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The Long Road of the Chicago Theater Database

February 22, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Dan Granata and I were interviewed a ways back by Chicago Art Machine about the current status of the Chicago Theater Database, and what makes a fancy community-wide project like that hover in stasis while other projects roll forward.

The interview just went up, and it’s interesting to see how the current evolution of theater resources mirrors other things happening in the rest of the art world.

Moreover, as we’ve worked on this project, we are finding more and more resources out there that do some of what we want to do, or seem to do much of what we want to do but aren’t well-implemented, so we’ve been reassessing what the best way forward is. We certainly believe in the project, and think it adds so much value to the community of theatre artists of which we are members, but we’re also wary of following in the misguided footsteps of so many well-meaning arts advocacy/development organizations who plunge headlong into building something from scratch—trying to be the “end-all, be-all”—without seeing what’s already available or what could be achieved by pooling our resources. In a way, we’re trying not to fall into the same trap we see theatres and theatre artists fall into all the time: wasting energy recreating the wheel when there’s a guy selling spokes down the street.

– Dan Granata

Read the full interview here.


In other news, I’ll be live chatting with the good people at TheatreFace this week about the wonderful world of Sound Design. You can check that out at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST Wednesday, February 24, in their chat room.

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Introducing: TheaterCalculus™

August 20, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, projects

BackStage Theatre CompanyRight before my summer teaching gig, I threw out a brief tease on twitter about a web project I was working on (the brand new BackStage Theater Company website and blog) and what it means, okay, I’ll say it, for the future of content-driven websites for small theater companies.

What’s wrong with how theaters do things now, you ask? Well, it’s too much work, frankly, for mixed and muddled results. Traditionally, even simple web features for organizing production information have required a kind of wonky content management system or database to allow non-tech-savvy company members to update the website without breaking it in the process. In practice, however, without a self-explanatory one-stop-shop in place (that doesn’t require knowledge of HTML, FTP, Photoshop, and MySQL) the burden of updating that kind of site inevitably falls to the single person who created or assumes responsibility for the site, not the people that the site represents. As a result, the solutions I’ve seen out there (that don’t require keeping a high-powered design firm on retainer) fall into two camps of despair. Some are traditional, static sites that are updated irregularly and do not evolve into the waters of web 2.0 because of the high time cost of making changes. Others are entirely built on the read-it-now-or-forget-about-it blog model and sacrifice long-term infrastructure and the accrual of a body of work for the immediacy of now.

You know who you are, and it wasn’t your fault.

Both approaches need a way to talk to each other, so that the catalogue of old wisdom – past productions and company history – has a place to talk to the new vibrancy of what is exciting today and next week. Our entire world feels like it’s doing this right now, which is why you’re getting all these young hipsters digging into the history of the depression, WPA and CCC right now.

I’ll get into the technical details in later posts (you know, so you can steal the idea for yourself, or use it to convince your board to hire me and my merry band of outlaw graphic designers, marketers, and hackers) but for now, I’m going to focus on the features of something new I developed with the help of the < a href="http://backstagetheatrecompany.org">BackStage project, something I think is a winning equation:

WordPress + Flutter + TheaterCalculus™ = A great content management system for your theater or personal portfolio.

WordPress – you’ve heard of this, perhaps? It’s arguably the most extensible blogging platform out there, with an active open-source community that creates bajillions of plugins that fill 95% of any arts company’s web presence needs, like:

  • Self-hosting a website
  • Customizable themes that allow for completely self-branded sites
  • A ‘pages’ infrastructure that extends wordpress beyond the features of a blog and allows all web content to be editable.
  • Most-used plugins do everything from protecting blog comments from spam, to Search Engine Optimization, to integrating your Constant Contact and Google Analytics accounts with your website.

Show & CompanyFlutter – Flutter is a new and very promising plugin for WordPress that extends the ‘pages’ and ‘posts’ functionality of wordpress to provide some powerful and more importantly, easy-to-use and easy-to-update database functionality. What does that mean for you? Well, in the case of BackStage, we’ve added two sections to the wordpress sidebar here that are for “Shows” and “Company”. Each one leads to a standardized form that contains all the little bits of knowledge – the schema – that a company needs to decide and collect for each production along its life cycle. Because the form is powered by wordpress, adding a show to the site is just like filling out a blog post. Because the form is more complex than a blog post, with more fields, the show data can be calculated and presented in a unified way over the long term – and even allow you to change the way the data is presented later without re-editing 75,000 blog posts. Flutter also comes bundled with some awesome features.

