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Archive for December, 2007

Transparency

December 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I finally got around to catching up with Chris Piatt’s PerformInk analysis of the year in Blogs, Blogs, Blogs!, which is highly recommended reading for both theater community watchers and theater community builders. One paragraph struck me in particular:

Yet, despite its (at least for now) comparatively small readership, everyone in power fears the blogosphere for a different reason. Journalists can be scrutinized without sanction and—their source of real terror—their social station could eventually be taken by unpaid, untrained writers. Meanwhile, theatres and artists fear bloggers their P.R. machines can’t control. In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the fear that most people have (and I share, to some extent) of engaging in public dialogue. Especially my theater friends who look at me funny when I say I’d like to show audiences the crazy argumentative design conversations we have. It feels like that fear is a part of a more general trend in America these days. The increasingly engaged blogging community has developed during a period of weaker-than-normal debate in the political sector and a good eight years of journalism that could-have-been-but-wasn’t. We’ve lost the habit of sorting through our values in public debate. Now, minds are made up before the conversation begins.

And as far as this blog goes, the impulse to write a blog that really analyzed the mechanism of theater seemed to awaken in me an overpowering and paranoid fear that my various employers and students and other theater companies would then know my thoughts and use them against me. Or lose faith in those ideas. Or find me in conflict of interest and blacklist me. There’s that fear that a transparent dialogue and open exchange of ideas will result in gossip, hurtful language and infighting. And it does, sometimes.

But that’s not the community that I moved across the country for – past New York, I might add. We’re capable of generating model theaters, and model theater organizations, and trend-setting work, so we should also be capable of vibrant blogging and reporting about that work. I agree with Chris here about the dubious character of anonymous posters – If a thought has value, it needs to be shared and tested with constructively critical thought, so that the idea can be strengthened and refined. Mutually beneficial conversations can be had when people take some ownership of their opinions and stand for something. With most critics’ wordcount limit, I think that the blogapalooza might be the place where these more complex ideas can be discussed, so I’m glad that theater reporters are among the first to jump into the game and provide some detailed analysis. It’s their game too.

That’s of course why none of us should be worried about this new public forum ripping our livelihoods away – there’s a difference between transparency and unfiltered opinionating, and that difference has value. Drawing connections and providing analysis that others are not equipped or unwilling to do has value. No matter what form we work in, or what our readership level is, if we are committed to creating the best work that we are capable of, we will always be rewarded by that work. If fear is allowed to get in the way of the work, the work will always suffer, and maybe that tells us something. Gapingvoid sums up the fear of transparency nicely:

Transparency’s a tricky one. Transparency relies on human beings, and human beings are generally a frickin’ nightmare.

But forget the hardcore mechanics of running a company for a minute. Let me ask you another question instead:

At the company you work for, how afraid is the average person of making a mistake? Of not being right? Of backing the wrong horse and being found out later?

And then there’s your answer. The less afraid he or she is, the more transparent your company can be, with itself and with the outside world. The more afraid he or she is, the more opaque you’ll have to remain.

The primary requirement for a transparent public discussion (or transparent management of the cultural institutions we get to play with) is disclosure of motives. We need to disclose not just what we want from the community and what we want to create in the community, but it’s also important for us to speak openly about the framework with which we see that community. For example, it’s interesting to see from Chris’ writing (especially his stellar TOC piece on McTheatre a few months back, duly reviewed by blogger Don Hall) an emerging framework of Big Producer Money vs. the interests of the underdog Storefront community. He’s right, of course – especially where City money is concerned, god help us. On the other hand, I think that framework makes the story about mortal combat between Wicked vs. Straw Dog, and that’s not always where I want to be thinking from, because that sure does look like a hopeless fight.

