Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Archive for June, 2008

It’s ALIVE!

June 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

This has been a crazy, crazy week. And as the faculty prepares for the Cherub program (10 fully-produced shows in rep through July! BOO YA! Tony knows what I’m talking about) which kicks off this week, I’m finding myself frantically tidying up projects and getting them into happy places.

For you see, I’ll be maintaining radio silence from now until August 5th or so. Because the kids and those shows deserve my undivided attention. And what shows they are. Where else do you get to do The Permanent Way, Pool (no water), a punked-out Marie Antoinette, and – get this – Night of the Living Dead – in repertory?. Ain’t no place like it.

So, before I leave you, intrepid reader, for undiscovered country:

I have an announcement to make.

Tonight. We Launch Phase 2 of: The Chicago Theater Database.

CTDB LaunchNow before I get all mission accomplished on you, we still have a long way to go yet. This is another “sneaky peek / prototype / call-it-what-you-will” in progress program. We have structured the project to be more or less open source and community-driven, which means that the version you see now is a) ugly and b) in progress and c) read-only during the beta test period. The view mechanism and the data we’re assembling, however, is pretty robust. Dan Granata and I have assembled a team of beta-testers/contributers who are AS WE SPEAK playing and testing with the input forms and getting all the kinks worked out while they upload new data. Watch Dan’s blog later this evening for more info on the beta test program and how you can contribute.

But play with it. See if you’re interested in getting involved. We have pretty much all of Chicago’s current season on there, and we’re aiming to load in next season ASAP so that the database can become immediately useful to you in planning your next season in Chicago – who you want to work with, what shows you want to get in on, where your scheduling problems lie. Dan will speak to this more, but this is, at its heart, a research tool.

One potential use for the database we’re excited about: a strike date calendar. If you need help getting rid of lumber, props and other items, you can just plop your strike date on the database and interested and frugal scavenger parties can then see which strikes are coming up and where to be, and they may just contact YOU to help you out. And that’s just ONE use for collected data like this. We want to implement your ideas.

So, enjoy. I’ll see you all on August 5th.

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Todd Rosenthal Wins!!!

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

WOOOOOOO!

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How (and why) to write a Company Bible

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Ever seen one of these? It’s a big binder filled with knowledge. Procedures. Contacts. Lists. Accessible Information.

In his big comeback post, Scott Walters illustrates very clearly the reasons for an artist to be proactively collecting and sharing the knowledge of what it is they do and the tricks and insights that make the work itself easier and more effective: knowledge is power.

… Those who wield power in the theatre — the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff — do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action — and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think.

The lifespan of an artist within a theater company is often a lot like the lifespan of a fruit fly. Artists often want to do one thing – say, perform – and get signed on to do that, and run box office, and figure out how to market a play, and raise money for that play, and keep the bathrooms clean… It’s tiring, and the passion for your work either carries you through the balogna or it doesn’t, and after five to ten years you start dreaming of a normal adult life that doesn’t involve begging and scrubbing and poverty.

For me, there is a lot of wasted energy in reinventing the wheel here. Let’s say a company is formed in 1983, and goes through five leadership cycles in that time. There’s a big difference in quality between the company with leadership that captures the collected knowledge of the company and the company that starts from scratch every time a company member moves on. It’s the difference between accruing institutional knowledge and burn out.

But when you get your feet wet, you’ll start to notice big challenges involved in passing complex knowledge structures on to a complete noob. Awful example from my own experience: Teaching a non-technical person how to mix their first musical. Let’s say your regular technical guru is moving out of town, and you have to basicially xerox them or face the loss of quality that comes with losing talent. There are two ways to go about this, neither of them ideal: You could label everything in the booth with a mountain of post-its and basically say “never touch this – or this – or this,” thereby simplifying the job. This definitely reduces stress in the training period, but it isn’t really a long-term solution – it cripples the student’s ability to explore and learn from mistakes over the long term. It leaves them to build their own foundation of knowledge, and it assumes that the choices you make in those final stressful and despairing moments of your tenure were the right decisions for the long term health of the company – which is almost never the case.

