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Archive for April, 2008

A Podcast with its Very Own Style

April 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

I’m listening right now to one of the best Chicago Theater podcasts that I’ve come across so far – the Serendipity Theater Collective’s 2nd Story podcast.

It’s a great example of how to take the work you’re already doing and translating it with a minimum of effort to a new, distributable medium. Second Story is a regular cabaret-style storytelling event, and because it’s essentially a sound-designed staged reading, it’s a perfect format to just plop right down as a podcast. They’ve also been very wise to keep a sustainable episode schedule – they’ve been monthly since the beginning of the year. In contrast, our poor “weekly” New Leaf podcast has been on hiatus for about a month despite having material for two more episodes ready to go. That’ll teach me to take up blogging.

The Second Story podcast also works as a carrot here – the reading sounds like a fun evening, and you know clearly what to expect from that evening from the podcast – including the fact that you can expect some eye-opening honesty. You can hear the small audience laughing along, you can hear the clink of glasses at the bar in the background, in “The Girls,” you’re even given a taste of the wine selections for the evening that you WOULD be sipping if you had come to the actual event.

Podcasts and YouTube clips are a great tool to convince your non-theater going friends to take a chance on seeing a show. With a wide variety of podcasts out there – from Second Story, to New Leaf, to the Neo-Futurists, to the House, there’s a style of performance that will appeal to a wide variety of entertainment-seeker. It’s worth putting some thought into how best to “capture” your performance – which is easier than recreating it – into some kind of distributable form. And it’s not always a technological solution – I’m excited to see devilvet’s upcoming photoshopped graphic novel version of Clay Continent – it’s the perfect medium to distribute a version of that show to folks who will find it appealing, and I’d wager that it’d make them more likely to see the live version next time it comes around.

Don’t know if there are theater purists out there, but I often also have doubts about dipping our feet in other media waters – it’s a plain fact of life when there are fewer and fewer delineations between artistic media these days. The breaking down of these delineations means increased blood flow of creativity to all the organs – and yes, there’s this nagging doubt that there may be some cancer cells somewhere in there that also get fed, in the same way that fundamentalist cells have greatly benefited from having the affordable distribution system for their ideas. (I stumbled the other day, in my search for information on a Mediawiki timeline plugin, onto a white supremacist society that had created an alternative to Wikipedia that reflected their values without all that accountability to the community that kept getting in their way. I’m not linking there because – well, blood flow feeds a cancer – but yikes.)

Irrational doubt and fear of change aside, it’s happening, and it’s more important than we might think to remind people that live performance – being there in the audience – actually does matter. Remember that children raised on the internet will not have the same exciting relationship with live performance that we did growing up, unless we expose them to it. The idea that live performance is valuable is going to be increasingly underrepresented in the newer forms of media – most artistic expression other than concerts, installations and theater, really. I think it’s important, given all the larger issues with new media, for those of us who are starting to fish in other media to remember the mystery and immediacy of live performance and infuse our new media projects with that energy.

I’m also jazzed about Second Story for another reason this week – I’ll be running sound for their event in the Goodman Lobby all Looptopia night this Friday. Drop by the sound cart, stick around for the event and say hi! For those of you who don’t know what Looptopia is, look here, and for god’s sake get your plane tickets soon. There are moments where Chicago lives up to its artistic mecca reputation, and Friday’s gonna be one of them.

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Connecting with the Audience

April 27, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

Two experiments that can help us understand how big this task really is:

1.) Internationally reknowned playboy and violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played a trick on commuters with the Washington Post. He dressed in clothes that might be described as Wrigleyville chic and played six challenging and downright magical classical pieces “like a God” on a multi-million dollar Stradivari – all this across from an Au Bon Pain.

Only a few brave souls so much as slowed to listen, and there was uncomfortable shuffling in lieu of applause. (natch)

2.) Building Stage is developing their next production, Master Builder, publicly on their blog. The goal:

We really wanted to use the blog as part of our process, something that was integral to the creation of the work, as well as a tool for opening up our process to our growing family (company members, collaborators, audience) to witness, comment on, and influence.

After starting two weeks ago, the production team has 10 posts on a broad range of production topics, including Sound Design, Props shopping, costumes, themes and directorial concept, and of course, marketing. Comments so far from folks uninvolved with the project: 1 – an interior decorator. (that’s a good start for two weeks on a blog, no?)

We’ve been chatting at New Leaf about audience experience for a while and what we’d ideally like an audience member to take away from each experience with us and our work. Over the years we’ve cooked up a number of different methods for teasing those experiences out of them. In marketing speak, this has been about changing the positioning for our theater – getting our audience to shake up their expectations of a storefront theater by experiencing us in different and unexpected contexts – at work on our blog, on their iPods – and also about integrating each world of play into a greater “world of the company” via our mission.

