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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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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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Theatrical El Nino

September 27, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, projects

One apparent result of Chicago theaters’ collective reactions of the economic climate change was to predictably shift rehearsals away from August and December to reduce overhead during those budget-sapping months, which resulted in a massive glut of show openings that began about two weeks ago and will continue pretty much unabated through November.

I feel lucky that the four shows I’m working on in various stages this week are all awesome.

  • Stoop Stories – Goodman (two performances today!)
  • Lucinda’s Bed – Chicago Dramatists (cueing this morning!)
  • The Man Who Was Thursday – New Leaf (finalizing cue list!)
  • End Days – Next Theatre (first rehearsal this week!)

Here is one of them for you.

(and yes… this is also a reminder: Come talk to me about what your theatre wants to do for a video for Theatre-a-day, and help spread the word that we are looking for a video mini-feature from EVERY theatre in Chicago – one a day until June. The countdown will begin when we can put together 20 videos to start us off.

In the works for that project: Stage Channel and several theatres including New Leaf are offering support in the form of training, flip cam usage, and other resources. Details coming soon.

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A Challenge: Chicago-Theater-A-Day

September 20, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building

So perhaps you haven’t heard yet:

The TCG National Conference is coming to Chicago in 269 days (as of this post).

At the recent host committee planning session at the League of Chicago Theatres for Chicago’s contribution to the festivities (many many cool events, opportunities, and ideas are in the works for all sizes of theaters, and we’ll need your help putting them together) someone made a pretty simple observation: 269 is approximately the number of active theaters in Chicago.

So someone else threw out the idea: What if we created a youtube channel, and featured a video of a Chicago Theater each day until the conference? 3-5 minutes, something that gets at the heart of what makes each individual theater unique. Like the World Theater Day Tumblr feed, those videos then become a living document of all kinds of information and voices in the Chicago scene. As the TCG Conference makes plans to arrive in Chicago, they’re also getting a really accurate cross-section of the full breadth of Chicago Theater – yes, the Goodmans and Steppenwolfs, but also the Timelines, the Griffins, the WNEPs, the Steeps, the Ruckuses and the Factories. Take this video from the Neo-Futurists, which sums up nicely the energy contained in their shows:

So I put it to you Chicago: Can we make this happen? Can your theater put together a low-investment, quick and dirty feature video that perhaps communicates the content of your work, or the communities that you serve – the heart of what makes your theater exciting and unique? Maybe this video is something you can put together quickly, maybe it’s a clip of something you’ve already made, maybe it’s a 5-miniute flip cam video (I promise you: you know someone who has one. We’ve got three.)

Here’s what I see as the potential benefits of this project:

  • Create More, Think Less.
    Translating the energy of live performance or the way we put live performances together to the video format takes a certain amount of creativity. It’s super-easy to not do it well, and like anything, it takes practice, and takes a strong conceptual impulse to do right. As someone whose theater has gotten a lot of mileage out of a low-cost trailer video, I can tell you it’s a good skill to develop if you want to have an audience, no matter what kind of marketing budget you have. It doesn’t need to be polished – though it can be if that’s your identity – it needs to simply communicate who you are and what you do and what it’s like to be there.
  • It’s an effective visual census
    I have this nagging doubt that one of our biggest challenges as a theater community in Chicago (though the problem is shared by other theater communities) is that each theater, especially small theaters, has a delusion of uniqueness. Yes, of course we are unique – we’re different collectives of artists, with different resources and interests – but we are often off the mark when we try to pin down and communicate WHY we are unique. It’s clear to me after the past few years that data alone isn’t enough to convince us of this. Of the seventeen-or-so new companies out there this year, even in a post-Rob Kozlowski/CTDB world – I’m still seeing a predictable amount of repetition of purpose, mission, positioning, and communications. (Don’t feel bad if I singled you out here – you’re so very not alone. But… fix it.) There is a lot of “we are going to change the entire world. Through theater.” But as we all learned in our first acting class: Show Us instead of Telling Us. Putting our faces and our work out there in a public, shareable format lets us collect and really see ourselves and what we are really capable of creating in a greater context, and releases us from the temptation of hiding behind shiny words. It lets us learn by comparison, while also showing the country the true diversity of what we have here.
  • It equalizes the playing field while Chicago Theater itself has a platform
    One of the dangers facing the theater industry is that the financial structures that currently have a ton of money and influence aren’t necessarily the models that will survive in the future. The climate is changing fast for the arts: The dinosaurs may die out, and the rats and cockroaches may have an evolutionary advantage. Even if that idea is dismaying to you, you gotta deal with it to survive. By showcasing all of chicago theater’s various models and approaches in an equalizing format (everyone can get to youtube, but not everyone can fit into the Side Project), we get much closer to a real theater lab environment – we can see what is truly exciting, even if it doesn’t currently have the marketing power to push itself into the forefront of the conference.