There’s another approach, akin to the development of a curriculum for self-study: the guru creates a comprehensive list of all the pieces of knowledge that one would need to do the job.

A) Acoustic Physics – How Sound Works
1) How sound waves mix in the air
2) The controllable properties of sound – Volume, Direction, Frequency, Timbre, Duration/Envelope,

B) How the Equipment Works
1) Microphone Pickup Patterns (what microphones “hear”)
2) Speaker Dispersal Patterns (cabinet distortion, directionality, phasing problems.
3) How Theatrical Sound Equipment can distort and shape sound waves
4) Mixer routing – Inputs, Faders, EQ, Inserts, Trim, Bus/Group Outputs, Auxillary Outputs

C) Cue Operation and Programming procedures
1) Mixer Manual – for Mute Scenes / VCAs or Scene Presets
2) Sound Playback Manuals – QLab, SFX, CD Players, etc.
3) MIDI and automation – getting equipment to trigger other equipment for simple show operation

D) Common “Gotchas”
1) Everything plugged in?
2) Everything plugged in in the right place?
3) Best signal testing practices – start at one end of the signal path and move carefully to the other.
4) The psychology of monitors and mic placement – getting the performers and the producers on your team with the common goal of the best possible audience experience (or, “If I turn up your monitor there, we either won’t hear you in the house, or we’ll hear you and squealing feedback”)

To be sure, each one of these items could be a dissertation in themselves, and this is more overwhelming for a blank slate student. However, it creates an ongoing resource for the student to explore and research over time and as their experience expands. It also doesn’t set a time limit on the training period – it allows peer-to-peer learning to continue beyond the tenure of the burnt-out ex-company member.

The MOST important thing is of course to create this knowledge resource well in advance of those often gut-wrenching final two weeks of a company member’s tenure. Capturing this information while stress is a factor is a good way to get a crappy knowledgebase. If you’ve ever been trained as a temp, you know what I’m talking about – If you need to know A – Z to properly do your job, some folks will teach you A (“Turn on your computer”) and then B (“This is the Power Button”) and then when that goes off without a hitch, they’ll spring Q on you (“And so then we just need to you to file the 990 Form with Accounting”) without explaining, oh, H (“Accounting is near the elevator”), or M (“990 Forms are tax forms for non-profits.”) or even C (“We are a company that audits non-profits”). And some folks assume you know too much and will rifle through the instructions for X-Z (“Just tell the president your progress by the end of the day.”) and they’re out the door. There is never enough time for the trainer to go through A-Z. And yet real damage happens to companies in both of those moments when A-Z isn’t effectively communicated or learned by the trainee. The corporate world can easily absorb that damage, but theater companies can often die off or suffer direly in fundraising in those moments when leadership changes.

So manuals can cushion the blow as the company grows – or even simply ages – and folks move on. Some of the manuals that I have written for New Leaf and The Side Project include:

  • How – and when – to update the website
  • Run Sheets – how to preset and run a particular show
  • Box Office procedures
  • How to share files over the internet so that group collaboration is less time-consuming
  • Brand manuals (use this font, use these colors, use this page layout, use this logo, and the branding rules that you can bend, break, and the ones you can never ignore)
  • Marketing distribution (a checklist of places to put posters and postcards)
  • Production Timeline & Checklist (what needs to get done, and when it needs to be done)

What I’ve learned about these documents is that they usually need periodic revision – so the best time to write them is as the processes are being put in place or being revised. By writing a manual as you perform the task, you can often do a better capture of clear step-by-step actions and have a better retention of all the dependent knowledge that is helpful in performing your role.

Treating manuals like a simple dumping ground of everything doesn’t work, though – they need to be more or less a complete overview of day-to-day operations, but not an exhaustive archive of everything that has ever happened ever. That’s too overwhelming to be useful. So some diligent and forward-thinking editing is always a useful habit to get into.

For these reasons, the ideal medium for a company knowledgebase is often a wiki – a living, interconnected document that allows certain basic knowledge resources to be outsourced to say, Wikipedia or other blogs & websites. Knowledge can also be organized into a structure to make critical data more clear and supporting data settle into nested structures.

