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Archive for May, 2008

Creative Transparency in Action

May 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Laura at Trailing Spouse Blues tuned me into this article which is just a wonderful working example of the theory at the core of this blog: that an open sharing of information leads to a “bigger pie” – more influx of thought, funding, and participation in theater, which leads to a reinvigorated and strengthened theater community.

When you share your knowledge you strengthen your industry and gain unexpected rewards.

I’m certainly not suggesting Coke publish the secret formula on their web site. But for a creative person sharing knowledge, especially business knowledge, will help the community has a whole.

The more knowledge amateurs, students or beginners have the greater their ability to make quality decisions. People can’t be forced to follow best practices or charge a professional rate for their work. But, more often it’s a lack of knowledge and experience that leads to such poor decision-making.

It’s hard to let go of the knowledge that we think is at the heart of our success. The note-taking system I detailed in the last post is an example of something that I do to help keep me as organized a sound designer as possible. I think it makes me better able to cope with the demands of a sound designer – where you must overlap many shows at a time in order to pay bills. At those times, it’s important to remember that our knowledge – which is the sum total of our history of choices, experience and conclusions of that experience – is both valuable to a newcomer, but it is also build and really only works for our brain. People can take your open-source knowledge and they necessarily will reshape it to their purposes. Virally, new thoughts and solutions will be created that you wouldn’t have dreamed possible. At the same time, those new thoughts wouldn’t have been possible without the seed of your own knowledge.

Sharing your best practices extends the collaborative ethos of theater into your business, not the other way around. It doesn’t guarantee the success (or domination) of a particular individual or a particular company, because it doesn’t guarantee ‘credit’ – it strengthens the entire industry first.

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The Capture

May 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

When I first started designing, I took handwritten notes. Scribbles, really. Each note said something like “dloor up 7 after…” I have horrible handwriting under pressure in the dark. Also, I didn’t write very quickly, so I’d leave a lot of trailing sentences as the play progressed and new cue mishaps grabbed my attention.

Frankly, I didn’t yet have a process, and I was designing in a panic. I used notes as shorthand to trigger my memory of what happened particular run, and then doing the notes meant reconciling that memory with the director’s divergent memory and then taking an appropriate measure to correct that cue for the next run.

The problem with me and this method became clear the first time I designed my annual summer juggernaut – the ten repertory shows of Cherubs. Each show ran an hour, and teched in an hour and forty five minutes. After tech, I would have one dress run to make any last adjustments, and then performance. Each night you tech two shows, and then the next night you tech two more. At the end of my first week of Cherubs tech I had a pile of incomprehensile scribbles like “Fade out the drone when she does that thing upstage” with little memory of the play itself. I needed a better way.

And I didn’t just need it for Cherubs. I looked at the designers whose careers I wanted to emulate – Andre Pluess, Lindsay Jones, Ray Nardelli, Josh Horvath. These individuals are unbelievably prolific, if you haven’t noticed. I think Lindsay pulled off something like 30 shows in 10 states last year. They worked everywhere, all the time – in Chicago and regionally. In watching their processes, I noticed patterns in how they organized their notes, cues, and files into standard formats and structures no matter how different the show was.

I experimented with excel spreadsheets and text files. The disorganization and lack of clarity continued – though I did notice that I had a speed increase and a greater percentage of complete sentences because I’m a faster typer. So I was capturing more of the same bad information I worked on self-discipline in the moment and looked into some preliminary shorthand lessons. It didn’t click with me. New problems started emerging as I experimented with new methods – I would bring a level up one day only to bring it down again after sitting in a new seat only to bring it up again after sitting in the first seat again. I was pushing and pulling my hair out.

The breakthrough came for me when I thought about the nature of the information I was trying to retain. Levels. Cues. Moments. Memories of the events of a run. Records of previous runs and notes. Whether I had taken care of a note or not. Notes from a director. Notes for a stage manager. Notes for myself.

