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Archive for December, 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.

READ THE WHOLE PLAN

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

UPDATE:
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.

SAVE THE DATE
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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