Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement

Archive for 2009

New Leaf launches a new financial plan

December 19, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

From the moment we saw this post from Chris Ashworth in October, New Leaf buckled down to create a vision of what sustainable theater could look like in the 21st century. It was a clarion call for an idea that had been churning and developing in the company for years.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to begin to roll out the results today.

Our theater must move away from a patronage model of funding and towards a partnership model. I don’t think any of our patrons would argue that art and the artists that make it couldn’t use more support in our society, both financial and social – we have all seen the ancillary benefits that are generated when you connect an artist with their passion – beauty, clarity, revelation, emotional release, simplicity, dialogue. But we also believe that society, corporate culture, and community organizations could directly and immediately benefit from a creative integration of the artistic process and the byproducts of artistic thinking into their work and daily experience. Most of America’s exposure to art is the finished “product” – a couple hours of watching a play, taking in a recital, or browsing paintings at a museum. If what we offer is an experience, our product is not the result, it is the entire experience from concept to creation to completion. And audiences routinely miss or are restricted from the meat of what that experience has to offer.


I’m not gonna lie – this feels like a crazy risk right now, at one in the morning. But putting your mouth where your money is always was going to be a risk.

I’ve immersed myself in the past few months in histories of artistic renaissance both ancient and recent, reading stories about the financial models of the Medici and how they funded one of the most vibrant and ultimately constructive cultural revolutions and sequences of rediscovery in history. The mob-esque patronage model of the Medici was highly supportive of the artist, quite untransparent, seems pretty attractive out of the context of plague, excommunication, brutality, and almost certainly political dysfunction, which all makes it seem oddly familiar to an artist in Chicago.

And on the other hand I’ve also read up on the organizational work of the generation that are now my artistic mentors – the folks that built Chicago theatre and specifically storefront theatre from the ground up and found ways of making it work that lasted through at least a couple major recessions.

(sidebar: if you wanted to know what it’s been like producing in Chicago in the last ten years, check out these decade-wrapping articles from New City. There’s some stunning archival work on display.)

I also feel like, as per usual, it’s a crazy long post. But we have several difficult cases to make. On the one hand, we have to make the case that in an economic downturn, investing in art in general and theater specifically can be directly beneficial to the investors, not just indirectly beneficial in the form of some vague warm feeling of generosity. Which brings us to the other case to be made: Theater may be non-profit, but we need to get out of the mentality that we therefore deserve financial support. Because if donors give money out of guilt or a heart that bleeds for unsupported artists, it’s misplaced. I’m sorry, but we just don’t need money like organizations that fight poverty and hunger and violence and disease do. If anything, we should be working for them. We must either be satisfied with just putting on plays with our own resources alone, which I think is a perfectly acceptable way of producing theater, or if we produce for the benefit of broader social goals, we need to articulate those goals and create direct and accountable value in our donor’s lives.

This shouldn’t leave us in a quandry or a place where we need to suddenly justify our existence, however. The answer is that we need to do a better job of featuring our people. Your company, after all, is your people, and their talents, and their projects, and their dreams, and their vision. To forget that is to risk losing them, and so instead you fight for them. You fight to keep them, you fight to support them, you wrangle and jostle to provide them with rich opportunities in which they will thrive.

I think the mistake we’ve had to make as theaters, especially mid-sized and small theaters, in the past few decades as we often aimed our ambitions towards national and grand scales is that we largely forgot that “our people” includes our audience. We must embrace our scale and scope and choose to feature them too, not just take their money and tell ourselves “yes, we deserve to take their money.” We must draw them out and be able to say: “this person paid for this set, this prop, this sound design. This person made this happen. And it wasn’t just humble generosity, no, this person has talents and dreams that match ours, and we want you, dear audience, to take this thing we made out of that energy and that support and go and support them, and each other.”

It’s so crazy. Here’s hoping it just works.

This post was brought to you, once again, by E. Hunter Spreen. She is a supporter of this blog and my coffee habit that I would like to draw your attention to. She stopped blogging for a time because she had the H1N1. I hope you will join me in forgiving her for having human limitations and reading her just the same. And after being inspired by her example, I actually put her coffee money towards a brief upcoming mental health break from technology and the city that I love. Cheers, E.

