Theater For The Future

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Archive for October, 2008

And, now, a word from my inner Yoda

October 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Always remember that the key to skillful execution of any project is to keep the scope human-sized.

Humans are capable of amazing things, and they have limits. If you are hitting your limits, find more humans who care about what you’re doing. If you can’t find more humans, bite off a smaller chunk of project and save the rest for later. Be honest with your limits… so honest you laugh, so honest it hurts a bit.

I say this now because of a general feeling I’ve been picking up from my friends and my wife and the blogosphere as we enter a time of great change and great uncertainty. People in the theater walk of life are leaving jobs or eyeing new ones and seeking to maintain some level of security and happiness in the face of very alarming changes.

All social problems are human-sized at the root. No bigger. This is what we can learn from theater.

I watched this movie today (so late, such a crime). I really do think that Our Town might be the perfect social issues play, and this movie might just prove it. See it. It will kick your theater-loving ass.

We must all remember to do something human-sized that matters every day.

I would love to know: What theatrical skills or tools or techniques have you used to solve a problem (big or small) or make someone’s life easier or better – outside of theater?

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WOTFW, kids.

October 22, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere

OMG OMG OMG!

Chris Biddle, local improv gunslinger and Victory Gardens staff member, just shilled in a kind of amazingly personal way for Radio Lab, using his true-to-life story of how the mind-warpingly awesome podcast became a pivotal moment in a recent romance – as a riveting 15-minute pledge drive speech.

The story is one I share. Radio Lab will make you fall in love again with being human.

Also, TOC this week has picked up on the fact that Radio Lab is actually theater – or at least a very theatrical kind of storytelling – on the radio. New media crossover, anyone? Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are two folks to emulate in their mastery of taking complex issues in the sciences and humanities and breaking them apart like a juicy pomegranate, making their shows both digestible and rich. I’ve got my tickets for the Radio Lab appearance at Victory Gardens on Monday, where they will perform their documentary on the various guerrilla radio performances of War of the Worlds through the decades, right after my all-nighter changeover moving MDQ to the Apollo.

And holy cellists from heaven, Zoe Keating will be there to play live, tense, underscore.

I. AM. GOING. TO. DIE. FROM. HAPPY.

(seriously. do not miss this show.)

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Theater Media Roundup: The Gurney & The Christians

October 21, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

For many reasons, I think that one of the best stabilizing skills you can invest in for your personal theatrical work and the work of your company is learn a base competency in creating new media – Internet based graphics, web experiences, podcasts, and YouTube-ready video. In the coming decades, not having these skills is going to be increasingly crippling as students who were born with these skills emerge from their collegiate training grounds onto the storefront scene.

One of the reasons that there have been so many union vs. corporate battles over New Media is that the form is so young that most artists were slow to begin to speak the language. But when we do speak the language, we’re better able as artists to control the form. And the form needs help – there are many more folks out there capable of creating a video and posting it online than there are who can make that video say something.

I can’t tell you the number of times daily that having skills related to creating new media has been directly helpful to my work in theater. This kind of goes without saying on the theatrosphere, I know. But it’s a freelance income source compatible with any kind of artistic lifestyle that shouldn’t be ignored.

As my work with Marshall Communications continues to demonstrate to me, having strong new media savvy is much more rigorous than simply getting a website up. It’s about learning to talk about your work and even display your work through new media formats in a way that doesn’t distort your message. It’s about being ready as a theater company to invest and reap the rewards of having ancillary skills and equipment.

Some of the skills I think every theater company needs to have in its bag of tricks, whether it is in-house or through a friend:

Graphic Design (including the industry-standard Adobe CS3 suite)
PHP / Joomla / Ruby on Rails Dynamic Web Programming (for blogs and quick updating of web sites)
Video Production (for archives and promotional materials)
Podcast Production (for readings, promotions)

I’m happy to announce a periodic series of posts that I think I’ll actually be able to keep up on a regular basis (because this stuff is so darn exciting when it’s done right!): the Theater Media Roundup. I’ll be sending out previews and reviews of some of the most successful theater-generated videos, podcasts, sites that promote the work of theater artists. If you’ve got something that you think is changing the way you talk about your show to an audience, send me your stuff!