I decided to create (ta da!) a relational database and see how that worked for me. I broke the information of my work into core models – cues, subcues (like fades and layered sounds in a cue), notes. Five years later, it looks like this:

Not the greatest interface, but it’s been built incrementally with only my brain, so it works great for me. Notes are in yellow there. As a show progresses, I scroll through my cue list. If I have a note, I just type in one of the yellow boxes and I have a quick pull down menu of basic types of notes to give me some quick context – “Director” means it’s something I need to ask the director. Its direct, and in practice, simple. I should note while the data structure is complex enough for me to use this system in every show, it’s also flexible enough that I can ignore great sections of it when time demands that of me. I really only use the subcue table, for instance, when I run using CD playback shows where overlapping sound files still need to be managed. Computerized playback often makes that paperwork more or less moot, so it just sits there.

By capturing the data I also noticed an immediate benefit – separating the data from the display of that data by taking it off a piece of paper or a spreadsheet freed myself to use the data in new and different visualizations. I could create a new layout that automatically created a cue list easy for a stage manager to read:

Or a quick pull list of notes to do in a hurry:

With six or seven shows and some troubleshooting, it became a system that I trust more than my handwritten notes and my swiss cheese memory. It became a way to freeze those pure, immediate reactions that I have in the space and in the moment and use those to inform my notes. And since I began analyzing the way that I captured information and the structure of the information that needed to be captured, my handwritten notes have become decidedly more disciplined and focused.

But that’s what works for me. What’s important is the way that you structure your own capture. You need a way to capture all the relevant data that you can fit into your bucket, and a way to intuitively and simply filter that information later. We are flawed creatures, and it’s not only possible but likely that at some point you’ll try to fool yourself into thinking you took one action when you took another.

There was another important capture that took place in recent months – the company members of the side project sat down and captured through a brainstorm all the roles and responsibilities of the company so that we could better enlist and provide support to Artistic Director and theater operations superhero Adam Webster. By capturing and filtering the things we did as individuals over the course of a season, we began compiling a bible of simple manuals for tasks and procedures that were involved with running a theater – everything from filing taxes to taking out the trash to repatching the lightboard. We took this information out of our cluttered minds and put it in a repository where anyone can come in and take over, and in doing so the problem of “running a theater” became smaller and more manageable. When you look at the life cycle of company membership, that kind of capturing and filtering process creates institutional knowledge that is the difference between the life of a theater company and its demise.

This is one of the reasons that I think creating a database of Chicago Theater is a worthwhile project and not simply navel-gazing. It is made up of collected and searchable and therefore endlessly useful data. If it is successful, it creates a model for other public resources of data in the theater community that by necessity would be more accessible than say, TCG’s data that Scott Walters used to such great effect. It captures hard facts that can be organized to suit your purpose that day. It allows us to check things that we believe are true (“You know what Chicago needs? A production of Our Town in April 2009!” They’ll never know what hit them!) against the captured data of collected memory that inarguably is true.

On a side note: Speaking of manuals, I’ve been exploring the utterly hilarious Poignant Guide to Ruby in my learning process of the Ruby on Rails programming environment for the CTDB. I think the devilvet in particular will appreciate the use of off-the-cuff cartoon foxes and elves to spice up the process of (yawn) learning a programming language.

When you’re reading and writing a manual, I cannot stress enough the importance of retaining your sense of humor. This is the thing that I often forget.

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I’m writing on your wall

May 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

It’s a revolution. Which is unsettling, but … hilarious

Thanks for the link, Lilly and Dave.

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Jimble Jamble

May 22, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

Some brief updates from the forge:

  • Tech is going well. That’s the sound playback software LCS you’re seeing there. It’s pretty sweet – it’s the secret behind the complex sonic routing of things like Disney World, cruise ships, Cirque, and, well, the Goodman.
  • You have like three days left to see Vivian Girls. Run, don’t walk, to Theater on the Lake at 7pm. I’m probably going to refrain from actually reviewing work on this blog, because 9 times out of 10 I have some sort of relationship or investment in the shows that I would review, but this show stands out. Dog & Pony’s opus isn’t simply a show – it’s an entire emerging genre of performance, and whether you like the show or not (you will) you’ll leave with your head abuzz with possibility. And no, you won’t be weirded out by the masks. You’ll dig it. Scout’s honor.
  • The push is on for the Chicago Theater Database. Dan Granata and I have met with a number of interested parties, and it looks like the database will be beneficial to a large number of projects – and the Chicago community at large – without stepping on too many toes. As a result, I’ve taken the plunge to learn a new web development language, Ruby on Rails to simplify the development of the database. My head is swimming right now in: rake db:migrate Lions, script/generate model Tigers, and script/destroy controller Bears, Oh:My! If you’re interested in the project and less in the building of it, send a note. Why should you care? Because data is important: it helps us learn and know things for sure. Update: No, seriously, our data is important.
  • The 10 scripts are in for “Cherubs,” a theater training program at Northwestern I’ve taught at for the past five years – a program that has been formative for me as a designer and a teacher. I’ll be designing these 10 shows in July with the assistance of 160 brilliant high schoolers from across the country (and sound designer/composer extraordinaire Steve Ptacek). Preproduction for 10 fully produced repertory shows built and run by teenagers is obviously an undertaking, of course. So those scripts and concepts have started swimming around in the kiddy pool of my brain with the Ruby and the LCS.
  • So, as this season prepares to comes to a close, I’m finding myself knee-deep in delicious theater smoothie. Set to frappe. I’m glad I’ve got momentum as I ride around in the blender – and a full plate of projects that I think will do a lot of good for me, us, and the kids respectively. But of course it all means that posting here will continue to be spotty through June, and then blip out entirely in July as I pull daily allnighters – kind of like that period of radio silence as you round the dark side of the moon. But never fear – the summer always has this gravitational pull that flings me back out the other side with a new kind of velocity.
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The Sidebar that Wouldn’t Die

May 22, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I’ve done some housekeeping over there.

Some cute new features: A new “Big Ideas” section with links to posts that other people wrote. Posts that hit me like a ton of bricks. Good stuff there. Lots of Mental Fiber.

Also, I’ve reorganized my blogroll by categories. I try to keep the mix as a healthy dose of national and international theater thought and an exhaustive look at Chicago-centric theatrical activities, since that’s my perspective – if you want TRUE exhaustion, check out Slay’s excellent blogroll.

If you like to read through the fascinating detail of the inner lives of playwrights, check out their sandbox. If yer in the mood for mudflinging, check out the theater commentators ring. Or if you’re in dire need of advice for your company, check out Law, Non-Profit Resources, and the ever-rich Marketing sections.

Or don’t. I’m just puttin it out there. In multiple RSS feed format. Yum, Yum. Tasty news and thought.

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Promoters Ordinance Tabled: Chicago Theater Safe from Bureaucracy Forever

May 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

An update comes in from Ben at the League regarding the Promoters Ordinance, essentially, call off the attack dogs:

The vote is off tomorrow. Thanks largely to a public outcry, the committee that released the legislation decided to table the vote. To, you know, free up the phone lines again.

The League wants to clear the air a bit, since they did some preliminary work to prevent damage to theaters – apparently most theaters are meant to be exempt from the legislation even though the language itself is confusing. That’s information that certainly got lost in the uproar.

It’s true, most theaters are not affected – many fewer than I previously had thought. But some folks operating on the far fringes of theater may still potentially be affected if the legislation comes up for vote again – if not by the legislation itself than by the vaguaries involved in enforcing the law.

First, some facts from the League:

Who is not required to obtain a Promoters License?

  • Print and broadcast media advertising an event.
  • Off-premise ticket sellers dealing in advance admission to an event.
  • Performers or agents of performers at an event.
  • PPA licensees and employees promoting their own event.
  • Employees of a licensed event promoter acting within the scope of employment.
  • Not-for-profit corporations promoting their own event.
  • Persons who exclusively promote events at PPA-venues or performing arts venues with (i) fixed seating only, if all patrons are seated in such fixed seats; or (ii) a fixed seating capacity of 500 or more persons.
  • What is an Event Promoter?

  • An Event Promoter is a person inside or outside the City of Chicago who engages in the business of promoting amusements or events within the City of Chicago and is directly or indirectly compensated for providing that service. The ordinance requires Event Promoters to obtain a license and provides guidelines to operate responsibly in the City to ensure the health, safety and welfare of people attending these events.
  • I think this information is enough to relax the tension a bit. It means that venues with convoluted situations are exempt because they are performing the work themselves – I’m thinking of Gorilla Tango and the Side Project, who are PPA licenced themselves but they host for-meagre-profit and unincorporated artists. This really wasn’t all that clear from the legislation itself, and I think the council didn’t help the situation by fast tracking the legislation without educating the public effectively. Not surprising, I suppose, but also not acceptable.