I’ll offer an alternative framework to the storefront woes these days that I’ve found to be more inspiring. My creative life has been in flux these days, and in the interest of full transparency, I’ve needed a more inspiring way to look at the situation to prevent the ever-lurking theater burnout from knocking on my door. I see Chicago theater as a unique community where at the end of the day, finances matter less than the artistic development of the work and the artists creating that work. The difficult pill for me to swallow is that great artists come here when they first start out, and they do five to ten years of work before they have the chops to make a living in another industry or in another city. Either that, or they keep developing forever, and here, that’s another form of success. It’s a public lab, where half-finished ideas get equal airtime and sometimes those ideas actually get developed and turned into really compelling stories. New ideas can be tried on a tiny budget. In Hollywood, half these ideas don’t get greenlit because failure means bankruptcy – what does get pushed forward are the sure crowd pleasers, but not necessarily the ideas that our society NEEDS. In New York, well god help me I don’t really understand New York, but it the work I’ve seen exported from New York and in New York is either the same sure thing McTheater or razor-sharp nihilism – hateful, despairing, and bitter art from people who have become disconnected from their homeland. Which, sure, these days… I’d like to become disconnected from my homeland.

In Chicago, we’ve got both of those types of shows, but we’ve also always had a third type – something that makes more wholly American than New York and Hollywood ever could. It’s a deep connection with ‘realness’, and it’s the same desire that drives us to retain our historic buildings but also renovate them and rebuild them. It’s the same vision that makes us want to both drive out the Bush administration at the same time we want to clean up the Chicago political machine. It’s the same awareness of our world that makes us want to desegregate our hometown and create theater that Looks like Chicago. It’s a kind of theater that wants to reclaim the word ‘homeland’ and make us feel proud of our Americanness again, and how we can make that pride up to the world. That connection with ourselves, our realness makes us capable of wonderfully and wholly American theater – Theater that deserves to be seen on an international level and draw international attention, and interact with other international theaters.

This is a framework where Chicago is not, and never will be, a second city. It is an Ambassador City. Why even bother with spinning the framework of the Chicago Theater landscape this way? It’s not to gloss over real problems. But it is to create a public idea that allows for growth. If you look at the sum total of theater PR in this city, and if you consider Chris’ McTheatre piece to be the most comprehensive appeal to the market to take action, I think the one-sentence perception that the public picks up is: “Good, local theater is never going to have a greater general value than Big Box Theater, so it needs to beg for City support or risk death.” That’s a distortion of Chris’ finer points, but it is what the headline tells you, and how the story spins. The PR spin I wish we were putting out there as a community is: “Theater has rich societal value, and this theater community, like other arts communities in town that have more public support, is garnering international praise without that funding. Chicago’s theater community is a key way Chicago can generate stronger international partnerships if it is treated as an export commodity.” Since PR is all about saturating a market with a unified message, if we want to really use PR to grow the entire community, we will need a common framework or vision that demonstrates rather than declares our value. We need a framework that allows us to grow, and recognize our own value.

Maybe this is all my personal PR machine talking, but I’m pretty confident that my ability to control public opinion about my own work is going on nil. More transparency: I clearly haven’t written in a while, and this blog was an opportunity to flex some pretty atrophied muscles. (I’m using the whole pig, but I’ll keep working on those run-on sentences). What I do know is that if you build a compelling idea, people will be compelled to build on that idea and generate real results, and a blog is a good place to test out those ideas that compel you.

One such idea that compels me: Maybe one opportunity we have with this blog-a-go-go is the ability to have a more transparent discussion about how to build Chicago theater’s reputation outside of the industry. Like with the Mayor. He has flunkies that read blogs. And he knows that there’s more to Chicago theater than New York exports, but he doesn’t yet know what Storefront theater can do for him. Yes, Broadway in Chicago has got his funding now. But if he gets his Olympics, someone should tell him that all those visitors ain’t gonna be all that compelled by Wicked.

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Yes, Rob Kozlowski, There IS a Santa Claus

December 26, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I was reading through Rob Kozlowski’s Christmas Wishlist for Chicago Theater and I was struck by Item#5:

Make every Chicago theatre company work with each other to make sure they don’t share opening nights. Critics want to see your shows. They really do.

Everyone – EVERYONE – I’ve talked to on every side of the theater community about how Chicago Theater works, Opening Night conflicts and the lack of cross-theater company coordination is always on the complaint list… it’s usually one of the first things mentioned, since it seems so easy to accomplish.

