technology, they eat and breathe and sleep it, and get REALLY flustered when they come in contact with folk who see it as external – even unessential – to a collaborative environment. (“For crying out loud we could work from HOME in our UNDERWEAR while we play XBOX!”) So flustered that they often become seriously unhelpful and uncollaborative, thus negating the value of whatever easy snazzy collaboration tool they were developing.

Want an example of such an impenetrable world-changing tool? Sure, I can dig one up.

This one comes from the workdesk of one of my Chicago Sound Design forefathers, Mr. Ben Sussman, long time engineer and arranger to composer Andre Pluess (and who I think got snatched up by Google recently). In between Jeff-award winning designs, He quite literally wrote the book on a new programming collaboration tool called subversion. Go ahead, try and read it. Even with pretty graphical explanations featuring little fluffy white clouds labeled “Ye Olde Internet,” you maybe understand 35% of what the hell is going on.

This is the language and collaborative world that the technical folk live and breathe in. They take for granted – in this case – that you know that CVS is a ubiquitous if flawed online collaboration framework for programmers, not that place where you can get your prescriptions filled. Like any speakers of a language, they take for granted that you’re fairly fluent. In my own work, I throw more acronyms around than a can of alphabet soup.

For technicians, this new language and vocabulary we build is useful and efficient. If we don’t share knowledge of how technologies can be used, we can’t say things like “Hey, can you register the globals on that php class and update the version control so that I can freaking FTP my localization preferences already?” and getting things done takes a LOT more time.

Marketers and Management in the corporate sector have a similar acronymble language developed for the feel-good world of institutional culture and branding. The language is sky-high with hope and inclusiveness and leveragable words that can mean anything and everything to anyone and everyone. (“Let’s get Actualized!”) It has to be in that inspirational world for so many hours out of the day that the technical folk on the ground can look at it be tempted to call it all BS. They look at the dreams and audacious goals and immediately start thinking about all the long hours they’re going to have to pull to get that pile of crap DONE.

These two groups need to train each other a bit, which gets painful, because they are both masters of a different art. When a technician’s dreams take into account the dreams of his colleagues, wonderful things happen. When a manager’s gameplan for success includes practical input on implementation, the path to success gets cleared faster.

I think Regina’s recipe for a “Change Management” team has many applications for theater. I’ve always thought that creating a unified online dynamic document – accessible and editable by all – is the fastest route to coordinating the huge challenges of scheduling and volunteer labor that is involved in mounting a storefront show. Nearest and dearest to my heart is a well-rehearsed and accessible production timeline. If a company can create – and regularly update – a cohesive and centralized to do list (say on a wiki or online forum, or even on a dry erase board at the space), tasks can be shared and people who are getting burnt out can get relief. Knowledge becomes shared – and remembered.

This only works, however, when the entire company can come together and learn to work as a collective. For some reason, arts management becomes a top-down structure again with a couple really overworked individuals serving as Managing Director or Artistic Director, or holy crap, both. We relearn to collaborate on every show that we do, it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for theater artists to learn to collaborate in our project management styles, and implement a single collaboration strategy within a company that works for everyone.

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The Generation Gap

November 09, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

0.jpegThere’s nothing like Radio Lab to make you delighted to change the way you look at the world.

The few times I’ve worked with folks of a different generation in theater (why doesn’t this happen more?) I’ve noticed a peculiar gap in perception, especially when it comes to sound. You’ve perhaps witnessed the great ongoing debate over vocal reinforcement on stage, but something new seems to be cropping up since the rock age took over: our audiences have collective hearing loss. As the Mickey Mouse Club cranks the compression and other sound-wave science in on the airwaves and in musicals (creating a dynamic blast of boy band bravado to give it that CD sound), audiences are literally becoming dependant on reinforcement to hear performances, and get angry when they don’t hear those mics being cranked.

Which unfortunately, leaves the “pristine” reinforcement that sound designers love and producers spend big bucks on – the kind you can’t detect – fighting for its life. Literally. I’ve seen perfectly transparent reinforcement designs – the kind that just sound like super-human projection and if you couldn’t see the speakers moving you wouldn’t know that they were turned on, but every word is crystal clear from every seat in the house. And I’ve seen those designs scrapped because audience members started complaining… not because they couldn’t hear the words, but because they couldn’t hear the sound of amplification – the distortion, the pops, the clicks, the heavy breathing. The things that the sound designer and engineer has worked for at least three weeks to remove. Crazy! What’s going on?