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Fuel needs Oxygen, and Oxygen needs Fuel

December 07, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

Rebecca Zellar of @GreyZeldahas thrown up the Summit on Twitter
Bob Fisher aka the @devilvethas offered to host a small roundtable on how to produce in non-traditional spaces on 1/17 (details coming soon on his blog).
A number of other roundtables are in the works on the topics mentioned in the topics listed below (Jenn Adams [@halcyonjenn] and @MargoGrayare putting together a discussion of women in storefront theatre), and we’re looking for volunteers, facilitators and participants via Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere to help us put together more.
Tony Adams (@Halcyontony) has set up a public Google calendar (ICAL / XML) which you can use to stay on top of ALL the storefront summit breakout meetings. We’ll of course also be setting up Facebook events so that you can bring folks who will thank you for bringing them.

I think my favorite part of the Storefront Theatre Summit this evening was when Don Hall came up to me at the end and suggested that the way to make the conversation really heat up for next time would be: (drum roll)

… to form sub-committees.

Okay, I’m paraphrasing him a bit. But the nice thing was: these small project-based follow up meetings that he, our resident uncle devil’s advocate, suggested … were part of our plan from the beginning.

Generating meaningful conversation in the storefront community is a tall order. In the room tonight we had 25-year-old companies, 10-year-old companies, and 1-year-old companies. We had folks who were looking for help with board development, folks who were looking for collaborators, companies looking for better relationships with venues, companies looking for ways of being a better venue, organizations who were looking to get their services into the use of companies that need them, and folks who didn’t belong to companies at all yet.

So tonight was about discovering more detail of the lay of the land. We started with a simple round of introductions – Who we are, what we’re working on, what we need help on. Then we took a second pass to really focus in on the core of what community collaboration was about – what skills are we missing in our organizations, and what knowledge could we offer each other to make up the difference. This set off a dozen or so mini-conversations about a wide range of subjects, and after New Colony Board member Matt Hoff (our designated note taker for the evening) is done posting the conversation to the facebook page, I think a lot more connections and partnerships are in the works.

I’m believing more and more in this simple recipe for fueling productive collaborative conversation about complex subjects: 1 part comfortable and frank face-to-face meeting, 1 part online follow-up. Too much of either and you don’t get the right kind of explosive force.

The face-to-face isn’t – and can’t be – about accomplishing something in the room & banging it out, but it is about forming real connections, identifying common challenges efficiently, and establishing as much trust, context, and basis for comparison between parties as possible. We’re humans: we need the faces, voices, beer, music, and sense of being in the same boat before we dump that boat in the river that we all need to cross.

Once you have that trust, too much face time will wear the conversation out and create too much pressure for immediate progress. You need convenience, energy, research, and time to develop the ideas. We do that on our own schedules, in our own pockets of opportunity. But as we all have found, starting online doesn’t get things done even faster. You can’t generate alignment, trust, and real group clarity from a conversation in a blog’s comments.

The face to face meeting generates the partnership and the alignment. The online follow-up generates the progress.

I’m looking forward to seeing these companies found themselves, develop strong boards, put on crazy large festivals (I counted four at the table, including the up-and-coming national and international Chicago Fringe Festival), develop unique and richer ways to engage their audience through a blog, learn to raise $5k in a single event, display collective legal force to gain more productive rights agreements with licensing companies, and put up shows with great production values in non-tradtional spaces with zero, nada, zilch budget. These are things we asked for help on from each other – and these are things that folks on this room could help with – if not by a direct hookup, than by tried-and-true plan of action developed from years of experience.

It was an inspiring group of people to speak with.

There was something I needed to hear tonight, and it came from BackStage Artistic Director Matthew Reeder, whose main stated concern was finding methods of preventing burnout. And I realized: that’s what I’m doing this month. I’m not working on shows for the most part, I’m not really running around trying to catch meetings. I feel like a lazy ass. But as a person with adult onset workaholism, finding ways to stay lazy means giving myself an action to play, or I get self-destructive.

Matt, ever the great director, gave me in his plea for help the action I need to play, which is: I am spending this month preventing my own burnout. And self-imposed vacation has suddenly never felt so fun.

I think a lot of the attendees had these little moments of clarity tonight. And so I hope you join us to discuss your goals, skills, and needs online (and format refinements for future summit meetings) and participate in our next regular meeting or one of our subject-oriented smaller meetings, which we’ll be announcing via the Facebook page.

Chicago Storefront Summit III
Sunday January 31st – Evening
Location TBA

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Montage for a Day ruled by Chaos

December 02, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

Yup, been having technical difficulties with the site all day. I have taken one too many forced tea times today while waiting for my computer or the server or the network or the alignment of the planets to behave in some kind of semi-predictable way.