Contact me via email or via twitter with your video, or if you need help. Spread the word, and let’s help each other get real, rich exposure to every theater company in town. And stay tuned as we put this together – I think the results will be exciting and eye-opening.

This post brought to you by Ian Martin of Atomic Fez Independant Publishing, who bought me a bottomless cup of coffee at a delightful brunch this morning. My hands are still vibrating with excitement and caffeine.

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The Big List

September 03, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

An exciting announcement from the League of Chicago Theatres today:

In Jan. 2010, the Chicago Theatre community gets a city-wide patron database.

Boom. Right? There’s the necessary checks and balances to retain patron privacy and list autonomy. But even League member theaters who have *not* been tracking data will now be able to use this pre-built and pre-calibrated system as part of their League membership. As someone who both knows how to build a versatile database but still finds his company using a big obnoxious excel spreadsheet for this task, I say yay.

Theoretically, the big list would allow for the tracking of deep patron data – such as city-wide theatergoing habits of individual patrons. This would be a massive first step for small storefront theaters who are trying to gather real, actionable marketing data.

On a large scale, it’s also conceivable that this kind of data gathering could really shed light on exactly how big the Chicago theater-going audience is – and how big it needs to be to support operating companies.

I found some interesting thoughts on the TRG website, as well that comes from data culled from other cities that have tried this system – such as this finding that rented mailing lists and a season subscription campaign don’t exactly lead to success – specifically, rented lists can usually only scrounge up a 0.4% subscription rate. Huh. I knew it didn’t work, but I didn’t realize it was equivalent to setting all those season brochures on fire in a hobo oil drum.

Way to go, League. You’ve earned this:

(h/t ZeFrank)

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Rewriting Ourselves

August 24, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

One of the things that became clear at our New Leaf Brunch Launch this week was that, while our friends and audience clearly love the approach of a season question (yay, score!), it wasn’t yet clear to them exactly how New Leaf chooses each question, each year.

The answer: For us, the season question is always the question of everything. Now.

Last year was a year of new beginnings for us. “How do we build a future from a present we didn’t expect?” New Leaf was finding itself switching gears into a new kind of work, a new kind of intensity. In our personal lives, our company members were finding that the allure of career – even a part-time, low-income career, but One That Was Calling To Us – was becoming increasingly more attractive with age, somehow more necessary than a life of stability in service to ideas that we didn’t quite believe in.

So we left those jobs, and that safety net. We leapt into the freelance sector. We connected with our creative calling, and found ways of making that work necessary, and lucrative. We shopped around for non-group health insurance, and although it hurt, we paid for it, because it meant freedom and a new kind of security.

In our artistic work, we explored death, and we confronted ourselves with the inevitability of our own deaths. We explored the cost of a life left unlived, and we interrogated ourselves and identified the aspects of our unlived lives that would become regrets given the chance. We discovered the hard-won value of a path chosen instead of defaulted into, and we forced ourselves to choose our own path, and we forced ourselves to blaze that trail into a wilderness that was… Calling to Us.

