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Archive for February, 2008

Great Expectations

February 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Well, well, it’s a public brouhaha!

It’s not really in the purview of the adrenaline dose that is the TimeOut Chicago exposé to sort out the dust and mud that gets kicked up in the process, so I’m glad that Patrick over at BackstageJobs has already started to explain some more of the background of TOC’s article this week on the Bailiwick’s rosy picture of its own financial woes and those of us who cried foul. This was a conversation that Tony started in response to a a few weeks ago, and has been picking up steam as a story ever since. And don’t read me wrong here – I’m thankful also to Jake Malooley and TOC for doing what they do best – shining the light down in the ugly boiler room of Chicago theater we’d rather forget about and not being afraid to break down a few doors to get down there. I’m just saying now someone’s got to repair the hinges, is all.


What has happened since the initial volley of public venting is a general agreement among several of us mentioned in the article that this kind of issue doesn’t simply exist at the Bailiwick – it’s an industry-wide problem of theaters that are taking advantage of the semi-pro semi-volunteers that work for them. And it’s very rarely a case of the big malicious theater exploiting the unsuspecting artist. It’s more about the consequences of willful ignorance. Most theater managers, Zak included, have the absolute best of intentions and they truly believe they are providing artists with opportunities and reasonable access to the industry. This is a problem of miscommunication leading to unintentional exploitation.

From my own experience, the Bailiwick was one of the first theaters I worked at in town for a single reason: they post jobs constantly, and at the time they came up pretty high on a google search for “Chicago Theater Companies.” That makes them a very appealing theater to someone who doesn’t know the scene and is, as I was, green, green, green. I had a rough, confusing experience there, but I was paid what I was promised. A later production I remain unpaid for, but in the scheme of things I don’t really care about the money, and I won’t be knocking on Zak’s door to collect, ever, thus completing the skip-to-my-loo solution that Zak proposes:

“I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be angry,” he says. “If someone says to me, ‘I had a $100 check and I couldn’t cash it,’ I would say, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go get it cashed. Let’s solve it.’”

One of the reasons I never made a big deal about that particular fee is that I’m largely at fault for not being paid – I never insisted on a contract before performing the work. I was even hired on the Bailiwick’s behalf through another artist, and David and the business manager at the time weren’t even involved in the conversation, and that’s my fault for continuing to work without a written agreement. More experienced theater artists and vendors don’t make this mistake – most of the people I’ve talked with that do business with the Bailiwick and frankly, most theaters, are on a 100% – 50% COD policy with them before work is performed and goods are delivered.

There’s another big reason I’ve never gone collecting – I’ve made that lost dough back in indirect trade. In an industry as poor on cash flow as this, we cannot underestimate the power of trade to solve disputes. I’m no longer angry at Zak, which is one of the things I tried to communicate to TOC before the article came out. I’m glad the conversation happened, but I want to make it clear that this needs to turn into a conversation about best practices for every theater and freelance artist in town, not simply one theater company that has a bad reputation. As Patrick says, bad reputations will come and go. The ANGER came from a very specific and recent incident of not $100 but $3000 that he owed a close friend of mine, putting that friend in serious financial trouble for several months. Since the blog conversation but before the TOC article, David has made amends for that debt. I know that David’s capable of great and honest generosity… one of the things I mentioned to TOC is that David was directly generous to my own theater – the Bailiwick loaned us a dusty and unused lightboard free of charge for several of New Leaf’s productions, including our breakout show The Permanent Way. I don’t know what we would have done without that board for that show, and that was more than worth walking away from a couple productions unpaid.

I don’t relive all this to add fuel to this particular fire – I mention it because one of the ancillary skills that all theaters and freelancers need to get together and develop right away is the ability to write, read and live by contracts for all work done in any theater, before that work is done, and no matter how small the producing company. If we want Chicago Theater to be anything but a well-intentioned golem chewing up emerging artists and young companies in a cycle of missed reimbursements and shabby rental spaces, we all need to get really specific about what we expect from each other, and we need to have a fair and equitable mechanism to hold companies and individuals who don’t follow through on promises accountable. Too often the contract discussion becomes about money, and I think it’s unrealistic to limit agreements to that in theater – it needs to be about all our resources – time, equipment, in-kind donations, space, working conditions – everything we rely on.

We’re all about quickly converting lessons and theory to calls to action on the blogosphere these days, which I think is pretty sweet. Here’s what I’d say is a call to action that can is fair to new theater immigrants and the Bailiwicks of the world and will even the playing field a bit:

1) Insist on a contract for work that you do, even if unpaid. If a company doesn’t give you an agreement, write it for them. Don’t just bitch about your past grievances – write them down in a sample contract and map out things you’re willing to put up with for the art, and things you’re never willing to put up with. Some examples:

  1. I will not put up my own money for show materials and be reimbursed later – if I agree to procure goods to aid the production, I will be provided with funds from the company before the purchase is made.
  2. I will be paid half of my fee no later than a week before opening, and the remainder of the fee at strike
  3. I will be provided a safe place to store my valuables
  4. I will not be expected to go up on a ladder
  5. Tech week notes will be given to me in a timely fashion – no later than 12 hours before they are expected to be implemented in the production
  6. Company is responsible for equipment or property donated in-kind to the production run, and will be liable for $XXX replacement cost in the event of theft or damage.

