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Archive for March, 2008

The Business of Changing People’s Lives

March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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We Have Ignition

March 23, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, projects

The blogs of the theatrosphere weren’t the only things lighting up last week. This weekend alone I have been in touch with six movers and shakers who are all choosing now as the time to start cross-theater initiatives. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me, friends. They’re all in early stages, but they’re all incredibly exciting collaborative projects that you and your theater needs to get in on:

1) An IMDB for Chicago Theater. The CTDB? Dan Granata’s list-making of Chicago Theaters isn’t a vanity project. It’s about creating a tool to explore the network of connections that we have, and harvesting value from those connections. Since succeeding in theater often comes down to who you know and who knows you, such a tool can’t be underestimated. I’ve talked about this project before, but it’s starting to roll now… The relational database may now be jumping to the web, where it can team up with eager volunteers: That’s you, friend. Some possible benefits from such a site:

a) The ability to allow users to find and explore their own connections that lead them deeper into the detail of the industry. Did you like Kaitlin Byrd’s performance in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl? Well now you’ll be able to quickly and easily find out what else she’s been in and what she’ll be in next. This is a key feature that speaks to fostering local talent – it will be a way to provide the context of career to the specifics of a single performance.

b) Accountable user reviews. You can see the greatest challenge facing a theater simply by listening to the conversations in line: No one – NO ONE – sees a show unless it comes recommended by someone they trust. Some people trust certain critics, certain playwrights, directors, or theaters, and that’s been the answer so far. Well, let’s follow Amazon’s lead and allow user feedback to determine recommendations of other shows – shows maybe you’ve never heard of – but nonetheless are related to your interests. Step one: allow everyone to be a critic, and have “critic pages” where you can see EVERY user critic’s collected reviews – and determine for yourself whether you trust the glowing praise or the angry vitriol.

c) It’s built by the community, so it will serve the community. This is our challenge as web architects, and I think we’re up to it: It needs to be simple as sand to put up your own history and forge your own connections. It needs to be as fun and rewarding as friending people on facebook – with the added benefit of connecting you with local folk who are interested in seeing your work – and having their interests reflected in your work. And it’s worked before: as Bethany of Free and Cheap Theatre has told me, even after nearly two years of being offline, there is still a vibrant community of people who clamor for a service like they had before with Free and Cheap Theatre. It just needs to be built sustainably. To me, that means the community – not any single individual – needs to build it as it uses it.

d) Insert your idea here. The database we’re planning will be extensible, that is, able to incorporate future ideas and applications. If it relates to the information of theater in chicago, it can probably be stored, analyzed and capitalized upon. From an ethical standpoint, this means that needs to belong to the community, not a private enterprise. Many theaters in the past few weeks have discovered the joys of the Facebook Page to promote and analyze a core fan base, but have any of them considered where facebook’s ad revenue goes to? (hint: it’s this kid and his stock holders.) My personal feeling is that this project could not only “build the pie” of the theater going artist, but also feed a revenue stream to fund other projects that benefit the theater community in Chicago. This ain’t no money making venture, but if it takes off it could serve to help and benefit the people that use it.

2) Shared storage space and resource sharing for multiple theaters. This idea took off when two interested mid-sized theaters with a common problem (excess waste due to a lack of suitable storage, and high cost of props, furniture and costumes) decided to team up. I won’t name the theaters quite yet because the production managers initiating the project have boards they have to answer to, and this project is well in the “any-misstep-could-kill-it” phase. Also, it’s late and it’s Easter, and they’re not checking their email tonight… But our face-to-face is happening in a week or so, and already five other theaters have declared interest in the project.

Essentially, the proposal is: Pool our resources. As Joe, production manager for the largest theater involved, put it: “We have to throw out enough lumber every season to build 30 Side Project and New Leaf sets.” At the same time, Joe’s theater has very little access to props sharing arrangements like the one that the Side Project has with its visiting artist companies like LiveWire and DreamTheatre, so its prop budgets need to be pretty high. By creating a community storage facility with a unified organization and internal rental agreement, theaters can pool their money, throw out less, and find what they need with a minimum of headache.