At New Leaf, we’ve used a wiki and a company discussion forum in tandem for about three years, and it’s proven to work very well with our own human natures. Most day-to-day company discussion happens on the forum, filling the forum with a rich silt of acquired knowledge, planning, brainstorming, and chat. It’s almost a daily journal for most of us, a big net that captures all our ideas. We have also worked out a quick sorting and archiving process that we do as part of our production post-mortem process. When a particular nugget of knowledge from the forum discussion proves permanently useful, it finds a home somewhere in our company wiki – the repository of permanent knowledge for the company.

And on the wiki, the information is clearly organized for future company or board members. It kind of looks like this:

New Leaf Department Knowledgebase
Artistic
Play Readings
Marketing
Development, Fundraising & Grants
Production
Box Office

Agendas (these contain items that require discussion in our next face-to-face meetings so that everything gets captured)
Company Meetings
Production & Design Meetings
Marketing Meetings
Board Meetings

Meeting Minutes
Company Meeting Minutes
Post Mortem Minutes
Marketing Minutes
Committees Minutes

Timeline & To-Dos (Each of these is a calendar for each production with template dates, like “Opening -3 Weeks”. We just plug in the dates before each production, and voila, we have a list of everything we need to get done.)
Production Timeline
Box Office Timeline
Marketing Timeline

Knowledge Base
Knowledge Base – Web Tools, Important Contact Info, Stuff to Know in case of emergency
Company Bylaws
New Leaf Culture – The way we like to do things, and why
Production History
Who We Are – Mission, Vision, Values. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Over the past few years, we’ve had the typical internal turnover at both companies that happens as artists grow up and live their lives – and new artists with fresh ambition pursue their artistic lives as a part of the company. The forum / wiki / knowledgebase process has proven its worth through the shifting membership to our newest company members. As they have time, or when they’re confused about how something works, our old discussions and accrued knowledge resources can be skimmed through and learned as needed. This is often an exciting process for a new company member, like opening up an old tome filled with old words and old thoughts. It is a training period filled with knowledge and cloaked in mystery. Can you imagine that in a corporate environment? Our old show notes create a clear picture of our context and our history – and steeping in that knowledge has helped us avoid the dangers of repeated mistakes, without limiting us to a knowledgebase of post its that limit the agility of our current operations. Understanding and remembering the old risks we’ve taken inspire better risks to be taken next time. I’d wager that our effective capturing of knowledge has helped us stretch our annual budgets as well, because we have a memory and a process that allows us to allocate money towards our artistic growth and our newest risks rather than sinkholes of productions past. Best of all, creating the knowledgebase was a dirt-simple, efficient, low stress, and even fun part of the process.

Scott’s speaking the truth again: the key to better lives for you professional artists out there is taking responsibility for your own artistic goals, and empowering yourself with the tools and the knowledge you need to achieve and reach beyond those goals. For me, the thing I needed was a way of remembering where I’ve been. Breadcrumbs along the trail, so to speak.

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Sharp to Shutter

June 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

Patrick over at BackstageJobs has a very enlightening new feature (oof. accidental pun.): an interview with longtime Chicago electrician and more recently hot shot Lighting Designer Keith Parham.

I’m curious: How interested are you in hearing about folks behind the scenes? Designers, directors, dramaturgs and anyone engaged in navigating an artistic process day by day are endlessly fascinating to me, but I consider myself biased.

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Context

June 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

First of all, thanks to Jacob Coakley at Stage Directions magazine for the editor’s note that mentioned my Chicken of the VNC post – and more importantly the idea that sharing our skills and acquired knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor for us all. For any of you just joining me now from Stage Directions, check out more of my sound design goodie bag, and feel free to ask questions.

So Context. As in: the context that we operate from when we create artistic work or artistic commentary. And the context of others, and the context of others and the context of others. Thank you, THANK you, gentlemen, for sharing your context.