Well, no time like the present, right? Let’s get this DONE as part of our collective New Year’s resolutions. I’ve created a public Google Calendar for this purpose (see below to subscribe and post your own theater’s information!), but in the spirit of collaborative transparency and getting the ball rolling, I’m going to include the thought process behind the strategy.

Getting even a quorum – let alone a majority – of theaters to use any sort of half-baked system is difficult. There’s a number of possible strategies to make something like this work and get past the hurdles inherent in how the community does and doesn’t talk to each other. The best example of how difficult getting theaters onboard with a common system is the fact that the League of Chicago theaters already has such a calendar that not enough people know about, let alone use. In fact, the first I’d heard of the calendar was in doing the obligatory google search during the writing of this post. Apparently Rob and several other friends who work all the time in LOCT member theaters had never heard of the calendar, so that tells us something about how well it is utilized. I think this is because there are a couple of downfalls of the the League’s solution to the problem, which I’m hoping a Google Calendar-based system will alleviate.

1) This needs to be dirt-simple, and something that everyone has access to (or even something they ALREADY have access to)

Google calendar isn’t exactly dirt-simple, but it is something that a large section of the theater community either knows how to use or can learn easily with benefits beyond just being able to read this calendar. Edited to add some additional how-to info to help theaters add their dates quickly and easily, see bottom of post

Also making this simple? This calendar is just for this one thing – You tell me your dates, and I’ll tell you mine. However, it can also be used for several ends – feel free to include your venue’s address and your show web page since this is public and Google-searchable. We may eventually be able to find hard-core theater goers subscribing to this calendar to see nothing but opening nights (or opening weekends), which could be a huge boon in the ongoing effort to get people to see a show early in the run and generate word of mouth. No promises, of course, but like any web tool: the more people use it, the more results.

2) The system needs to be both totally accessible and reasonably free of abuse. If every theater company in town can’t update their information, it won’t work. If a single theater company or user floods the calendar with off-topic or useless information, the system will cease to be trusted, and user enlistment will dry up, making the information stale and unworthy.

This is a little harder to achieve with Google Calendar, and will probably have to work itself out with time and more users. Adding an event to a public calendar is fairly easy. The simplest method is to send your opening night info to an editor, like me (any other volunteers?), and we’ll post your event on the calendar. Since overlapping fundraisers have also been a problem for most theater companies, I’ve made the calendar for one-night-only opening nights and special events. But keeping the calendar well-edited is a further challenge. The basic principle that I believe in is: the more honest users who are able to edit the information, the more trustable the information. With that in mind, I can give editing privileges to any member of the theater community who wants to help keep track of this information. Ideally, we’d have a representative from every theater company able to edit their opening nights.

But this opens up some difficulties with editors not playing nice with each other. Wikipedia’s travails with both commercial spam entries and entry vandalism in recent years with web research have greatly publicized both the need for group editorial guidance and simple self-restraint. I figure, when a problem child theater decides to post every single night of their run, we can come down with some gentle and then more firm editorial guidance. Or, we start with fewer editors and encourage individual theater companies to post their opening nights by sending invites to those theater editors… a little more complicated, but the goal here is rock solid, trustable data at all times.

3) The system needs to offer a subscription service.

Subscriptions? Check. Google Cal is designed on group collaboration principles, and also can send updates to your local Outlook or iCal applications. As information changes, you know those changes, and it’s always online so all it takes is a quick web lookup while you’re planning your season schedule. Also, if you use an online calendar on a regular basis, a subscribable calendar will tend to remind you of its existence on a regular basis, and will avoid the fate of the dusty League calendar.

4) Everyone needs to know about it. Even if the information is complete because I’ve done some research and posted some other theater companies’ opening nights just to have some good info there, this calendar will really only do any good in the spring to summer when theater companies really start nailing down firm dates for their season.

That’s up to you, dear reader. I’ve got my people, and I’ll be letting them know. But let’s make the information good, the system trustable, and tell our friends who can use this info.