Theaters actually experiment with the audience/artist relationship a lot in the hopes of drumming up new interest – but the audience is uncomfortable with unexpected contexts for our work, and often gets confused, scared off, or dismissive of innovative tactics. Audiences are smart, and they are universally agile when it comes to protecting their time and interest from the possibility of public performance by disengaging from a pitch, request, or an uninvited interaction in under 15 seconds. That’s the amount of time you have to close the deal, so if you spend it trying to close the deal, you’ve already lost.

The calculated smell of popcorn works wonders for movie theaters, for example…

This all leads me to think that saying that we “experiment” with audience interaction isn’t really accurate – this ain’t no lab we’re running. We downright gamble with pet ideas that we think will work, and are usually less than scientific about using data and controls alongside with real innovation. If we somehow learned the discipline of statistics and combined it carefully with our street performer instincts that can reengage a wary patron, we might actually take away firm knowledge and show the world something it hasn’t seen before. That ultimately means change that is slower than theaters want, but faster than marketing professionals, boards, and other suits think is possible.

I think we can all agree: it’s nice to have that great music shared on the way to work, isn’t it? Maybe that should be a more regular part of our lives.

Oh, and to the Building Stage, who is creating a fairy tale world for the Master Builder out of elements found at IKEA, may I suggest this lamp to be used as a practical, it’s worked wonders for us in the past:

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Where to find the Good Stuff

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

Way to go, Chris, Kris, and Tony. For those of you that haven’t read the web-only companion article to this week’s “side of Lance Baker” on the cover of TimeOut Chicago this week on making it as an actor, it’s a nice little piece on the central question on what seems like everyone’s mind as the NEA is flushed and the government gets out out of the philanthropy business – Do we deserve to get paid for this work? And even if so, who should make it a priority to do the paying – the audience, the society, or ourselves? As much as I’d love to lament the alarming reduction in local, state and federal funding for the arts, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s time to solve the problem of funding our work on our own. Grants are drying up due to some pretty hostile mismanagement – social sabotage, really – on the state and federal levels of government. When the tide turns back for government funding of social projects (and it will), I think we can all agree that poverty, funding for health care, relief work, and education – all of which are equally being shafted now – should be bigger social priorities than the arts. The arts need to thrive just the same, though – and that means a certain level of inventive thriftiness with our time and money.

It all gets demoralizing, though. I’m teaching some middle schoolers this week and we’re doing – of all things – a play called “30 reasons not to be in a play.” It’s unfortunately not all that ironic a title. Being in the play means rehearsal, and focus from the cast of 30 and tech crew of 8 while in a dark cafeteria watching other kids play outside in gorgeous weather. It means convincing often incredibly inflexible parents to cancel any number of poorly-scheduled piano lessons and dance lessons and baseball and soccer and errands. How can a seventh grader ask their parents to prioritize a school play when the parents don’t value the experience? It means remembering lines and overcoming awkwardness and shame to find… more awkwardness and shame and the very occasional moment of inspiration. It means being in the wrong place and not knowing what you’re doing… and doing that with absolute confidence. It means not texting your friends or checking your facebook account for nearly two hours most afternoons.

Between the parents and the teachers’ scheduling conflicts and the priorities and the dwindling resources of the school, it’s not surprising that children of this age are in a constant state of freakout. The kids are in an ideological warzone – I guess I was too, back at that age – and they haven’t been equipped to navigate it. This is why real change takes generations, not years. These kids are developing in a time of radical and chaotic change, and that will have as many crazy effects on them as the sixties had on the baby boomers.

I thought I was going to have more to say about the Europe / America contrast, but the middle school experience has boiled all of that exploration and soul searching to a central zit-on-the-nose problem: I am an American, and like many Americans, I don’t regularly practice the enjoyment of life. You know, really savoring it. I think I have it, and I pursue that enjoyment, but then life becomes about the pursuit of a bigger happiness, not the happiness we already have available to us: Walking. Eating. Sleeping. Playing. American lives are built to limit, compartmentalize, and focus the time we spend doing these things – in the name of pursuing more time and resources to enjoy these things securely. We teach our children to constantly pursue a bigger better tomorrow and we pack their lives with enriching activities when it’s really the today that needs to be improved and enjoyed. It’s just a backwards logic, and I’ve noticed it in myself rather alarmingly. I always need to walk a bit faster, eat a bit faster, and experience more and more, to the point where I’m not really experiencing anything but panic, anxiety and adrenaline. In theater, I find that human pace again, the easy heartbeat.