Because it isn’t as free as data, this is the project that could be helped the most by the involvement of a community. This is a project that would need to be sustainable and financially solvent. It’s already clear that renting a space of the size required on our meagre budgets alone would be foolhardy, so the project needs eyes, ears and minds that can collectively work out some of the key details: Is there a donor who has a warehouse and is eager to take a mother of a tax break for the benefit of nearly every theater in town? What’s the best way to organize all these props and costumes? Where does the labor come from? How do we protect the rights of property for small theaters in such an organization? How would we resolve disputes if a valuable property is needed by multiple theaters at the same time? The answer may well be: Let every theater deal with their own storage solution, (UHaul here we come! Oy!) but we won’t know unless we really ask the question.

Here’s the best part about all three of these projects: You can start helping now, even in the “twinkle in our eye” stage. I’ve set up an online forum through this site (now with Sidebar action!) where you can help roadmap these projects, adding your input, suggestions, wishlists, feedback, resources, and reality checks every step of the way. After trying a number of formats, I’ve landed on the phpBB forum as the best existing method of getting a large community to collaborate on a project with a minimum of digression. I’ve also setup forums for other existing projects like Don Hall’s Off Loop Freedom Charter, because if you see someone pushing a rock up a hill… well, let’s help him out.

Also, this forum is meant as a practical and local companion to Theatre Ideas’ TribalTheatre Forum – which is a rich exploration of the theories behind the Theater Tribe ethos that is inspiring many of these projects. It’s not that theory, coordination, and action should be at all divorced from each other, but sometimes the conversation needs a little more focus.

There are two words that are still ringing in my head from the dozens of blog entries about the value of theater: “Communal Imagination.” Those two words formed a call to action that landed with me and many other artists interested in deepening their connection with this community, and this is the action: community-driven projects that are the result of community-driven imagination.

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Follow Up: The Violence of Articulation

March 19, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building


We tremble before the violence of articulation. And yet, without the necessary violence, there is no fluent expression. When in doubt, I look for the courage, in that moment, to take a leap: articulate a thing, even if I’m not sure it is right or even appropriate… “If you cannot say it,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “point to it.”

— Anne Bogart

Here’s how other bloggers and commenters define the value of theater. The goal of the exercise is to find an unbreakable kernel of value, a nit that cannot be picked, that applies to all theater, and appeals to the needs of our time. To that end, I’m trying to summarize the core message of some of these posts: boiling them down and collecting them to hopefully achieve an accessible message that doesn’t water down the meaning of that message. Watering down the meaning is normally acceptable for talking points, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to theater folk. Which is ultimately a challenging and wonderful thing. Read the complete posts yourself and suggest other understandings and values on the brand-spanking new Tribal Theater forum (run by Theatre Ideas), because a lot of meat in what they’re saying is in the description. That said, a slogan requires succinct clarity, and that means the core message – the talking point – is always brief and electric.

Update before I even post this: Of course, Theater is Territory is already doing this job of compiling and comparing pullquotes from every blog they find. Great Minds DO Think Alike. So I’m changing my tack for this a bit. As Theatre Forte mentions, the question that inspired this series of posts is not an accidental first shot… it’s the first question that gets asked when you try to identify a cohesive brand for an ununified group: What are our shared values. It’s what Obama is doing in his speech on race – identifying our shared values. The second step in branding (an ugly word, yes, but a powerful principle) is boiling the rich, passionate responses into single sledgehammer values. And the third step is pounding the pavement with a unified message. That unified message may never come, but it does serve to focus the way we speak when we speak about theater. I’m just posting the single words that are finding resonance in multiple blogs, and arranging those in some like-minded categories.

Accessible / Identity

Involvement / Active / Immediacy / In the Moment

Communal / People / Community / Social / Teaching / Connection

Truthful / Honest

Flow / Energy / Exploration

These words are really the protein of a message, and we can’t forget the sauce. One phrase that really rang with me is Parabasis’ “Collective Imagination.” Chew on that… Theater is Collective Imagination. That shit is spicy.

Next step for you, dear reader: Which of these words gets you going, and/or what words / short phrases have you read in today’s blog postings that got your heart pumping? Also important: what phrases shut you down?

