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Archive for the ‘In a Perfect World’

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.

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How to get the Right Website for Your Theater Company

April 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere

When we first got the proposed design for the Newleaftheatre.org site in 2004, the marketing team of the era was in absolute awe. We were sitting in the spacious, well-lit trendy “living room” of one of our company members’ friends design firm (won’t tell you which one – we’ve been lucky enough to have three such relationships in our eight-year history) and we were each handed this shiny binder with images of orange bevels, warm handwritten text, and black-and-white stills from our current production. It was SNAZZY. For a company that was tiny and had no money, this pro-bono design was the get of a lifetime. We still get comments, in a market five years older, about how great our site looks. That site has caught the attention of artists just landing in Chicago, and we get the privelage of working with them first… because we had a web presence that was simple and sleek and showed us off.

Cut back to 2004. I’m sitting there, trying to figure out the world of marketing as an artist, and I came to that meeting with a question. I was to be the webmaster once the site was rolling, and I wanted to be ready. I had been learning this neat new (to me) programming language called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.. The possibilities of CSS seemed to fit right in with such a sleek design – easy to read code meant that the site would be simple to update under many unforseen circumstances. For example, a vertical production photo instead of a horizontal one. I asked the question: “Would this site be coded in CSS?”

Sure, it may have been a rude and rube-ish question to ask a hot shot designer who just handed us the keys to a beautiful pro-bono design. And I felt that rush of guilt immediately, and I backed down.

And you know what? I’m STILL cleaning up and working around and limboing under that jerk’s code five years later. Look at it! Go to Newleaftheatre.org, click on “view source” and look at it! It’s a freaking mess! Table code every which way, embedded font tags that make the simplest updates cumbersome and confusing… The very definition of an unextensible site. Over the years – as I’ve learned more – I’ve slowly updated under-the-hood in little half-day bursts to allow for a database-driven site (which in turn compresses a half-day of updating the site everytime we put on a new show to about half an hour), and fancy things like photo montages, twitter integration. But the thing that prevents all these things from really gelling? Not enough time to massage and fix the shoddy programming that underpinned a beautiful site.

So, you know I love you. I don’t want you or your theater to have this fate. So here’s some tips and ‘gotchas’ to look for when your board and marketing department get a crackin’ for a new website.

1) Be very careful with conflating the identity of a graphic designer and a programmer / web developer. It is actually rare to get both in the same person, and boards tend to like designers but forget the programmer. (though now that’s starting to shift: Social media means there’s now a primary focus on web developers — but everyone still assumes that they also design, which many of them don’t) To really confuse the issue, designers also often think they can program (you know I love you guys), and programmers often think they can design (you’re my peeps). If someone says they are both, look at both sides of their portfolio. You need BOTH when you’re creating an online identity, but given the realities of long-term theater budgets, I’d argue you MUST have a good programmer or you will be fighting bad programming decisions for the life of the site, and that will cost you in time and missed opportunities. You also want to make sure that in addition to submitting a nice proposal (ooh! It’s velo-bound!) and coming in under budget and on time, your designer and programmer are hearing you and thinking creatively about how to translate the identity of your company into both a functionality (programming) and a look (design). It’s the same thing as theater, and board-types from the corporate world forget that when they put on arts marketing hats. (Don’t get me started with the corporate world and web presences – they know they need one and that theaters are bad at creating them but 90% of them don’t know how to achieve that on a granular level.) You know what designer/director trust feels like in your company, and you know what a designer who can’t execute their ideas looks like. And what do you do when they design beautifully but can’t execute? You hire them a technician – an ME, a sound engineer, a Technical Director. Same theory applies here.

2) The Good-Fast-Cheap-(Pick 2)” rule applies. As much as I just bitched the dude out, I do think that getting an experienced designer on a pro-bono basis absolutely pays dividends over the long term. Pro-bono means that the designer – for once in their career working for the man – is allowed to play and push their own creative limits, so you can really end up with staggering work if you cultivate the right relationship. To that end – If you’re getting Good and Cheap (gotta have cheap, right?) DO NOT THINK THAT YOU CAN PUSH FOR FAST. Budget plenty of time to get the results you want with little investment. The designer has to take you and your deadlines seriously, but for instance – don’t fall into the trap of the ‘partial launch so that we can hit this deadline.’ This is just asking for trouble, because your developer will usually need to develop two working sites within the time frame that they would normally be building one. Two mediocre sites do not equal one good one. When you sacrifice good, you will burn them out, and then they will drop you like a hot tamale. Check in with them. Find out what makes them excited. Continue to engage their interests, and they’ll keep working with you – just like any collaborative artist.

3) I swear to god, no one does this, but it’s so much more important than getting the right the visual look of a site. When a process neglects Content Management training, designers tend to push their Content-Management-of-choice on you, the client. This allows them to fake you out a bit and get you off their back – when they’re on home turf most designers have great agility and can *appear* to provide all three pieces of the magic triangle: Good, Fast & Cheap! You Win!