You know, whatever it is you need to do your work safely and happily. It’s your contract. You decide what goes in.

Some clauses may not fly in any given agreement – but both parties will know what to expect from each other, and disputes will be more easily resolved, because they’ll be resolved calmly before the pressure is on. That’s the beauty of a friendly and simple legal document.

If a company or individual isn’t willing to draw up a simple one-page contract, or if they find it unnecessary – that’s your first sign right there that maybe they won’t be willing to follow through on other promises they make to you, like paying you – or paying you back.

normal_fgw_337.jpg2) Under no circumstances should you rent space from a company without first reviewing a contract, inventory of provided equipment and services. I actually think that boilerplate agreements for all rental spaces in Chicago should be transparent enough to go right on the public League of Chicago Theaters Wiki, allowing theater companies a clear comparison of what renting each space entails. Aside from the dough involved, these agreements should include clauses regarding:

  1. Hours of Operation, AND all hours available to a rental company
  2. Noise levels permitted
  3. Dressing Room square footage and conditions
  4. Box office services or space provided
  5. Lighting & Sound Inventory in working order
  6. Heating & Cooling regulations
  7. Trash removal

3) Both of these kinds of agreements taken together can accomplish something kind of extraordinary for a small theater – taken together, they quantify the costs, time, and human resources required to produce a show. As any grant writer will tell you, that’s a difficult number to pin down and it’s invaluable when justifying more funding for your theater. Letters of agreement provide a buffer of understanding and that can pay off in load in and tech week. Too many small companies will try to shoot the moon and go into a production without knowing exactly who will staff the box office or who will take out the trash. That’s the kind of oversight that will make your artistic team really cranky, and that’s not good for the art.

4) You’re not going to get it right the first time, that’s why contract negotiation is a skill and not something you cut and paste off the internet. Give yourself some time for a nice healthy post-mort after every show you do, and work the conflicts and the confusion into your next contract. I keep a word document on my computer, and I’ll just add a line when a behavior becomes unacceptable to me. I’m getting to the point where I’m going to add “Sound Designer will be provided with a simple and stable tech table in the space for load in and tech,” because I have an array of computers and hard drives that will get damaged if they’re sitting between the seats. Or, maybe I’ll just suck it up and get over it… and buy a table myself that I take with me (Tax write off, anyone?). Either way, I’m working happier, my equipment is less likely to be damaged and I’ve taken the responsibility I’m comfortable with taking for my own working conditions. I’ve made it easy on the theater that I’m working with, but that also means I’m more likely to get aggressive if they renege on paying me on time. Patrick’s example for being aggressive with a delinquent company is perfect:

3 different lighting designers tell me of the show they worked on where the paycheck never came. They continued to design and program the show with the promise that the check would be there at first preview, then at third preview, and then “definitely at opening.” These three designers, each designing at different theatres on different shows for different companies at different times, all arrived at their theatres early, saved the show(s) to disk, pulled the disk out, and ERASED THE SHOW FROM THE LIGHTING BOARD. They then waited until the SM or PM arrived to inform them that there would be no lighting for the show until they had a check in their hand. In at least 2 cases, they were the only ones to get a check that night (though others had been given the same promises runaround).

You can’t just pull this kind of behavior off and expect to keep your reputation for being a team player. You need to be crystal clear with those that you work with from the moment you begin a job: This is how you can work with me to develop a happy and mutually beneficial relationship, and this is what you can do that will make me go nuclear and take away your ability to produce the show you want. If you don’t have that legal foundation when you want and/or need to go nuclear, you’re up a creek. If you have the legal foundation, however… well, when the TOC exposé is written about it later you can pull out your contract and your notes of exactly how the producing company acted in bad faith.

I know reading and writing contracts makes most of our eyes cross, or even worse, saddens us because it injects a certain amount of litigious behavior into the art. But I don’t think that sadness gets us off the hook – if we throw up our hands and refuse to do it in the name of simplicity or faith in humanity we get only what we deserve – unaccountable rental houses and theater companies that have an unforgivable habit of running us over in defense of their own survival. I think we’d all rather take the time to write a one-page contract and update it from time to time than risk trusting someone we shouldn’t that they’ll pay us back for all that lumber and winding up $3000 in debt with no freaking recourse. And, if more of us who do act in good faith work to protect that good faith, we can all breathe a little easier in the future.

And the streets will be made of cheese.

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What was that Geena Davis Movie again?

February 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

About six months ago, I had enough. I was a company member at three theaters and serving as the web master for all three. What was astounding to me was the sheer repetition of the tasks and conversations all three companies were having:

“What kind of mailing list management software can we use to e-blast our patron list?”

“What ticketing service should we use, or should we build our own?”

“What should our process be for recruiting board members?”

“How can we more effectively distribute postcards?”

“Are posters worth the price?”