  • Powerful image management, including automatic thumbnail generation, caching and cropping
  • Edit in place functionality (this has got to be my favorite – don’t have a ton of time but noticed a copy error? if you’re logged in, just click on the text – on the site – edit, and hit save.

TheaterCalculus™ – Yup. This is the part I’ve cooked up – a WordPress theme mix-in that does a lot of the repetitive tasks of maintaining a theater website. Based on the Chicago Theatre Database’s flexible and comprehensive database schema – which we derived from production data from over 1,000 shows and 300 companies – I created a series of à la carte Flutter forms and adapted the logic from several theater company websites that can be adapted to fit a large number of applications. Basically, this is the brain that helps the website follow along with how theaters work and helps automate some of the more repetitive website-updates.

    Date Entries
  • Enter three critical dates into the show form – Opening Night, Closing Night, and Extension Closing – and the website will calculate clear and helpful language based on the current date – “Opening in November!”, “Now Open!”, “Closing Soon,” and “Extended through March 29!”. Better yet, shows that close can move themselves over to the past productions page and off the home page
  • Review / pullquote, photo, video, and cast & crew bio forms helps keep production assets organized and connected to their sources. As marketing strategies tend towards cross-promotion, having a form that reminds you to enter your cast’s portfolio websites – and everything else you need to capture to promote your work – is a nice tool to have in the kit.
  • Like any database-driven site, there’s an advantage in being able to display the same information in multiple contexts throughout the site – say, a tagline of a show. If there’s an error in the tagline, static sites required you to update four or five pages, which caused even more errors. By having all show info in one place, the site does the work of distributing it according to your marketing and web usability strategy.
  • There’s too much detail to go into in a single post – this has been a system I’ve been working on for over six months or three years, depending on how you measure the amount of time I’ve been thinking about the perfect CMS for theater. So I’ll be coming back to TheaterCalculus as things develop. I’ll be launching a few other theater websites (companies and individual portfolios) in the coming weeks using it as the underlying architecture, and so hopefully we’ll all be able to see just how flexible it can be.

    This post provided to you by BackStage Theatre Company, naturally, and also sound designer John Leonard, who was nice enough to buy me a coffee even after I stole his idea from a wiki and wrote about it. If it’s the discovery I think it is, I’m going to need to buy him many, many, many, many coffees laced with some nice single malt.

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Where do I know them from?

February 11, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Neat new trick you can do with the Chicago Theater Database. So neat, let’s do it on your snazzy mobile device.

Oh crap. You’re talking to your pals and you cant think of that show so and so was working on, or what company they work with. What was that show? DAMN IT!


Oh right. We know how to fix this. In our mobile web browser, let’s key in their full name as a URL with the path “artist”. As in: http://chicagotheaterdb.com/artist/so/andso

And now: Go there.


Oh right. There they are. No searching required.

Oh! Of course. He’s the sound designer for Touch. Doesn’t that close soon? Let’s click through.

Oh crap, that closes this week!

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Chicago Theater Database: User Updates A-Plenty

January 28, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

It’s been a crazily delightful week over at the CTDB.

A couple days ago, we opened up usernames to 45 new users, and several folks have been really cooking. You may know them. With their help, we’ve identified and fixed about ten workflow bugs, and we’ve tried to do so proactively – often fixing the issue before the user reported a bug at all.

That’s largely thanks to one of the key new features of the CTDB: contribution tracking by user, which we invite you to participate in. One of the star updaters has been Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, company manager for Mary-Arrchie Theater Company, who has very nearly entered in the entire production history of Mary-Arrchie. Going back to 1986, that’s 58 productions, and a great many performers, playwrights, directors, and designers, which he’s still ticking away.

Included in those productions are the wildly inclusive and experimental Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festivals, which just celebrated their twentieth nearly-annual run. As most storefront theaters in Chicago know, each Abbie Hoffman Festival contains dozens of short-form plays and productions from dozens of theater companies. And the CTDB is ready to handle ALL that history.

