Theater For The Future

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Archive for May, 2008

Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of

May 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

Update for all of you running OS X 10.5 – Yes, it’s true, Chicken of the VNC is indeed obsolete now – every feature described in this post can now be done with the integrated Screen Sharing feature. Check out the comments for details, but you may want to read on to pick up a few tips on creating a remote control system for sound design.

Chicken of the VNCIt’s hard to determine sometimes if technology is making our creative work better and more efficient or just more complicated in new and different ways. Part of the problem is that for most of this decade software and hardware engineers were moving in the direction of modular solutions.

Instead of building great dishwashers, they theorized that it would be better to perfect the ultimate cost-efficient fork washer, leaving you to buy an equally astoundingly cheap cup polisher on a separate basis. This gave consumers (and designers) CHOICE – now you could save a TON of money buying the exact modules they needed separately and find new ways of getting the modules and devices to work together – or you could opt for a simple all-in-one solution that kinda sorta did what you needed, and you’d pay for the convenience. This is one of the reasons that your local designer on a budget looks like some kind of Max Max-era hacker with wild eyes darting from side to side looking for bargains and a magical toolkit of gizmos that will, you know, suture a pants rip in 10 seconds or diagnose whether a light isn’t working because of a broken lamp or because the dimmer load is about to make the circuit box explode.

In this chaos, it’s always refreshing to find a multi-use tool that makes not one but ten things easier to do. It means by using it you’ll be dumping a bunch of extra junk out your toolkit in a giddy and impromptu spring cleaning.

Here’s what it does
Chicken of the VNC is such a tool. It allows designers to do one thing and one thing alone: remotely access and control another computer over a network. Like a wireless network.

But here’s what it really means
Sound designers can be more active participants in the production process. I can sit in the house, experiencing the play like an audience member would, and be editing my qLab show file at the same time. If the sound is too loud, I don’t tell the SM to hold the run and high-tail it to the booth to twiddle a bunch of knobs or wires. This kind of behavior, let’s face it, undermines my credibility as a designer, because I’m stopping the show at every cue.

Instead, I nod at the director, and as they react to the loud sound, I turn it down, from wherever I am in the house. The stage, the balcony, the grid, whatever. With a little practice, I’m fixing the sound and resetting levels before they become a problem.

And voila, I’ve become a designer who has the tools to perform as if I was onstage, reacting to impulses and adapting the dynamics of the sound to better match what I’m seeing and hearing from the performers on the stage. I can design each and every moment of the play – silence through transition – rather than spending the time that I have on 30% of the play. I can react and shape rather than dictate in preproduction what the sonic world feels like.

Here’s how it works
I’ve set up in the booth a sound playback computer, which runs the increasingly excellent and free-as-dirt program qLab to route all my layers of sound files to the various speakers in the room. Normally, I’d have to do my programming from the booth or run some kind of umbilical cable to a remote keyboard and monitor. That’s a lot of crap to lug around from tech to tech compared to a single laptop.

First, I set up a computer-to-computer wireless network from the playback computer – simple as pie from the Airport menu of most macs.

Then, I connect to that network from my laptop, again through the Airport menu.

Boom! I launch Chicken of the VNC. After some initial configuration, the playback computer shows up as a VNC server on my laptop. Bookmark that, and then the remote screen is always just a few clicks away.

On my current show, A Red Orchid’s Not a Game for Boys (opening tomorrow!), there’s this ongoing ping pong tournament that is seen by the performers “behind” a plexi screen that is theoretically along the fourth wall. Getting the sound of ping pong and sneakers through glass to come from behind the audience required a large number of replacement files to get the reverb and equalization just right. But it didn’t mean frequent trips into the stamp-sized booth that can’t comfortably fit more than one person without getting in each other’s business and grinding rehearsal to a halt.

Instead, I connected to the playback harddrive using the computer-to-computer wireless network…

Then after copying the replacement files over the ether, I used my CotVNC connection to replace the files…

All while the SM ran a run without stopping.

Not exactly razoring reel-to-reel tape anymore, is it?

The half-life of technology is getting shorter and shorter, and so it’s not surprising that Chicken of the VNC is already obsolete. Apple’s latest operating system Leopard has included a built-in VNC client accessible through System Preferences. I gotta say – I love Apple for the way that they integrate incredibly versatile applications (VNC, Samba, Ruby on Rails) into their core operating system. Like many technophiles, I trust that if something out there is worth running, it’ll probably show up in my laptop next time I upgrade the OS.