“Is being a member of the League of Chicago Theaters worth the annual membership fee?”

Deja vu became a way of life.

And I thought: There’s a reason why this is happening. Our theater companies aren’t communicating and sharing best practices with each other. Why not? The League question especially really bothered me. I looked up their mission – have you read their mission? It goes:

The League of Chicago Theatres (LCT) is an alliance of theaters which leverages its collective strength to promote, support and advocate for Chicago’s theater industry locally, nationally and internationally. The League of Chicago Theatres Foundation (LCTF) is dedicated to enhancing the art of theater in the Chicago area through audience development and support services for theaters and theater professionals.

Hot Damn! That’s what I was looking for. But why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t the League providing leadership – or the right kind of leadership – for storefront theaters?

I really tried to figure it out. I got it in my head that structurally they just couldn’t do it, because inevitably in a mix of LORT-sized theaters right down to itinerant theaters, representing the interests of individual small theaters just becomes overwhelming and frustrating. Storefront theaters are strapped for cash, self-centered and often very, very green in terms of how they administer themselves. They also can turn their organizations around on a dime and what they need one day is very different from what they need the next. That’s a recipe for Chaos Soup. It’s hard to get a small theater to even ask for help in a clear way, let alone ask for help in a way that can be provided.

So what would work? I got some friends – trusted colleagues with mutual respect – together over some take out thai and we brainstormed up some structures that would actually work to help storefronts learn faster and incorporate infrastructure more completely and lastingly. We talked about the possibility of splitting storefronts off from the league, and starting something new that simply represented and worked for storefronts and the specific infrastructural needs that storefronts represented. It would need to be built as more of a grassroots organization that could listen to the stated needs of companies and use experienced individuals to interpret solutions that could fix multiple problems with a minimum of effort.

It was at this meeting that the fatal flaw of such an organization became clear. There were five of us in the room, and we couldn’t agree on a flipping thing. New ideas were proposed, and then shot down emotionally. Babies were thrown out with bathwater because we had a room full of passion for change, but we didn’t have a clear survey and picture of the entire theater landscape. We had different priorities, and only enough time to deal with our own agendas.

I refocused. The passion that I discovered in the group was good, firey stuff, but the lack of traction was killing the momentum. We needed a better road map, and the initial idea to build momentum slowly by adding trusted colleagues and building a critical mass coalition was the root of a flawed concept. We didn’t need secrecy and safety, we needed a big, public call to action, and pretty much total transparency every step of the way. People don’t trust people or organizations that carry hidden agendas – no matter how benevolent those agendas may be – and that lack of trust will kill any traction that a movement has before it even begins.

So I started a blog. And others have already been blogging. That’s the clarion call right there. And having an open public dialogue has worked as a strategy – long-time bloggers are noticing a change in the tone of dialogue, increased readership and coverage.

One of the most regular readers has been Ben Thiem of the League. Last week he and I sat down to compare notes and see how we – and you – can pool our efforts to build something better for the community.

What became clear immediately to me in our meeting is that the League is willing and even eager to improve and streamline the resources they offer, but the financial and human resources are not there to back it up. The last few years of the League has seen its staff shrink considerably, and marketing budget dry up to almost nil. The initiatives keep trickling, but without time or the money to buy time, they falter before they have time to build up steam. Making that worse (and Ben’s the first to say so) is a closed and bottlenecked system for providing the most valuable resource that the League supplies – information. What Ben does all day now is answer individual emails from theater companies and manually copy their information over to a website database, or look up the answer and get back to someone. In the era of dynamic web services and collaborative content management, that crap has got to end.

That was the second thing that Ben made very clear to me – the League wants and welcomes help and input, but doesn’t currently have a mechanism other than email blasts and their website to spread and build information. That’s why the information coming from the League can seem weak – because it’s bottlenecked coming up, and bottlenecked going out.

That’s where we all can help. The biggest idea that came from my Storefront League pals is that Storefront theaters are rich with a single resource – volunteer time. As projects like Dan Granata’s uber-list of Chicago Theaters and Missions has demonstrated, a lot of us have a reasonable amount of free time on our hands that can be used to create or compile useful knowledgebases and information that can help a lot of people. What we are lacking is coordination. In the last week I’ve been invited to three different (and all well-intentioned) Ning groups and facebook pages and blog comments feeds that are all trying to do the same thing in a different back corner of the internet. We need a system to pool these individual initiatives and hours of volunteer time into a coordinated, accessible, and centralized resource. And we need that system of collaboration to not generate animosity and degrade our willingness to cooperate. It needs to be open, public, and built on a foundation of inclusion, and that will make it less likely to fall apart like previous initiatives that go back to the founding of Second City.

Blogs alone don’t succeed here, because they are not a collaborative tool. They are mouthpieces, or in orchestral terms, trumpets. They’re useful to get attention on a cause, but if we have any hope of getting this marching band rolling, we’re gonna need some other instruments and we’re going to need to use them for what they’re designed to do.

