Theater For The Future

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

Archive for the ‘Collaboration’

How to Design the Sound

October 13, 2014 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

I had a pal in a bind the other day ask me how I designed sound at the storefront / independent / low budget theatre level.  As time was of the essence, and the subject was something I probably should write a book about someday, I briefly jotted down what I felt at the time were the most important tricks of the trade (that is, the cooperative trades of sound system designer, foley artist, sound engineer, and composer.)   

Keep in mind that this guide is provided only as a general guide for further inquiry to help you survive, perform your duties, and embarrass yourself as little as possible when you’re already in over your head on a project – it won’t actually help you make it sound good, which I’ve heard is important.  This will only teach you enough to be more dangerous than you already think you are.  Caveat, caveat, you hold me harmless, etc.

If you’re really short on time, here’s the essential mantras of this Tao de Sound.

1) BE NICE.
1a) BE PREPARED.
1b) DON’T HURT ANYONE.
2) USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

(These mantras are surprisingly effective for all kinds of professional work.  Also, my general mantras for theatre like “Don’t be Stupid” and “Don’t Freak Out” also apply.  h/t The Cherub Program)

Here’s a few ways to apply these mantras to specific practical situations:

BE NICE.

  • Make sure you let the team (at least the Production Manager, TD and the Lighting Designer) what you intend to do. If you place speakers in front of where lights are going, that’s a poor way to win friends and influence people.  If you bump a light, tell the ME or the LD so that it doesn’t.  More communication is always better.
  • At the Storefront level, most people don’t license music used in the show correctly.  Legal Hat:  This is not nice, nor is it legal.  That said, it happens a lot.  Even in the largest venues and the most popular productions.  No, fair use doesn’t apply.  Artist Hat:  DJs sample music all the time, sure.  But sampling isn’t the same as “playing.”   That means if you decide to skirt the law and be a real artist, you have an artistic responsibility to make this music your own, into something new, unique, beautiful, and perfect for your production.   Treating the show like your favorite iTunes playlist demonstrates neither legal nor artistic integrity.
  • One way to try to be nice:  If you’re not a composer and can connect with some local musicians who let you use their music (or better yet work with you to create new music), support them and at least make an effort to get permission and/or offer to promote their work and give them as much of your show budget as you can.  Ask them if you can sell their CD in the lobby.  Tell audience members how great the artists you use are, and encourage them to buy the albums.
  • Tie line is preferable to E-tape for securing cable, though my preference is for Friction Tape (the tape hockey players use around their gloves).  It ONLY sticks to itself, and is very reusable – a couple wraps around a bundle of cables every few feet both supports the cables and makes it easy to move or strike later.  Skip the e-tape, and you’ll thank yourself at strike, not least of which because the ME won’t try to throw his wrench at your head.
  • Tie line for wrapping cable should be long enough to start in your hand, wrap all the way around your elbow, then come back up into your hand. It’s easier to wrap the timeline completely around your trunk of cable once (which takes weight on the cable) then do a quick, tight shoelace knot over the pipe which is easy to undo and redo as needed.
  • The goal with securing your cable is to not wrap around or over lighting cable, because that is not nice – under is better.  It helps to load your stuff in before light hang!  Then you’re sure to be out of the way.  You will still likely need to secure your cable in a bundle with lighting cable, and in those situations you want to redo the ties as you left them.

BE PREPARED.

