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A Year of Ideas into Action

January 01, 2012 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, projects, Teachable Moments, Uncategorized

There came a point, sometime during the Chicago TCG conference over a year ago, where I decided to go all in, where talking about building a better future for theater was not enough.  Maybe it was big audacious calls to action from folks like Chris Ashworth or the 2amt crowd.  If the purpose of a blog is to investigate your own ideas, internally, and then maybe others can benefit from them, I felt like I had completed a couple rounds of writing about the same challenges facing theatre and needed a completely new set of experiences to draw from.  As the slogan for the TCG conference said:  Ideas into action.

In the time between that moment and now, I did some stuff.  And now I’m finally beginning to process it.

May 2010 – Taking the Leap from Goodman.
I began owning up to a few facts.  I’m good at building and supporting ensembles, and I was not satisfied with the life I had chosen for myself as a full-time theatre technician and artist.  I had worked at the Goodman Theatre as a sound engineer, which both paid my bills and served as advanced training in collaboration, theatre operations, and programming.  At the same time that I was running about five to six shows a year, I was also designing about 15 – 20, and at a certain point running shows was no longer the source of wonder and excitement that had drawn me to it in the first place.  After mixing a Broadway-bound musical (Million Dollar Quartet) to prove I could do it and see if I felt fulfilled by it, I knew that my interests were increasingly in design, web work, and the leadership that goes, and that meant finding or building a leadership position.

September 2010 – Marshall Creative goes full-time.
One of the central problems I have (and I share this with most theatre folks I know) is it’s not second nature to value my own time and expertise enough.  The saturated labor market does this to us, and when you apply the ancillary skills you develop when running a theatre company or two to another position, you suddenly realize you’re a creative manager who can deliver on deadline.  So:  very valuable.  An ensemble of theatre creatives – myself, Sandy Marshall (of Schadenfreude and Second City), my wife Marni (New Leaf Theatre’s production manager), Bilal Dardai (playwright and content writer extraordinare of the Neo-Futurists), Dan Granata (another accomplished theatre programmer of Chicago), Brad Dunn (of Metropolis Performing Arts Center), and for a time permalance graphic designer Steven Lyons (of Impress These Apes and currently enjoying a stint in a Second City revue on a boat somewhere in international waters) – went all in with this idea.  Right about the time this blog went dormant (last labor day) we opened up shop for a uniquely theatre- and comedy- powered agency, Marshall Creative, in an office downtown near the Merchandise Mart, with me first in the role of Chief Operations Officer and then focusing tighter on the Chief Technology Officer role.  Our work is in the areas of content creation, branding, and the technological support platforms that serve that content, our clients began in the arts and financial fields and quickly expanded through referrals into real estate,  health care, nutrition, and deeper into the arts.  In exchange for our using our creative powers, we generate full time salaries and benefits that are compatible with theatrical side projects – creating a lifestyle in a way that we can own and call the shots on.  While building any business is all-consuming for the first few years, Marshall Creative has the potential to let us create sustainable lifestyles with the freedom to exercise our creative and technical muscles by day.   And with several theatrical clients including Black Box Acting Studio (and some other big ones in the works), we’re still building technology that serves the theatrical community.

New Leaf – Sound Design leads to Producing
While my Sound Design career continues on, it became clear to me that my work is better when I have a strong relationship with my collaborators, and that led to me greatly focusing my work to a smaller number of projects that I invest more time in.  In particular, my artistic home of New Leaf Theatre has been the beneficiary of this attention as we produced a few ambitious projects and explored new directions for the company in the past few years, including laying down the technology foundations behind a more concerted audience development campaign.  While New Leaf has a reputation for quality productions and production values, it also has one of the smallest budgets in Chicago theatre, largely due to the institutional knowledge of its producing ensemble, equipment inventory, and great rent arrangements with its home venue.  That said, marketing and audience development remain huge challenges for the company, and ones that we must, must, must improve in the coming years if we want to continue to take pride in our work.  After all, what good is theatre if the audience isn’t there to share it?  That question is one I have started bringing, for better and worse, into my every sound design process of the past few years.  After all, we’re fighting for our work, our voice, and our ability to change people’s lives with a story, and we have this tendency to fool ourselves into achieving less than that.