I only use CotVNC as an example because, like the excellent and free FTP application Cyberduck which can be used to manage your theater’s website, it’s a brilliant program that does just one thing that will help you in a billion ways. Technology doesn’t replace human performance, however… doing the work well still requires practicing and rehearsing with the tools you keep at your disposal.

I love applications named after poultry.

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Well, Well, Well.

May 06, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

Are you trying to tell me something, Theater in Chicago, with your launch of a Chicago Theater Opening Night Calendar?

I’m happy to lose that chore… but I’m uneasy about what this means for us.

I guess I am going to have to copyright my ideas that will actually generate any web ad revenue before launching them. Not that that will save me. Because this move makes me think of these guys like the Borg: assimilating all these trendy and on the face generic Web 2.0 ideas (podcasts – which they have been doing since the beginning – dynamic databases) into their site and reaping the ad revenue from being the “one stop info shop” for Chicago theater but not really generating the kind of online community involvement that will make a project like this valuable to the artists and not simply profitable. Maybe I think this about them because I don’t know them very well. Maybe we should talk.

I don’t bite – do you?

What do you chicago readers out there think? Am I off base here in thinking that they’re doing the MOST for any listing service in town, but not the BEST they could be doing? Are Theatre in Chicago’s listing services worth supporting and buying into, or do you believe that a community-driven site would have more potential?

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The Designed Reading

May 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

I’m digging the concept of the designed reading right now. Just ran one, and New Leaf and Side Project both have something along those lines in the works. It’s like not baking the whole cake, but instead taking the batter you have and making cute little cupcakes with just a dollop of frosting. And they fly off the shelves.

There’s something about that forcibly abbreviated process of rehearsing and doing a quick and dirty design for a one-off reading that creates the right kind of energy. Design choices get spare, slim. Performers and Designers both improvise in the moment, and the audience can sense that palpable uncertainty… and they rally behind any brazen fearlessness that the performers adopt to get through that uncertainty.

They make a great low-cost fundraiser, and they make a good atmosphere for an appreciative audience – the party or cabaret atmosphere can be molded into some pretty entertaining formats that really make for a good time that perhaps means a little more.

I think the audience is willing to go a little further when they know it’s a crazy one-time only event – like a reading of experimental material with just a bit of design to give the piece some weight, or a 24 hour play festival. That willingness opens them up when they’d normally close down. Just check out these faces, standing and kneeling and curled up on the lobby floor:

Oh, and seriously: Thanks and thanks (and thanks). I am freaking humbled by comments like these, when people are moved to speak up for me. I’m enough of a loudmouth as it is. It’s no secret among my friends that I was gunning for a “They Wuz Robbed” nod from TOC this year – as far as I’m concerned, if Grant Sabin won it, it’s the best award in town. It’s also incredibly exciting to me that Jess H., Jared M. and The Dining Room WERE recognized this year, and Steve P. is up for a Soundy Jeffy for Faster. These are people who I believe in, because I’ve seen what they can do with that support.

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A Meme with a Pulse

May 02, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Uncategorized

I’ve been going over something like 2,000 blog posts that I missed while off on my honeymoon, and it looks like Don, dv, and Scott Walters got in another inevitable scrap in my absence over whether ’tis nobler in the mind to NY-LA-CHI or not to NY-LA-CHI. I’ve played peacebroker with all three gentlemen before (not that any of them want a peacebroker, because that doesn’t lead to the kind of interesting blog conversation that they want to have) and I’ve found it interesting that having that discussion flare up created more convoluted one-note shrillness than take-away insight that could end up helping new readers. On the other hand, argument it does help those readers generate their own opinions, which is a wonderful thing.

It’s the way blogging goes, but in the interest of experimentation and continuing the growth of dialogue, I’d like to propose a meme to play with the dynamics of this regional discussion.

The meme: enlist a new voice to join the theater blogging community – someone who brings a new perspective to the discussion of theater. Preferably one that is challenging to your own perspective. Some women, maybe, since they’re underrepresented? I’ve been working on a few of my friends who find themselves too busy but I think could represent the more practical side of producing theater. Someday, one of them will buckle and we’ll have some eye-opening thoughts from these geniuses. (yeah, I mean you, Tiff and Marcus…)

I tag Scott, Don, ecoTheater, and dv… natch. (and yes, Bob… I owe you a meme and I haven’t forgotten. These past few weeks have taught me new lessons I learned the hard way, so I thought I’d wait until the dust settled on them. Sumimasen.)

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