This is also the perfect first step towards strengthening this cross-company dialogue I mentioned earlier – and that Kris Vire celebrates in his Performink Year-End Wrap up (thanks for the shout out, Kris!) I don’t mean to harp on the League in this blog post, by the way – they offer a lot of underutilized services to small theaters, and I applaud their efforts a lot of the time. But sometimes I think they don’t get the concept of leveraging the resources they have to achieve bigger results, and this is definitely one of those cases. And frankly, I don’t have the personal resources yet to make Chicago known as an international hub of the Theatrical Art, and I’d rather they focus on solving that problem rather than this kind of ephemera.

My big New Years resolution this year is to explore more behind-the-scenes work that I can do to strengthen the community as a whole, so I think monitoring how we can use web tools like blogs and google calendar in increasingly collaborative ways will be a big part of making that dialogue happen. I hope you’ll join me.

New how-to information: After troubleshooting the way Google Calendar works the adding of events to a public calendar, I have a pretty simple solution worked out for most folks. Follow the following steps:

1) If you deal with multiple theater companies and would like a hand in editing this data long term (yeah, super users!) I can share the calendar with you and you’ll be able to make changes to ANY event on the calendar. We’ll call you folks administrators. Or ambassadors. Maybe I can come up with some kind of commemorative pin and hat combo.

2) For most theaters, especially those already using Google Calendar or a compatible calendaring service, simply create your event (including your show’s webpage URL, the address of the venue, and the date and time of the performance or event, and invite calendar@nikku.net as a guest. I’ll get that invite, and copy that event into the master calendar. Any administrator can do the same, so if/when that happens, I’ll give you a couple options.

3) If none of the above work for you, we still need your info. Just send calendar@nikku.net an email with the same information – Show Name, Date & Time, URL, and Address – and I’ll get it up there as soon as possible.

Finally, and most importantly: set your favorite calendaring application to subscribe to the calendar to keep updated on the latest opening night dates:

Through Google:

Or Subscribe in iCal with this link

or Subscribe to the XML feed

Happy New Year, and happy calendaring.

Thanks for the link fix, Michael

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Using all the Parts of the Pig

December 24, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Pig CutsApologies to all you vegetarians out there, but this pork-cutlets-as-art metaphor is gonna get ugly quick.

As the past few weeks have taught me, even though I devote nearly all my time to theater, I still have very little time to devote to theater. In the many conversations I’ve had with other theater professionals about their attempts to develop their careers and strike a balance between love of art and need to eat, I find that’s really true for theater professionals at all points in their career. It doesn’t end. Everyone still does their work, the show goes up, and maybe someone came to see it in the process.

If OnlyThen it all gets chucked in the dumpster. You may be paid more in the bigger theaters, but unless you get lucky and picked up for a remount, it doesn’t change. There’s no DVD extras or webisodes in store for your storefront show. Just the trashheap. Downer.

So say I’m a managing director and I’m producing this show. We have these designers, performers, dramaturgs and directors working on it. I love them – they’re all hard workers and smart, clever, articulate people. We’ve come up with a clever tagline – a nugget of text that we’re going to be putting on the postcard that makes the show sound amazingly compelling in 15 words or less. If we’re lucky, we’ve got an in with someone who knows a little graphic design and as a favor we pull them in to make a pretty picture and boom, that’s our poster. But it’s gonna take us another two weeks to get ahold of our web designer to upload the graphics and get them to talk with each other, upload the show data and code the HTML. We open in six, so hopefully that’ll be enough time to get the word out to our close base of regular patrons who know to check the website. In the mean time we’ll get our marketing typeset, proofread, and printed, and tell everyone in the cast and crew to start pounding the pavement with postcards. That’s what we have time for.

SnoozefestWell, that’s not a growth model for audience development, and it’s the model that most 1-5 year old companies have unless they’ve got a marketing background and deeper pockets than they let on. It leads to an insular industry-centric audience which in this author’s opinion is strangling the dialogue between audience and artist that must happen in order to grow a more vibrant theatrical culture.