What I’ve noticed about the older generation of theater artists (and audiences) is that they don’t warm up as quickly to things like sonic underscore or more than a sprinkle of sound effects in a show – while on the other side of the coin, younger artists spread it on thick, often using it just for the sake of using it, and younger audiences lose focus if words are not spoken over an underscore.

When you get into a conceptual discussion with both parties present about what’s going on and what it all means is when you really start seeing the disconnect… it’s really like two people are just plain hearing different things. That is to say, we agree on what we’re hearing, but the emotions evoked in us by sounds as basic as silence and non-silence are profoundly different. It creates an ethical question that I’m trying to grapple with in my work – is it better for the future of theater audiences to remove sound underscores that can emotionally manipulate and cue the audience in to an arbitrary interpretation of the text, or to include that underscore and connect with a younger audience on their terms?

I think the answer may be to remove the more overt and hammering underscores in film and TV, which most audiences experience on a daily basis, and see how those mediums deal with that.

Did they really put that much MTV in our baby formula? Is our brain chemistry just plain different from our elders?

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich say yes and here’s why.

I think there’s a way back from this, and it feels like Radio Lab is beginning to find it. We need to explore what is really going on here, and by understanding what is happening as we watch 14 hours of TV a day and score our commute with our iPods, we will also find ways to rehumanize what is happening through art. Art will always reconnect humankind with a kind of foggy truth – that’s art’s job. What is happening to our collective brain chemistry with the increasing velocity of technological development is uncertain, and there’s a lot of fear and rejection of technology that comes as a result.

But sound and video projection technology is just a new kind of fire that our species wields. We will both fear it and respect it from a distance until it becomes a part of us – and some people will experiment with it and get closer to integrating it into our culture. Respect, care and moderation with these tools is good, because if we had let fire get out of control, it would’ve burnt our house down.

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TFTT Writer’s Strike Edition: The HTTP:// isn’t just for marketing

November 07, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

The web community spirit of You Tube hasn’t quite been working yet for theatrical marketing and promotions, but thankfully we’re in good company… TV Writers have also been given the shaft on the emerging market of “New Media” – web downloads, promotional content like webisodes, and viral entertainment, and that’s about to change. A number of theater companies are also experimenting and Chicago company stagechannel brings theater to video… But I was wondering today about the possibilities of bringing theater to the web and drawing in audience through the ever-growing internet viewing market…

First, check out this wonderful bit of social activism mixed with star power and street theater:

I often think the preshow, lobby area, and even the preshow announcement are ripe opportunities for extending the world of the play beyond the four corners of a theater space. But we’re also starting to see a number of experiments in extending a play’s walls into the internet to help promote a show, including our own at New Leaf for Vox Pandora, TheOnlyOneLeftWasHope.com. It’s rich territory, as the number of people trolling the internet for content instead of cable TV is growing exponentially by the day.

Another of these fifth-wall experiments crossed my inbox a few days ago, Jason Grote’s web world created for a production of his play 1001. Jason has created a fake news page with easter egg links to his box office, his reviews, even a world-of-the-play wiki for user-generated comments.

These web productions are often slapped together, but when you think about how many of our young audience members sit in day jobs surfing the net, how great would it be for someone to start to experience a rich theatrical experience for the entire day before they actually get to the theater? And then after they see the show, they could visit the world again from their office? Why is this kind of creative obsession reserved for TV serials like Lost, the Office, and Heroes, when theater artists also create multiple worlds of that scope a year? Even better, why can’t part of the play BE the web page, not just a links page?

Theater folk don’t quite know how this web audience works yet – we have the open source technology, but not enough to understand the user experience. Jason is throwing every web gadget that he can at this thing – wikis, phpBB forums, a list serve, but he doesn’t focus the site’s attention on the web technologies that his audience will actually want to use in their valuable free time and be entertained by. He hasn’t built a web audience yet, either, so he also has to resort to emailing folks to drive traffic to his site, which completely breaks the illusion that he has crafted so carefully.

But all is not lost for Jason, and I applaud his experiment. Theaters are by nature small and aggressively experimental, and require the least amount of resources from concept to execution than other entertainment media. We experiment like mad, and learn from that experimentation faster than larger entertainment organizations – though we also forget the things we learn faster. The question of how the web can be used to host and promote entertainment is a big one, and one I think film studios, TV networks, Internet Technology Companies, Theaters, and a nationwide audience will all be answering at the same time. I think on a more even playing field like the ‘net, it’s actually theaters who might know what their audiences really want, and have the most to gain from such a paradigm shift from at home content to online worlds that hold our attention hostage.

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