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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 20

8:00 pm – Conference Kick Off Party

Saturday, August 21

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

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

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

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

1 pm – Theatre Advocacy 101 (Theatre 2)

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

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

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

3pm – The Working Comedy Artist (Theatre 2)

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22

10am – Embracing New Work (Theater 2)

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

11 am – Empowering Ensembles (Theater 3)

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

11 am – Cermak Creative Industries District (Theater 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3pm – 2amt Theatre (Theater 1)

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

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

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

6:30 – Closing Party at Cooper’s

What better way to start our seasons, than together?

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

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The Man Who Was Thursday: Web Edition

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

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

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

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

Here’s some highlights:

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

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

New Leaf: Sean Fawcett will eat your soul.

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

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

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

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

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

New Leaf: This album just rocks for Spy intrigue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Leaf:

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

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

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

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Theatrical El Nino

September 27, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, projects

One apparent result of Chicago theaters’ collective reactions of the economic climate change was to predictably shift rehearsals away from August and December to reduce overhead during those budget-sapping months, which resulted in a massive glut of show openings that began about two weeks ago and will continue pretty much unabated through November.

I feel lucky that the four shows I’m working on in various stages this week are all awesome.

  • Stoop Stories – Goodman (two performances today!)
  • Lucinda’s Bed – Chicago Dramatists (cueing this morning!)
  • The Man Who Was Thursday – New Leaf (finalizing cue list!)
  • End Days – Next Theatre (first rehearsal this week!)

Here is one of them for you.

(and yes… this is also a reminder: Come talk to me about what your theatre wants to do for a video for Theatre-a-day, and help spread the word that we are looking for a video mini-feature from EVERY theatre in Chicago – one a day until June. The countdown will begin when we can put together 20 videos to start us off.

In the works for that project: Stage Channel and several theatres including New Leaf are offering support in the form of training, flip cam usage, and other resources. Details coming soon.

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Introducing: TheaterCalculus™

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Stretching

April 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects

Been catching up on my blog reading. It’s been a while, between taxes and tech and projects and travel, so I’m staring down about 3,000 posts or so. I am skimming, to say the least.

I have noticed, among those posts, that many of my consistently favorite bloggers have (kinda sorta) apologized on their blogs for not posting in a while during this time. In the spirit of Easter or whatever, why don’t we forgive ourselves and each other for these blogging vacations in the name of better conversation?

I am not sorry for not posting as regularly these days. I have been stretching. Unlike the impulse to raging monologue that I had when starting this blog, I’ve noticed a change in myself and others – an equally unquenchable desire for dialogue. The last few posts on TFTF have reflected that desire: < ahref="http://theaterforthefuture.com/world-theatre-day-happened/">World Theatre Day was a catalyst for idea sharing and note-comparing that is still going on. I’ve been digging on Dan Granata’s work with his new share-our-theater-stories blog Theatre that Works. Benno Nelson and I had a quick dialogue-format blog conversation about what makes a theater blog tick (god, like I know.) And New Leaf is working on a new way for us to have a deeper back-and-forth conversation with our guest artists and audience.

Specifically, the New Leaf company has been balls-to-the-wall in developing The Long Count. We wrote it (adapting several source texts and original material into an apocalyptic melange) and revised it as a collective, and it’s been hard. A good hard. Like really challenging yoga. Ssstrrech. What happens when you create a project with a group rather than a single auteur is that you have to let go of ownership of ideas, and that just plain takes practice. The gut response to having an idea is that want to see it realized. The gut response to realizing an idea that you initiated is that you want to have it realized your way. In this process, however, we have applied collaborative principles to every step of the process, including the text itself. When it works, a kind of group mind takes over and the ideas themselves lead us to new impulses. Its scary, because it’s a very lizard brain approach to creating theatrical work. We could be acting like bees, a flock of birds, ants… or lemmings, sure. It’s been so intensive to just learn how to best work this way that we haven’t opened the process up quite as much as we wanted to.. yet.

These past few weeks I hit the extent of my reach for the time being. I’m thrilled by the amount of experimentation and flexibility that our artistic home has been willing to demonstrate on this project, but like any family we can only push the collaboration, hopefully, just to the point of strain. Then it’s time for a little massage and cooldown. Yesterday, we entered the final phase of tech – which is still a more gradual layering tech process than we’re used to. Though the designers, like tightrope walkers, are all a little off kilter teching a show that is built to be this fluid, it was at the same time back to that place of comfort again for me. The whole company was there, collaborating, all jumping in working on moments of choreography, vocal texture, sound, set configuration, prop usage, lighting angles, cue timing, staging for evolving sight lines… After the stretching soreness of finalizing our first collaboratively authored script, we were immediately a family again for each other and for the cast, watching, shaping, giving each other feedback, like bees building a honeycomb that we don’t really understand.

We leap this coming friday, and open this process to the public. We are especially curious about how guests will participate in our Thursday open rehearsals – April 23, 30, and May 7 at 7 PM. The show will be open, but we will still be clarifying timings, intentions, staging, and design after we learn more about how an audience reacts to the show. We are curious… what happens when the audience is invited in to share their reactions and have that feedback actually facilitate the creative process?

What happens when you talk with others and work to draw out their ideas before you present your own?

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World Theatre Day Happened

March 28, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building, projects

And if you missed it, you can see it again.

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