So to celebrate, here’s another piece of bloggy performance art to help voodoo out the bad server daemons. This one is at least in part h/t @greyzelda.

Watch and listen to this at half volume:

While also listening to this:

While watching this:

Remember, you’ll need to start the album when the tiger roars to really get them to sync properly.

This is the sound of a thought.

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New Digs

November 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

It was time to bite the bullet.

Today is the final day of my last two shows of the season, High Holidays at the Goodman and End Days at Next Theatre. To celebrate, I’m officially (and finally) migrating this blog to its permanent home at Welcome.

You *could* update your blogrolls / links / feeds / etc. But I’m hoping that I’ve got these 301 redirects and feedburner settings set up that it should be nice and seamless. I’ll be keeping those redirects up in perpetuity. You were nice enough to link to this site and my articles. The least I could do is reduce your workload.

Let me know in the comments if you notice anything weird.

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Chicago Storefront Theatre Summit II

November 16, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building

Chicago Storefront Theatre SummitYup, it’s here. Or, more accurately, it’s on facebook.

After going through notes for the first storefront theatre summit, we’ve just launched a couple tools to try this whole “let’s all coordinate and meet” thing on for size. If you missed the first summit, December 6th at 7:00 pm at the Dank Haus in Lincoln Square is the next one (feel free to invite other theatre companies – one or two representatives from each theatre company would be ideal), and we hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Why facebook? Because we all use it. Why build something new when we can just build off what we already have?

A couple resources on there that are worth a look:

1) Regular Meetings as coordinated by Facebook Events. One of the biggest pieces of feedback generated by the first summit was that there is a desire for regular meetings among the storefront community – if nothing else, just to see what each other is working on. They’ll likely be set on a monthly or bi-monthly basis at this second meeting, and then will be reminded by a Facebook Event.

2) Notes. Whit Nelson has compiled notes and thoughts from the first summit, and a discussion board has been set up to take a community crack at some challenging questions. This is the online arm of the discussion – the face to face will also help us more quickly work through and build trust and alliance, but the discussion boards is where vast amounts of research and experience can be compiled – and read by folks new to town. Do those resources exist elsewhere? Absolutely. But this is where they can be digested for a young storefront theatre to more quickly align themselves with existing support infrastructures, such as the DCA, the League of Chicago Theatres, Chicago Artists Resource, and other storefronts.

There’s still a lot of ‘getting to know you’ work to be done here – while the blogging community pretty much understands where each other are coming from, there’s a dozen or so disconnected companies that we could hear more from. These questions (‘what are your best resources?’, ‘what are your biggest challenges’) are designed to help pry open the procedures and identities of all these theatres so that conversation can be fruitful for all.

3) Friends and Fans. These are the folks, folks. We need to know who each other are for this conversation to be really productive. Oh look, someone built that for us. Theatres who participate will be ‘fanned’ by the storefront summit page, and individuals will be on there as well. People to meet, Theatre to see.

See you December 6th!

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The Man Who Was Thursday: Web Edition

November 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Shows

On Nov. 7, Bilal Dardai and I had some fun live-tweeting THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY at New Leaf. Bilal provided the commentary, and I backed him up with a live stream of media – video, audio, and static images.

This is our first crack at packaging the byproducts of theatre – the DVD extras, so to speak – to maximize our creative exposure to an online audience. I’m interested to know what you think of the results. Obviously we didn’t publicize this event very much… it was more a proof of concept. The question is: are there pieces here that hook you to see the show, or that hook you to delve further into what we do at New Leaf, and what are they?

You can check out the full broadcast (with some additional commentary!) on Bilal’s blog.

Here’s some highlights:

New Leaf, 8:03pm: Brian Rooney prepares for his role as the Marquis RT @bilaldWill be updating from dressing room.

Bilal, 8:04pm: Sean Fawcett (Sunday) threatened to spend the first 30 minutes of this show staring at me blankly.

New Leaf: Sean Fawcett will eat your soul.

Bilal, 8:30pm: Tidbit: the secret knock Gregory uses to access the anarchists’ chamber is that 10-note royalty phrase you always hear to signify “England.” First time I heard it, I thought it was the opening beat to the Rose Royce disco classic “Car Wash.”

New Leaf:

Bilal, 8:37pm: @jesshutchinson‘s short-hand for this underground anarchists’ meeting is “JV (Junior Varsity) Council.”

Bilal, 8:41pm: The line “Order! Order, anarchists, order!” is one of the funniest lines in the play. And I wish I’d been the one who’d written it.