Not so fast, Sonic the Hedgehog. Allow enough time in your timeline to make sure that you understand under-the-hood programming choices. You should budget time to have a rep from your company research & discuss the relative merits of each Content Management System (CMS) with the preference but without the bias of the designer/programmer. Some CMS’s that might be proposed:

– Dreamweaver / Text editing. Run away, already. Dreamweaver is an HTML tool, not a CMS, and updating the page will require HTML skill. That means crazy maintenance time and/or costs and a greater likelihood that your updates will break the page.

– Designer maintenance. Not a viable option for the theaters these days, and if you went pro-bono, it’s a laughable thought. The goal here is that the CMS should be easy enough to use that any company member can update the site – because at some point, marketing will be a burden.

– XML or database-driven site interpreted by PHP / Ruby / Javascript. Now we’re talking. Requires some very basic coding knowledge in some cases, but data is separated from design so your updates will not mistakenly break the site. In this case, what goes into the database (the “schema’) and what gets hardcoded into the site should be a subject of some scrutiny, since your programmer will probably not get it right on the first guess. Extending your site later will require another visit from the programmer in most cases – and increasingly, as new technologies like Twitter pop up every long weekend, that could turn into a sustainability problem. Unless you REJECT change.

– Joomla or Drupal. Perfectly servicable CMSs with built-in databases, though it can be confusing to some – including me, and I know five web languages. Try it out first. Tony will recommend Joomla every time. Tony, you’re a crazy person for this reason.

– WordPress, again with a built-in database. My flavor of choice because of its ease, ubiquity, and extensibility, but it needs some tweaking to wipe away the wordpress “look” and would also need considerable modifications to power say, ongoing box office functionality. I’m biased, too, remember. Again, try before you buy. We did quite a bit of this sort of tweaking with Dan Granata’s new net-home, Theatre That Works.

This post was (once again!) sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me a nice late-night mug of Genmai-cha. The toasted rice tea reminds me of Iwate, Japan. Sigh. Thanks (oh so belatedly), Elizabeth!

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Schedule C for the Theater Freelancer

April 13, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, productivity, Tools

If your income stream is anything like mine, you kind of feel a one-two punch at the end of the tax year for simply being an artist in America (though clearly Canadians also have issues). Most theaters don’t employ artists on a full-time basis, nor do they pay a lot. Assembling an artistic income means 1099 / Independent Contractor income and that means no matter how little money you make and how close to the real, scary poverty line you are: you’re in business for yourself now. You get to file a schedule C and pay self-employment tax. The punch that you feel is the realization: I already GAVE my financial stability to theater… now I have to give again because it actually paid me less money than it took for me to survive?

Ah, doesn’t whining make you feel better? I recommend a good whining / coffee / bite your pillow break every half hour or so while doing your taxes.

Before I get started: This is not meant as a catch-all tax guide, nor should you use it as one. I am not a CPA. I am also writing this in 2009, and the tax law changes every year, sometimes drastically. Think of this as a catalyst for your own personal investigation and deeper understanding of how the tax code applies to freelancing artists. If you’re looking for an artist-friendly CPA, I highly recommend getting one locally via word of mouth. I’m also a little “too little too late” for this year, so hopefully this will help serve as a guide to help you capture the information you’ll need for next year. Those of you in the Chicago still in need of help area could also file an extension ASAP (most CPAs are only taking extension clients right now) and look to @rockstarcpa, aka Martin Kamenski of Collaboraction Theatre.

So the trick to Schedule C is the claiming of deductions – expenses – that legitimately offset your as-yet untaxed income and prove to the IRS (in terms it understands) that no, I’m eating Top Ramen for crying out loud, I didn’t turn a $14k profit this year that you now need to tax me for. You’ve accrued more expenses than you may think in the pursuit of your artistic work, which is why it may feel so ridiculous that you’re being taxed on this income. After all, the money is gone now, right?

Hopefully not, actually. In preparation for your next year, make sure you find some way of imposing a rule on yourself that you squirrel away a certain amount of each check into savings over the course of the year or pay estimated taxes at the end of each quarter. The first way, you keep the interest, the second way, the government does. Either way, you’re talking about a couple packets of Starbucks VIA, so do what makes you happy. It makes the tax crunch a lot less stressful to deal with when you’re only worried about filing paperwork rather than hustling for scratch to pay the tax man.

So about those deductions. I use my debit card almost all year long rather than cash. It’s really annoying for splitting the bill, but I find that getting a receipt for everything is both a good budget reminder and takes care of my paperwork for me. I sort and file these receipts all year long into deductible and non-deductible expenses in a little coupon file like this one, one for each year. Best part about the folder? It’s a deductible office expense. I also keep track of my budgets, expenses, and anticipated freelancing income using the cheap and pretty useful online software Buxfer. It’s easy to tag transactions into pre-sorted deduction categories, and balance my checkbook from my iPhone. The upshot of all of this: You’re going for a stress-free tax season. That’s much easier to achieve when you do all the sorting and filing work in little easy chunks all year long rather than in one chaotic panicked mess on April 14th.