December 2010 – Organizational Partnerships – Ranalli’s and Preservation Chicago
To that end, one of New Leaf’s initiatives in the past few years – led by our brilliant, fearless and intrepid Managing Director Eleanor Hyde – was to use our theatrical storytelling skills to their greatest benefit by partnering with other companies and organizations to mutually solve our company goals (an initiative we laid out on the New Leaf blog in December 2009).  Last December, we struck a deal with our after-show bar, Rocco Rannalli’s in Lincoln Park, to perform an in-restaurant off-night holiday show penned by our most frequent playwright collaborator, Bilal Dardai.  The result was Redeemers – a modern riff on the story of Bob Cratchit and Mr. Scrooge as told in a modern-day corporate holiday party.  The result was also a huge amount of off-night business for Rocco Ranalli’s in exchange for a free space.  We struck a similar partnership up with Preservation Chicago and performed an intimate reading of  our 2007 hit The Dining Room for a group of donors in the historic Glessner House museum in the Prarie District of the near south side of Chicago.  That fundraiser cemented new relationships with donors for both Preservation Chicago and New Leaf, and exposed us to a new audience who shared our love for unique spaces and architecture – people who love the stories hidden in the walls and delighted in seeing them come alive.  This kind of initiative is probably the most both artistically and financially successful program New Leaf has generated, and its the model I most hope gets picked up by others.  Because it’s easy and great for all involved once you get the hang of it.

2010 – 2011 New Works – Treehouse
In the spirit of seeing a problem and then working to fix it, Artistic Director Jessica Hutchinson brought on New Leaf’s Literary Director, Josh Sobel, and together they launched a unique reading series, New Leaf’s Treehouse, a program that focuses on “play polishing.”  For the past few seasons, New Leaf has opened a call of submissions for plays on a particular theme (for instance this year is all about “Critical Mass”) that are looking for their second reading and getting pushed forward in the development process.  Our plays are read with our audience in house, and then processed using a uniquely active talkback in which the audience gets on their feet, playing a kind of thematic battleship in which reactions and resonances are explored as a group.  Then, out of the slate of six treehouse plays, we produce one of them.  Yeah.  Again, we go all in.  In the last few years, our world premiere productions of Lighthousekeeping and Burying Miss America have both been products of Treehouse development.  In addition, we’ve helped develop some gems like Idris Goodwin’s old school hip-hop coming-of-age story How We Got On, which was picked up by Victory Gardens and is now slated for production at the Humana Festival.  Much of Treehouse is also available for internet consumption on New Leaf’s Treehouse Podcast.  After all, most of these plays are ready for production in other markets other than Chicago.

Lighthousekeeping
Our first foray into the downtown DCA storefront space was a leap of faith for New Leaf.  We brought an untested world premiere play (a new adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s post-modern, kaleidoscopic tale of an orphan girl who learned to shape her splintering world with story) into a space with a larger palette gave our producing ensemble a unique opportunity to show what we are capable of in a large format – a story of what it means to hold on to childhood flights of fancy as we grow up and shape a new life for ourselves.  I am still fiercely proud of this story about storytelling in particular in New Leaf’s canon.  I helped to bring the play into the world by encouraging my friend, playwright Georgette Kelly, into the Treehouse fold and introducing her to a creative partnership with Jess Hutchinson and New Leaf, pouring most of my creative energies into sound designing it (all 450 cues), producing it with our company of seven, and creating and spreading marketing materials in the corners of time left over.  In the end, it gave us the opportunity to answer a question that we had always asked ourselves – what would New Leaf look like in a space with more resources and flexibility?