Bilal, 9:11pm: Just walked into side hallway and saw Ted Evans (Saturday) rocking from side to side, reciting his lines next to the ghost light. Creepy.

New Leaf: This album just rocks for Spy intrigue.

Bilal, 9:24pm: Meanwhile, Nick Mikula is setting up a lot of very large dominoes in front of the dressing room door.

New Leaf: We were going to ask what Nick Mikula was up to right about now.

Bilal, 10:00pm: I recently described @nhburger’s “Monday” voice as being that of the curator of the snootiest art gallery in hell.

New Leaf: Right about now, it is necessary for Monday and Tuesday to form an alliance. This is how they do it.

New Leaf, 10:14pm: Lyrics get progressively more tongue in cheek as show goes on: THURSDAY is @nickkeenan’s tribute to Baz Luhrman. ♫

Bilal, 10:15pm: Tidbit: One of the lines in the picnic monologues about Sunday is scavenged from a college poem I wrote about a girl who broke my heart.

Bilal, 10:32 pm: Two of the lines in this rewritten final scene are deliberate and snarky jabs at Chesterton’s actual ending. I’m a baaaaad boy. End of Play, Great Job, All!

New Leaf:

The Man Who Was Thursday is now running through November 21st, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm. I mention that because: We are very close to selling out the rest of the run. I’m looking forward to discussing why we think that happened. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and you haven’t seen it and you still want to, reserve your tickets now, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Speaking of theatrical byproducts that are worth another look, have you heard our Treehouse podcasts at New Leaf? We’re finding and commissioning new plays, and recording podcasts of them. You can download them. On iTunes. For Free. Or join us at New Leaf every month for another live reading. For Free. Let me know what you think.

This post brought to you by Ana Lucia Novak, who bought me some coffee. Actually, do you know where that coffee money really goes? Paypal. Which means I use it to buy speakers. Like the two beautiful JF60s I bought for New Leaf that are used in Thursday. So thanks: Your donations make my own sticker shock greatly diminished.

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Theatrical Play-doh Fun Factory

November 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

This past week, I had five shows open at the same time. So that was fun.

As they start to close down, I’m delightfully surprised how other thoughts are popping into my head other than “OH GOD WORK OH GOD EAT OH GOD WORK OH GOD sleee… NO! GOD!”

For instance, something that is probably broken inside me told me to jump in on the (continuing) discussion on Playgoer about micing actors – now in straight plays – and what it means for the future of theater. It’s something I think about a lot as I mix microphones and other sounds at work, but that doesn’t entirely explain why I’m arguing a) to limit my employment opportunities for the good of all and b) why storefront theatre is financially destined to supersede big box theatre. If I was to be honest with myself, we’re oh so very not ready to make that conclusion yet.

But here’s the argument for it anyway.

On the one side is CLJ’s “good” or transparent sound – sound that is properly delayed and sourced to the actor using the principle known as the Haas effect – (look it up). It is truly convincing, so much so that we as engineers often get asked why we’re not amplifying the actors – when we are. On the other hand is over-amplified sound that makes actors sound like they’re breathing like walruses hanging from the giant center cluster in the grid. That’s not helping anyone push the art forward. And there are gradients in between, and times when over-amplification is the aesthetic goal.

The biggest question for me is sustainability. Both transparent and non-transparent sound have a problem – it’s horrendously expensive to body mic people, and I’m worried that the format of the 1,000 seat theatre is getting less popular. I’ve seen shows easily spend around a half-million to a million dollars to get that sound right – and they need to hire one of the probably a couple dozen sound designers who can effectively design on that scale in a transparent way. I’m talking in the united states. How is that ever going to work?

I wonder if the solution here isn’t an embracing of theatricality. The audience often thinks they want loudness when they actually want clarity. I’m coming from an environment (Chicago) where our best selling theatre is in an increasing number of smaller and smaller houses. The intimacy helps clarity of both sound and performance, and not at a great expense. The quality of the experience improves.

It’s very true – the old methods of vocal projection were born out of necessity, required skill and craft, and we miss those things, and we shouldn’t forget them. Nor should we mistake them for better days. Large houses and big voices engendered a style of acting that clearly communicated to the audience – but became outmoded as technology changed. Look at the difference in acting styles between the silent movie era and the talkies – huge differences brought on by a slight shift in technology. We’re seeing that shift again as the technology has lept forward in the last ten years, but I think our response isn’t as creative – we’re somehow still pursuing the naturalistic realism of what – Miller? nah, that’d be fooling ourselves- when we could be using sound in the theater to further illuminate the human condition. And again, louder does not necessarily equal more illuminating.