    It’s critical for a young or brand new company to be able to use the venue’s promotion mechanism or even name recognition, or the culture at these institutions will stifle. Without the ability to put on a show with a minimum of marketing and liability infrastructure, Chicago’s annual crop of new theaters would dry up, and the scene itself would eventually be consolidated into larger and mid-sized theaters. That might be fine for some who tire of yet another new company who doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it means that the scene would run out of the fuel that comes from new artists, new perspectives, and experimentation by fire.

    So while I think the fear is gone, it’s not enough to keep me from a suspicious lookout for the next time this ordinance hits the floor. I’m certainly glad the League is looking out for us, but this is not the first time that the memory of the E2 disaster has generated half-baked political policy that threatened to depth charge some of the most important breeding grounds of theatrical and cultural work in the city. It’s not the law itself I’m worried about – it’s the fact that the venue licensing process is already so convoluted and subject to interpretation that adding another variable is all that is required to damage work that doesn’t deserve to be damaged by the municipal government.

    When this kind of situation goes down, I’m reminded of how important it is to understand the licensing laws of Chicago – including how to navigate the on-the ground woodginess that occurs as the law is interpreted by enforcers and community leaders who have different understandings of laws that aren’t written clearly. And maybe this should tell us that it’s in our best interest to be proactive in setting a political agenda for ourselves. We can write – and propose to the City Council – better legislation ourselves that achieves the city’s fear-of-liability-driven goals of safety and accountability without sacrificing the frugality and creative flexibility that makes our community tick. An ounce of prevention prevents a pound of cure – and our surgeon just tried to use a battleaxe to remove the unsightly mole of irresponsible promoters and unsafe venues.

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    One Step Forward, Two Steps Knocked Back to the Stone Age

    May 12, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

    Thanks for the link, RZ.

    The Chicago Promoter’s Ordinance is up for a vote, and it includes a new requirement for insurance that could be devastating to small event promoters. It’s aimed at the music industry, but since they’re aiming a legislative bunker buster, this kind of legislation inevitably impacts small theater venues as well. From what I understand in the ordinance, it looks like the legislation is so unclear that it may be another situation where some Chicago Theaters get thrown into aKafkaesque licensing limbo, and some may wrangle out of it politically. Looks like some larger theaters already have, like the Auditorium and the Chicago theater – which have both wrangled an exception for venues of over 500 seats.

    Exclamation Point.

    Glad the big guys got the hand up, and the notice. Well played.

    This vote goes down WEDNESDAY, so let’s get informed, get the word out, and take whatever action you can … now. Three major resources to get informed: The ordinance itself is posted on Jim DeRogatis’ blog on the Sun Times site, there’s an an excellent TOC interview with Alderman Scott Waguespack and the lobbyist site on the promoter’s side, savechicagoculture.org has some specific calls to action.

    Waguespack claims that this will only saddle most performance venues with a $700/year insurance bill. He clearly hasn’t seen my annual budget and how devastating even that expense can be. I can produce certain shows for less than $1000 – so it may mean that I produce one fewer show a year.

    Sometimes the transparent-as-dirt Chicago machine system of doing business works for the art, and sometimes it hobbles us with poorly written legislation. And theaters are rarely prepared enough to spring into action with the three days notice we receive.

    So let’s spring.

    And since Chicago has an Olympic proposal in, any words of support from national international readers on the SaveChicagoCulture.org comments section are welcome. Chicago’s leadership is new to the whole international community idea, and they tend to listen to outsiders before they listen to, you know, constituents.

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    That is the Question: To Blog about the Process or Not… To… Bl… You Get it.

    May 12, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

    Continuing where Don left off, Mac over at SlowLearner hosts a debate featuring dv and the Chicago StreetBlogging Gang today… It’s interesting stuff, and it gets to the heart of a central question facing the (gag) theatrosphere.

    It might help your theater understand what’s at stake when you choose to blog about your work or whether you can’t take the potential heat – and maybe how to improve the content you’re already putting out there.

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