These are the deductions I track:

Business Meals. Not every meal, but every meal that I took because I was discussing work related to my 1099 income: Production meetings, design meetings, interviews, planning sessions, all that jazz. It always ends up being a bigger percentage of my meals than I expect. You only get to deduct 50% of these expenses, but the collaborative art of theater often makes us go out together to chat when we could be bringing a sandwich from home, so it’s a cost of doing business. I always write who I was meeting with and what we discussed on the receipt or in a Buxfer note, because you can be sure I won’t remember later.

Office Supplies
For a designer, this can be a pretty big expense. For me, it’s CD-Rs and play binders, for some it’s model building or drafting supplies. In the paperless age, however, it’s nothing compared to the allure of…

Resume and Job-seeking expenses
Oh yeah. Headshots. Portfolio expenses. Kinkos. Anything you spent looking for work, and especially for you performers, that’s a lot a lot a lot of potential deductions.

Section 179 Depreciation
This one is cleverly titled to be as confusing as possible, but it roughly translates as a deduction for the full cost of medium-term assets (Computers, hard drives, PDAs, Software) that you bought this year. Since these assets often die after 3-5 years, Section 179 allows you to depreciate and thereby deduct the entire portion of these assets that you use for business in a single year. Needless to say, if you own a computer or hard drive or seven that you use exclusively for business, as I do, this is the golden child of deductions.

Business Travel
If you’re lucky enough to get regional or even national work, you probably don’t need my advice. However, this can be a useful deduction. Taxis, Hotels, Travel Meals, Parking Fees and Plane Fare are all deductible in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Track ’em.

Business Mileage & Use of a Personal Car
No, you can’t deduct your regular commute, so get that out of your head. But if you’re freelancing and go to a different location to work, that is deductible, as are Taxi fares and Parking costs that you incur for freelance business purposes. (For instance, my “day job” source of W-2 income is downtown, so when I park there as part of my regular commute, I do NOT get to deduct those expenses, but if I travel to Wisconsin to design a show, I DO.) What the IRS would like here in your records is odometer readings all year long, which I find to be an unsustainable practice when you use your car for both personal and business use. The key here is specific written records. I find myself keeping a really good calendar record of everywhere I go day-to-day, so I cross reference round-trip mileages for a number of theaters in the suburbs where I work with my calendar. A simple spreadsheet later, I have a table of about a dozen places I drove for business over the year and the number of times I drove there, and voila: a pretty close estimate of my business mileage. Also, if you really want to make the IRS happy, make writing your odometer reading into a dashboard notebook an annual New Years tradition. How they want you to do this and while also not drinking and driving is something they leave up to you.

Professional Research & Subscriptions – This is something you should definitely talk over with a professional, but I encourage you to track your expenses here, whether or not you can deduct them. Artists spend a lot on research in the course of the year. We see other shows and buy tickets, we go to awards ceremonies and trade shows because we it’s good for our career. We rent movies and purchase books and music and all kinds of art to investigate dramaturgical history or artistic technique. Actors and dancers need to maintain themselves physically, so a gym membership is a reasonable business expense. If you spend money on it because you’re using it as research or material for your work, it is deductible. Be reasonable now. Your Nintendo Wii is probably not helping you with your flexibility all that much.

IRA Contributions – Why pay taxes when you can be saving for poverty-in-retirement? You ain’t gonna be a ballerina forever. Another benefit I’ve found about squirreling away some of my 1099 income is that it means I have a glut of savings that I can throw into a traditional IRA at the end of the year… some of which will actually increase my refund at the end of the year. Stocks are also in the toilet this year, which means that unless the economy really falls off a cliff your donations will go farther when the economy rebounds. Check with an accountant about the pros and cons of traditional vs. Roth IRAs… They are DIRT simple to set up online. I was surprised.

Other deductions you should track closely:

Tax Filing Expenses including software, filing costs, and CPA professional fees. I guess this is how the government absolves themselves of the guilt of making the tax code so complex that you need a professional to file if you have a non-traditional relationship with your employer.

Credit Card Interest on Business Expenses ONLY sometimes.

Cellphone Usage for business purposes – as with all personal / private usage, deduct business usage only.

Professional Dues & Fees – I got my IATSE Union Card this year. It was espensive, but it’s quite the deduction.

Charitable expenses – Track all your donations of materials to 501(c)(3) organizations, and make sure you get a donation letter for the agreed-upon value of your donated goods. Update: thanks to @rockstarcpafor this catch: You cannot take a tempting, tempting deduction for donated time to an organization. Donated goods and materials only. Also, do not deduct political contributions or anything that you received a benefit in kind for, like that CD I got with my NPR donation this year.

State, Local Taxes and Registration Fees – Different states allow you to deduct different taxes, so this is definitely one you’ll want to investigate more. For instance, Illinois does NOT allow you to deduct annual car registration fees, other states do.