The League gets this, but isn’t currently built with grassroots momentum and coordination in mind. It has several major programs in the works, including a long-term plan to overhaul their website and create a “web 2.0″ site featuring user-updated content. This is where I kind of went all giddy, because to me the goal is to let the computers and the internet duplicate our work, not the league. I’m so sick of forms filled out in triplicate it’s making my eyes cross – it’s a waste of everybody’s time. What I’d eventually love to see is a single place where the community buzz can build up and people can share their news and coordinate with each other on their own terms. A Moveon.org / Facebook / IMDB / Wikipedia for Chicago Theater. A network of RSS news feeds that allow theaters to update their website and the league website in the same keystroke. A place where audience members can check out the collected works of artists and thereby become more involved and engaged in following their future career. A place where theaters can coordinate and enlist help from new-to-town volunteers who need inroads into the community. Something that generates excitement, knowledge, buzz, and community involvement in one place, for everyone in the community regardless of budget.

The first step is going back to the initial need – we need to build a place where theaters can discuss, develop, share and implement best practices. Right now. At the same time, I think we need to learn to dance the collaborative dance with each other again, in an environment that isn’t as combative as the blogosphere. We need an initiative that can prove to ourselves and to the League that storefront theaters and the artists that work in them are capable of creating incredibly valuable infrastructure for the whole organization, simply by talking and capturing our ideas in a centralized resource. Best of all, I think that resource already exists, and is only missing our involvement: The League of Chicago Theaters Wiki.

Do you know about something that some people don’t know about? Write it in the wiki. Do you have a question that you can’t seem to find the answer to? Ask it as a stub article in the wiki. Have you fastidiously compiled a list of resources that could be valuable information for other people? Plop it in the Wiki. Want to help, but don’t know what you could contribute of value? Write a comment below, and I’ll tell you specifically what articles you can get on, or talk to your theater colleagues and come to an agreement about what your company could spend some time on that could benefit us all. Make it a habit to donate 15 minutes of your time a day or an hour a week updating and adding useful information during your boring day job. Go through pre-existing articles and add footnotes and support materials. If something is just plain wrong, give your own perspective, or learn from the other perspectives out there. Think about what things would make a knowledgebase useful to you and your theater, and make sure that the wiki has those things. Develop the information, and encourage anyone who is new to town and eager to start their own company to learn the context of their new enterprises by going to the wiki and doing some good ol’ one-stop-shopping research.

To get you started: Last night, I saved a list of League Member Theaters complete with [[wiki links]] to create summary pages for each of these organizations. I’m also reorganizing the Resource Guide page to match a more traditional theater administration structure – Marketing, Development, Production, etc. If you regularly work as say, a props designer, this gives you a logical place to create pages for Thrift Store links and a link to the props designer list serve. When in doubt, save yourself some time by linking to external sites that you know to have quality information. The idea of a wiki is that the information is alive, and the community powering it keeps the information current and honest – and therefore valuable. It shouldn’t burn you out – if it’s working it should actually generate excitement and possibility for you and your organization. Many hands make light work.

If we’re successful, our work will open the eyes of the League and bigger players in town. Connections will be cemented. If we succeed in creating a valuable resource and they still can’t value our collective time, we’ll still have that resource – the mechanism of collaborative action, not the wiki – and we can take it with us and build what we need. My suggestion to Ben, which he obviously can’t sell to the League until an alternate income source is generated, is a time trade for young theater companies – rather than paying a hefty membership fee, young theaters should be able to earn League membership through volunteer service. I think we can convince them that that’s a good idea if we can demonstrate that our volunteer time is valuable, and that the wealth of the community isn’t at all about cash flow. The wealth of the community is everyone in it, including the people who aren’t connected yet.

The wiki is also a logical next step to developing and exercising the dialogue that has been generated on theater blogs in the last few months. It’s where the rubber starts to meet the road, and there’s more on the way once we see what falters and what works. I think the current dialogue is getting bogged down in theoretical policy discussions, because blogs encourage theoretical policy discussions. Wikis and forums encourage other kinds of dialogue – A wiki is a knowledgebase, an online library with no due dates. A forum is a place where ideas stick, can be picked up and developed, but nothing gets forgotten in the ol’ RSS news cycle. If you’d find a forum to be useful, I’ll put one together tomorrow, but again, my goal is to unify the conversation rather than fracture it further.

To those of you reading this from outside Chicago – I don’t think I’m excluding you here. I think developing a lasting infrastructure works best from the bottom up, so I think it’s good practice to start local. The things we learn here in Chicago have the potential to quickly change the way theater is done in the entire country.

There’s so many other programs that are in the pipeline and several upcoming initiatives from the League that you’ll want to hear about. I think this post is long enough, but keep your ears to the ground, and stay involved.

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After these Messages…

February 16, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

You’re listening to the sweet sounds of a mini-mental health break. I’ll be back with some exciting stuff later to kick off the workaday week.

In the meantime, you can download this song, which I promise will make you happy. It makes me happy.

