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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.


(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:


  • 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.


  • 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


  • “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.


  • 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.

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July 15, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’m in the middle of my eighth summer teaching at this place, so I’m teching – no joke – 10 shows right now, but I wanted to take a moment to draw some attention to some folks.

So this whole Chase grant thing is complete. And Chicago theatres made their mark, and in several of the 15 cases landed in the top 200 of companies (thus receiving a $20,000) in creative ways that didn’t buy into Chase’s marketing mechanism. That’s $300,000 that Chase just dumped on typically small-to-mid-sized Chicago theatres. I find that fact to be awesome. However, I’ve also been a fairly vocal opponent of the community messaging behaviors that the grant tends to encourage, so the folks that I did end up voting for demonstrated some capacity for making the ask for votes their own.

The Neo-futurists first prompted me to support them by leveraging their campaign during the run of a show that directly and ingeniously interrogated the links and points of contact between arts, corporate structures and marketing (check out their “word from our sponsor” videos). In addition, they focused their requests for votes to facebook-ready laptops available in their lobby, rather than impersonal, overwhelming and disconnecting e-mail blasts.

Another group, Will Act For Food, outlined the specific uses they intend for the funds which included benefits beyond production value and replacing other grants such as Illinois Arts Council funding that have dried up or been delayed. Essentially, they added some transparency to the ask, which in turn makes them somewhat accountable as beneficiaries of the grant to achieve some measurable results out of their windfall. I hope that all companies who get funds from a community-voted grant demonstrate the same level of accountability to that community who votes for them, just as you would file a grant report to a granting association. That structure, I think, helps young non-profits with loose infrastructures gather some long-term support in times like these.

But all that’s just my opinion. It was a hard decision, and not one done without some hand-wringing, but my company New Leaf decided not to participate in the campaign because the methods we’d have to employ to win such a grant at this stage didn’t fit our vision of how we want to cultivate relationships with the community.

But let me tell you what does fit our vision: 84 People voted for us anyway despite the fact that we didn’t ask for their votes. And I’d like to thank them personally now. I don’t have access to the entire list (I’m curious to know if winners / administrators DO have access) but I’ll make do with what I can.

Thank you, Rebecca Zellar, for casting the first vote for New Leaf.

Thanks to Sally LaRowe, Jonathan Baude and the Theatre Seven folks who were one of the 15 theatres who won the grant, Ziza Bonszabrié, Emjoy Gavino, and Andrew Wilder who runs this great blog about making cheese.

Thank you @loehrbrarian.

Thank you Jenn Gibson, Amanda Bobbitt, Mary-Arrchie Theatre, and our board member Anne Sheridan Smith who is a part of Foiled Again.

Thanks to Joshua Aaron Weinstein of Livewire, Michael Pacas of Backstage, and Nicolle Iverson Van Dyke of GreyZelda.

Thank you to Pat Fries. Thank you to Nate Burger (a.k.a Monday). Thank you to Camden Peterson, one of my NHSI students who’s now all matriculated and ME’d for us on a show. Thank you to my intern Sarah Ramos who just moved to Chicago and is now a kick ass sound designer who you’re about to hear about.

Thank you to Lindsay Bartlett, John Taflan, Brenda Kelly and Katie Genualdi.

Thank you to blogger / playwright / tastemaker Rob Kozlowski.

Thank you to Lee Keenan, who is not related to me except through our love of theatrical design.

And thank you to everyone else who spoke up for us while we focused our energy elsewhere.

Your ongoing relationship and in many cases partnership with us is worth more than $20,000. A lot more. And I just wanted to say that.