In our continuing saga of developing our production (make a show) and marketing (let people know about the show) process at New Leaf, we have a theory that we can achieve a lot more by being smarter with our resources than by generating more resources. Sure, on the one hand we have this finite amount of effort and dough that we can spend towards developing a production, and on the other hand we have these big goal/dreams of audience development numbers we want to hit and things that we want to accomplish as a company – whether those goal/dreams be writing more grants, reading more plays to consider for the next season, or marketing to a new audience (or even defining who our current audience is, exactly). Now, we don’t really have the time or the money to create more work for ourselves without sacrificing the quality of the work itself, and no one wants to sacrifice the detail in the work to create a bigger box office take. To me, that means finding different and multiple uses for the same kernels of artistic meat that we already have – the play, and the artistic components already being poured into the production.

This is where dynamic websites and other creative media can help a theater company use (wait for it) The Whole Theatrical Pig.

A little explanation, which may be unnecessary: Static webpages (like HTML pages) are pretty self-explanatory, and basically function as online word documents, where one person changes, formats, codes, and uploads each page. One page links to another. Updating a static website is like, well, almost all the laborious computer work you’ve ever done: Adding a new show is usually a major undertaking, with changes to be made of a baker’s dozen of eye-crossing pages of code; images to be uploaded, cropped, linked; and then there’s opening up a ticketing system for the new show.

Dynamic websites, on the other hand, have a mind of their own. Like theater, they are in motion, and they can be quite sensitive to specific audience input. Logic is built into the framework of the site to make repeatable tasks (like uploading content or displaying content in a unified style) much more automatic. Blogs have been a really popular dynamic framework of this type that makes uploading content and formatting it both pretty and super easy. And several Chicago theaters have capitalized on the blog as website platform – Collaboraction’s site is powered by Typepad, a popular blogging application, and features up-to-the-minute updates from the production team on the show currently in development. Silk Road’s recently re-launched site, designed by company member and designer Lee Keenan (no relation, we think), also features a lot of WordPress blog-powered content for each show, including review updates, self-generated news updates on company members and even their new comfy audience furniture.

This year, I joined Greasy Joan & Co., marking my third company along with New Leaf and the side project where one of my primary functions as a company member is updating a website with the latest and greatest news from the company. With the side project’s crazy visiting artist schedule alone, that’s close to 30 productions a year to update online, to say nothing of fundraisers and readings and new company members and company news. Updating static sites was looking to be apocalyptic in scope and a blog framework wasn’t going to cut it, since these companies were primarily concerned with the plays and not the process behind the plays (like say, Collaboraction’s clever use of their Blog).

So we built show logic. Now each of these thirty shows that you see online has some sort of simple data file – either a text file or a user-accessed database with basic show data, like the Opening Date, cast and crew lists (sometimes with links to their portfolio pages), that clever tagline I mentioned before, and reviews from the show. If I make any change to this master database, the site logic will use that new data to dynamically update the website as you download it. The most basic logic we use on all three sites is the closing night check – when a show closes on a given date, that show instantly jumps from the “current” page to the “past productions” page after that date, and I don’t have to open my laptop.

I just go to strike.

What I’ve found that works for me is to create a logic structure and back-end interface to the site that uses the existing company production process in its own logic. For instance, if you have a bunch of non-technically-inclined company members, you need a dirt-simple and intuitive admin interface so that everyone can feel empowered to update the site and do their part to keep the content fresh and current. (Websites should be no exception to the collaborative environment of theater) If you have a full show schedule that is constantly in flux, you’ll want an easy way to have every calendar update track through to every page it needs to – from your website calendar to the show detail page, to the company-used calendar to schedule your space. It is possible to work every quirk and skill within your company to your advantage, it just takes a little bit of effort and a lot of self-knowledge.

The Dining RoomFor example, at New Leaf, we have a great photographer, Chris Ash, who takes close to 500 shots of each of our productions. What a gift, right? But when the site was static, we found that we really needed to whittle that glorious mound of visual gold down to just six killer shots for our production history page, and the rest went to waste away in our archives. Then, there was an hour or so of coding to get the images to center correctly on our page, and reformat the images to be the right resolution, blah blah blah. Now that the site is dynamic, we pick 25 or more images, and upload them along with an mp3 of music from the show. That’s it. No coding. The site does the rest of the heavy lifting, detects that the files have been uploaded, and the result is a comparatively immersive slideshow experience for our users. It takes us less time, uses more of the juicy creative meat that our artists have generated, and gives the audience a better experience.