Maybe all this aggressive model-building and value-hunting for the future of our theater just feeds the wrong beast, and the secret to creating a new, vital theatrical audience is to follow the lead of a group like the The Heart of Gold. I think I’ve mentioned the HoG here before, and I certainly have over on the New Leaf blog: it’s a Chicago arts commune with weekly performances and quite literally a HIVE of artists and fans that come back weekly for art of all shapes and sizes. Artist and audience mix here – one night you’ll put up your work in the gallery, the next night you’ll see what your friends are doing with that puppet show. Oh, and they throw a lot of potlucks. It’s not a crowd growing like wildfire – it’s more insular and low-profile, with a small audience that grows slowly, person by person. But the people that go become regulars, thus supporting the art over the long term.

What’s the message for this new audience? Kick the Hell back, and enjoy being IN the entertainment. Enjoy the interaction, and make it a vital part of your life – for the benefit of your life. The default response to viewing a show isn’t necessarily crossing your damn arms and sitting in judgement. And there, it’s understood that art doesn’t get finished, it just gets shown again. That means we can’t be satisfied when art feels lazy and doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – but we can enjoy the process getting there. “Theater isn’t a very reliable entertainment” – my eye. That’s the wrong approach – it’s the wrong framework to view how to build a new audience. Audience members who want “reliable” entertainment will go for prescription drugs. Television is only reliable because it is carefully checked and vetted for flavor consistency, you know, like Folgers. Film increasingly attacks all the senses like a carbonated seizure. Film doesn’t work at the pace and volume of life anymore – films told at a life-like pace become low-viewership art house and independent flicks. Storefront theater is locally grown, and sometimes that means you taste a little grit, but the real revelation is in how you feel when you’ve developed a taste for the freshest stuff. You feel connected to your life again.

Theater should be sold like good food: you savor it, you discover it, and then you reflect in appreciation and conversation when the plate is empty. It’s an active experience, and it doesn’t always taste the same. Sometimes a bitter or sour taste brings out the sweetness. It demands your intelligence and an open heart, and I’d say an appreciation if not acquaintance with your local farmer / artisan. The kids get this – they’ve started bringing their parents in, helping put up pieces of the set and putting work into the play. It’s a little Waiting for Guffman, sure, but the parents become instant converts when they can participate that fully in the hobby of their child, and the child starts leading them through what needs to be done. In many ways, theater as we move forward isn’t about the play at all – It’s about the ensemble. We remember specific meals, perhaps, but we keep coming back to experience the work of good cooks.

Best of all, when global food prices shoot through the roof and throw the third world into devastating food shortages, locally-grown food is becoming a worthwhile growth market again. Through locally-grown theater we teach ourselves to interact positively with emotions, subjects, and ideas we don’t understand that are right in our back yard – ideas that are held dear by others in our community. And as Americans moving towards a hazardous political and social future, we need to be much more sensitive and adept at just that.

Wow. Been talking with way too many 12 year olds. You guys know what I’m talking about.

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Well Shucks

April 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

It looks like I wasn’t the only stone that skipped across the pond. I probably missed this in the pre-trip slam, but that good ol’ value blogathon had a good kerplunk on the Noises Off column on the Guardian blog a few weeks ago – including a quote from yours truly. It made me feel almost relevant after sadly pouring over the delicious offerings in this year’s Festival over in the Hub at Edinburgh last week – half impotent and half relieved that I wasn’t able to sample any local theatrical delights this time around. Just the food and whisky, Dank u vel.

And god help me, I think as I get back to the grind I may have to write one of those insufferable pieces comparing Europe with America. I know, I know. But the contrast has been useful to help see outside perspective with more clarity – and Don’s piece on poverty and my conversations with our B&B host in Brugge about the European approach to poverty and the ongoing – and accelerating? – segregation of American society has got me thinking about theater that can be vital to our own community again…

I’m not one of those folks that thinks that Europe has it right. I could move to Sweden if I thought that. Or maybe just shack up at Ikea Schaumburg. No, the European system that works quite efficiently enough, thank you, is the result of centuries of city planning in the form of genocides, population clearances, religious wars, and other aggregated forms of culture assassination. We’ve only got SIX centuries of THAT to our credit, so if we keep following that path – as we are as we emerge as a fairly callous and self-interested empire – we’ll ALWAYS find ourselves behind that eight ball. We need to do what we were best at during our darkest hours – smart-aleck innovation that changes the game of injustice and lack of resources. Just because our hours here on home turf haven’t been that dark in some time doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t needed.

