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A Year of Ideas into Action

January 01, 2012 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, projects, Teachable Moments, Uncategorized

There came a point, sometime during the Chicago TCG conference over a year ago, where I decided to go all in, where talking about building a better future for theater was not enough.  Maybe it was big audacious calls to action from folks like Chris Ashworth or the 2amt crowd.  If the purpose of a blog is to investigate your own ideas, internally, and then maybe others can benefit from them, I felt like I had completed a couple rounds of writing about the same challenges facing theatre and needed a completely new set of experiences to draw from.  As the slogan for the TCG conference said:  Ideas into action.

In the time between that moment and now, I did some stuff.  And now I’m finally beginning to process it.

May 2010 – Taking the Leap from Goodman.
I began owning up to a few facts.  I’m good at building and supporting ensembles, and I was not satisfied with the life I had chosen for myself as a full-time theatre technician and artist.  I had worked at the Goodman Theatre as a sound engineer, which both paid my bills and served as advanced training in collaboration, theatre operations, and programming.  At the same time that I was running about five to six shows a year, I was also designing about 15 – 20, and at a certain point running shows was no longer the source of wonder and excitement that had drawn me to it in the first place.  After mixing a Broadway-bound musical (Million Dollar Quartet) to prove I could do it and see if I felt fulfilled by it, I knew that my interests were increasingly in design, web work, and the leadership that goes, and that meant finding or building a leadership position.

September 2010 – Marshall Creative goes full-time.
One of the central problems I have (and I share this with most theatre folks I know) is it’s not second nature to value my own time and expertise enough.  The saturated labor market does this to us, and when you apply the ancillary skills you develop when running a theatre company or two to another position, you suddenly realize you’re a creative manager who can deliver on deadline.  So:  very valuable.  An ensemble of theatre creatives – myself, Sandy Marshall (of Schadenfreude and Second City), my wife Marni (New Leaf Theatre’s production manager), Bilal Dardai (playwright and content writer extraordinare of the Neo-Futurists), Dan Granata (another accomplished theatre programmer of Chicago), Brad Dunn (of Metropolis Performing Arts Center), and for a time permalance graphic designer Steven Lyons (of Impress These Apes and currently enjoying a stint in a Second City revue on a boat somewhere in international waters) – went all in with this idea.  Right about the time this blog went dormant (last labor day) we opened up shop for a uniquely theatre- and comedy- powered agency, Marshall Creative, in an office downtown near the Merchandise Mart, with me first in the role of Chief Operations Officer and then focusing tighter on the Chief Technology Officer role.  Our work is in the areas of content creation, branding, and the technological support platforms that serve that content, our clients began in the arts and financial fields and quickly expanded through referrals into real estate,  health care, nutrition, and deeper into the arts.  In exchange for our using our creative powers, we generate full time salaries and benefits that are compatible with theatrical side projects – creating a lifestyle in a way that we can own and call the shots on.  While building any business is all-consuming for the first few years, Marshall Creative has the potential to let us create sustainable lifestyles with the freedom to exercise our creative and technical muscles by day.   And with several theatrical clients including Black Box Acting Studio (and some other big ones in the works), we’re still building technology that serves the theatrical community.

New Leaf – Sound Design leads to Producing
While my Sound Design career continues on, it became clear to me that my work is better when I have a strong relationship with my collaborators, and that led to me greatly focusing my work to a smaller number of projects that I invest more time in.  In particular, my artistic home of New Leaf Theatre has been the beneficiary of this attention as we produced a few ambitious projects and explored new directions for the company in the past few years, including laying down the technology foundations behind a more concerted audience development campaign.  While New Leaf has a reputation for quality productions and production values, it also has one of the smallest budgets in Chicago theatre, largely due to the institutional knowledge of its producing ensemble, equipment inventory, and great rent arrangements with its home venue.  That said, marketing and audience development remain huge challenges for the company, and ones that we must, must, must improve in the coming years if we want to continue to take pride in our work.  After all, what good is theatre if the audience isn’t there to share it?  That question is one I have started bringing, for better and worse, into my every sound design process of the past few years.  After all, we’re fighting for our work, our voice, and our ability to change people’s lives with a story, and we have this tendency to fool ourselves into achieving less than that.

December 2010 – Organizational Partnerships – Ranalli’s and Preservation Chicago
To that end, one of New Leaf’s initiatives in the past few years – led by our brilliant, fearless and intrepid Managing Director Eleanor Hyde – was to use our theatrical storytelling skills to their greatest benefit by partnering with other companies and organizations to mutually solve our company goals (an initiative we laid out on the New Leaf blog in December 2009).  Last December, we struck a deal with our after-show bar, Rocco Rannalli’s in Lincoln Park, to perform an in-restaurant off-night holiday show penned by our most frequent playwright collaborator, Bilal Dardai.  The result was Redeemers - a modern riff on the story of Bob Cratchit and Mr. Scrooge as told in a modern-day corporate holiday party.  The result was also a huge amount of off-night business for Rocco Ranalli’s in exchange for a free space.  We struck a similar partnership up with Preservation Chicago and performed an intimate reading of  our 2007 hit The Dining Room for a group of donors in the historic Glessner House museum in the Prarie District of the near south side of Chicago.  That fundraiser cemented new relationships with donors for both Preservation Chicago and New Leaf, and exposed us to a new audience who shared our love for unique spaces and architecture – people who love the stories hidden in the walls and delighted in seeing them come alive.  This kind of initiative is probably the most both artistically and financially successful program New Leaf has generated, and its the model I most hope gets picked up by others.  Because it’s easy and great for all involved once you get the hang of it.