  • Use QLab.  You can learn the basics in 15 minutes.
  • Load your files in and program a QLab cue list so that someone is operating the entire show off a go button instead of a hare-brained iPod library and volume control which invite confusion and error into the mix.
  • Plug your computer into a mixing board.  Plug the mixing board into your amps.  Plug your amps into your speakers.   If you have them, use goodies like audio interfaces, patch bays, and powered speakers.
    Think through the entire sound system from inputs to outputs, and make sure you have the equipment you need.  Do you have enough of the right types of cable to put your speakers and the booth where you need them to be?
  • Make sure your equipment is in the air, cabled, tested, and that you are ready to cue the show at least 12 hours before start of tech (advanced designers can live with less buffer, but this will help you plan for contingencies).  I try to be pre-programmed to a large extent before I start, but I’m always at least 5 cues or 5 minutes of show ahead of where we’re at in tech so that there’s a minimum of “holding for sound”.
    Give a clear cue list to the stage manager.  I give them cue lines and/or visual cues, cue numbers, and a description of what the cue does.  Walk them through any paper, dry, or wet techs to make sure they know exactly how things should be called.  If they need to wait a beat before taking a piece of music, tell them what you’re going for.  Preparing the stage manager to call the design is a huge part of making that design work, and it’s the core thing that beginning designers gloss over.
  • Ensure that the show computer is hooked up to the sound system, that it works, and that whoever is running the show knows how to turn it on, shut it off, and fix it if it explodes.
  • Make sure you are always ready to take quick notes that make sense to you later.
  • Be where you need to be, ready to do the job, when you need to be there.  #lifelessons

DON’T HURT ANYONE.

  • “Anyone” includes but is not limited to you, your fellow designers, your assistants, the performers, the crew, the administrators who promote your work and sign your checks, and the audience.
  • If you are responsible for hanging, moving, or aiming your speakers and you haven’t done so before, consider that you’re about to dance on a ladder while holding 100 lbs above your head, and that perhaps doing this on your own is not the best way to learn how to do this safely and effectively.  Ask for trained help.  That said, if you must forge ahead and you know the task to be safe, here’s some pro tips (tips for pros.)
  • In venues with ceilings from 0 – 20 feet high, I still use a rope.  The rope I use is rated for 3-4 times the weight of the heaviest speakers I can lift, and is tied with a proper bowline knot to a rated quick link which I attach to the speaker.  I lift speakers with a team of two, one on the ground, one on a ladder.  I’ll run the rope over a supported grid pipe, hook the quick link to the speaker, have someone on the ground take weight on the speaker while standing away from the drop, move the speaker, secure the speaker in its new home, let in weight on the speaker, then aim the speaker with a guy line.
  • If you’re loading in speakers to a grid more than twice your height and you’ve never done it before, see also “Don’t Kill Anyone” Item 1.
  • Get a roll of tie line which will be useful for speaker aiming.   Typically speakers are secured to the grid with one or two rated pieces of chain and rated quick links and ideally a safety cable for good measure.  They can then be tilted with a long piece of timeline used as a guy line.  TIE LINE SHOULD NEVER BE USED TO TAKE WEIGHT ON THE SPEAKER.   Secure the guy line to a secure point on the bottom of the speaker, then attach that tie line to a different grid pipe, creating a triangle and aiming the speaker more directly towards the audience sections.  With practice, you can use the Rolling Hitch to quickly aim the speaker with a perfectly aimed, taut guy line that is easy to strike or refocus.

USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

  • If you don’t know how to place speakers and/or read a groundplan, elevation, and light plot, you’ll want to get into the space and try to visualize where you want sound to come from.
  • Music that doesn’t come from the world of the play (non-diagetic music) tends to want a proscenium-y “wall of sound” feel – so hanging 2  left and right speakers off the grid or to the sides of the stage is a great start – if the space is proscenium.  If you’re in a thrust configuration, you may need to go to four speakers and play from the voms.  There’s a bajillion caveats to all that, but that will get you close enough to be nice and dangerous.
  • Visualize the shape of the sound to know where to put speakers.  Sound propagates from a speaker in an expanding cone  (you can kind of picture this by drawing a line from the edges of the speaker cone out – on average a 45º spread coming from the speaker.  Each speaker has different specs that you can look up online if you really want to know.  You don’t want those spreads to cross over each other in most cases, so usually you’ll tilt speakers slightly away from each other so that you have a minimum of overlap but still completely cover the entire audience – ideally with a stereo image.  If you raise the speaker up, you can angle the speaker so that more of the audience experiences the same volume rather than blasting people in the front.  So if you have a thrust configuration, you’d alternate Left and right signal to the four speakers so that every section of audience gets both left and right sound information.
  • Feedback should only happen if you have mics pointed at speakers that playback signal from those mics which pick up signal from those speakers which playback signal from those mics (see what I’m doing there?).  If you do have mics, try to design with only handheld SM58s, which are really hard to feedback, and most performers know how to use reasonably well if it’s that kind of show.  If you have wireless, you’ll probably need more help and budget, an apprenticeship, and you’ll also want to read Kai Harada’s excellent Kai’s Sound Handbook which will neatly cover the things you need to know for the next stage of your career.
  • Music that comes from the world of the play (diagetic music) probably doesn’t come from the proscenium, maybe, right?
  • Try each cue a good deal louder, then try it much quieter.  Repeat until perfect.
  • Sometimes music doesn’t always want to be the same level for the length of the cue. We call this kind of adjustment a “fade.” #youknowthelingo