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Thought Attacks! Speaking About the Value of Theater

March 19, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

In what I’m pretty sure is going to become a regular series of conversations, several theater bloggers have teamed up today to bring you their thoughts on the value of theater today. Coordinated conversation has a way of exploding thought. And here’s my $0.075:

For me, this collaborative conversation is a value in itself that is often generated in theater – it’s an open environment to develop compelling thought. It doesn’t require a camera, microphone, or a web server, but it does require the reality check of audience interaction. It’s the simplest public interaction, and putting on a play is the only bully pulpit I know of that is ultimately accessible to all.

I often describe the “job” that we do in theater to my students and colleagues in this way: “We’re in the business of changing people’s lives.” Sometimes that means alarming your audience, and often it simply means allowing them to find deep resonance in a single moment of a play – we don’t fully understand or can’t fully predict the specific effect that a piece will have, but the effect happens because there is power and energy in being in the same room.

The theater is a place of exploration. It’s a place where resonance can be discovered in unexpected places. It’s a place of active entertainment in a world of passive entertainment. It requires – and rewards – a certain level of imaginative involvement.

Don Hall and Slay today both reflect on our common goal of boiling down the core values of theater today, and the purpose for this conversation does have potentially far-reaching implications. People who value theater value a particular kind of open-eyed view (sometimes secular, sometimes liberal, but always open-eyed) of their society. Those kinds of people – people who desire a certain amount of change of the status quo – have a problem when bringing that idea and convincing people who are comfortable in the status quo that change is needed. Like the demon in The Exorcist we need to be able to learn, as a community of sometimes-like-minded individuals, to name the thing we want to truly conquer our problem. Open-eyed people reject the dogma of talking points, but they also understand their power.

As much as we may hate them for their “violence of articulation”, we need strong, clear talking points to stand up against other media and understand what we can do. And since you’re on the team, we need to understand our negatives, and how we can turn those negatives into more focused energy on our positives: Theater isn’t not as polished as film, it’s not as solitarily immersive as literature, it’s not as energizing as music, it’s not as connected as youtube or blogs, it’s not as convenient as television, it’s not as serious as religion, it’s not as powerful as politics, and all that has resulted in a single reality: we have less perceived importance to society than any of these. We are a different creature that has a different, under-explored function. If theater was simply a cultural dinosaur, it would have gone extinct sometime in the 80s

These are a core values that are what keep me doing theater rather than web design or other such nonsense: Critical Community Thinking. Exploration. Resonance. Accessibility. Collaborative Entertainment.

That fact of accessibility – that it is ultimately possible for anyone to create a theatrical event to test their ideas – will always save theater. It is an enduring artform – and has been since the groundlings – the enduring cockroach of human interaction. As ugly as we may seem to some in society, our theaters are where the people on the fringes of society can strengthen society through subversive stories worthy of Shakespeare’s Fool. Ultimately theater teaches us enduring – and valuable – lessons about other human beings, because theater doesn’t happen unless we interact with them first. We’re in the business of changing lives, and often that life is our own.

I’d like to second Don’s question: How do you get your non-theater friends into the theater? What convinces them, other than a favor to you that they will then hold over your head? What descriptions of theater’s value that you read today resonate with you? What are your values for the theater for the future?

Other blogs across the country discussing the value of theater today:

Don Hall
Slay
Theatre Ideas
Rat Sass
The Next Stage
Theater is Territory
Bite and Smile
That Sounds Cool
A Rhinestone World

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Harnessing the Power of the Smart Mob

March 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Just came across this incredible post by Kevin Kelly. What’s he’s talking about is exactly what I think the increasingly resonant theater blog conversation needs – a way to shape and focus the conversation without limiting the conversation. Through that shaping and focusing, we’ll find what we’re all craving… Action. A way to take the big, uncontrollable river of artists and energy and time running through the aging canals built by Broadway and Margo Jones and drive it through a new channel.

Chicago is famous for one of the great engineering wonders of the world: A river that was made to flow backwards. Kevin’s dead on: We can do group projects of this scale, but it takes not necessarily editing but engineering to direct the natural force of the stream of artists coming to town every day. Maybe it’s time to take those road trips out to Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Kentucky and see how we can form stronger relationships with the folks doing theater out there? Maybe we can help connect artists unable to work in town with places that could use their help?