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Sound in Rehearsal

April 27, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Sound

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to a discussion with a number of – I’m gonna say it – legendary designers and engineers (Rob Milburn, Andre Pluess, Toy DeIorio and Goodman sound head David Naunton) and equally heavyweight Chicago-area Equity stage managers to talk about a common challenge that we now face as technology rapidly evolves: when, whether, and how to use rehearsal and placeholder sound effects in the rehearsal room. While the technological challenges nearly solve themselves as new solutions and software rapidly evolve, the ethical challenges of maintaining the right support of all artistic processes in the room remains something that isn’t discussed as a community as much, and it was wonderful to witness some of the most experienced minds in the city tackle the problem.

Some of my takeaways from the discussion, which must have synthesized the collected experience of nearly a thousand productions:

– The challenge of incorporating an element as young as sound into a rehearsal process boils down to the entire team’s ability to effectively estimate the scope of the resources required to achieve a smooth level of operation. That means: know how many people and how much time it takes. There’s no one-size-fits-all process that works for every production, and if a stage manager is tied up running sound cues that means they’re not on book or capturing blocking changes. Especially in devised-work shows where sound playback is as integral to the development of the work as music is to a musical, a reasonable estimate of the labor required to effectively run rehearsal sound needs to be made, and the theater needs to make a programming decision with those costs in mind as to whether rehearsal sound should be incorporated. In many theaters right now, this estimate of priority and expense exists in a limbo, and by asking SMs to “just press go” we may still be at risk of asking SMs to do so much that they’re unable to do the core of their jobs.

– The line that both stage managers and designers seem to want to draw in terms of who takes what is that designers want to manipulate cues, and stage managers don’t like manipulating cues. However, everyone acknowledges that stopping creative flow for a director or cast by saying “let’s not do that until the designer weighs in” is often counter-productive. The ideal solution seems to be either a) theaters and designers evolving the contracted relationship to secure more of the designer’s time so that they can be contracted with in-rehearsal development time (which might be seen as an early tech, for better or worse) or b) creating a basic technological infrastructure to have a more 24-hour turnaround of new sound cues and programming files in rehearsal. This would allow stage managers to adjust things like cue timing in the moment, and allow designers and directors to have to have more close communication about how cues need to evolve.

– and yes, because I know Chris Ashworth is listening in, all of the sound designers and many stage managers in the room said one word about how to solve this particular technological need: qLab. Which is to say: use software with a high level of flexibility and repeatability (the Go button is always the Go button) and a minimum of cost. So great was the buy-in for qLab that for the first time I’ve seen, it was mentioned that for many reasons it may make sense for theaters or SMs to invest in Macintosh rather than PC computers for the simplicity that the mac platform lends to this and other processes – to say nothing of the flexibility mac offers in being able to run windows. This is not to say that it is suddenly the SM’s responsibility to supply equipment for the operation of the theater – I made a point of saying the opposite, in fact. But if SM & Sound Designer is on the same platform for the first time, suddenly that kind of communication gets a LOT easier and more virtuosic.

– The picture of this system looks a lot like what I and other designers have been using for short-timeframe or remote designing (yes, because we’ve overbooked ourselves):

  • Laptop running a free sound program that both designer and theatre/SM have access to
  • Web server or site through which designers can upload cues to the SM
  • Data files updated when needed that contain the cues and programming so that SMs can ‘just hit go’
  • A quick-and-easy manual or lesson to help SMs or their assistants with the technical challenge of downloading and loading the new version of the show file
  • A minimum of two speakers – just to be loud enough to be heard – or more as specified and provided by the needs of the production

– Back to the question of finding better ways to estimate the NEED of rehearsal sound, there is the problem of our eyes being bigger than our stomachs. From the director’s perspective, and often the sound designer’s perspective, having the ability to have complete working prototypes every step of the way would be great. Also great: enough staff to reassembles and reworks that prototype into different configurations whenever we want to experiment. Of course that bumps up against the financial limits of the theater and it’s production management’s creative job to find ways of getting as much experimentation as possible to be able to deliver a quality product that’s under budget. Sound has evolved SO rapidly in the last ten years that every theatre, production manager, director and sound designer have a different method of determining the exact time and money cost of that reworking and retooling a sound design. If a team won’t be able to be virtuosic with implementing rehearsal sound, sometimes the right answer is: hold off. Especially when dealing with new works, if a play’s text is going to be evolving until late in the process, a good sound designer will often get better results by NOT weighing in until the breath of the text has been worked out in rehearsal – sometimes in that last week before tech. Again, every one of these decisions is a case-by-case estimate of need that has to be done by the whole team for each production.