It is so helpful and enlightening to understand the background of an artist. Half the show for me is leafing through the program and remembering the last show or conversation I had with an artist and understanding the work that I see in the terms of what they’re working on and exploring now. Because of this habit, I’m a true fan in the Long Tail sense of the word of many actors and designers in Chicago, and I’ve caught some moments that I’ve carried as utterly magical that I think most audience members don’t normally appreciate – because they’re moments of improvised learning. By understanding the background of an artist, you can catch the moments when the artist suddenly “gets it,” and pushes past their previous limits. I don’t really enjoy divorcing the work from the artist. That feels like amputation to me.

I had a great first face-to-face conversation with Paul Rekk at the Jeffs last night, which I hope was helpful for both of us. His post a few days ago helped clarify for me the reasons for our divergence of perspective – we come from radically different backgrounds.

I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. The status quo there – the one I felt compelled to rebel against as a teenager – was one of alternating impotent liberal wishful thinking and cutting 90’s progressive cynicism. Amherst, in case you’ve never heard of it, is famous for its five colleges in close proximity that you may have sensed recently in the shadows of Scooby Doo reruns, its horribly authentic yet utterly disconnected Belle, and the unfortunate human rights record of its namesake, the Honorable Lord Jeffrey. Most alarming to my adolescent brain was that most of the folks in this extremely politically active town ignored the basic precept of fellow Masshole Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

In Amherst, all politics is International. The town is overrun by politically astute 18 – 24 year olds all running away from the demands of their families for the first time in their lives – and the professors and administrators that make a comfortable living off them. The local community might as well not exist as far as the colleges are concerned. I grew up a townie in a school filled with the sons and daughters of professors – which means I was on the empty pockets side of intellectual gentrification. I wrote my early plays about the old men in greasy spoon diners, trading the real wisdom of the world as the world sped up around them. The encroaching property taxes that made retirees leave their hometown after decades even went to prop up that old museum piece of New England democracy – our “functioning” public town meeting that ‘led’ our town through a process that resembled permanent filibuster, while the real power was held by a permanently appointed Town Manager. Imagine a City Mayor appointed for life! Oh wait… And most folks my age were too busy making a show of rejecting the idea of establishment and re-rejecting the disestablishment. So they’re all far too busy to engage with the actual establishment – they wanted nothing to do with local reform or local community. They would rather buy the Che Guevara t-shirts if you know what I mean.

And so of course I ran from my community in the end. I moved to Dallas and saw the most well-SUV’d part of Texas mobilize for the War on Terror by purchasing ever larger and more reckless tanks of gasoline while embracing a skin-deep caricature of patriotism. I watched my family with my electric binoculars fight to stay united, grow up, and not lose their homes to the social will of my hometown. And I found another family, an urban family, and a place where I felt useful. And that’s when I stopped my adolescent self-pity in the face of my own terror and self-recognition, and saw the poison I drank in each lost connection.

This is my context: I sense a deep hypocrisy in the cynicsm of willful disconnection and disassociation with those connections that exist between us. I deeply value progress, but the advocates of progress became in the nineties an incredulous kind of lazy and entitled. And then we saw the consequences of that half-assed progressivism – as part of the country claimed we never had any values at all and took over, running our values into the mud.

I think that’s turning around now, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our generation isn’t going to face an onslaught of responsibility now that we’re taking over the wheel, institution by institution. I feel a call to service these days – to not repeat the mistakes of the village that raised me and taught me – how they forgot their roots and their neighbors in their push for progress – while also upholding the values of that village in the face of eroding American values and eroding American justice that we all feel. When I first moved to Chicago, I think I wanted to escape from the erosion of the places of my past – but even here, I don’t feel safe from eroding values and eroding justice. I don’t feel safe from complicity in the many injustices of this country and this world simply because I’m in a place where people share my values.