Choose your own extension
One of the advantages of being small is that you can take crazy risks and share those ideas with others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to learn from the experience.  In our case, we had availability to extend Burying Miss America – with not even much else in the way of rent – but were faced with the common problem of not knowing if we’d be able to get the word out in time to have any audience actually show up for an extension.  In the end, we put it to a vote, encouraging audience members and their friends to vote for a slate of show times.  If any particular slated performance got enough votes, we’d do an additional extension performance for that day and time.  This was the right kind of ownership for our audience – this encouraged people who were otherwise going to miss the show to help us promote it.  And it also made our jobs easier in deciding whether an extension was a good idea or not.  In the end, there weren’t enough votes to extend, which ultimately was a success for the program.  While the show received rave reviews, it also performed in the middle of a packed fall season in the midst of a down economy.  We were able to hear what our audience wanted.

What’s Next?
2012 began today, and while 2011 was a big year of earth-moving change in my life, 2012 promises to be more so.  We have begun to taste the fruits of our labor at Marshall, and we have a lot of dreams yet to turn into reality.  I know with absolute certainty that with the group of people that I’m working with, that they are the right dreams to be working on.

While I’ve been happily tapped with these new creative and productive outlets, it means that my writing here will continue to be intermittent.  That said, I promise a couple things:

This year I will continue my work to make things better and bring new ideas and innovations that help us spend our creative energies more wisely in theatre – to focus on art while covering artistic management.

I will make sure I can sustain myself and my artistic family so that we can continue to make things better.  Thank you all for the coffees over the years.  It’s been an amazing show of support.

Let’s make it more awesome this year.  Shall we?

 

 

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Air Traffic Control

September 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity

Why are this blog (and other blogs) so quiet these days? We’re all landing planes, folks.

Sandy on Marshall Creative:

if you work in project management, you “land planes.” Big projects, small projects — all planes that need to land safely and in one piece. Some are built for transatlantic flights, some have already been in flight for a week and we’ve been brought on board to refuel and and recalibrate. Some are gliders out for a quick spin.

I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I am on days like this for fairly simple and reliable technology like Basecamp and Omnifocus, but more importantly, good collaborators: Sandy, Dan, New Leaf, and most especially Marni have been landing some pretty critical planes in some pretty stormy weather.

Today was one of those days that I knew could have been a day of crisis, of disaster. In chaos there’s always the chance of mid-air collision. Everything needed to be grounded ASAP. We had about seven planes running on fumes, and fourteen more on the way in the next couple weeks. And the team responded. And the planes lined up. They’re still coming in, but now they’re neatly spaced, with plenty of room between them.

It’s a real good feeling when you earn your beer at the end of the night.

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DIY Web Hub Interview

May 06, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, productivity

Read you loud and clear. I got a little more mileage than usual after my post How to Get the Right Website for your Theatre Company and as a result I’ve been talking with several theater folks who are interested in increasing their web programming vocabulary. To be honest, I’m interested in teaching this stuff to theater folk interested in Doing It Themselves, and these first few meetings are a way of seeing if a reasonable curriculum can be developed with such a broad subject and if a training session ends up being how students best process such a large, expanding explosion of information.

We’ll see!

In a related note, I’m interviewed today on New Media Blues, a resource site for DIY webmasters in any field. It’s a web programmer’s almanac of sorts. Brian’s got a bunch of common gotchas and tools that make learning and exploring Web programming a more accessible venture (like some of my recent favorites, Firebug and IETester)

Part of the issue with theater is that no one has any time. We work long hours for little to no pay, so all our theatrical work is on borrowed time. As print media coverage has shrunk rapidly over the last five years, we’ve needed to devote more and more of that “no time” to maintaining our web presence as an alternate way of convincing audiences to come see our work.

… So I guess you could say that at each step of the way, I learned by doing, and while it took a while, that knowledge starts to snowball at a certain point.

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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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Getting Things Done on Twitter

February 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

It took me a while to get my sea legs, but the past few days has me settled on a response to Ian’s query on Praxis Theatre.

One of the most clear uses of the Twitter network is to solve problems. Unlike blogging, which is about thinking, exploring, deepening the discussion, my favorite uses of the Twitter format have been about getting quickly unstuck and taking collective action.