Also, check it out! The Neo-Futurists have jumped in as the third (that I know of) podcasting theater in Chicago. While Dean Evans’ pitch-shifted antics are quite possibly the most disorienting sounds I’ve ever heard, the show does what a good podcast should do: Give you a sneak preview of what the experience of the show is actually like. And it provides a new bonus: if you like Too Much Light, you can now forward this link to your friends who also will like the show. Not that TML has an attendance problem, but there you go. I certainly always use TML for my non-theater friends and family coming to town as a sure bet for an enjoyable storefront theater experience, and this will be a useful tool to help plan their evenings. (“Dude. Check this out. if you like it, we’ll go.”) The second episode is also downright inspiring. I don’t know what they call it, but I like to think of it as “the spontaneous music and choreography episode.”

Finally, I’m gonna go ahead and ditch the whole ugly adwords thing on this site, because the traffic and readership doesn’t really justify it and it’s not helping you or me… But really? No one wanted to book a hotel in Hungary or prepare for a career in Video Game Development? I will continue to plug good music (which, shh! It’s music from my shows…) on the sidebar, of course. Buy it through me, or buy it elsewhere. Just listen to it, cause damn it’s good. And it’s my penance for flaunting intellectual copyright law. Sidebar ads as self-flagellation, if you will.

And if you’re a copyright lawyer, I’m just sitting here, providing free advertising for your client. Go sue some teenager who isn’t promoting legal downloads or CD sales.

Wow. Bitter. Back to sipping my Mai Tai on the beach, paid for by all the money I’ve made off the sweat, blood and tears of music industry corporate execs over the years…

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White Hot Grease Fires of Pure Entertainment

February 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

I learned something today. Definitively.

It’s not about money. It’s about energy.

Don’s right… we can’t succeed if we simply copy the corporate model. The corporate model is hideously inefficient, and it wears theaters out because corporations can solve problems with new hires. We will never have that luxury, and that means that corporate strategy can’t just be bandaided in place into an arts organization.

Adam’s right … ignoring the lessons and practices of the corporate model is foolhardy. They’ve solved a lot of problems and generated nearly all of the infrastructure we rely upon to both do business and create art, and every time we look at the non-profit or corporate model we can cull something incredibly valuable from it, even if we’re creating an entirely new model.

What we need to do is innovate with the current structure as a starting point, and commit to that innovation. We need to emulate, not copy, the successful practices of corporate America or the great LORT successes of the past, use our very very limited energy and action wisely and dare I say cooperatively, and where we can help America and Chicago rediscover itself is in the quality, honesty, and vitality of our product: Ideas, story, and humanity.

It pays off. Quick.

Tonight, Cindy Crescenzo (who I’ve never met or talked to before this evening’s Theater Dish event on podcasting sponsored by the League of Chicago Theaters) used New Leaf’s blog and podcast as an example of what to do and how to talk about yourself using new media when you have almost no resources.

Marsha and I just about had a heart attack. I have the numbers to prove it: Cindy is one of ELEVEN people who have downloaded the podcast to date, and it’s made that big of an impact in two weeks. Because it is something new, and something different. And yet, it’s not – it’s simply having a more honest conversation in a forum where people aren’t yet comfortable having an honest conversation.

Thanks for the shout out, Cindy, and for those of you just tuning in: Let’s get started.

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Follow Up: The Tribe vs. the Macroeconomy

February 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I’m pumped for tonight.

This evening, New Leaf is embarking on something very different for us – we’re going to begin developing a play from scratch, using our lives, fears, and individual perspectives as source material.

The project originally began from a difficult point in New Leaf’s history, a night after a particularly difficult run through of The Permanent Way where we sat around a table at Ranalli’s and wrote our greatest fears as human beings down on the paper tablecloth in crayon. We’re kind of like kids when we get together, and crayon drawing is one of the most powerful ways we’re able to express ourselves.

Expressing our fears to each other gave them weight, and enabled us to gain insight into each other’s actions and the undertow of insecurity that led to those actions. It allowed us to become mentors for each other, and know when to push each other forward and provide encouragement or challenge. Expressing the fears also gave us some foothold against those fears, and plenty of raw material for our work. Knowing what was going on in each others’ inner lives allowed us to navigate each other more effectively and reduce the amount of confusion and unnecessary conflict in our company. It focused and sharpened the ensemble.

Personal lives often complicate a professional relationship, and that’s the reason creative tribes are difficult to put together. They only function on a foundation of profound trust and mutual respect. The way we are taught to operate is to hide our weaknesses, while the strong artistic choice often is to offer your throat to the world and dare the world to cut it. It’s surprising and exhilarating to display your identity and your perspective bare – the one you hide even from yourself – and it’s the core function of art. The tribe provides a collaborative environment that enables artists to do this and still maintain just enough safety net to keep pushing forward through the crushing insecurity that is generated by that level of honesty.

The support provided by a tribe is incredibly reassuring, because it has to be – it’s based on a family-type relationship that allows room for healthy and honest criticism based on years of shared experience. It also creates a people-centric co-prosperity that’s better than any pension plan you could ever hope for — Recessions come and go, but human beings, if they stay connected to each other, can maintain a stable existence of growth, pain, loss and happiness through harsh economic times. The tribe finds each other work and opportunities through lean times, and feeds resources, hopes, dreams and energy back to each other during those times when the manna rains from heaven. A tribe culture appreciates and understands your work from many perspectives, and they act as ambassadors of your work to find new clients and even new applications for your work. They find the doors that you haven’t been able to look for and they open them for you. It’s a culture that works for people more than the corporate model, because it places value on people rather than assets. It doesn’t have to convert human value into a monetary value first.