The question isn’t how to hang on to old methodologies – it’s how to embrace new capabilities in pursuit of a human truth.

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Bad Form: Cirque Marketing Dept. slips on its own banana

October 30, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

This morning, several Chicago theater bloggers received a robotic love note from the representatives of Cirque du Soleil, who are opening a show in town that I’m only going to wryly allude to. Because I’m insulted.

Chloe Steve (great use of two first names!) writes in my comments:

Its a great idea.I also take immense joy in sharing with you that Cirque du soleil is in Chicago now………It should be great……..

As actual journalist™ Kris Vire gumshoed a few minutes later after HE got a similar comment on his blog, Chloe appears to be a hired hand posting from India.

Now, I would LOVE to have an actual conversation with Chloe “If that is your real name” Steve about Cirque and the intersection of Chicago and south asian theater. That would be cool, and there’s actually an annual precedent for such a conversation.

And indeed my beef is not with the hired hands. It’s with the promoter, and it’s with folks who would look at their numbers and judge the success of their marketing efforts based on butts in seats and nothing else. What encourages me about the emerging style of DIY arts marketing emerging in Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and now most notably Baltimore is that it is based on real connection and rich conversation instead of mechanical SEO mumbo-jumbo. It is becoming the art and science of nurturing long-term relationships with your audience instead of cynically treating tickets purchased like a widget that you manufacture.

This is a letter of encouragement I sent to one of my web clients yesterday as they launched their website and thus their marketing campaign for a product they’re selling:

Keyword choices should more or less be happening in your copy, which google pays much more attention to than in your meta keywords. Your copy is already rich in keywords like *blonk*, *sploit*, *aWOOOGA!*, etc. So that’s a good start!

The most effective method of increasing SEO for your site that we’ve found at Marshall Creative will be more challenging for you as a developer of state of the art products – the biggest weight that google gives to a site is when trusted sites link or refer to content on your site. This can be achieved by 1) identifying what the trusted online neighborhoods in your industry are and 2) engaging those neighborhoods in content-rich dialogue as a part of your day-to-day marketing behavior. The more you can engage other blogs as a commenter (or even in some cases twittering thought leaders in your industry), or media outlets as an expert, the more likely those sites will choose to feature content links to your site. As you accrue those connections: Bam. Your site results surge forward in all your major keywords. This isn’t a question of just getting people to link to you in your sidebar – you want the right people TALKING about you online.

And sometimes in other odd keywords, as well. It’s not an exact science – at times it can be like drinking from an intermittent firehose. Thanks to this post on my personal blog, I have somehow become very high in google’s results for hog butchering. Luckily, I also have pretty good results in things I ACTUALLY do as well.

See that? Marketing theater is about talking about MORE THAN THEATER, and saying more than just “Chicago theater is awesome. This show is awesome.” In what specific ways is it awesome? For crying out loud, this is DYING for some creativity here. It’s about connecting the dots from the show to the subject, or the creators, or the sheer weight of the craft that goes in to Cirque’s production of [name omitted]. Think about the genius of Redmoon’s Golden Truffle. It’s a show… and a truffle tasting. And they’re truly integrated experiences. Nothing feels awkward or forced about it, and bam: You have brought an entirely new market segment into your theater. Cirque is better than this.

The really sad thing is that before this, I had a really great story pitch that I could offer to Cirque. You see, Cirque (along with the Mouse) was one of the forces that developed LCS (Level Control Systems), the top-of-the-line sound control system that we use at the Goodman. If qLab is the efficient and affordable Prius of sound control, LCS is the crazy expensive but completely configurable James Bond-mobile, and it’s quite useful with complex sound systems used by, well, Cirque, the Mouse, the Goodman, and several Broadway in Chicago shows (duh nuh nuh nuh! snap snap). The story of LCS, (now renamed D-Mitri after being aquired by top-of-the-line audio manufacturer Meyer Sound) is almost as incredible as what it is capable of, but you won’t hear that story, or the story of mad genius sound designer Jonathan Deans or any of his brilliant apprentices, because instead we get “Chicago theater is great! Including Cirque.”

Dissapointing, isn’t it? If the marketing of a show with a budget this large is this disappointing, well then I’m sure the show will be too.

And to all those who got spammed by cirque: Boycott. Boycott. Boycott. Don’t review, Don’t Go. Until the marketing department changes their ways.

(photo by NitaKang)

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