In the past 48 hours, the fast-growing and largely international theater Twittmob has been used to discover connections, shared interest, and get some very interesting things accomplished:

Selling / Reusing / Trading old props
Gathering momentum behind national political action
Comparing notes on how to take better headshots
Announcing newly available same-night discount tickets
Organizing and Spreading the word about various details of upcoming International Theater Events
Connecting with like-minded strangers
Making after-show plans quickly and efficiently
Notifying next of kin that you’re narrowly evading the path of a tornado

To someone who’s never used (and often refused to try) Twitter before, one of the most powerful and least understood features of the format is the way a Twitter tribe will use hashtag searches to quickly expand the network of people looking at or working on a Tweet.

Under normal circumstances, if you post:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone know how to fix?”

The only people you’ll be asking are those already following you… all your friends who also don’t know the first thing about plumbing. But make a simple change:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone have any tips on #plumbing?”

Twitter automatically links your tweet to the #plumbing search page, which is watched by a wider group of interested users. I’ve found those users / power lurkers to be more engaged, more connected, and more able to communicate through social networks than the average blogger, which I suppose is not surprising.

It’s not all made of Awesome on the Twitter, though. You may have felt (as I did about rereading my own early blog posts) that new bloggers go through a phase of self-absorbed perspectives as they begin to immerse themselves in (or distance themselves from) a larger blogging community. Twitter being a much younger technology than blogs, there is sometimes a similar, tiring emergent behavior. New Twitterers (and their eager mentors) spend a great deal of time on Twitter talking about how great Twittering is. Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I type this. Think about the rush of excitement and simultaneous trepidation you felt when you first SMS texted a friend or family member. You’d get seventeen messages from your Aunt Suzy the next day saying “Im Txting U at the Grocry Stor!” Deep breath, and then we move on.

Just as there is a somewhat accepted online etiquette in play in emails, web authoring, blog commenting, and in texting, there will eventually be an accepted etiquette that emerges from the Twitter community. It’s not quite there yet, so it’s a bit like the wild west right now… everyone is looking to stake out a plot of land with their donkey, and everyone goes about it in kind of their own wonky, loud way.

What is different – and exciting – about the Twitter format is the disciplined structure and its ability to focus and discipline conversation. A 140 character limit means it’s harder for a single conversant to suck all the oxygen out of a conversation. That means Twitter offers opportunites that complement the opportunities of blogging or Facebook – but on Twitter it’s going to be easier to be heard, it’s easier to collaborate, it’s easier to filter content, and it’s quicker to get results – especially if you have clear questions and you know who you need to ask.

This post was made possible by a cup of diner joe that I enjoyed thanks to @TravisBedard. He’s an awesome blogger, so you should check out his stuff, and follow him on Twitter. That way you’ll be there to catch the brilliance.

Update: Check out @dramagirl‘s post on generating useful discussions on Twitter.

Update the Second: Steve Greer at read write play has created a great resource, especially for you non-twitterers out there: A blog that sifts through tweets and pulls out things to read in the #theatre feed!

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I can sleep when I’m dead

December 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Here’s how I know how important coffee is in my life:

I recently ditched Quicken (which was more of a clutching / heaving action that ‘ditch’ implies) in favor of the online tool Buxfer, which while very much in beta (who isn’t these days?) has a powerful tagging system that I can use to quickly assign each financial transaction in my life to various projects, which is a must when you freelance as much as I do. This helps me boil down the holiest of holies: A project-by-project summary of which projects reward me and which bleed me dry. It also keeps me on a very simple weekly or monthly budget for things like eating out.

Also, Buxfer has a really sweet iPhone interface, which has allowed me to balance my checkbook while on the train, saving me a ton of work time without appearing to be that guy. Is it good for theaters? I think if you’re small enough and aren’t doing fully audited financials yet and just need better organization, yes. Buxfer is primarily designed for just-post-college folks who tend to share a lot of bills and need to manage their finances with roommates. This has led to a host of features that are good for collaborative bookkeeping –

A) You can link multiple accounts relationally, which means you can pretty easily create an accessible abstraction of your current financial situation – one account per department, or personal accounts can track loaned money to the company account – however you need to organize it.