What’s worked for you?

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What is the Question of the Year?

January 02, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

I got to re-balance my creative input / output ratio in December. And it felt goooooood.

“What is this compassion? Because I don’t really know what it is. So I want to know, really, what is it?”

Aunt Dan and Lemon

“Thinking rationally is the way to be happy and the key to learning more.”

– L. Ron Hubbard, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (h/t Granata)

I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work for me. It’s like preemptively choosing the solution for a problem you haven’t come up against yet.

In past years I always thought, “This year I’ll do more blank and try to be less blank.” But the idea of approaching a theatrical season as a question (instead of say, a theme) or approaching software development from the reiterative question of “what is the way to build what our clients need” has yielded some exciting fruit this year.

And so I wonder: My life seems awfully recursive. A question seems like it might be useful.

The danger is in picking the wrong question. “How can I make my business more profitable?” for instance might lead me pretty far astray, though it is certainly something on my mind. At this point in this year, I’m thinking a lot about stability because it’s been a tumultuous year. My wife and several of our friends all left full time work / half-hearted careers to pursue part time work / full-hearted careers. Watching and helping them develop those full-hearted careers has, I think, been the unasked question for me in 2009. Can you survive that way, ‘living your dream’? And when you do, does it stay your dream? What of that romance can you hang on to, if any, and would you want to? And the answer was: It is possible to be more fulfilled by your work, and the difference between plenty and just getting by is in the strength of your connections to community and friends. Those are the tools that we use to overcome fear and poverty (and one of the reasons why I think it is important for me to stay in theater still).

So the question for this year deals with stability – “How can I be more stable and more sustainable?” The nice thing about a question is that it’s three-dimensional – the shape of the question shifts depending on the time of day or the context in which you consider it. My current, two-dimensional answer to that question is that “stability” for me does not mean for me a prototypical “financial security” – it means a sustainable level of activity that is full-hearted and doesn’t physically kill me or prevent me from enjoying my life or prevent my wife and friends and family from enjoying theirs. Balancing work, play, and family takes work and consideration – I wouldn’t want to ask that question frivolously.

Stability for me is linked to that question of compassion from Aunt Dan. As a designer (both web and sound), or really as a person who provides services to clients, I require compassion to do my job/life effectively, since I essentially act as an artistic and technical advisor to another storyteller. I hear what a storyteller (a director or an organization) is trying to communicate or accomplish with their story, and I create the tools or atmosphere in which that communication is possible. I require compassion and empathy to be able to translate the director’s complex vocabulary and emotional understanding of their story into my own emotional understanding of the story, and in the case of web design, incorporate the reactions and responses of many, many users into a final, finished and ideally universal understanding of a complex narrative. That question, quoted above, is the core of what I didn’t connect to with that script (which I should add was excellently produced and presented by my pals at BackStage Theatre – all artists I deeply respect.) Without compassion, I don’t operate, and my designs don’t resonate with other people, and I don’t get hired again – which of course, always may happen. Compassion for me is a sense of empathy, an often misguided but for me visceral and tangible sense that I understand the motives and worldview of another human being. I couldn’t operate if I didn’t feel some level of compassion for and from my collaborators, or an audience, or the users of my websites.