Home Office
This is one that every CPA and tax software warns you that it’s like playing with Audit fire, and I tend to agree with them. However, it’s a huge potential deduction IF you have a dedicated space of your home that you use exclusively for business. The concept here is: figure out the percentage of square footage in your home that you use for your home office, and then deduct that percentage of your home expenses: Rent, Utilities, Mortgage Interest, Association Fees. This is an oft-abused deduction, so handle with care and seek specific advice to your situation. Remember too that you can deduct 100% of any office-related expenses like furniture that you use entirely for business purposes. Getting the trend here? Do not deduct your personal stuff, DO deduct your business stuff, the rest is just capturing and estimating the relative value of each. If you own your home, there are also some long-term ramifications to using the home office deduction.

One thing that’s really important than can be confusing when using tax software like TaxCut or TurboTax: Most business deductions can EITHER be deducted on schedule C as business deductions OR you can deduct them as part of your itemized deductions offsetting your W-2 tax-withheld income. Obviously the advantage is to apply deductions as much as is appropriate off your Schedule C income, since the standard income deduction is pretty healthy on your W-2 “day job” income. And be careful when moving column A to column B that you don’t accidentally deduct expenses in both places, because that of course is a no-no.

See? This is SIMPLE. Taxes are EASY for EVERYONE to do, especially artists whose livelihoods neatly fit into predescribed non-corporate deductible behavior like BOTTLED WATER DELIVERY. I am being SARCASTIC.

I’m gonna wrap up with a little bit of social commentary about an often-overlooked, but significant deduction that I think artists would be more vocal about if they had ever heard of it. It’s called the “Qualified Performing Artist Deduction” and it’s a doozy. It’s so obscure and mostly useless that most CPAs I consulted in my early theater years had never heard about it. If you are “Qualified” for the deduction, you are allowed to deduct all your job-related expenses IN ADDITION to the standard deduction, even on your non-schedule-C income. However, to qualify you need to jump through some gut-wrenching hoops that I wouldn’t wish on anyone:

– You need to have made a minimum of 2 $200+ performer-related W-2s during the year
– Your performing-related deductions must have been 10% or more of your income
– Your adjusted GROSS total income cannot be more than $16,000 for the year – and married couples taking the deduction must not have a COMBINED income of $16k in a year.

Here’s where I get incensed… that $16,000 limit is awfully close to the poverty line, and don’t get me started about not doubling the limit for married couples. I’m glad truly starving artists can actually take this deduction, the problem is all those folks who are still starving and make more than $16k in a year. The limit on this deduction – as far as I can gather – has not been amended to adjust for inflation since the Tax Code was overhauled in 1986, as similar deductions are on a regular basis, although Sens. Schumer and Feinstein attempted to in 2006. So bully to them. It’s such a weird tax code exception – an exception literally made for only one kind of worder – and so on the one hand it’s one of the only tangible examples I can think of where the government has actually tried to treat performing artists differently and give them a leg up. On the other hand that assistance is so half-hearted and I’m sure politically unstable that a prerequisite for that leg up is that you chop the leg off first.

This article was sponsored by @marebiddle, who not only bought me a cup of home-made Kona coffee that fed the adrenaline drive required to write a post on tax code, but also specifically requested that I follow through on it with a simple “Please…”. Thanks, Mare, and good luck!

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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

April 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I was thrilled to be asked by The New Colony contributor and blogger Benno Nelson to engage in an online debate that took the temperature of theater blogs in this our internet age. That’s why I totally didn’t join in until a couple minutes ago. What can I say, it’s tech.

At any rate, here’s the discussion so far, and you can join in yourself. You’ll hear from Benno first and then you’ll hear from me.

The internet will be for maybe only a few more years the Wild West, the Manifest Destiny of our age. Not everyone understands what it is or how to use it, but most everyone knows they cannot be left out of it. This applies, of course, to Theater Companies. There have been some attempts to codify, or at least examine the components and goals of websites, and particularly blogs operated by Theater Companies. The consistently excellent Kris Vire has, for example, offered a few ruminations on this topic, but I think it is worth our attention here as well. The justification for including it as a Cliché, I feel it necessary to point out, is that the possession of a “blog” seems to have grown into an unconsidered necessity for theater companies and I want to draw attention to this thoughtlessness and worry about it.

First of all, it is so self-evident that it is almost absurd to point out that the primary activity of Theater Company websites is marketing/advertising: making it easy for a potential audience to get telegraphic information – who, what, where, when, why – about the company and their productions. But what is a Theater Company blog, and what is it for?

Well, it’s actually not very simple. A clichéd response would be that a blog allows a theater company to maintain an online presence. What the hell is that? In the case of The New Colony, for instance, what do they gain by having these columns up once a week? Ideally, I suppose, they get increased traffic by becoming a place people can count on for new content: in the internet, updates are the equivalent of a neon sign. The more updates, the more content, the more people are likely to check your site and keep checking it. Does this sell tickets? I really don’t know, but when I saw FRAT it was full almost to capacity.

The Steppenwolf also relies on content generation, but they are much more streamlined. That is, their posts are all about the Steppenwolf, their shows, their season, their collaborators. It is essentially like an ever-expanding playbill. Interestingly though, for a company like Steppenwolf or The Neo-Futurists where much of the draw of the company is in the company members, the blog offers a great way to deepen audiences’ familiarity with and knowledge of these members. By including a post by Joe Dempsey on joining the cast of Art, for instance, we get a better idea of who he is. Perhaps we’ll want to see him more, and return to the theater when he returns.