Right off the bat, let’s mention something already talked about several times on this and other blogs: The Mammals and the DevilVet’s innovative play-as-graphic novel project. Check it out, Sid.

———————–

In the Roundup Today:

YouTube Video promotion for The Gurney (at Strawdog, opening November 3)

What’s great:
For an independent theater project, this has some great polish. It borrows heavily from the white-flash / disconnected preview styles of The Ring and 28 Days Later (so it also inherits some of their baggage), but it also relies on more simple effects like that final disconnected voiceover so it is also genuinely and simply creepy. Best part? It’s specific enough about the story line to have some truth in advertising. You know what to expect at the show itself.
Can you hear that great sound design? Good timing, balanced perfectly with the vocals, and well-buttoned. Perhaps we have veteran sound designer Joe Fosco to thank!

What needs work:
Knowing creep-out movement queen Tiffany Joy Ross as I do, there are some shots of her that could use a bit of editing snippage to really reinforce the disorientation and fear that they’re going for. The timing of the surgical mask and final shot are working brilliantly, but less clear are the more awkward shots of her curtsying like a zombie and “Take this”.
Not knowing the script, I can’t really say that this is what is going on, but one habit of theater artists creating their own promotions is that they try to stick too religiously to the story of the play, rather than creating a stand-alone teaser story for the promotion itself. Maybe this is what is going on here?

———————–

Video Trailer for The Christians, independent movie written and directed by playwright Stephen Cone, and produced by Split Pillow (who shares some staff with the Side Project Theater Company)
(Screening on November 7th, 7:45 at the Gene Siskel Film Center)

What’s great:
The core story of the film is made really clear without giving away too much or being too obnoxiously direct. Cone has always been a master at negotiating human stress in religious dramas, so I’m not surprised that he fares well in the often disheartening task of creating a trailer. This trailer represents his storytelling sophistication well.

Also, check out how well the silence is used, especially in the beginning of this trailer. There’s this sort of sinking sensation you get in the first few moments as hectic shots are accentuated with a close silence… that snapping sound that echoes out and bookends the trailer is exactly the right tone – like the tide going out before a tsunami hits.

What needs work:
Was that a hanta virus-laden explosion I heard? I get the many reasons not to show the devastation of the apocalyptic event in question – it’s a film (on an independant budget) about people and the faith that drives them, not about sound design – but the sound effect itself for what appears to be the catalyzing moment for the plot doesn’t match the ominous portents of the rest of the trailer. The tsunami I mentioned above should be the equivalent of a balloon overflowing with anxiety bursting apart. It sounds instead like the Jolly Green Giant farted in a dumpster.

Fun Fact:
The Christians happens to have been filmed on location in TJ Ross’ apartment. I keep expecting her to walk by these folks with her surgical mask and offer them some of her deliciously creepy hors d’oeuvres.

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Street Vendors make the best Lemonade

October 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Chicago Theater, Community Building

Our ongoing experiment with the TCG Free Night of Theater at New Leaf is going so well it’s hard not to draw some very quick and dirty predictions about storefront theaters’s viability in the face of an economic downturn. Some things we’re finding (and I’ll let the rest of the Box Office staff at New Leaf give more detail here in the coming days):

* Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.

* Most theater goers don’t realize that storefront theater can be excellent. Because we tend to be experimental and/or developing artists, storefront work doesn’t have a consistent quality other than that intimacy. But there are shows that are hands down excellent in that grab bag, and we’re nearly always intimate, and we’re comparatively cheap, storefront theater becomes a no-brainer entertainment value. Human contact in a time of economic hardship is at a premium. We offer close-camera human experience.

* When patrons get past these two hurdles, and like what they see, they have an exciting reaction: Ownership. They feel they have discovered something secret that now belongs to them and they seem to be more excited to tell their friends about the experience than a regular patron would be. Since storefront theater publicity is often built primarily on word of mouth, this is potentially the most valuable patron experience we could ask for. Of course, the data isn’t in on how these patrons comparatively follow through in spreading the word – we won’t know that until the end of this season at least. But by greeting new patrons with a goodie bag of season information, 2-for-1 tickets and a lobby atmosphere that is more real, genuinely friendly, and built by a community than our big-box theater cousins (all because we’re not paid – we LOVE to be there) we’re hopeful on this front.