But compassion also quickly throws me out of balance and creates a vast amount of instability in my life. (I can hear the Objectivists in the room chuckling, and I’ll get to you later.) The art itself is always a solitary and personal reaction to that compassion, which comes from something internal to me, hopefully not an external, societal, or conventional response to a given design challenge (“It’s night! We need to hear crickets!”) Compassion muddies that personal relationship I have with my work, and left unchecked can muddy and complicate the quality of that work. Compassion with my clients compels me to take on too much work to fill my clients and my collaborators needs before my own. Finding the right valve that gets me to shut off the sense of compassion in favor of the sense of taking care of myself at just the right moment has always been a challenge for me. In many ways and on many days, my sense of compassion is least developed with this guy, Nick Keenan.

Changing and developing our lives and the people that we are and the Things that We Do With Our Time On This Planet is not a question of carving or molding ourselves out of clay. We’re given certain talents and certain flaws, and I believe very strongly that those talents and flaws are closely linked together – amazingly, fascinatingly so. Applying dogma to our lives that we developed before New Years past (about so-and-so pounds lost or whatee-hoo books read or blah-tee-blah engrams we need to audit before we achieve Clear) can unintentionally damage our honest experience of February, April, June, and September.

I wonder if the question will stick better than the resolution. The question is a iterative procedure that is scalable, a kind of Kaizen ritual that provides structure and allows for individual variation and diversity, person-to-person and day-to-day. Life is shaped like a question, not an answer.

Living that question is audacious humility, and I could use somma that.

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Montage for a Day ruled by Chaos

December 02, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

Yup, been having technical difficulties with the site all day. I have taken one too many forced tea times today while waiting for my computer or the server or the network or the alignment of the planets to behave in some kind of semi-predictable way.

So to celebrate, here’s another piece of bloggy performance art to help voodoo out the bad server daemons. This one is at least in part h/t @greyzelda.

Watch and listen to this at half volume:

While also listening to this:

While watching this:

Remember, you’ll need to start the album when the tiger roars to really get them to sync properly.

This is the sound of a thought.

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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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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="">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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Stage Management Awards Update: We have Green-light.

June 16, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

Very happy news came in a couple days ago from @mltachco: The New York Innovative Theatre Awards (they that evaluate the off- off- broadway scene) is trying out an Outstanding Stage Management award this coming season.

Nice job, off- off-ers. Hey Chicago, can we make this happen already?

From their press release:

Since the very inception of the IT Awards, we have wanted to develop a means of recognizing the unique, necessary and often overlooked role of the Stage Manager. As a part of the celebration for our 5th year, we are excited to be able to present the inaugural Outstanding Stage Manager Award.

The IT Awards will be the premiere ceremony to showcase the people who are the “glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context.” — In Defense of Stage Managers blog

(that’s me. hee hee!)

After years of research and consulting hundreds of theatre practitioners and especially Stage Managers, we have developed a process similar to our honorary awards, but one as unique as the award itself. The two-part process includes both judge’s scores and an application that will be reviewed by a committee.

Beginning in January of 2009, as a part of their assignments IT Award judges were asked to evaluate how the technical elements of the production flowed together. Those scores will help inform the committee who will review applications and make the final decision. The application asks for examples of the Stage Manager’s organization and leadership. Two letters of recommendation are also required from people who worked with the Stage Manager on the production.

The OSM (Outstanding Stage Manager) Committee is made of eight individuals that include stage managers as well as directors, actors, press, producers and crew. OSM Committe Chair, Stephanie Cox-Williams said “There are awards for directors, lighting designers, sound designers, set designers, actors, etc., but without a Stage Manager to put all of the pieces in motion, correctly and on time, those elements would not make a cohesive production. The IT Awards, is taking a big step forward by recognizing the unsung heroes of the stage.”

All productions registered with the IT Awards for the 2009 season and that had opening dates after 1/1/09 are eligible to submit an application.

We believe that we are the first awards organization to recognize Stage Managers along with all of the other production elements. It is an exciting step, but an unprecedented one so feedback from the applicants, the OSM Committee and the OOB Community at-large will be an important part of this process going forward.

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