Theater For The Future

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

Buzzwords of Doom

November 10, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, productivity

picture-1.png“Community Culture, Online Collaboration, Web 2.0, oh my!”

I think a lot of theater artists hear enough of this crap in our day jobs, and by the time they get to places at 8:00 pm and when they take the spotlight or hit that go button, they embody that force in the world that wants to smash corporate culture and servers back into the stone age. We scream, “feel something HUMAN, dammit!”

And alas, in that moment we miss the boat.

I just read an interesting summary of the current corporate-sector debate about Web 2.0 technologies and how exactly to implement them from Regina Miller at Future Tense. (Are they the dawning of the age of the aquarius? Are they another stock market crash in the making?) I think of this standoff between IT professionals and the corporate culture marketers (yeah, I know you’ve got it at work too) as similar to the self-supporting tension between theater technicians and artistic management.

We need each other, and we need to work together, but boy is there some unnecessary disrespect that gets flung around between us.

Here’s what’s going on, as far as I can see: Technical folk live with this technology, they eat and breathe and sleep it, and get REALLY flustered when they come in contact with folk who see it as external – even unessential – to a collaborative environment. (“For crying out loud we could work from HOME in our UNDERWEAR while we play XBOX!”) So flustered that they often become seriously unhelpful and uncollaborative, thus negating the value of whatever easy snazzy collaboration tool they were developing.

Want an example of such an impenetrable world-changing tool? Sure, I can dig one up.

This one comes from the workdesk of one of my Chicago Sound Design forefathers, Mr. Ben Sussman, long time engineer and arranger to composer Andre Pluess (and who I think got snatched up by Google recently). In between Jeff-award winning designs, He quite literally wrote the book on a new programming collaboration tool called subversion. Go ahead, try and read it. Even with pretty graphical explanations featuring little fluffy white clouds labeled “Ye Olde Internet,” you maybe understand 35% of what the hell is going on.

This is the language and collaborative world that the technical folk live and breathe in. They take for granted – in this case – that you know that CVS is a ubiquitous if flawed online collaboration framework for programmers, not that place where you can get your prescriptions filled. Like any speakers of a language, they take for granted that you’re fairly fluent. In my own work, I throw more acronyms around than a can of alphabet soup.

For technicians, this new language and vocabulary we build is useful and efficient. If we don’t share knowledge of how technologies can be used, we can’t say things like “Hey, can you register the globals on that php class and update the version control so that I can freaking FTP my localization preferences already?” and getting things done takes a LOT more time.

Marketers and Management in the corporate sector have a similar acronymble language developed for the feel-good world of institutional culture and branding. The language is sky-high with hope and inclusiveness and leveragable words that can mean anything and everything to anyone and everyone. (“Let’s get Actualized!”) It has to be in that inspirational world for so many hours out of the day that the technical folk on the ground can look at it be tempted to call it all BS. They look at the dreams and audacious goals and immediately start thinking about all the long hours they’re going to have to pull to get that pile of crap DONE.

These two groups need to train each other a bit, which gets painful, because they are both masters of a different art. When a technician’s dreams take into account the dreams of his colleagues, wonderful things happen. When a manager’s gameplan for success includes practical input on implementation, the path to success gets cleared faster.

I think Regina’s recipe for a “Change Management” team has many applications for theater. I’ve always thought that creating a unified online dynamic document – accessible and editable by all – is the fastest route to coordinating the huge challenges of scheduling and volunteer labor that is involved in mounting a storefront show. Nearest and dearest to my heart is a well-rehearsed and accessible production timeline. If a company can create – and regularly update – a cohesive and centralized to do list (say on a wiki or online forum, or even on a dry erase board at the space), tasks can be shared and people who are getting burnt out can get relief. Knowledge becomes shared – and remembered.

This only works, however, when the entire company can come together and learn to work as a collective. For some reason, arts management becomes a top-down structure again with a couple really overworked individuals serving as Managing Director or Artistic Director, or holy crap, both. We relearn to collaborate on every show that we do, it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for theater artists to learn to collaborate in our project management styles, and implement a single collaboration strategy within a company that works for everyone.

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2 Comments to “Buzzwords of Doom”

  1. I’m interested in how we find the line that separates the useful tools from the tools that produce more work than they save.

    I’m inclined to think that starting with the whiteboard (i.e. always doing the simplest thing first, and the next simplest thing second) is the sanest way to try to ease our way up to that line without turning people off from the whole thing.

    Which I suppose is another way of saying that the problem should drive the solution rather than having a solution (“web 2.0″) in search of a problem.

    It’s a really interesting question, and I am enjoying reading your thoughts on it.

  2. Fantastic approach to the problem, Chris, and qLab certainly has succeeded in its powerful simplicity based on that philosophy. While I hack away at the advanced search feature soon to be introduced to, I’m certainly hitting my head over programming complexities and digressions my younger, dumber self took in program development six months ago.

    As I like to say, often, “Damn you, Nick of the Past!”

    I like your whiteboard approach a lot, and I think there’s a lot of uses for that kind of clarified approach within collaborative organizations on both a machine level and a human level.

    This approach also made me start thinking about user feedback and ‘feature creep’ – that thing that happens when critics show up and you start to shape the work based on their perceived problems. This seems to be the phase where many folks manning the whiteboard get lost in a sea of competing needs – but rejecting all the user feedback would also make the tool (or theater company) irrelevant.

    I’ve argued to several people in the past few years buying sound systems that Stage Research took this last road a few years ago – they became a bit overwhelmed and decided they were done and stopped trying to fix user’s problems. As a result, I find SFX less relevant to the art of sound design than it was ten (jesus!) years ago.

    Like any project, a web tool or program (or for that matter, a theater company) in development really needs to be guided by leader or a collaborative team, who becomes responsible for analyzing user feedback (which can be very noisy!) and keeping the eye on the ball – which is the perceived problem that the project was started to fix. The perceived problem also has to be treated like a living and breathing thing – because it is. In the field, and in reality, new situations crop up and old solutions need to adapt.

    I have found that everything that we do, every project, needs a mission statement. A call to action that’s big and brash and focused. “Make sound design accessible to new artists” or “Make finding a job or employee easy, quick and free.” That mission statement is always so helpful in creating that clarity that you’re talking about, and keeping the project in focus while facing the unknown tidal wave of other human beings that will experience and use it.

    Build it better, all that. Oh, and Bravo, Mr. Ashworth.


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