And so here we are. A tribe, together, in some pretty rough and unexplored terrain. We’re a theater company that is small with a big reach. We’re creative workers with less regular (and less soul-sucking) employment who have the tools to build a lifestyle, but we need to get to work sowing opportunities and reaping small bits of income, or we will starve. It is clear: our question is changing.

So from this atmosphere forms a new question, with new work that we must do to crack open that nut and really make us look and examine our lives beyond our work. A new question that constantly pushes us to renew.

For me, I’m starting to see the patterns in how we communicate, and the patterns that form into psychic blocks. I haven’t been a blogger for very long, but I have been involved in the public discourse of theater arts for a few moons, and I’m seeing a new round of exciting energy that reminds me of a similar round of exciting energy. This new round comes primarily from this galvanizing and energizing series of posts from the New Colony, calling for a long-term manifesto and summit to organize and legitimize storefront theater in Chicago to take the helm as a trend-setting theater community. This is not the first time a flare has been fired calling for Chicago to take the helm as a world leader in creating new, exciting theatrical work. But because it comes in a time where many are chanting that call to action together – we have begun to tell that same story together with and through our lives – it feels like there is real momentum, that we are approaching a tipping point.

A story is never a complete truth, but it is always a compelling truth. A story ignores much mundane detail in the name of focusing our attention on what matters, on what needs work, on what needs focus. The story says “our work and our leadership is not as diverse as we are,” “our work is not risky enough, not bold enough,” “our work does not feature enough new voices, and so old voices retain too much influence.” A story is idealism, codified and written, with the beginnings of practical applications of that idealism – bold new ways of being – wrapped up in the myth and the fairy tale.

I empathized with this story of the New Colony’s – an entire framework for viewing the situation of Chicago storefronts – and, predictably, I was reminded of my own experiments at forming initiatives and coalitions. This is when I was an even younger arts advocate and as someone entirely new to engaging with public discourse. I recently looked through some old notes I had created for an ad hoc organization I was trying to put together – the Storefront Theater Alliance of Chicago, or STAC, I think we were calling it. I remember the meeting I had with several trusted folks in other small companies to plan out and carve a mission for this alternative organization that would represent the specific needs of independent theater – advocacy I didn’t feel happening and so I didn’t believe existed. I remember the moment when the plan all fell apart… we decided on our mission, a mission we could all get behind. And we looked up, just to check, the mission of the League of Chicago Theaters, and I saw:

Our mission and the League’s mission were the same thing. Nearly word for word. We were working towards the same goal. We were asking the same question from two very different angles.

That was, I think, a week before I first emailed Ben Thiem at the League and really started engaging him in conversation. Learning what he was working on, and giving him (public) feedback about the programs they had put on that had made a big impact on me. (Larry Keeley created this amazing manifesto for Chicago Theater to effectively simplify, unify and modernize our marketing and unite the community behind a few key initiatives that would break open the watermelon of new audience development, so to speak. I still keep that powerpoint hosted here. Read it. It’s a good story.)

That conversation led me to think deeper about the needs and situations of theaters beyond my own, and gather data, and see how my energies could be used to further other people’s stated goals – goals I believed in. Instead of writing a new story from scratch, I’d become an editor, a shaper of other stories, helping other advocates test messages and unite the community behind common purpose.

My question was changing, can you see?

I did more research, I talked with friends who had done even more research. Eventually, through Dan Granata, I read the stories of the beginnings of the League way back in the first revolutionary storefront movement in the 70s. I began to see that my efforts were part of a cycle of group behavior, and realized that if we didn’t understand the story of people like Lois Weisberg we were never getting anywhere… Storefront arts organizations have this way of proliferating and periodically you would have three or four ask the question of why storefronts didn’t cooperate to leverage their energies for cultural change. You had a lot of people get discouraged very quickly in the face of financial and political and personal limitations. I got a little obsessed with counting things in the hopes that the full picture would yield clarity, because I could see – from my initial perspective, I was not seeing the entire picture. But progress starting happening, slowly. Deb Clapp was named as the new head of the League, and on this one day Deb sat down with many of the same folks that had been involved with STAC – plus the Goodman and some other larger theaters – and bam, we planned Chicago’s World Theatre Day celebrations in a couple hours. It was easy to unite and cooperate, because it was for the collective benefit of all.