Scott over at Theatre Ideas has been plugging for a new model for a theater organization that will function more effectively to create exciting work than the regional theater model, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around on the micro and the macro level. As excited as I am about the bottom-up approach of the tribe, there’s potential pitfalls for a tribalistic mindset in a globalistic environment. The potential price to pay is in the danger of groupthink and the difficulties involved in establishing a tribe of diverse backgrounds. It’s true that global environments like the American economic indicators like GDP haven’t been historically good at calculating the value of humanity because science and statistics haven’t really been able to develop solid objective calculation for subjective experiences like “happiness.” This flaw results in some pretty nasty side effects, like the artificial propping up of industries like Oil and Gas production or diamond mining which don’t accurately weigh in the costs of the human suffering involved in procuring them.


But a humanistic tribal mindset doesn’t completely solve the problem either: In 1972, Bhutan’s king decided to address the flaws of the GDP model by introducing his own Buddhist-influenced economic indicator: Gross National Happiness. For a country with few resources, a miniscule GDP, and no desire to modernize, this was kind of a no-brainer. GNH purported to measure and therefore encourage national wealth based on four indicators:

Promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Sound familiar?

The problem with this model (and the tribal model) is that it doesn’t have an built-in incentive to include everybody. Wikipedia continues the story of a dark underbelly that can accompany these utopian visions of freedom:

Critics allege that because GNH depends on a series of subjective judgements about well-being, governments may be able to define GNH in a way that suits their interests. In the case of Bhutan, for instance, they say that the government expelled about one hundred thousand people and stripped them of their Bhutanese citizenship on the grounds that the deportees were ethnic Nepalese who had settled in the country illegally. While this would reduce Bhutan’s wealth by most traditional measures such as GDP, the Bhutan government claims it has not reduced Bhutan’s GNH.

On a personal level, I can see the potential for New Leaf to revel in its own ideas and backgrounds and not seek out those diverse opinions into the tribe because they don’t resonate in the “right” way. I’m happy that we have a pretty progressive male / female mix and a long history of producing plays by lesser-known female playwrights without making a big brou-ha-ha about it, but at the same time I’ve been ashamed that as an organization committed to renewal we deal very little with the issues of poverty, segregation and gentrification that face Chicago. Part of that is that the neighborhood we serve is right in the center of high-income and overwhelmingly-white Lincoln Park, but that of course has historically been how tribes have protected themselves – by not interacting with the people that do not fit the mold of the tribe.

I think there’s a middle ground here that I desperately want to find. The tribe brings with it an innovative energy and the old “many hands make light work” approach to problem solving. But the top-down, GDP-lovin’, LORT approach knows exactly how difficult and draining it is to really represent an entire community. They get the angry letters, they pay the salaries, and they see the trend of a drying-out subscriber base. I think their history and their heavy infrastructure makes it difficult to redirect the sinking ship, even if they desire to do so.

But word-of-mouth movements can have an impact on these top-heavy systems that don’t quite work. What I think is possible is a way to focus bottom-up grassroots energy and access with high-level thinking and coordination that promotes cross-pollination of ideas and culture and transparency all around. A way to unite the tribes into coordinated strategy and continue to value their independence. I’d like to see a double-decker strategy for change that gets it done with a minimum of burn out. If that thought makes you tired, you need to get yourself a tribe to help you keep moving through the fatigue.

The first step for me is tonight… To lose all my marbles and lay it all out on the table and see where our hearts are, where our brains vibrate, and to see what images, music and text we can layer and mold to tell this story with all our being. The framework is as ugly as a blog post that compares storefront theater to the economics of Bhutan, but the final product… The final product has got my heart beating faster.

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Laughing Back

February 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Action Figure SaysScott Walters has an interesting call-to-action post today which is an offshoot of one of the most promising sustainable and growth-ready models for a theater of the future: The Tribe.

The basic ideas at work here are similar to that of the ensemble, but with an added commitment to interpersonal development.

Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre’s members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers…

… I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group…

… But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn’t take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!”

Here’s what my friends feel about working in corporate America: it’s empty. Another place to go where you try to avoid the people next to you. I think there’s a growing consensus not only in the arts or in the progressive movement that the corporate model is really only good at generating more income, it does very little else to raise the quality of life. To some individuals, the choice to join corporate america is to skewer one’s raw creativity and risk and exchange them for security. This is a choice that we are expected to make by our society, by our families, for our own good, and to become a professional artist isn’t necessarily frowned upon – it’s just odd behavior, like going off the grid. Just as damaging is the knee-jerk and insecure response from eternal bohemians – that joining that rat race equates to selling out.