B) It’s online and syncable with multiple bank accounts, so it’s easy to get a quick snapshot of your cash flow.

C) You can keep show AND department AND company budgets organized on top of each other, and because of the tagging system, any single transaction can be deducted from any number of budgets. Each budget can also be tracked annually, monthly, weekly, or an a number of different schedules.

D) Buxfer was designed with purpose of tracking mini personal loans between people, so it’s “Money Owed” section allows you to very carefully track personal reimbursements that need to be repaid to any number of individuals or companies.

D) There is a bill scheduling system (and a day-to-day cash flow projection graph) which can help immensely with cash flow tracking if you’re waiting on renting those dimmers until your grant is coming in.

F) If you’ve got an iPhone, you can stand in your theater next to your set that clearly needs another coat of paint and quickly get an answer to: “Yes, we have room in the budget for $36.40 of additional paint expense. But don’t go over that.”

It’s not all roses and honey bees. Buxfer feels like a late beta web application – not quite all the way done yet – and while I’ve been able to successfully load in six years of complex freelancing financial data without too many hiccups, one of those hiccups has been periodic duplication of synced transactions, which has given me one or two heart attacks so far. The user interface sometimes does slightly wonky things, but even in playing with it for a couple months, they’ve developed new features at a rate that makes me confident that they’re heading in a really exciting direction.

Buxfer is free, with a very affordable upgrade (a couple bucks a month, paid annually) for unlimited budgets and bank accounts. That means it has to monetize a bit more somehow, and in their case, they have you by the crotch – they know where you spend your money, so they can serve you with cut-to-the-heart ads that they *know* you’ll fish out the wallet for.

Here’s what greeted me in my Buxfer sidebar this morning:

What do you think? A coffee franchise might just be the thing somedays, that last thin mint of life management that will help reduce my cost of living to a couple pennies while providing great benefit.

I want an Intelligentsia in my theater.

Not really. But kinda.

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Learn Web Design for free by the Seat of your Pants: CSS 101

December 06, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

I just wrote this mini-manual for a client. And it occurred to me as I wrote this that for some time I’ve wanted to collect this info for a number of friends and, well, spouse of mine who are interested in enriching their knowledge of web design and share it with them.

So you know what? I’m going to post it for you too, in case you really want to trick out your WordPress/Typepad/whathaveyou Template or pick up a really useful side skill in your free time.

It’s step one to learning really great, simple web design in the modern era: Cascading Style Sheets.

CSS – Styles & Layout

Free Resources to help you Learn by Doing –
FIREFOX WEB DEVELOPER PLUGIN
Adds a toolbar menu to firefox that (with CMD-SHIFT-Y) will help you identify and locate specific CSS classes and styles to help troubleshoot layout issues and changes. It does some other really cool stuff too.

CASCADING STYLE SHEETS TUTORIAL
An excellent online guide. Especially useful – check out the cascading order so you can see which style rules overrule others.

CSS PLAYGROUND
You can only learn how something works by breaking it. So you can break someone else’s site, not your own.

CSS ZEN GARDEN
A truly inspirational – and open-code – collection of CSS skins that help you see both what is possible and how to achieve different design effects with CSS.

Books
My favorite guru for CSS is Eric Meyer, who wrote at least one indispensable book,
CSS: The Definitive Guide

and at least one inspirational book,
Eric Meyer on CSS: Mastering the Language of Web Design

TESTING
Especially with layout and justification, remember to test your work in at least:

IE 6 – Windows
IE 7 – Windows
Firefox – Windows
Firefox – Mac
Safari – Mac

Text styles and colors normally track safely, but things like padding, margins and floating get screwed up between browsers very easily. Be careful, and save a backup so you can revert if you make a mistake.
.

Be <b>.

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Auto-Podcasting for the Design Process

June 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Okay, so I’m an inventor, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The clutter that is a necessary part of invention has to be seen to be believed. I’ve got chunks of hardware strewn about my studio, ready for soldering, repair, and reconfiguration. My hard drive is filled with various impenetrable chunks of code – modules, platforms, and other eratta. All waiting to be configured. So when two of these chunks end up working together in any way, let alone an incredibly sexy way to support creative development, it’s cause for celebration. And maybe some cleanup.