And I should add that dynamic web technology and functions are being developed at a lightning fast rate by a thriving open source community. These people are DYING to have you use their code for FREE, to do ANYTHING you want with your artistic idea. The opportunities to get the guts of your art to a wider audience using new media are staggering. It is not outside the realm of possibility – right now – to say, record your production meeting, scan a couple set drawings and costume renderings, pick out some show music, have your director say a few words on the way to the bar into your laptop, upload it to your server and have your website dynamically mix a video podcast episode and seed it to iTunes, your homepage, and automatically send your subscribers an email about the new behind-the-scenes look at your latest show while you enjoy a nice pint and dart game with your design team. With just a bit more work, you’ve taken a meeting about color chips and made it a compelling sneak peak that will convince people listening to you on the bus the next morning to see your show.

This example may be a little bit too automated for its own good, sure. But I would also argue that any repetitive piece of business that a company performs – from bulk mailing to ticket sales – can be alleviated by some kind of collaborative automation. And I’d also argue that there’s a lot of fantastic artists that burnout because of those repetitive tasks that never seem to end. And there’s a lot of eager patrons that never make it to the theater because those repetitive tasks don’t really reach them. If considered with a little care and big-picture Zen, every bit of effort that we spend working on a show can be doubled by a clever use of technology, and no one needs to feel futile and lost.

That is Theater for the Future, my friends. Use the whole damn pig.

The main difficulty with implementing a dynamic website for most theaters is getting the programming resources in to work with the company and create a system that matches very closely how the company works. You’ll get better results from creating site logic that fits your company resources closely, but that requires a website programmer that intimately knows and cares about your company, and more importantly understands where it’s going.

Can I be Your Intern?Now that kind of talent may be hard to come by for most storefronts. To say that programming resources of that scale are out of the reach of any theater company is simply untrue, though. Setting up a blog is cake these days, and getting any of the pre-fab content management applications (that dirt-simple backend I was talking about) like Joomla or Drupal working with your site is a pretty cheap endeavor. The software and platform to use it comes with your current web hosting service for free (I promise), and if you can’t get your 15-year-old cousin in Des Moines to fashion a genius PHP or Ruby-on-Rails brain for your current site (she’d totally do it for extra credit) you can always spend a couple bucks on an anonymous helper. Even a craigslist search will return a few affordable and skillful recruits like this resourceful young gentleman.

One caveat to enlisting the support of any old web designer for a project like this: As I mentioned in my last post, making your site dynamic isn’t quite the same as a redesign – in newleaftheatre.org’s case, adding a fairly full-featured dynamic backend to the site didn’t really involve any visual changes to how the site looks to the end users. It’s not the same as asking someone to “redesign my site,” which more often than not involves changing your visual look, which can be damaging to any existing brand you may have. So if you’re a theater company and would like to explore the possibilities of a dynamically powered website but don’t know where to start, start trolling your already extensive network specifically for a web programmer or web application builder. Your buzzwords to listen for in the interview are any of the following: PHP, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Joomla, Drupal, CakePHP.

Extra credit if you can guess the acrostic formed from all the buzzwords I used in this post. Kidding.

Happy Holidays, and have an extra slice of whatever you’re eating.

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On Invention

December 17, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration

Wooo! It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, so apologies for the breakdown in posting. Most of that time’s been devoted to mixin’ it up at Congo Square’s Black Nativity (“Hasten to His Throne” is a blast of rock), and getting pre-production rolling for four spring shows: New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, Goodman’s Shining City, Backstage’s How I Learned to Drive, and Bilal Dardai’s new play, Contraption at the Neo-Futurists.

Wheee!

Contraption, in particular – a play about the inventive process and the despair of failure that often accompanies it – has sparked this ethos of invention in me for the moment, and I’ve got these big ideas about new possibilities for theater that are just flying faster than I get them down. Despair will come later (smirk).

One of these projects (which I was also furiously hammering away at in the beginning of December) is a dynamic back-end to New Leaf’s website that has resulted in some interesting photo montages for those of you with Flash. I’ll be talking about the myriad benefits of dynamically coded websites for resource-poor theaters in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s this little tidbit of actual brilliance:

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