I think Scott is opening a door here that leads to a third possibility, a possibility of building relationships that reaffirm the artists value to society. For the record, this is a value system held by Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls. When corporations run artistic organizations, the result has typically been homogenization and nationalization of product. Broadway is only a small reflection of that… take a look at the dregs on TV after the WGA strike to see what a mess the profit model has done to that industry. Or music sales. The incentive is to create the next big thing for the whole country, and the models to create work that is successful in those terms, certainly

The fact is, Corporate America needs artists to help them feel/seem/be human again, and the country is ready to believe that message. The time has come for us to empower ourselves and become artistic consultants. It’s not selling out when you call the shots.

One such artistic entrepreneur is Sandy Marshall of the highly successful comedy troupe Schadenfreude. Sandy has really effectively retooled his comedy writing skills to an equally challenging purpose: tongue-in-cheek brand identity, copywriting, and web design. And I’m happy to disclose, I’m working with Sandy on some of his projects for some of the best pay I’ve ever experienced (more on that – and why I’m doing it – later. But all these relationship disclosures are becoming increasingly comical in a community so teensy that one can’t trip over a flying monkey without first disclosing a professional relationship).

To get a sense of Sandy’s approach to his corporate work, check out his video spot for camera-shy mortgage broker Dean Vlamis:

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No one in corporate america would think to sell themselves like this without artistic input. And yet, I think we can agree – it’s probably the most effective spot for a mortgage broker that you’ll ever see. That’s what we can sell to them – the strange and unintuitive ways that one can work an audience to build honesty and trust. We can sell them subtext. And we can also be proud of that profitable work, and bring the skills we learn in that endeavor back to our primary artistic endeavors… the ones that challenge us as artists. While we’re there, I’m sure we can pick up a couple donors and some young eager temps to boot. Go to the people, and bring the theater to them.

It’s important to mention here that Sandy continues to have a primary commitment to his work and his name whether he’s working on Schadenfreude or with a corporate client. If a corporate client begins to sway him from his mission as an artist or as a consultant (or as a human being), he lets them go, or more likely doesn’t take them on in the first place. Did you know you can do that? You can Fire a Client. Money doesn’t have to dictate everything, your priorities do. Selling out is a choice that we make for ourselves – and it’s a choice we can take back.

As far as my own involvement with Sandy’s company as a freelance web programmer, that role developed out of a set of skills that I had accrued and developed slowly and naturally in my regular theater work. I started out as a young and eager-to-please sound programmer, which gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how to tell a computer what to do. When New Leaf launched a website for the first time five years ago, I learned Cascading Style Sheets to help maintain the site. When The Side Project needed a website capable of lighting-fast and often weekly updates, I needed a simple system to do this in order to save time, so I learned dynamic web programming using PHP and mySQL, which pulls data from a central database to display on multiple pages. When I found out that my co-worker Patrick ran the website that had gotten me dozens of jobs across the country off of an archaic and glorified word processor document (hint: rhymes with “BluntPage”) that caused him about 10 hours of stress a week, I learned a lot more about PHP in order to pay him back for the opportunities and automate the job listing process.

All this is to demonstrate: We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. In my theater company, we have a history of people with day jobs in the branding, marketing, positioning fields, and so for a theater of our age, we’re (surprise!) pretty sophisticated branding thinkers. We got there by literally bringing home the books from the office. If you’re bored at work, use that time to use your work to benefit the life you actually care about. Or identify skills you wish you had and hit the library. Challenge yourself in manageable steps and mini-projects to build your power moves. If you’re capable of producing a show, you’re capable of working wonders for a corporate client who will pay you handsomely for that effort and fund your next project. If we accrue and develop skills that we need in theater (or in the corporate world), they’re not just valuable for theater… they’re valuable everywhere, and we can use that value to get what we want: a society that understands that art makes our lives better. Or fame and fortune, if that’s your bag.

Oh, and don’t forget: If you’re a non-profit, you’re still a non-profit. Start a personal LLC and become a donor to your company.

Doing corporate work can mean doing corporate work on your own terms. That’s how we keep ourselves from losing ourselves. It’s a new world out there, and it needs leaders who understand the human value that the arts generate, and they ain’t gonna come from the old leadership pools.

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Wow.

February 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

A little perspective on Bush’s federal budget proposal.

The NEA looks like… well, a tiny moon of Neptune. Or a rock circling a moon of Neptune. Holy mother of pearl.

Also sickeningly accurate is that the federal budget allocation for “Humvee” is about 5 times the size of the NEA.

I don’t mind that the arts are smaller than other national priorities. I mind that we’re exponentially smaller.

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Taking some time for the big picture

February 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

I was told that I needed to see Atonement (which will be one of like, three films I see in the theaters in a typical year). The sound design / composition was, as promised, exquisite (I think Marsha and Jess, who told me this had to be one of the three, saw a kind of combination of the musical concepts from The Dining Room and Girl in the Goldfish Bowl).