So what happens when everyone is worried about going broke? Well, we tighten the purse strings. But that doesn’t mean we stop living their lives. In the case of dining, instead of going to fine cuisine, people opt for Olive Garden. Or they take that chance on that local dive.

So, the prediction: Most of us have already seen how the downturn has made grants dry up quickly as foundations scramble to secure their assets and make larger and more flashy large-scale donations that don’t benefit small theaters. If storefront theater can make the case, this could be a year where as theater goers flake off from their big-house big-ticket subscriptions they take a low-risk chance on the work being done in storefront venues. And if the work is good and the experience is good, they might just stick.

But timing is everything. The election, necessarily, will be sucking all the oxygen out of the local and national news cycles right on through November 2nd. I’ve been talking with several theater companies trying to promote their shows right now (hell, I’m one of them), and my advice to them is: Save your energy, wait, and hit hard after the big election come-down.

After then, theater-going groundhogs everywhere will come out of their Cable News comas and want to be a part of life and collective imagination again. Be ready with your best work, your comparatively cheap tickets, and your comfiest chairs. Communities are built from your neighborhood out.

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A little more Action

October 16, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, Community Building

 

This is a guest post from Marni Keenan, a reformed scenic artist, and current visual artist, illustrator and bookmaker who will someday get her shit together enough to have her own web presence.

If you haven’t been introduced to www.donorschoose.org yet, it is time!  If I were Nick, I’d give you a nice long rundown of how it works and why it’s cool; but I’m not, so I’ll sum it up in one word: Aces!

 

The quick-and-dirty summary:

1. Teachers (generally in high-poverty areas) propose projects (anything from “my kids need pencils to do homework” to “I want to take them on a class trip to Washington D.C.”).

2. Donors find a project they are interested in, and give it a few bucks.

 

Why so awesome? 

– You’re not giving blindly to a big organization who will distribute their money as they choose.

  It’s tax-deductible, obviously.

  You get thank-you emails from the teachers.

  If you give $100 or more to any one project, your thank-you email will be followed in a few weeks by a big snail-mail package with thank-you notes from the kids, and pictures of them using whatever you paid for.  Tougher people than I have gotten all teary-eyed over these packages.

 

So what the heck has this got to do with Theater for the Future?

 

Well, October is Blogger’s Challenge on Donor’s Choose. It’s a big old contest where bloggers choose sets of projects and encourage their readers to chip in, even if it’s only $5. There’s a leaderboard and prizes, and it’s becoming quite a thing in certain areas of the blogosphere.

 

Now, we’re a bit late to the game this year, but that’s no reason not to give up one day of $4 coffee or whatever your vice is, and help some middle-schoolers in Nevada learn a little somethin’ about technical theater! They need $823, no one’s given them anything yet, and their proposal won’t expire until February 14, 2009.  Plenty of time.   

 

Check out the Theater for the Future Donors Choose page in the sidebar, where you can donate to one of three fundraising projects for at-risk children to participate in theater and enrich their lives. Suggest projects to us, and Nick’ll add them there as well!

 

Need one more reason? How about as a thank-you for me not writing some trite ‘because kids are the future’ crap? 😉

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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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Fun with Sound and Fire: the Ruben’s Tube

October 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Thanks for this, Marcus!

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Frankenthumb

October 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments, Tools

Once more from the brink. Theater is what happens as you plan more theater.

The past few weeks have been some of the most hectic and challenging of my sound career, as we at the Goodman have put up not one but two enormous musicals, Turn of the Century and Million Dollar Quartet, which I’ll be happily mixing during its stay at the Goodman. To top it off, I’ve been designing sound and projections for the New Leaf season kick-off, Six Years (see below for a blogger discount, all ye Chicago bloggers), and filling in for a friend in a sound design elective at Northwestern. So, clearly no smarty-pantsiness coming from me during that time. On the contrary, it spawned quite a bit of dangerous assery on my part. My loopiness set off what was for a little while an alarming string of accidents that made me check myself before I wrecked myself… including unintentionally (I swear) hitting my boss in the head and smashing my thumb (oh come on, you knew it was coming….) between a crescent wrench and an instrument yoke. Not fun.