What is a bad theater company blog? One that is hard to read or navigate (with regard to design), or contains meaningless information, or is updated infrequently. The insistence on web 2.0 interaction is a little tiresome for me, because I don’t believe that the companies really care what I think; these seem to me rather more an extension of the farce of post-performance talk-backs, but I hope I’m wrong.

The interesting thing about the internet is that it is in some ways a great equalizer. It is essentially as easy for a tiny company without even a reliable performance space to operate an excellent website as it is for the Goodman– to make a home online and offer consistent and engaging programming there as on stage. It is not a requirement to offer this, but it is really not particularly difficult and if it exhibits that Theaters are engaged in the world as we come upon it today, not desperately keeping up and not hopelessly aloof, then they are certainly worth the trouble. But the panicked desperation to have a blog because it is the thing to do leads to a lot of bad blogs and a haziness about what they can and should be.

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

While I’m late to contribute to this online debate, it’s certainly not for lack of interest. A number of the concepts of content generation that Benno explores here (capturing more traffic, deepening interest of the work already being done by theaters, cultivating an ability to communicate clearly and interestingly about one’s own work) are things we tried to throw into relief with World Theatre Day – an event a number of Chicago theater companies threw in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chopin Theatre.

For me, the Chicago WTD celebration was about putting some of these theories into practice and, hopefully, feeding that growing energy of theater’s online presence back offline into a live spectacle. Before the event, theaters from all over the world were asked to contribute video, audio and images of work and play – content they were already generating in the normal course of producing theater – to an open blog. That video and content was then projected and shared in the event on a big screen. During the party, a team of volunteers captured quick video snippets and interviews, and uploaded it within minutes to the open blog using the dirt-simple video capturing tool that is the Flip Camera. International theater artists live-tweeted their responses to the fun was being had in real time, and I posted those tweets back up on the projector screen. It was like internet connection feedback.

So yes: there’s many different ways to generate content as a theater, and there’s many ways to streamline the process of generating new content. But there’s a couple points here where Benno and I seem to have completely different perspectives. One is on the preeminence of new content over easy content. We agree, before you get too excited, that this content has always got to be good. This difference of opinion makes sense, as I’m a production manager of a small company who knows that when you make time for creating new content during a production process, you inevitably rob time from another project … like opening your show. Since marketing is a contract of trust with a potential customer, the model of “you must create new content on your online presence every week or you will lose your online audience” just isn’t sustainable in my experience. What I think is sustainable is something similar… a model of “capturing” your

While Benno is suspect, I’m a total believer and convert to the value and, yes, necessity of social networking as a conscious and intelligently-utilized component to a company’s online presence. World Theatre Day in America simply would not have happened this year without the presence of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate and fuel it. We quite literally organized every aspect of that party – from putting together the talent and equipment to getting the hundreds of partygoers to show up – all through a Facebook meme that allowed individual theaters to add their own branding sauce to the event. That said, Benno’s point about the way he feels about the way especially very large and very small theaters have been using social media – that “they don’t really care what he thinks” – well hell, attention must be paid here. If you are a theater that wants to take advantage of the huge currently-erupting geyser that is social media, part of the bargain is that you must demonstrate care about what your readership thinks. When they feel it’s not a two-way relationship, they bolt.

Remember to remember the obvious: rich two-way dialogue is what theater is all about. The fact that there seems to be a prevalent idea that post-performance talkbacks – or indeed any structured dialogue between theater and audience – is a “farce” is a sign of trouble in my book. That’s a signal to me that we need to reengage and re-conceive how this dialogue could really take place in the future. There have been many moments in the past year that actually indicate to me that theaters take the nurturing of this dialogue very seriously. I was witness to some electric moments of audience engagement in the talkbacks and performances of the O’Neill fest at the Goodman.

Speaking of the internet being an equalizer, it’s a little sad to note that this is because NO theaters, and really no industries on the planet right now, have the infrastructure currently to incorporate Social Networking and web content into their day to day operations. I’ve seen big, small, and medium theaters miss or delay big opportunities to engage in online dialogue, because they’re all still getting the hang of it. The wonderful talkbacks I mentioned above were captured – as the sound engineer I actually did the recording – but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t been rereleased as podcasts yet after over a month. The reason everyone is buzzing about these services and their effect on society right now is because those effects are potentially revolutionary. The effects of blogs on print journalism have shown exactly how revolutionary they can be. I’m not one of those (anymore?) that think that theater is in trouble, since theater ultimately thrives wherever people can talk with each other. New Leaf has been very lucky, as a very very small company, to be one of the beneficiaries of that equalizing force. Getting involved in bringing World Theatre Day to Chicago has put us, a tiny storefront theatre company, in contact with the strategic planners of TCG and in direct collaboration with the League of Chicago Theaters. Sharing our ideas has the added benefit of making us thought leaders. Before I get too excited about that, remember that our theories are only as strong as our data. Companies like Steppenwolf and the Goodman may prove to be the adopters that really matter, since they can accurately test how effective this new form of communication really works.