Have further words of wisdom for designers in trouble?  I’d love to hear it.

Buy Me a Coffee?

The Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference: a Retreat for the Whole City

August 11, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, projects

Hey there! I’m back. And boy are my arms tired.

In just a couple weeks, Theater Wit opens its (new, shiny) doors for the first annual Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference, a three-day series of discussions and mixers in the style of the TCG conference. The event aims to take a community crack at some of the common challenges that theater companies, artists, and administrators face. As Jeremy Wechsler, host for the conference, says, it’s sort of a retreat for all of Chicago theater right at the start of the season, when we need it the most.

Like so many of you, we miss the days of the League retreats. While our community has grown so much that a drunken weekend together in the mountains may not be so feasible, we do want to provide a home so that theaters of every size can come together to share knowledge, make connections and renew ourselves for the upcoming production season. A ton of Chicago Theaters got to participate in the TCG conference; it was fantastic to feel like we were a part of a national theater movement, but a lot of us there felt that Chicago’s theaters still had a ton to learn from each other.

The conference is $32 (tickets are available here) which ALMOST pays for all the catering, snacks, and refreshments that you get while attending the conference, and doesn’t at all pay for three days of Theater Wit rent. (Jeremy ain’t makin’ any money on this deal, I promise you.) The admission is almost certainly worth the knowledge that can be gleaned from the speakers, who appear to have all somehow landed on an accidental theme of “We’re giving you our blueprints.”

All conferences are tricky to navigate, so here’s some can’t-miss discussions and events to whet your appetite. There’s much more still on the schedule that I haven’t mentioned and more to be announced, so be sure to dig deeper than this overview.

Friday, August 20

8:00 pm – Conference Kick Off Party

Saturday, August 21

11 am – Second City Complex – Chris Piatt & the Paper Machete (Theatre 1)

If you missed Chris Piatt’s earth-shaking performance of “The Second City Complex” at World Theatre Day this year – the story of Chicago theater and Chicago theater criticism’s unshakeable sense of hubristic insecurity – now’s your chance to get the cliff notes. Chris’ take on the recent evolution of the critic-artist relationship in Chicago is about as mind-blowing as reading Richard Christiansen’s “A Theater of Our Own” and then having a chapter come to life and scream, “What are YOU gonna do about it, bitch?”

1 pm – Living your Mission – Martha Lavey (Theatre 1)

I love living my mission. I love even more hearing how other people do it.

1 pm – Theatre Advocacy 101 (Theatre 2)

Scarlett Swerdlow and Ra Joy of Arts Alliance Illinois talk about their ongoing arts advocacy efforts, and how to effectively engage government and decision makers and make the case for the value of your arts programs. This is the discussion I probably need to hear the most out of the whole conference. In a state where all social service money is drying up, we need to understand and believe in why we are valuable to this society.