So I can add a reawakening of safety measures and being well-rested to my list of reasons not to blog over the past few weeks, and indeed, I’ve been gun shy until now about picking back up the commentary during a time that required constant focus. In the meantime, I’ve been running ol’ Donny Hall’s post on Caudal Autotomy through my head like a mantra for two weeks, waiting for my literal and figurative nail to fall off so that I can grow a new one. Thanks again for that post, Don, it was gold made of lizard tails. Sometimes life is a big steel wool loofa that takes off the dead skin and most of the living stuff too, and I think it was just my turn.

One of the reasons for the sleepy and manic is that MDQ is, by far, the most difficult mix I’ve ever taken on, in one of the most abbreviated techs I can remember for a show of that scale. It’s also easily the most fun and most rewarding show to mix. It’s a blast of a show, and one that pushed back in an unexpected way. (Hint: part of the “pushing back” comes from the wall of rock that hits you from the massive array of 8 Meyer CQs in the Owen theater. We’ve never squeezed quite so much SPL into that particular space, and it was certainly a fun trick to do so.) So come and visit if you find the opportunity, and stop by the sound console when you do and say hi.

I was lucky enough to be working with sound designer Kai Harada, who was one of the first sound designers to make the leap into the web to comment on the theater sound community’s red-headed step-relationship with the rest of the theater community that was prevalent at the time – and I think is happily turning around. His online reinforcement resource, Kai’s Sound Handbook, is a great read for schools and folks looking to broaden their understanding of the art and science of sound mixing and want a little bit of real world opinion and experience thrown in with the technical information. It hasn’t been updated in eight years or so, but until he gets around to that, it’s one of the best free sound resources out there.
And the dude knows what he’s talking about, even if you might disagree with him on some of the specifics. We ALWAYS disagree about the specifics, after all. That’s half the fun of collaboration.

So it was nice to break out of all that after opening MDQ last night. This morning I jumped in as sub in the sound class and taught a bunch of students about basic editing with Logic Express, which was more fun and less fearful than I had expected. It was nice, almost edifying, to see some solid sonic stories coming together after only an hour or so, including this one utterly hilarious one that started with footsteps, then a woman sighing deeply and sadly, and then the kerchunk whirr whizz of a copier going crazy. It never fails to astound me how one little brilliant choice that I get to witness will just make my day. Sigh. Copier. Giggle.

Which brings me to the work being done on Six Years. I feel like haven’t had nearly enough time with this truly stellar cast and crew (including New Leaf regulars Marsha Harman and Christian Heep, storefront veterans Sean Patrick Fawcett, Kevin Gladish and Mary Jo Bolduc, Circle Theatre member Darci Nalepa, and up-and-comers Chris Carr and our stage manager, Amanda Frechette) and what they’re doing with this play just cuts me to pieces. Sharr White’s script needed only the slightest touch of design, so in many ways my job has been simple if abbreviated, and tonight’s dress was very much about absorbing, reacting, and just enjoying the performances. More importantly, my next few days are about returning numerous favors to my wife Marni, who leapt in with both feet as production coordinator when it became clear that I was about to go incommunicado.

It’s a time for regrowing those damaged and sore parts. A time for sleep and letting the unconscious mind make the connections for a change.

And soon it’ll be a time for looking at the sound load out and the schedule for the next changeover… Whooooooo, doggy.

Oh yes… and before I forget: We’re offering pay-what-you-can tixx to fellow bloggers for Six Years, which opens this wednesday. We’d love to see you and hear what you think.

Because what doesn’t kill us will leave a nice scar that we can be proud to show off at the bar.

P.S. Anyone else been participating in TCG’s Free Night of Theater (arranged locally by the League of Chicago Theaters)? Holy crap has it been popular.

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