So, today’s call to action: Has your company ever participated in the Abbie Hoffman Festival? Write us for a user account and enter your production into the Abbie Hoffman festival history. And, if you’re really feeling eager, maybe update a bit of your own company and personal history as well? We’d love to have you join the party.

Cross-Posted on the Chicago Theater Data Blog

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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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Chicago Theater Database Update: Tapping the Energy of the Group

December 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

This post is cross-posted over at the CTDB Data Blog

Two important notches off the Chicago Theater Database road map this month.

On December 8, we tackled the problem of capturing the convoluted data of repertory festivals, using the models of The Side Project’s Cut to the Quick Short Works Festival and the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival. Both festivals basically act as a big melting pot for artists, combining directors, playwrights, performers and designers in dozens of teams that create unique one-act experiences and a more general community-driven whole.

We wanted to be able to look at each festival as both a whole and as the sum of its parts. That meant separating festivals into three kinds of production records:

1) The One Act, or “child” production. We’ve been wanting to capture one-acts for a while now, as they form an important part of a playwright’s development – just as one act festivals form an important part of a performer’s and directors development. Each one act acts exactly like a normal production record – there’s a play, there are artists, there’s a show.

2) The Evening / Program. Many festivals organize their shows into themed evenings or programs to provide patrons with a more curated form of choice and variety. In the case of Cut to the Quick, we have three evenings in the festival that each contain a number of child one-acts: Splinters and Shrapnel, which are war-themed works, Static/Cling which centers around the family, and Splayed Verbiage, which features a deeper grab bag of hyper-short works.

3) The Festival. This parent record can either consolidate a number of plays as a single artistic unit, as in the Eugene O’Neill Fest, or it can consolidate a series of programs.

Each “Parent” record consolidates ALL the director, performer and design production credits from its children, and provides a quick view of the plays contained within that festival or evening. So you can look at the whole picture, or look at each one act granularly.

Best of all, there’s a quick-edit link to add a new one-act or evening to a festival that pre-fills a copy of the data from the festival into the new record – that makes updating the information for each festival play a snap.

Dan and I have a bit of a soft spot for theater festivals… they’re powered by a bigger community and they require a unique blend of organization and organic chaos to create their unique kind of energy and excitement. So don’t miss Cut to the Quick which wraps up on Dec. 21st and be sure to catch the O’Neill Fest at the Goodman, opening Jan. 7th.

————–

Along those lines, we launched yesterday two important pieces of Web 2.0 technology that we hope will fuel our online community of CTDB contributors. Our contributions and users sections now give credit where credit is due – each edit to the database is now tracked in a permanent audit history. This allows us to provide some necessary protection against internet vandals by creating a e-paper trail of changes and linking those changes to a user account. In the (we hope) unlikely event that a disreputable party begins taking credit for founding Steppenwolf, the entire community of contributors will quickly be able to track down the culprits and restore the changes.

More important than user accountability however, record auditing allows us to draw attention to the contributions of some pretty dedicated volunteers – such as CTDB powerhouse Laura Ciresi of Trailing Spouse Blues. Since we began auditing database records at the beginning of December, Laura has been steadily updating the entire production history of several theater companies, including Steppenwolf, Naked Eye, and her home Infamous Commonwealth. She may have even helped you get listed for one of your credits.

But you don’t have to take our word for it any more. You can see Laura’s work – and others – as it happens, and thank our users yourself!

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Chicago Theater Database Update: The Count

November 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Cross-mentioned at the Chicago Theater Data Blog, natch…

New Features in the Chicago Theater Database Today! I’ve turned on a number of aggregating counters that will be used in future sorting functionality, but for the moment I’m having fun seeing who exactly are the busiest artists (weighted to benefit the most prolific playwrights), companies, venues and most-produced plays in the existing and evolving online census of Chicago Theater.

Lots more analysis to check out about the Chicago Theater scene – and thanks to a number of our contributors who have been knocking off a TON of history and program input projects in the past few weeks.

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Want some Work?

November 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB, In a Perfect World

Hey.

Are you a Director in Chicago?

Are you a Playwright in Chicago?

Are you a Performer in Chicago?

The CTDB happily announces a new feature this morning: a list of companies that accept your submissions, how to contact them, and, as always, links to more detail about each company’s history and mission.

This is cross-posted over at the CTDB Blog.
_______________________

Good luck today, everyone.

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