We’ve all felt that kind of powerlessness in our lives – the question of “why do this at all? I’m not arguing a legal case that will affect a life. I’m not fighting hunger or disease or poverty. I’m not relieving disaster victims.” Well, to disengage from that responsibility simply because we are powerless to fix large social problems as individuals is not a valid solution to me. In my context, the way to make an impact on the world is to practice connection. It is to practice and value detail in craft, to create quality in all our lives. This practice fights that sensation of powerlessness in a human-sized way, to create a real, vital community through our collective creative work and our ability to listen to each other. Communities are built individual by individual, and piece by piece – and it’s communities that have the ability to create change.

Death, decay, and destruction take care of themselves. Growth requires food, water, and a big bright light shining on it. In my context, if you’re not re-building, you’re damaging.

In my context, you can choose to create and support the craft of your peers and neighbors on a sustainable scale, or you can tear down and destroy – models, ideas, and work – and leave an empty shell of a wasteland. That’s not a clean slate as far as I’m concerned… It’s a world where positive energy was stopped and paved over by negative energy into a place where it couldn’t grow anymore.

And is the crux of some of our online arguments, no? In other contexts, harsh criticism is valued as pure truth. It’s valued that way because the folks who have that perspective have been witness to comfortable lies for too long. They see how cooperative initiatives can be co-opted by self-promotion, the PR game, and profit. In their context, the ultimate sin is self-censorship and watered-down art in the name of decorum.

I know that this hope for community and mutual support – not dishonesty, support – comes off as wishful thinking in our context-less world of the internet. Here in Chicago, where my Yankee roots don’t share a lot of the same background as the midwesterners who have had to tear down some actual injustice and external ignorant destructive forces to get to play in this White City, my all-for-one-and-one-for-all message comes up against some legitimately divergent viewpoints. Which is fair, and I’m eager to learn to be at better peace with it.

My context informs my work: The theater I have chosen to call my home has a very clear mission that speaks to these beliefs: we “create intimate, animate theatrical experiences which renew both artist and audience.” I also consider teaching and opening doors for younger artists or artists without my experience to be a cornerstone of my life’s work. Teaching for me isn’t about giving the right answer, it’s about asking the right question. It is about testing ideas, but also understanding them, supporting them and letting them thrive on their own terms.

So deliberation in the theatrosphere is not about finding the penultimate truth for me, because I don’t believe in those lofty ideas on a hill. I believe in perspective. I believe in seeing each other’s work, and seeing each other work. I believe in growing within and embracing our own context.

All politics is local.

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Off to Live Blog the Non-Equity Jeff Awards

June 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

Just kidding. Good luck, everybody.

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Auto-Podcasting for the Design Process

June 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Okay, so I’m an inventor, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The clutter that is a necessary part of invention has to be seen to be believed. I’ve got chunks of hardware strewn about my studio, ready for soldering, repair, and reconfiguration. My hard drive is filled with various impenetrable chunks of code – modules, platforms, and other eratta. All waiting to be configured. So when two of these chunks end up working together in any way, let alone an incredibly sexy way to support creative development, it’s cause for celebration. And maybe some cleanup.

Last night at, oh, three a.m., I made one of these connections that had been staring me in the face – a way to easily share sonic research with creative teams that I work with a minimum of effort on my part. Last night, I set up my first automatically generated research podcast. I just upload files, and my website creates a podcast that the whole production team can sync with.

Here’s how it works. First and foremost, a little background:

1.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOU.

A few years ago I configured my portfolio site to be a lot more easy to update. If you’ve ever played around with HTML and uploading files via FTP, you know that it’s a process that is fraught with time-consuming repetition and maintenance. When I started uploading 10-20 files for each of five shows I was working on at any given time, I knew I needed a more streamlined system.

At the time, I was learning more about PHP, a scripting language that enabled me to do handy things like set variable values, define helper functions, and repeat these helper functions. Best of all, I could grab open-source helper functions from friendly programmers and make them work for me.

For the portfolio site, I first set up a little loop that simply read the contents of a folder and displayed those contents as links. So now, instead of manually coding “a href=” tags for each linked file like a dutiful little hamster, I get an automatically generated page for each folder on my site, that looks like this page to the left here. I spent maybe 45 seconds of thought and time in creating this particular page – it’s simply the result of my site’s stylesheet rules and the file reader function of PHP. Pretty nice for under a minute plus upload time.