But what struck me was the same feeling I had felt after seeing Saving Private Ryan: this sense of guilt for everything, for being alive in a time of surplus, this deep regret that my grandparents’ generation had to fight for these basic necessities and barely escaped with their lives. It made me want to call them again, to talk with with all of them and relive their memories with them, and be thankful for their surviving: my grandfather Phil, a pilot in the CBI theater of WWII, who I was lucky enough to see a few months ago, and the grandfathers I can’t speak to anymore, Charles Keenan who also served, and my Japanese homestay “grandfather” Masami Ueno, who grew up on the other side of the war. There are fights that our forefathers fought then and since then so that we wouldn’t have to. They are fights of violence against aggression and injustice, and they are also fights of rebuilding that constructed the infrastructure of our lives. It is very difficult not to take the fabric of your life for granted.

The baby boomers also contributed a kind of violent and righteously indignant intellectual shift – a second major reaction that formed our world to day. The 60s developed this kind of revolutionary approach to everything, a new dogma that held that old infrastructure must necessarily be rebuilt from scratch in order to be truly new and truly equal and truly free. This kind of intellectual violence, like WWII, was absolutely necessary but also had side effects – it bred equally violent reactions that served to perpetuate some of the same attitudes they were trying to squelch. See also: Fundamentalists of all stripes.

I don’t believe that our future can be won with violent reactions on the geo-political front or on the socio-intellectual front anymore. What I do believe in is a taoist kind of sustainable and constant change and adjustment – short bursts of energy and readjustments that use the momentum of past actions, but that don’t get stuck and mired in blind conservatism, habit, dogma or laziness. A change that is cooperative and flexble, like a river wearing down rock. It will take enhanced awareness and diligence on our part in our daily lives and in our relationships, and an open-eyed acknowledgment of our collective past. It will take a willingness to engage in small acts of creation to counteract the destruction of the past and the constant decay and death that is a part of living. It will take stories of life and growth to encourage the life and growth itself. It will take…

(wait for it)

Atonement.

(groan)

So back to our corner of the world. A few weeks ago Artistic Director extraordinaire Jess Hutchinson forwarded me this white paper from a study on what the young leadership of non-profit organizations are up against.

It might be a bit dry, but I find it to be quite palate-cleansing after a week of blogosphere mud wrestling and theater URL cataloging, all mixed in with an ugly guilt over the sacrifices of the past. Given all this, reading the paper felt like downing a bottle of shaved ginger.

I’m going under for a few days while we tech How I Learned to Drive at Backstage Theatre Company, and then it’s back to developing a few more of these collaborative projects that we’ve been working on in the last few days. Sorry if I’m at all leaving you hanging, Dan, but I’ll pick up as soon as I can. So for now, I’ll leave you with some of the study’s general findings that are resonating with me like a Model-T with two bad spark plugs and a hangover:

Once young leaders gain entry and standing in their organizations, they are confronted with the realities of structure, power, accountability and culture that define organizational life.

Decision-making in non-profit social change organizations often lacks clarity and transparency.

Young leaders grapple with developing good models for exercising leadership, power and accountability.

Power and structure: who is accountable – and to whom – is part of the responsible exercise of power and leadership.

Young leaders are often disenchanted when there is a gap between an organization’s external values and its internal culture.

Balance between work and personal life remains a daunting challenge for young leaders in a culture still steeped in sacrificing all one’s time to the work.

Good mentors are hard to come by – and urgently needed – as we look toward the future of movement building.

There are specific complications in mentoring and support when leadership is being transferred from one generation to the next in organizations that include family members [e.g. some unions].

The lack of adequate mentorship and broader intergenerational dialogue means that important lessons of history and experience are inadequately transmitted, or are lost to a new generation.

[Young] leaders seem particularly eager to be good mentors to the next generation coming up after them.

Young leaders feel that the Baby Boom generation has cultivated relationships with funders that are not being passed on – and that they need assistance in making those connections.

In some regions of the country, funders were perceived as biased toward certain models of work to the detriment of new models, especially those conceived in communities of color.

There is no infrastructure to support the transition of older leaders, and no roles into which they can readily move.

The culture of transition should be supportive and affirming, not blaming and punitive. Smooth transitions can be helped by personal and organizational planning.

As they evaluate the lives and legacies of the Baby Boomers, and consider what their own lives and legacies might look like to subsequent generations, younger leaders are offering some new insights based on their own aspirations and experiences.

Young leaders are looking for balance and reconciliation with older generations.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, despite the oppression, there were things in place to rejuvenate the community that don’t exist now…we’re scrambling to create those mechanisms.”

“Our issues are always incredibly difficult to win. You have to be in it for the long haul if you ever want to see
a victory. I was just updating our victories and it stopped at 1999. And I was calling all my colleagues saying, ‘Didn’t we win anything in the last four years?’”

“Are people seeing results from their work? I mean, I know you see it to a certain extent but when you look at, kind of the societal issues and the kind of fight that’s out there, it’s kind of very disenchanting. And it’s like well, is this making a difference?”

“Everybody in nonprofits is talking about how this is the most difficult time they’ve ever seen. It’s a lot of pressure on us – and I have to talk to a lot of people to remind myself it’s not me – it’s not my fault.”

It wasn’t their fault either. That doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility.

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