This is an unprecedented moment in theater’s history in the internet age. Finally, technology is not simply working on producing more widgets or harvesting more resources, we’re focusing our innovative energies on the fundamental challenges of human communication. And I think theater has a lot to teach technology in that department. But we, as a theater community, have to re-learn to have a dialogue in new formats first. And we’re doing it! Gold star.

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Raise Money. When No Money Comes: Save Money.

March 06, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, Teachable Moments

I have been thinking about this for a couple weeks now:

I love About Face. Their work is important. Their youth program is solid, and yes, I’d agree that it is unique. Inarguably About Face created several of the best long-running works I’ve seen in Chicago: I Am My Own Wife and Winesburg, Ohio. And there are a lot of others that I missed.

But. I cannot help raise $300,000 for About Face. Other than by drawing your attention to it, as many others have this week. If you can help, you should. But I’ve been trying for what seems like years to raise even $10,000 for my home theater, and that has never easy for a theater of our size under normal economic conditions. And I know from among other things the League Fiscal Survey that About Face is not alone and will not be alone in the coming months. I am imagining, right now, a sea of $300,000 pledge drives and that. just. will. not. work.

I get the pain, even if I don’t really understand of the specific conditions. There was this particular day I visited the offices of the soon-to-shutter Famous Door theater after the run of Great Society that I had worked on, days before they started rehearsals for their last production. This was a company that still inspires me, years later, for their seminal production of Cider House Rules that introduced me to Chicago theater – and what Chicago Theater could be. This particular day the tone in the office was… demoralized. Framed pictures were piling on desks. I remember that. No one was moving out… yet. But preparations were in effect. There was big debt being talked about in rumors. The managing director sheparded into a closed office a last-ditch group of independant funders. It was gut-wrenching to watch a theater that I loved break apart. I wish they had as a company reduced their overhead to a manageable level before they had to cease and burn out. Instead, they seemed to do what was best for the people in the company… dismantle the company to allow everyone to pursue their incredible acting careers.

This is not an idea I enjoy writing. It is a moment of support through challenge:

I can hear the furious typing of reprioritized budgets, and backup plans set in motion. Remember what we all know: we should support most what makes our work live most. (Hint: it’s the people, it’s not the office, the furniture.) It’s only partly the space, though we need to support the venues that support us just as if they were a company member. It’s the work, it’s not the size of the production budget. It is that ability to connect with students in your education program and teach them in a lasting way. You may not be able to pay the people, but find new ways to support and connect with your artists.

We must, must, must, must, must, must, must adapt or we will die. That starts with rationing. This is a climate change for the arts. If we are a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg we can do four things:

– Wait it out. And drown.

– Panic. And drown.

– Phone a prominent national zoo for a helicopter rescue and a cushy but ultimately transformed life as a toothless and contained exhibit in a museum. And hope they pick up the phone before we count all our unhatched chickens.

– Swim to the nearest rocky outcropping before we float away into open ocean and learn to bite through tough Walrus hide. As if our life depended on it.

Survival is more important than the Money.

Here is a list of things I am doing to help my collaborators continue to do the work they do in the face of nightmare scenarios. I have no resources to my name other than time, connections to other awesome people, and ingenuity. So I know these ideas don’t require significant amounts of money. Post your own additions in the comments:

– Unemployed? Spend your time learning new skills. I am training about five people right now about skills that are marketable beyond the arts., and as you can tell from that link, have already gotten some dividends on that training in a little over a year. HTML, PHP, Ruby on Rails Web Programming, Graphics Design, Podcast recording and production, DVD authoring. It is HARD to learn while you’re unemployed. It is hard to battle through the feeling of personal whatever to make small steps of progress again. So latch on to people who know skills like and beyond these, make them breakfast, and learn from them as if your life depends on it. Think about the possibilities you can tap into: there is an expanding market right now for highly-skilled freelancers as full-time coders and records. It’s not a pretty situation any way you slice it, but I’ve seen theater workers, who need these skills anyway to support their primary work, bring a unique and attractive creative energy to technological and design work. It’s vastly easier than managing the logistics of creating theater (yeah, I said it, eat that private sector) and in the right proportions will support the work rather than sap time away from it.

– Fighting an uphill battle against the tide alone? Collaborate. No collaboration can stand without building a trustful relationship first. Be dependable and depend on others. Theaters all need to face this problem three days/months/years ago, and each theater is still coming up with solutions in their own private laboratory. For the love of god, there’s a reason why the medical community publishes their work. Share your thoughts, plans, and goals with other theaters towards the end of mutual support. Get specific, get vocal, get transparent. Those seem to be the traits that are rewarded by community attention right now. Perhaps itemize what specific line items your $300,000 fund drive will go to support. There is often a $5,000 solution to a $20,000 problem… if many eyes are on the lookout, you’ll find it faster. Also, on a really basic level – talking out your problems with your peers provides all kinds of psychological support that helps nurture creative problem solving.