2010 – 2011 New Works – Treehouse
In the spirit of seeing a problem and then working to fix it, Artistic Director Jessica Hutchinson brought on New Leaf’s Literary Director, Josh Sobel, and together they launched a unique reading series, New Leaf’s Treehouse, a program that focuses on “play polishing.”  For the past few seasons, New Leaf has opened a call of submissions for plays on a particular theme (for instance this year is all about “Critical Mass”) that are looking for their second reading and getting pushed forward in the development process.  Our plays are read with our audience in house, and then processed using a uniquely active talkback in which the audience gets on their feet, playing a kind of thematic battleship in which reactions and resonances are explored as a group.  Then, out of the slate of six treehouse plays, we produce one of them.  Yeah.  Again, we go all in.  In the last few years, our world premiere productions of Lighthousekeeping and Burying Miss America have both been products of Treehouse development.  In addition, we’ve helped develop some gems like Idris Goodwin’s old school hip-hop coming-of-age story How We Got On, which was picked up by Victory Gardens and is now slated for production at the Humana Festival.  Much of Treehouse is also available for internet consumption on New Leaf’s Treehouse Podcast.  After all, most of these plays are ready for production in other markets other than Chicago.

Lighthousekeeping
Our first foray into the downtown DCA storefront space was a leap of faith for New Leaf.  We brought an untested world premiere play (a new adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s post-modern, kaleidoscopic tale of an orphan girl who learned to shape her splintering world with story) into a space with a larger palette gave our producing ensemble a unique opportunity to show what we are capable of in a large format – a story of what it means to hold on to childhood flights of fancy as we grow up and shape a new life for ourselves.  I am still fiercely proud of this story about storytelling in particular in New Leaf’s canon.  I helped to bring the play into the world by encouraging my friend, playwright Georgette Kelly, into the Treehouse fold and introducing her to a creative partnership with Jess Hutchinson and New Leaf, pouring most of my creative energies into sound designing it (all 450 cues), producing it with our company of seven, and creating and spreading marketing materials in the corners of time left over.  In the end, it gave us the opportunity to answer a question that we had always asked ourselves – what would New Leaf look like in a space with more resources and flexibility?

Choose your own extension
One of the advantages of being small is that you can take crazy risks and share those ideas with others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to learn from the experience.  In our case, we had availability to extend Burying Miss America – with not even much else in the way of rent – but were faced with the common problem of not knowing if we’d be able to get the word out in time to have any audience actually show up for an extension.  In the end, we put it to a vote, encouraging audience members and their friends to vote for a slate of show times.  If any particular slated performance got enough votes, we’d do an additional extension performance for that day and time.  This was the right kind of ownership for our audience – this encouraged people who were otherwise going to miss the show to help us promote it.  And it also made our jobs easier in deciding whether an extension was a good idea or not.  In the end, there weren’t enough votes to extend, which ultimately was a success for the program.  While the show received rave reviews, it also performed in the middle of a packed fall season in the midst of a down economy.  We were able to hear what our audience wanted.

What’s Next?
2012 began today, and while 2011 was a big year of earth-moving change in my life, 2012 promises to be more so.  We have begun to taste the fruits of our labor at Marshall, and we have a lot of dreams yet to turn into reality.  I know with absolute certainty that with the group of people that I’m working with, that they are the right dreams to be working on.

While I’ve been happily tapped with these new creative and productive outlets, it means that my writing here will continue to be intermittent.  That said, I promise a couple things:

This year I will continue my work to make things better and bring new ideas and innovations that help us spend our creative energies more wisely in theatre – to focus on art while covering artistic management.

I will make sure I can sustain myself and my artistic family so that we can continue to make things better.  Thank you all for the coffees over the years.  It’s been an amazing show of support.

Let’s make it more awesome this year.  Shall we?

 

 

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4 Comments to “A Year of Ideas into Action”


  1. John Jughead Pierson says:

    Wow, just keep on keeping on Jedi Warrior.  That’s all I gotta say and I wanted to say something.  Cuz the amount of work you been doing deserves a Star Wars reference combined with a 70′s bumper sticker.

    1
  2. That is the greatest prize one can hope for, sir.  Thanks.

    2
  3. Wow – thanks for the update Nick – it seems like it’s been a busy and wonderfully fulfilling time. May it continue in 2012!

    3
  4. Extremely proud of all your accomplishments

    4


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