Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Archive for 2007

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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Go, qLab, Go!

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

qLabSpeaking of things that make us smile…

I was listening on NPR to Chazz Palminteri on his broadway debut of the one-man show that made him a household name, A Bronx Tale.

Lo and behold, A Bronx Tale is the second major broadway debut of the little sound playback program that could, qLab.

qLab’s main industry competitor is the old stalwart SFX (which was simple, quick, industry-wide, and somewhat affordable at $800 for a pro license plus $1600 on average for a dedicated computer to run the thing), and until about a year ago, qLab was still so buggy that it wasn’t a reliable substitute. Only difference now? First, it’s freaking FREE for basic features. Second, the small team of developers working on it basically non-stop have made it feature-rich and incredibly reliable (it helps that it runs on macs instead of frankenstein PCs), and now it even supports video playback. Third, did I mention that it’s free? There is no four. Fifth and last, qLab’s feature set now EXCEEDS *greatly* the old capabilities of SFX. To the point that when I need to program a show on SFX because that computer is available, I immediately start whining.

Yes, you heard me right. A Year and a half, and a buggy backwater project is now running the next big BROADWAY Show. It’s a proud day for the sound design community. And it couldn’t have happened to a better team of software developers.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go preprogram my next qLab show, Butt Nekkid, opening soon at the Side Project.

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I wish we had a League of Awesomeness

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

the LoAAbout a year ago, I started getting addicted to The Show by ZeFrank, a hilarious video podcast that served as the front end for a growing online community that built collaborative art projects such as the Earth Sandwich and Craft the Ugliest MySpace Page.

The Remixes for Ray struck me as a project that had big huge possibilities for theater. The story of Ray is pretty simple… Some guy recorded a short clip of a song (with the lyrics “I’m about to whip somebody’s ass”) and sent it to his daughter to cheer her up at work. He probably sent it to a few too many recipients, and suddenly the clip landed on YouTube. In this episode, Ze and his league of loyal viewers find this clip, and generate buzz to create not only musical remixes of the the little ditty, but a pretty kickass collaboratively-built video as well.

THEN… they find the original Ray, somehow, (don’t ask me… they only had his first name and that he was somewhere in North America) and PRESENT the remixes and video too him. Lives were changed forever, and there was much rejoicing.

All these projects are theater… they get the audience involved in the action, they have an arc of thought to build to the payoff of presentation. They often feel more like theater than sitting in a chair for two hours and listening to cell phone vibrations and crinkling cellophane.

Ze dubs his loyal followers “sports racers” and the secret community of really kickass creative and life-loving folk that he wants to be a part of “The League of Awesomeness.” It’s a little Colbert Report in its sheer playful audacity. I look at our community of storefront theaters, and its League… and I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for audacious cooperation and co-inspiration there. Hot Tix and Theater Thursdays are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t exactly get the groundlings jumping.

As much as I’m jealous of their catapult to success, this is where I feel the House deserves their media cred. Walking in to their theater, you feel like you’ve been invited into a secret society. High Jacobean Drama this is not – they’ve got a lot of the flash, and I wish they were more disciplined storytellers (and more conscientious community builders – though they certainly have enough on their plate), but I will never fault them for not knowing how to create a little buzz of excitement and anticipation about seeing some theater. Secret Order of the Magic Pearl indeed. (I feel manipulated, and (yes, I love Heroes.))

People roll their eyes when I say maybe there’s a way to create an online community or collaboration network for these kind of audience-energizing projects and works… when I say crap like that, I don’t mean more myspace, facebook, blogosphere self-promotion. The weariness generated by the theater community’s blind and desperate self-promotion is a real problem, and a topic for another time. I’m talking about the things that Ze did – for free – in his year of the show.

Take a look through his archives of the show, you won’t be disappointed. Dream More, Work Less, Whip Somebody’s Ass.

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Why For the Future is For Now

November 03, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

toothpaste for dinner
Lord knows I don’t need another project on the ol’ plate.

But I’m becoming obsessed with how I do the same research, make the same explanations, find the same solution, and begin the same projects with each of my theater companies. I’ve found conversations begun in one theater company being echoed in another. I wonder why theater companies don’t talk to each other more.

I’m beginning to see a great collective wealth of thought about storefront theater infrastructure, and great and achievable possibilities for inter-company collaboration and workload sharing. I am working on experimental collaboration techniques that both excite and scare the bejeezus out of me. These techniques and tools may help to legitimize and streamline an industry that is largely assumed to be inviable and unprofitable and a great waste of time. And in the same breath they may serve to homogenize the same industry, as diverse as each individual that works in it.

The main problem I deal with on a day to day basis is theater infrastructure – and lack thereof. Theaters are often crippled with a lack of money and a lack of time. This is a problem that I think can be solved.

For Example.

In this past week, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a busy theater company – real movers and shakers they – who manage their collective projects through email. Everything – Marketing strategies, Production Schedules, Casting Calls, Box Office Duties, all over email – often in the SAME emails. Epic, multi-page, carefully outlined emails.

Now some of you may have just squirmed, and there’s a reason – email is an ephemeral, inconstant, disorganized tidal wave of a web technology. It confuses and babelfies as it tries to spread information. Some people don’t read their email, some people reply to all when they should focus their stream of consciousness, and some people don’t realize that THEY’RE YELLING IF THEY WRITE IN ALL CAPS. I don’ t mean to harp on you if you’re one of those people, but the fact of the matter is, email and web technologies have changed the way that we work and communicate. As a country, very nearly as a species. That’s all happened in the last ten years, so like any evolutionary step, there’s a period of adjustment that gets pretty messy. Welcome to the era of messy.

Many alternatives to the email strategy of project management have popped up in the last few years – from online group forums like phpBB to wikis. These are tools that can organize projects a bit more logically, and they also save old information and posts. They’re not perfect, require a very little bit of adjustment, but they’re hand over fist better at managing multi-step projects than email is.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to talk about here… The systematic inefficiencies that just pop up and can end up squandering a theater company’s resources, what can be done differently, and what could be created to make everyone’s life a bit easier.

Because we’re in the business of changing people’s lives. That’s something worth working for.

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