– Closing down the office? Where will we have in-depth creative discussions? Where can we focus our energy? I’ve explored the low-cost possibilities of public spaces, online forums, and all the wonderful breakfast joints this town has to offer for a more efficient kind of collaboration. And you know what, it’s hard, but it works.

For more on this problem as it relates to Chicago Theatre, listen to this analysis / Q&A from Justin Kaufmann, Jonathan Abarbanel & Kelly Kleiman at WBEZ.

I’ll say it one last time (since it is a mantra):

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The quickest way to participate

February 26, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

Curious about joining in World Theatre Day festivities, but don’t know what you want to do yet? Start with this:

Just read the following as part of your preshow announcement before your show on Friday, March 27th. It is this year’s World Theatre Day International Message, written by Augusto Boal. Pass it on.

All human societies are “spectacular” in their daily life and produce “spectacles” at special moments. They are “spectacular” as a form of social organization and produce “spectacles” like the one you have come to see.

Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on the stage, we live in our lives. We are theatre!

Weddings and funerals are “spectacles”, but so, also, are daily rituals so familiar that we are not conscious of this. Occasions of pomp and circumstance, but also the morning coffee, the exchanged good-mornings, timid love and storms of passion, a senate session or a diplomatic meeting – all is theatre.

One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.

Last September, we were surprised by a theatrical revelation: we, who thought that we were living in a safe world, despite wars, genocide, slaughter and torture which certainly exist, but far from us in remote and wild places. We, who were living in security with our money invested in some respectable bank or in some honest trader’s hands in the stock exchange were told that this money did not exist, that it was virtual, a fictitious invention by some economists who were not fictitious at all and neither reliable nor respectable. Everything was just bad theatre, a dark plot in which a few people won a lot and many people lost all. Some politicians from rich countries held secret meetings in which they found some magic solutions. And we, the victims of their decisions, have remained spectators in the last row of the balcony.

Twenty years ago, I staged Racine’s Phèdre in Rio de Janeiro. The stage setting was poor: cow skins on the ground, bamboos around. Before each presentation, I used to say to my actors: “The fiction we created day by day is over. When you cross those bamboos, none of you will have the right to lie. Theatre is the Hidden Truth”.

When we look beyond appearances, we see oppressors and oppressed people, in all societies, ethnic groups, genders, social classes and casts; we see an unfair and cruel world. We have to create another world because we know it is possible. But it is up to us to build this other world with our hands and by acting on the stage and in our own life.

Participate in the “spectacle” which is about to begin and once you are back home, with your friends act your own plays and look at what you were never able to see: that which is obvious. Theatre is not just an event; it is a way of life!

We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it.

If you want to do more than this, check out the ideas being cooked up at the official ITI Worldwide site and the plans set forth by our unofficial but still-kickin-butt blogosphere action committee.

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Conversion

February 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Do you ever have those moments where life imitates Art? Where you realize that your life is following the same path as the characters in your play? I think I finally internalized the meaning of the word “resonance” the third year I ran A Christmas Carol in a row and each December I found the story of Scrooge to be drawing my attention to my own avarice. Don’t get me started about that time I ran Massacre.

It took me a while to figure it out, but I’m experiencing the same kind of Art->Life effect while working on the Hypocrites’ version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape over the past week (which opens Wednesday).

Only the minorest of spoiler alerts, I’m not here to give anything about the play or the production away, but I will discuss some details about the world of the play.

When you’re running a show (opposed to watching it as a member of audience), you get a very different experience of the play as bits and pieces of the story as they accrue between cues, programming changes, quick changes, and preset checks. So the character of Yank, a stoker on a steamship liner, is one that I understand in my bones. The stage manager tells me to hit the sound cue, the sound cue whistles, and Yank hears his engineer call him to throw more coal on the boiler. The director tells the sound designer how many whistles there should be, and how often, and my job is to know and push the machinery, the cogs of technological storytelling.

Where force is converted to momentum, there is stress. The energy of burning matter creates steam which pushes the turbine, cranks the wheel, grinds the gears, lurches the steel forward and there it is: movement. As Yank says, “25 knots. Steel. That’s me every time.”

But humans are not steel, and the forces of the world bend us and provide resistance to our efforts. As the director – the theater itself, even – experiments and refines, there is a flurry of activity as the cogs of the theatrical machinery react and tack, shifting their course in collaborative tandem, and that flurry can look like chaos, can look like panic, can look like stress. As the winds fill the sails of my little theater company that could, we know that there will now come a time where we see if she is seaworthy. And that means sailing through a storm.

This week, like Yank, I’m trying hard to think. And it’s hard, it takes all of my body. I’m grappling with a big, underlying theory of everything, and my mind is just not big and agile enough to keep up with it. The forces that pushed me to Chicago, that pushed my theater company to develop its way of working, that pushed me to start blogging, to speak up, they are all pointing me to look at one problem: the problem of conversion. Converting energy into movement.