2 pm – How about some Meat in the Well-Funded Stomach (Theatre 2)

Looking for a rumble? Look no further than Don Hall. If you’ve never seen Don live and in person and only know him from his acerbic online persona, I wouldn’t miss this chance to have a real heart to heart. He’ll be discussing one of his favorite radical visions of how it’s time to completely restructure how the arts are administrated. His chaotic glee, passion for creating excellent work, and provocative ability to question our community’s priorities are pure entertainment. There will be blood.

3pm – The Working Comedy Artist (Theatre 2)

Byron Hatfield has helped build The Pub Theater, one of many DIY operations that have found business models to support an ensemble of actual, factual full-time creative staff (The pub boasts a staff of 6 full time actors and 30+ part-time actors). If you’re looking to be pro in Chicago, find out here what level of community building it takes.

5:30 – Meetups for Artistic Directors, Managing Directors and Freelance Performers

So many awesome people, but which one should I go to? I’m just a designer, ho hum. No seriously, I’m crashing.

Sunday, August 22

10am – Embracing New Work (Theater 2)

PJ Paparelli, Artistic director of ATC, discusses his methods of bringing new work to production, from submission to commission to audience. It’s a subject that breeds a surprising amount of alliance (We Love New Work!) at the same time that it generates controversy (The New Work isn’t the right kind of New Work!), so it’s sure to be interesting.

11 am – Empowering Ensembles (Theater 3)

The question of the fate of ensemble-based theatres is one that has been very interesting to watch – and participate in – in the last few years in Chicago. Gwendolyn Whiteside of American Blues and Luther Goins of Actors Equity lead this discussion about what operational issues face ensemble-based theatres in the years to come. Not to stir up any undue controversy, but it’ll be very interesting to walk from the New Work discussion into this discussion – where you can see how the way we prioritize different aspects of the theatrical process (the development of careers and livelihoods for playwrights, actors, administrators, and designers) can – through the fault of no one – introduce stress, conflict, and compromise in our actual professional lives.

11 am – Cermak Creative Industries District (Theater 2)

Consider this discussion an opportunity to explore the ongoing “Burnham Plan” for Chicago Theatre. The Department of Cultural Affairs recently received one of several large new grants ($250,000) from the NEA to push forward with planning for the creation of a district entirely devoted to workspaces for the arts in all disciplines at Cermak Road and the Chicago River just west of Chinatown. Julie Burros, Director of Cultural Planning, City of Chicago (and League of Chicago Theatres board member) lays out the plan for future arts usage of this complex of four historic warehouse buildings.

The question of venues – Build Your Own, or Find and Adapt

The question of the long-term health of theater facilities in Chicago is one that is near and dear to my heart. At 1 pm, two critical perspectives are explored – building new venues and theater complexes, and how to use non-traditional spaces (which can be less expensive) effectively.

1 pm – So You Want a Space? (Theater 2)

Conference host and Theater Wit Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler has just been through the wringer. Specifically, the “thrilling bureaucracy” of inspectors, funders, vendors, and the government hurdles that all need to be jumped through to open your own refurbished storefront theatre. Participants will have access to Theater Wit’s entire project board, which includes budget figures, blueprints, problems met, and the operating costs now that the space is open.

1 pm – I Live Here Too – Place and Space in Chicago (Theater 1)

Sarah Mikayla Brown – in the midst of organizing venues in Pilsen for the Chicago Fringe Festival – and Madrid St. Angelo of UrbanTheater Company lead a discussion about how and why theaters come to choose artistic homes in non-black box spaces and in neighborhoods off the beaten path.

2 pm – Help Me Help You: DIY Press Relations (Theater 1)

Kris Vire, theatre editor for TimeOut Chicago, tells you how best to work with the press and prepare your materials in an age where journalists have rapidly shrinking salaries and rapidly approaching deadlines. All that even if you don’t have a dedicated publicist. The best advice always comes right from the source.

3pm – 2amt Theatre (Theater 1)

Just a personal little plug. I’ll be here, talking with my #2amt collaborator, David Loehr: WHO I WILL MEET IN PERSON FOR THE FIRST TIME LESS THAN 24 HOURS BEFORE THE DISCUSSION. How is this possible? In the internet age, anything is possible. We know: we’re bringing the blueprints for structuring all-inclusive community discussions like the national #2amt discussion and the local Storefront Summit, and how we can all reap their benefits.