As luck would have it, I had plenty of time to think today about what seeing Europe as an outsider has taught me about my Americanness. Because after getting on the blue line at O’Hare – with a sigh of relief of familiar ground that didn’t require translation – and traveling oh, thirty minutes to Rosemont station, the friendly CTA that just sold our dutch travel buddies their $20 universal day pass – a bargain! – had us all get on a bus to take us two stops forward past slow zone construction, then back on the train. After being whisked across the otherwise desolate and unpopulated Scottish countryside in a smooth-as-butter rail journey, the welcome our fair white city currently gives to our international guests is, well… let’s hope it gets fixed for the Olympics or we’ll have some ‘splainin’ to do. And if we don’t have the Olympics to serve as sufficient impetus for a worthwhile public works initiative, what do you think – will our own community’s well-being and happiness be enough? Ha ha.

But enough smart aleck-ness from me. It’s good to be home after a wonderful trip, jet lag and all.

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Refueling

April 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

One thing I’m positively awful at as an artist is managing my creative intake in relation to creative output. The fact that the only way I seem to be able to describe the need for a holiday is to couch it in terms like “refuel,” “intake,” and “output” should clue you in to why this may be. I think most artists are actually pretty good at this: taking time for themselves and making sure that they get enough ‘soaking’ time to feed their art with life experience. I’m crap at it.

This is one reason I’m really thankful to work with music, because it inevitably flips that switch in my head to a more sustainable rhythm of life. (I keep thinking I need sound design this blog using some kind of internet radio, but that’s another story…) With my iPod on shuffle, the connections seem to draw themselves more clearly, and the work begins to flow again.

Yesterday, as I returned the gear on loan for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl – one of two shows I struck in preparation for my imminent departure to Scotland this evening – the song “One Down” by Ben Folds came on, and all the errands I was running that day were brought into perspective, suddenly and cogently – a song that he wrote to fulfill a quota of songwriting for his studio.

People tell me Ben, just make up junk and turn it in
But I never was alright with turning in a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time on music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out

One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here
One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here

I’m really not complaining: I realize it’s just a job
And I hate hearing belly-aching rockstars whine and sob
‘Cause I could be bussing tables
I could well be pumpin’ gas
but I get paid much finer
For playin’ piano and kissing ass

this is one i wrote just an hour ago and three-point-six at last

Theater for the Future is on vacation for two weeks while Nick enjoys his long-deferred honeymoon.

P.S. – Finally got caught up with Writers and Victory Gardens on the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project, which means I’m just waiting on Goodman and Halcyon (ahem, Tony! – Just kidding) to announce firm dates and most of the largest theaters will be on there, for all your season planning needs. Also, I have discovered that this exists, which means that among other things the calendar will eventually be updated simply by updating the Chicago Theater Database, saving time and heartache for all. Keep sending those dates!

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Been Meaning to Ask…

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

All you arts legal policy wonks out there:

In the age of You Tube and Facebook pages, Is it time to reexamine Dramatists Play Service’s, and frankly, our own playwrights’ and artists’ intellectual property right claims on theatrical recordings? What are the compelling arguments for limiting theater’s marketing potential by not allowing theaters to promote their shows – and the theatrical experience in general – with clips of the show to a potential audience that is increasingly looking to the web for ALL their entertainment?

I guess the writer’s strike got me thinking… Is it time to reexamine our thinking here?

On this issue, I need to give mad, hand-clapping, foot-stomping props to the House Theater here. They have CREATED a theater built to get around and capitalize on this key marketing point. Just look at this:

Did you catch the point where the battle ran up OVER the audience in a 300-seat venue? Do you care that you’ll be seeing a world premiere of new, untested work when you can sample this work before you buy? Why would you rent – or more likely, download – a Jackie Chan movie when you could see THIS live and in person?

I get the Equity argument: Yes, there are probably a great deal of people who would forgo paying for a ticket and would instead download a performer’s work for free on the net. I think we can all agree that entire shows probably don’t need to be posted to best market theater – but entire scenes rather than the tight b-roll limitations may be necessary. At the same time, how many people would also download the video who weren’t planning on seeing the production at all? How many of those people might get hooked on some evocative theater netcasts instead of their incredibly expensive cable TV and perhaps be lured to try a live show on for the first time? And what’s the reason behind limiting a non-equity company’s ability to showcase their work to a younger market?

I’m just saying: In a world where 70 million people will follow the barely compelling theater of LonelyGirl15, and major companies are fighting over the spoils of an ultimately free media platform – isn’t making an exception to a contract rider devised for an older time a way to grow the whole theater industry a bit?

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Re-Alignment

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

The Side Project Annual Retreat
If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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