Is it happening for theater right now? I know so many people want it to be happening, and so many others believe that kind of change cannot happen, but under both wishes and prayers there are these fundamentals: force, direction of that force, and the natural resistance and momentum of the dead weight – our past and our future.

I’m still thinking about how to build a better machine. In the days of Yank, machines served a simple purpose, which is why they could proliferate: They burnt material, boiled water, pressurized the steam and turned giant wheels of progress. Progress was measured by how much you could move, how fast you could go. 25 knots. “That’s me every time.” Our very identities as Americans was tied with this idea of giant force, giant growth – but it dehumanized us, and made us cogs rolling towards an increasingly untenable dream of personal largesse. That’s why we gave that up and went towards a service economy, no?

Today we know the consequences of unchecked progress, and O’Neill certainly foresaw them in 1922. We know that machines designed to simply convert matter into force also create waste. We ignored that waste for decades, and now as it piles up in our air, in our water, in our land, we cannot ignore waste in our machinery anymore. We know that thinking of human beings as machines creates, well, just rampant unpleasantness in our daily lives. We must build purer machines, and we do that by:

– measuring their leverage (how much they amplify our own force)
– measuring their applied purpose (what is our goal by using the machine?)
– and by measuring their waste (what do we lose – on our planet and in ourselves – if we overuse this machine?)

In this new definition of efficiency, we must create sustainability and we can demand an increase in social quality. Where in the industrial world we would design a machine to move a mountain, in the post-industrial world we are starting to understand that the efficient solution is sometimes to keep the mountain and find a way to use its weight, heft, eco-system, and drainage patterns to our long-term advantage. In the online world, we are starting to see how social media can leverage the social mechanisms of human flocking and the natural-resource friendly connectivity of the global internet to solve problems by the accrual of many small efforts. In theater, we are starting to see how we can reuse our artistic waste as promotional material, feeding our excess energy and work right back into the creative process, just like a triple-expansion marine engine.

Which leaves one last, nagging, itchy question yet to be really answered: to what end? What does the end of this effort look like? Like Yank, I thought I knew my purpose when setting out and stepping up to the mic in Chicago Theater. I was truly surprised to learn that blogging, like steam power, is an example of literally, magically, turning hot air into momentum. I am also learning that the conversion of excitement into movement requires great stress as the hot air pushes, pressurizes, and pulls at many bodies at rest – until suddenly, we have shared momentum. Velocity in the same direction. And I am learning that there will be days when that stress will be applied directly to my mind, my body, and they will not be strong enough.

What I don’t know yet, what I know I will need to find a way to answer: How do I accurately measure the effectiveness of my efforts to improve something as mushy as the quality of my own work? I feel them working, but I will soon need to show, to prove, to provide the underlying physics of this new machinery. There are many who looked at the first steam engine and said, “sure, you *could* push that cart with steam power, but it doesn’t seem very practical.” To answer this, I am grasping at straws looking for a new metric, watching the rate and type of contributions to the database, and even counting the number of times that someone who watches Touch calls their family at intermission. These are questions that help us gauge our speed. 25 knots?

We must feed our problems into our solutions. This is the thing I’ve learned from studying the past this week: Increasing efficiency means reusing waste, taking nothing for granted, and feeding it all into the right engine. Conversion is an art in itself.

How do you measure your own effectiveness at the things you set your mind to? Is it an accurate measure? How does your measurement affect your will to continue your effort… or change?

P.S. I also realized tonight after reading this that the answer probably means having a bit more fun in the shows I’m working on. It’s been a soul-shaking season thus far. Look for summa that kinda playfulness in this.

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Toss One Back for Will Tonight

January 23, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Uncategorized

A reminder that tonight is the benefit for uninsured actor and off-Loop theater workhorse Will Schutz, who is facing some daunting hospital bills.

Once again, the details from benefit organizer Philip Dawkins:

Our friend Will is currently fighting an illness and, per usual, his hospital bills are pilling up way, way, way beyond his means. Chicago bar HYDRATE (3458 N Halsted St) has very kindly donated their space to the friends of Will (and friends of friends, and strangers!) on Friday, January 23rd between 9 PM and 11 PM in order that we might come together to support our friend and offer up what we can to assist him financially. It’s PAY WHAT YOU CAN, with a suggested donation of $20, though any amount will get you an open bar (well drinks, domestic beer, wine, juice and soda), appetizers and some pretty terrific live entertainment, not to mention new friends. Every penny goes to Will.

If you’re not able to help out financially, no one understands that better than theatre folks and their friends. But we hope you’ll at least consider coming out to show your emotional support in person. And whether you’re able to make it or not, please keep him in your minds and hearts each and every day. He has requested ALL of your prayers and thoughts and well-wishes. God knows, Will is worth every penny you’re able to give, and every ounce of your energy and efforts. And if you don’t know him personally, trust us.

***If you want to donate but can’t come on the 23rd, you can at willschutzpancan.chipin.com ***

We come from all walks of life, and those of us that stick around do so despite greater wealth in other locales, because ultimately, Chicago Theater is a family. And you take care of family.

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