I felt that advocacy, suddenly, and felt myself becoming a stronger advocate. And I’m still not seeing the entire picture.

Here’s the thing – I believe in what the New Colony is asking, and I think – still – that they are presenting questions that we must all choose to act on. (So do it, seriously. Let’s stop putting it off in the name of our own immediate needs, get coffee together and hash this shit out, a common goal and a common purpose, because the world is waiting for change to be articulated and germinated.) Let’s also try to bring everyone to the table so we see how big this question really needs to be. Let’s learn the old questions so that we can adapt them into new questions. I believe in the transformative power of story, because I’ve seen its effect on my life, on our lives, on our city, on our country. The stories we tell rewrite what we become, somehow.

And so this year, I still believe in the old question – I still believe we must build a future and that our present is rarely one we expect – but I believe it with more experience and more choices under my belt. Some of those choices and some of that experience may be untrustworthy – I’m only human and so my failure to revolt doesn’t necessarily mean that revolution isn’t necessary.

But even the faultiness of stories yields amazing fruit. I still believe, for instance in the fanciful and perhaps hubristic story that I daydreamed about at UMass with my upper- and lower-classmen friends – that we would get to be part of an American cultural renaissance, an explosion/confluence of new science that illuminates art and art that illuminates science. Oddly enough, I believe that the act of telling myself that story again and again has somehow manifested itself in my life and my community. And the story of renaissance – that particular series of intellectual and creative reactions – has this ability to align us towards the possibility of radical creative thought (as opposed to radical destruction). It starts us running in the same direction, and starts us building and creating.

And so I ask the question: What are the stories I’m telling myself? Are they lies, or are they truths that I don’t understand yet? And how are those stories changing me, even as I fail to understand them? Do I want them to change me?

Do I need to tell myself new stories in order to become the person I want to be, or to create the community and world I would like to live in?

Choosing stories to change the world is positively mundane in the realm of theater… every artistic director does it, in their own way, every year. But even mundane things can explain the universe we live in – if we examine them closely enough.

I learned that from Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. It’s a good story. You should read it.

This post is cross-posted on the New Leaf Theatre Blog. The coffee ingested to produce it was provided by the incomparable Margo Gray. Thanks, Margo!

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Sound Design Interview on Talk Theatre in Chicago

May 25, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere, Sound


Chicago-based sound designers Josh Horvath, Ray Nardelli, and little ol’ me are interviewed by Anne Nicholson Weber in this week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast. Ray and Josh talk about their design for Rock & Roll at the Goodman Theatre, and I talk a bit about the work I did for Piano Lesson at Court Theatre.

It’s a continuation of the discussion – and actually a great starting point if you feel lost – of aesthetic considerations of sound design that several bloggers have been talking about here and elsewhere over the past few weeks – from collaboration, using the text as a starting point, to having a conversation with your audience through sound. For those who caught my Twitter preview, the mythbusted phenomenon of Metonymy wisely didn’t make the cut, alas, but I’m sure you can tell where we brought it up – as designers one of our aesthetic goals is of course to make you (figuratively) crap your pants.

Also, there’s a little bit of throw down between the Chicago vs. Broadway approaches to theatrical aesthetics in general, so… Blood in the Water!

Hope you like it!

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New Blog: Theatre that Works

April 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere

Okay, so Dan Granata has been working on this idea for a while: A blog that tells the stories of the theater of today and digs up comparisons with the theater of yesterday. As I’ve been helping him (and graphic designer extraordinaire Marni Keenan… soft plug…) build the site over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking over his shoulder at some of the research he’s dug up.

It’s learning from our history and our present… over the interwebs. Dan has unearthed a treasure trove of archived Chicago Theatre history, has been interviewing some exciting and articulate artists, and connecting the dots between the two with story. Truly, truly thrilling.

Theatre That Works launches today. Check it out.

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