5:30 – The Fool on the Hill: My top ten opinions on the American Theatre.

If your only experience with Roche Schulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman, has been pie charts comparing his salary with your company’s operating budget, take my advice: Listen to the man with wide open ears. He’s steered that particular ship through several economic crises, restored the theatre from near bankruptcy, helped found the League of Chicago Theatres, is an ongoing mentor and supporter of dozens of theatre companies beyond the Goodman — and all this after starting in the scene in the subscription sales call center. The real reason, though? Roche knows how to tell great stories about those moments of Chicago Theater History that you wish you were there for.

6:30 – Closing Party at Cooper’s

What better way to start our seasons, than together?

UPDATE: For those who want to follow the conference from home or their secret underground lair, many of us will be tweeting updates from the conference using the hashtag #ctac. Everyone here knows how to read and write hashtags by now, right?

Buy Me a Coffee?

Welcome to Chicago, TCG

June 16, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, On the Theatrosphere

Attendees of the 2010 Theatre Communications Group conference are beginning to arrive at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago.

It’s the culmination of a lot of behind the scenes work, collaboration, and getting things done over the past six months from some great theatre artists and in particular artists who administrate.

There’s a conference site outlining the metric tons of topics and ideas being explored during the conference.

There’s a twitter hashtag where many conversations that start at the conference continue after hours and virtually across the country.

There’s a multi-media site featuring introductions and other content generated by Chicago Theatres (from the League and programmed by yours truly) which features introductory videos to many theatres in Chicago and video and images of moments captured from the conference.

There are surprises.

There’s a boat.

There’s this dude.

I hope you’ll tune in and join in this weekend.

Knowledge is best when drunk deeply.

Buy Me a Coffee?

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!

Buy Me a Coffee?

The Man Who Was Thursday: Web Edition

November 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Shows

On Nov. 7, Bilal Dardai and I had some fun live-tweeting THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY at New Leaf. Bilal provided the commentary, and I backed him up with a live stream of media – video, audio, and static images.

This is our first crack at packaging the byproducts of theatre – the DVD extras, so to speak – to maximize our creative exposure to an online audience. I’m interested to know what you think of the results. Obviously we didn’t publicize this event very much… it was more a proof of concept. The question is: are there pieces here that hook you to see the show, or that hook you to delve further into what we do at New Leaf, and what are they?

You can check out the full broadcast (with some additional commentary!) on Bilal’s blog.

Here’s some highlights:

New Leaf, 8:03pm: Brian Rooney prepares for his role as the Marquis RT @bilaldWill be updating from dressing room.

Bilal, 8:04pm: Sean Fawcett (Sunday) threatened to spend the first 30 minutes of this show staring at me blankly.

New Leaf: Sean Fawcett will eat your soul.

Bilal, 8:30pm: Tidbit: the secret knock Gregory uses to access the anarchists’ chamber is that 10-note royalty phrase you always hear to signify “England.” First time I heard it, I thought it was the opening beat to the Rose Royce disco classic “Car Wash.”

New Leaf: http://blip.fm/~g12p8

Bilal, 8:37pm: @jesshutchinson‘s short-hand for this underground anarchists’ meeting is “JV (Junior Varsity) Council.”

Bilal, 8:41pm: The line “Order! Order, anarchists, order!” is one of the funniest lines in the play. And I wish I’d been the one who’d written it.

Bilal, 9:11pm: Just walked into side hallway and saw Ted Evans (Saturday) rocking from side to side, reciting his lines next to the ghost light. Creepy.

New Leaf: This album just rocks for Spy intrigue.

Bilal, 9:24pm: Meanwhile, Nick Mikula is setting up a lot of very large dominoes in front of the dressing room door.

New Leaf: We were going to ask what Nick Mikula was up to right about now.