Last night at, oh, three a.m., I made one of these connections that had been staring me in the face – a way to easily share sonic research with creative teams that I work with a minimum of effort on my part. Last night, I set up my first automatically generated research podcast. I just upload files, and my website creates a podcast that the whole production team can sync with.

Here’s how it works. First and foremost, a little background:

1.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOU.

A few years ago I configured my portfolio site to be a lot more easy to update. If you’ve ever played around with HTML and uploading files via FTP, you know that it’s a process that is fraught with time-consuming repetition and maintenance. When I started uploading 10-20 files for each of five shows I was working on at any given time, I knew I needed a more streamlined system.

At the time, I was learning more about PHP, a scripting language that enabled me to do handy things like set variable values, define helper functions, and repeat these helper functions. Best of all, I could grab open-source helper functions from friendly programmers and make them work for me.

For the portfolio site, I first set up a little loop that simply read the contents of a folder and displayed those contents as links. So now, instead of manually coding “a href=” tags for each linked file like a dutiful little hamster, I get an automatically generated page for each folder on my site, that looks like this page to the left here. I spent maybe 45 seconds of thought and time in creating this particular page – it’s simply the result of my site’s stylesheet rules and the file reader function of PHP. Pretty nice for under a minute plus upload time.

2.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOUR USERS & CLIENTS

The big problem that eventually cropped up with this method was compatibility. Of course. With Internet Explorer. Of course. I made use of the quicktime “embed” player which is both really easy to set up from a coding stand point and the unfortunate victim in a lawsuit between Microsoft and ActiveX. Basically, Microsoft lost their ability to license the player in Internet Explorer, and for each embedded file, an IE user gets one of those really ugly “Enable ActiveX control on this page?” error messages that we all love so much. Gross.

So, I plugged in a new module: the configurable, flexible and totally free JW FLV Flash player. Combined with a MP3 Meta data reader, my research pages now look quite a bit sexier (and because it’s flash, it’s a lot more compatible). MP3’s have cover art, titles and artist authors embedded in them, and my website now reads that data and makes a lovely candy-coated interface.

Total thought put into this per show: Still 45 Seconds.

3.) IMPROVE YOUR WEBSITE’S PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY

So that’s all nice and fine and flashy. Still a few compatibility issues, and suddenly the site is doing a lot of server-side processing, which causes some slowness in page loading. Some logic fixes improve all that, but is it ultimately useful? Last night, the final connection of how to really milk this system suddenly became clear to me.

The JW Player reads most of its information from an RSS feed – a feed that I am automatically generating using PHP and that MP3 Meta data reader.

Now, what else is an RSS feed that contains embedded audio files? That’s right: Podcasts.

So now, simply by providing the link to the RSS feed under the hood, my collaborators can SUBSCRIBE to my audio research. As I post stuff, boom, the entire team gets the new audio synced to their ipods with their This American Life episodes. And, at the same time, my process remains: Select Sound, Mix Sound, Upload Sound. No further configuration needed.

Go ahead: Try it on. You can subscribe to my serialized audio performance piece, Lexicon, in a few simple steps (If you haven’t heard this yet, by the way, it’s pretty representative of my sound design work. And I’m told it’s fun to listen to – though it was written five years ago, so some of the writing is still… let’s say formative. It’s all about the sound anyway):

1) In iTunes, Select Advanced: Subscribe to Podcast.
2) Enter the url: http://nikku.net/lexicon/podcast/rss.php
3) Let me know what you think.

Finally, if you’d like to try something like this setup for your own process, but don’t need all the bells and whistles (and want some simplicity!) there’s another excellent resource out there for you: The PHP script Podcast Generator creates an entire Podcast Content Management System and backend that can help you create a feed in a few steps. And of course blogging software often has some wonderful plugins that allow you post audio right in your blog’s RSS feed.

Multi-media research is good for multi-media work. More on that as season announcements draw nearer…

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