Zack Mannheimer’s digging a new river out in Des Moines. The question of the hour is: How can you irrigate your community through your art and through your life? The conversation engineering is happening at the same time the conversation itself is happening, but the engine hasn’t fired yet. Some innovative approaches to focusing the conversation have come from Devilvet (Recipe Cards for theater models that work), TheaterIdeas (the Theater Tribe Ning Group), and, as I’ve mentioned, the League of Chicago Theaters (ChicagoPlays Wiki). Their inability to catch on yet all stem from the fact that they’re inefficient communication tools – recipe cards are simple and exciting, but they don’t always contain enough information, the Wiki has a number of powerful features but let’s face it, is unsexy and is complex to use, and the Ning group is like a group blog, and blogs are proving to have limitations when it comes to generating and documenting action and projects.

There are lots of sticks being rubbed together these days, so if you see a spark, start blowing.

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Some UpDates

March 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around my tumultuous last few weeks. Lots of rescheduling, working, and wrangling, and with some unexpected time on my hands in the coming months, my wife and I finally booked those honeymoon tickets we’ve been pining for. Update/Sidebar: Holy crap, I did it again. Periodically I’ll have these fits of fatigue where I am compelled to actually count back in my calendar and let myself have the slowly dawning realization… Today marks the 66th (and GASP! Final) day of work in a row for me – yes, that’s straight through since Jan. 2nd, and no, it doesn’t include my many half-days off. So forced time off is often an extremely healthy thing in my book. My worst stint was the 157 days of continuous work a couple years ago that culminated in that vacation where I proposed. To my wonderful wife. My extremely patient and loving wife. I’m certainly not complaining: Baseball been berry berry good to me, and I’m looking forward to some refocusing time. And since they’re in my tribe, if you’re in need of a good electrician, TD, Equity SM, or Non-Equity SM in the next couple months and can shell out a real fee to keep them working, I have some pretty stellar names for you.

So while that dust settles, I’d like to remind all you theater producers out there that now is the time to get in on the Chicago Theater Opening Night Calendar, as theaters begin to pick and announce their opening night dates for the coming season. Again, the point of the project is to first prevent unfortunate conflicts that prevent critics from seeing your opening night. The fortunate side effect is hopefully that your show will be promoted to the folks looking through the calendar.

A debt is owed (again) to Rob Kozlowski’s assiduous chronicling of every season announcement that’s crossed his inbox. His summaries are a great read, and for theaters they’re a great starting point to grapple with the all-important Context of What’s Going On In Other Theaters this coming year.

As far as the calendar goes: I’ve got some insight into when the Goodman opening night dates land in previews, but not even those dates are chosen yet; likewise with ATC, whose season announcement fired off a month ago like a starting pistol, but still has not announced the precise schedule. I’ve been able to deduce both Steppenwolf and (I think) House dates, but of course no information is as accurate as from the horses’ mouth. Also on there for next season are Theater Seven and Silk Road, who are on different semester schedules, and in Silk Road’s case is coming up on their halfway point.

Know something I don’t know? Let’s hear it. And happy Open Season Selection, y’all.

Update: Don Hall is right, even if his title is wrong. If you love your job(s), it (they) will keep you strong and energized and creative. I’m living proof. Though if I love my job anymore, I’ll just be posthumous proof.

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Richard Christiansen Sees the Future in a Museum

March 02, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

And when he speaks up, I for one listen:

Individual organizations attack these problems as best they can. But progress on a larger scale is necessary, and great projects, such as Millennium Park, need resources that no individual organization can offer. They need the involvement of an extraordinary coalition of private and public interests.

It’s not enough to acknowledge that the performing arts are a vital part of city life; that has become a civic mantra. We need to formally celebrate them, as other cities have, as a major part of our history and a source of Chicago’s worldwide acclaim. This is not a matter of pride or boosterism. It’s a case of further encouraging and energizing the arts in concrete terms, of showcasing theater, music and dance as a central part of our identity. We need something to honor the past, enrich the present and inspire the future. We need, to be specific, a Museum for the Performing Arts.

Now I could think of no better person than him to help curate such a museum, since he’s had an unflinching love for the Chicago theater scene for decades. And I know Patrick’s already collected the photos

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