Bilal, 10:00pm: I recently described @nhburger’s “Monday” voice as being that of the curator of the snootiest art gallery in hell.

New Leaf: Right about now, it is necessary for Monday and Tuesday to form an alliance. This is how they do it.

New Leaf, 10:14pm: Lyrics get progressively more tongue in cheek as show goes on: THURSDAY is @nickkeenan’s tribute to Baz Luhrman. ♫ http://blip.fm/~g17ws

Bilal, 10:15pm: Tidbit: One of the lines in the picnic monologues about Sunday is scavenged from a college poem I wrote about a girl who broke my heart.

Bilal, 10:32 pm: Two of the lines in this rewritten final scene are deliberate and snarky jabs at Chesterton’s actual ending. I’m a baaaaad boy. End of Play, Great Job, All!

New Leaf:

The Man Who Was Thursday is now running through November 21st, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm. I mention that because: We are very close to selling out the rest of the run. I’m looking forward to discussing why we think that happened. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and you haven’t seen it and you still want to, reserve your tickets now, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Speaking of theatrical byproducts that are worth another look, have you heard our Treehouse podcasts at New Leaf? We’re finding and commissioning new plays, and recording podcasts of them. You can download them. On iTunes. For Free. Or join us at New Leaf every month for another live reading. For Free. Let me know what you think.

This post brought to you by Ana Lucia Novak, who bought me some coffee. Actually, do you know where that coffee money really goes? Paypal. Which means I use it to buy speakers. Like the two beautiful JF60s I bought for New Leaf that are used in Thursday. So thanks: Your donations make my own sticker shock greatly diminished.

Buy Me a Coffee?

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.

Buy Me a Coffee?

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!

Buy Me a Coffee?

Maintenance

June 04, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, projects

So this was on my desk two days ago. An inbox of low-priority filing that went back to October 2007. Yikes.

I realized, as this particularly busy season draws to a close (at the Goodman Owen stage alone our season included the premiere of Million Dollar Quartet, Ruined, the O’Neill Festival, Ghostwritten, most of which were tech-heavy monoliths), that it has been over two years I’ve done a real spring cleaning. It’s really only in June or August when we find an appropriate moment to do this kind of invasive cleaning and reorganization – where you open everything in your house up, one piece at a time, blow out the dust, and ask yourself the question: do I need this anymore? If I had this object or system around to solve a problem, does the problem even exist anymore?

July and most of June’s always devoted to the 24-7-30 Cherub program, last year’s cleaning was postponed by the immediacy of three large Goodman projects – Gas for Less, Turn of the Century, and the Latino Fest, and the year before that was devoted to planning, traveling, and getting our family to our wedding in Nova Scotia.

This year, I have cause to clean. (ha ha to KF). My wife just turned in her notice at her day job, a day job that has both paid the bills and caused immeasurable stress and disappointment in her life over the past two years. Instead, Marni has trained herself in a wide variety of graphic design and skills along with a group of like-minded creative types, and begins freelance design and project management work for a number of clients, including this design firm, doing work that challenges and empowers her. The choice to leave traditional, corporate employment at a time like this is not an easy one – we’ve needed to scramble to find health care, for instance, which by itself could cause someone to turn back. But the known benefits and promises of opportunity are many: flexibility in hours means our schedules will no longer be opposite, and we’ll actually get to see each other awake from time to time, and it’s amazing how much more energy and happiness you can have in your life when you do something you actually find enjoyment and value in.

Leaving the day job means that Marni’s coming back as a teacher at Cherubs this summer, and will be leading the fundamentals of design class. This is an amazing job – basically teaching 10 high school students who already love theater the language and tools of design.

So I’ve been devoting a lot of time to maintenance lately: cleaning the house, sorting through hardware, fixing the internet, archiving scripts and old work projects, repairing and upgrading equipment, getting rid of the stuff we don’t need anymore

Bit by bit.

Getting our house ready for a new life.

Buy Me a Coffee?

  • Favorite Topics

  • Blogroll