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Archive for the ‘Butts in Seats’

Resource Sharing in Theatrical Communities

January 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Community Building, CTDB

The League of Chicago Theaters brings up the big issue itself today on their blog: Is Chicago Theater ready and willing to share resources for the overall health of the community?

As you could probably figure out from the comments, I’ve been thinking about this question and how to break down the natural resistance to the idea of sharing resources for about as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Here’s some of the misconceptions about theaters working together – some which I think I’ve actually perpetuated through my cheerleading – and the reality of what I’ve seen so far:

MISCONCEPTION 1 – Sharing Resources takes money.
Almost never (or if it does, we’re talking about minor administrative costs like the cost of web hosting.) One easy way to break up any relationship, whether it’s between two people or two organizations, is to get financially entangled before you’re ready for a permanent committment. Fundraising in particular is one place that I think will likely never be a shared resource between theaters, since it has the potential to make us so cagey as collaborators. Resource sharing is about recycling and reusing energies that are already being spent to help conserve future energy. Any project that requires money to conserve money – like say, a shared storage facility – should probably be set up as an independent and self-sufficient body with its own community-serving mission.

One area in particular with the money discussion worries me on a gut level – too often the discussion of collaborative projects turns to funding the project before the real needs and mission of the projects are fleshed out. Remember that both government and corporate forces tend to take action with money rather than the more non-profit actions of dialogue, initiatives, and begging for money from governments and corporate forces to be able to do the right thing. When we’re talking about funds on the community level for things like arts centers or programs, there is a great need to have the organizations doling out those funds to be overseen by the community and be accountable to public transparency. This is going to matter a lot when we start talking about Community Development Block Grants and how they are administered. I think we’ve all seen what an arts boondoggle looks like, and I think given the history of NEA funding in this country, it’s important to be more demonstrably responsible with all public and donated funds than the arts have been in the past. In my opinion, that means investing in growth infrastructure — rather than new buildings with people’s names on them, it means creating new ticketing systems, experimental programs that generate money over time, and new partnerships that connect new audiences to the art and connect the arts to the needs of those audiences.

MISCONCEPTION 2 – Theaters and individuals want to share resources.
In practice, theaters and the individuals that make them up are ready to participate in programs like this, but they tend to be resistant to actually setting them up. The fact is, collaboration is a lot of work and creating programs of the scale we’re talking about require first collecting a great deal of input, then processing that input into a proposed program, and then getting notes about that proposal and gently shaping and shepherding the program through its launch and early use. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s just like putting on a play, and just like plays, you can have a resource sharing program that responds to its audience and one that operates independantly in a bubble and goes nowhere. While theaters and individuals want to share resources, their primary goal – at least right now – is to fuel their own artistic agenda by asking for help.

I think this document may change that. Americans for the Arts and the Obama administration are already engaged in a very high-level dialogue about specific leveraged programs that they want to see implemented. These are all programs that could have a huge effect on the way the arts relates to the American people, and I highly encourage you to read and react to them.

MISCONCEPTION 3 – Theaters are too busy to share resources.
This one is so very close to true. Since theater tends to occupy that place in our lives reserved for obsessive hobbies, most people engaged in theater have literally five minutes of spare time that they often reserve for things like… sleep. Or combing one’s hair on a regular basis. Initiating a resource sharing program often means investing time in getting to know other theaters and how other theaters work, seeing if the two theaters are a good fit and where overlap occurs. I’d say we’re already talking about five hours of high-level discussions that get to the core of our theater operations before any benefit can even be proposed. I get that.

Here’s where the time crunch is moot, though: The entire idea of sharing resources should lead to discussions and partnerships that almost immediately enrich the skill sets of each theater. Let’s say one theater has a great production department, and the other theater knows how to market shows like nobody’s business. By discussing operations, comparing notes, and making some resources available to other companies, you make your own company more equipped to make quick innovations.

I’ve seen this work on the ground: New Leaf and the Side Project have been engaging in various types of resource sharing for three years, often through me since I’m a company member with both theaters. This is at times hugely time consuming and draining for me, it’s true. However, look at the mutual benefits that these theaters have generated for each other in the past year:

New Leaf –
– Needed seating risers for Touch to achieve specific sightlines. Side Project runs two spaces, and loaned them.
– Needed cheap rehearsal space over the holiday season. The Side Project, which owns space in Rogers Park, didn’t have tenants during that time.

The Side Project –
– Needed talented designers and stage managers for the huge and all-consuming Cut to the Quick Festival – New Leaf is well-connected to the design and technical world in Chicago and recently worked with newcomer SM Amanda Frechette to hone her rehearsal and performance management skills in the context of storefront theater. Designers, technicians, and run crew hired.
– The Side Project doesn’t have a large production department, and technical projects often need to be postponed based on company energy. New Leaf restored, reinforced, and repainted the aging seating risers in exchange for their use, which both companies needed to do anyway.

Both companies –
Have participated in a program ad exchange for several years. That’s cake. On a more human level, we’re often committed to each other’s work… New Leaf’s artists talk about the side project a lot and vice versa. This is the most basic kind of visceral marketing: The two companies care enough about each others’ work to see it, evaluate it, and recommend audiences go see the good stuff elsewhere and we work to feed the other company more talent when we uncover a weak spot.

The individuals in both theaters –
– Get to work more closely together and increase the number of opportunities they have. New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski directed a show in the Cut to the Quick Festival after collaborating in the companies’ relationship, and the aforementioned Amanda Frechette got to network her way into her second Chicago theater relationship. You might not like the word ‘networking,’ but the action itself still can be exciting, challenging, and nourishing to the work.

– Learned new skills. To date, I have trained members in both companies how to use graphics programs, email blasting software, and even running a facebook page. I have learned so much about press relations, an area I’m particularly sketchy in, by watching Side Project Artistic Director Adam Webster, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post. That’s just me… I’d wager the simple act of collaborating on a granular level in both artistic and administrative duties has taught each individual in both companies dozens of valuable skills.

MISCONCEPTION 4 – Resource Sharing is a no-brainer. We’ve gotta do it.
There are a few potentially disastrous pitfalls to a relationship of resource sharing like this.

One is imbalance. When you’re talking about resources that aren’t as quantifiable as money, there can be disagreement and hurt feelings about the relative worth of what each party puts in. As I say on the League blog, I think the way to most effectively short circuit this natural human response to being screwed or used is to encourage a sense of ownership and participation in the community itself rather than individual companies.

The other is lack of traction. You can create the smartest resource sharing strategy in the world, but if you don’t get people to sign up and buy in, it ain’t worth nothing. I can say this with some level of certainty, as the Chicago Theater Database is absolutely in this teetering zone here, and I think most people with their eye on it are aware of that possibility. Either it takes off, or the time invested isn’t worth the results.

Early in the history of this blog, the incredible programmer Chris Ashworth (creator of qLab audio playback software) wrote in the comments:

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.

Words to live by.

This post was sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee required to write this post. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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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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