2.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOUR USERS & CLIENTS

The big problem that eventually cropped up with this method was compatibility. Of course. With Internet Explorer. Of course. I made use of the quicktime “embed” player which is both really easy to set up from a coding stand point and the unfortunate victim in a lawsuit between Microsoft and ActiveX. Basically, Microsoft lost their ability to license the player in Internet Explorer, and for each embedded file, an IE user gets one of those really ugly “Enable ActiveX control on this page?” error messages that we all love so much. Gross.

So, I plugged in a new module: the configurable, flexible and totally free JW FLV Flash player. Combined with a MP3 Meta data reader, my research pages now look quite a bit sexier (and because it’s flash, it’s a lot more compatible). MP3’s have cover art, titles and artist authors embedded in them, and my website now reads that data and makes a lovely candy-coated interface.

Total thought put into this per show: Still 45 Seconds.

3.) IMPROVE YOUR WEBSITE’S PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY

So that’s all nice and fine and flashy. Still a few compatibility issues, and suddenly the site is doing a lot of server-side processing, which causes some slowness in page loading. Some logic fixes improve all that, but is it ultimately useful? Last night, the final connection of how to really milk this system suddenly became clear to me.

The JW Player reads most of its information from an RSS feed – a feed that I am automatically generating using PHP and that MP3 Meta data reader.

Now, what else is an RSS feed that contains embedded audio files? That’s right: Podcasts.

So now, simply by providing the link to the RSS feed under the hood, my collaborators can SUBSCRIBE to my audio research. As I post stuff, boom, the entire team gets the new audio synced to their ipods with their This American Life episodes. And, at the same time, my process remains: Select Sound, Mix Sound, Upload Sound. No further configuration needed.

Go ahead: Try it on. You can subscribe to my serialized audio performance piece, Lexicon, in a few simple steps (If you haven’t heard this yet, by the way, it’s pretty representative of my sound design work. And I’m told it’s fun to listen to – though it was written five years ago, so some of the writing is still… let’s say formative. It’s all about the sound anyway):

1) In iTunes, Select Advanced: Subscribe to Podcast.
2) Enter the url: http://nikku.net/lexicon/podcast/rss.php
3) Let me know what you think.

Finally, if you’d like to try something like this setup for your own process, but don’t need all the bells and whistles (and want some simplicity!) there’s another excellent resource out there for you: The PHP script Podcast Generator creates an entire Podcast Content Management System and backend that can help you create a feed in a few steps. And of course blogging software often has some wonderful plugins that allow you post audio right in your blog’s RSS feed.

Multi-media research is good for multi-media work. More on that as season announcements draw nearer…

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A Better Way to Paper the House

June 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

It’s no secret that early word of mouth is the key to a successful run. That’s why it’s a common business practice to fill the house with all your friends and industry folks that first cobwebby week of a run, so that the engine of buzz can get primed. Except there’s a pretty major caveat to papering – the practice often floods the tank, filling the books with reservations that never show up. It’s hard to shake the assumption that theater that you can see for free isn’t theater worth seeing, and so papered seats aren’t really taken as seriously as they should be.

That, surprisingly, all changes with $1 comps. I gotta hand it here to Ken Davenport – that unsettlingly bottom-line-oriented Off-Broadway producer from the iPhone commercials (I’m personally unsure about the idea of a producer using remote technology to conveniently monitor lurker comments and feedback on fan sites and twitter those comments back to his director– but to each his own process). However you feel about his perspective, Ken certainly knows how to work an audience, and that’s worth reading his thoughts.

$1 Comps is a freaking great idea – and it’s withstood the rigors of Ken’s real-world test. It subverts the psychological damage of perception that “free theater” has to overcome – 96% of the comps in his experiment were redeemed. Yeah, that’s right – he tested the idea, collected data on it, and executed it. Remember we were talking about that? He’s also identified ways of making the $1 comp practice better next time around – by reducing the workload on the box office, for instance. Worth a look!

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