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Archive for the ‘Teachable Moments’

How to Design the Sound

October 13, 2014 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

I had a pal in a bind the other day ask me how I designed sound at the storefront / independent / low budget theatre level.  As time was of the essence, and the subject was something I probably should write a book about someday, I briefly jotted down what I felt at the time were the most important tricks of the trade (that is, the cooperative trades of sound system designer, foley artist, sound engineer, and composer.)   

Keep in mind that this guide is provided only as a general guide for further inquiry to help you survive, perform your duties, and embarrass yourself as little as possible when you’re already in over your head on a project – it won’t actually help you make it sound good, which I’ve heard is important.  This will only teach you enough to be more dangerous than you already think you are.  Caveat, caveat, you hold me harmless, etc.

If you’re really short on time, here’s the essential mantras of this Tao de Sound.

1) BE NICE.
1a) BE PREPARED.
1b) DON’T HURT ANYONE.
2) USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

(These mantras are surprisingly effective for all kinds of professional work.  Also, my general mantras for theatre like “Don’t be Stupid” and “Don’t Freak Out” also apply.  h/t The Cherub Program)

Here’s a few ways to apply these mantras to specific practical situations:

BE NICE.

  • Make sure you let the team (at least the Production Manager, TD and the Lighting Designer) what you intend to do. If you place speakers in front of where lights are going, that’s a poor way to win friends and influence people.  If you bump a light, tell the ME or the LD so that it doesn’t.  More communication is always better.
  • At the Storefront level, most people don’t license music used in the show correctly.  Legal Hat:  This is not nice, nor is it legal.  That said, it happens a lot.  Even in the largest venues and the most popular productions.  No, fair use doesn’t apply.  Artist Hat:  DJs sample music all the time, sure.  But sampling isn’t the same as “playing.”   That means if you decide to skirt the law and be a real artist, you have an artistic responsibility to make this music your own, into something new, unique, beautiful, and perfect for your production.   Treating the show like your favorite iTunes playlist demonstrates neither legal nor artistic integrity.
  • One way to try to be nice:  If you’re not a composer and can connect with some local musicians who let you use their music (or better yet work with you to create new music), support them and at least make an effort to get permission and/or offer to promote their work and give them as much of your show budget as you can.  Ask them if you can sell their CD in the lobby.  Tell audience members how great the artists you use are, and encourage them to buy the albums.
  • Tie line is preferable to E-tape for securing cable, though my preference is for Friction Tape (the tape hockey players use around their gloves).  It ONLY sticks to itself, and is very reusable – a couple wraps around a bundle of cables every few feet both supports the cables and makes it easy to move or strike later.  Skip the e-tape, and you’ll thank yourself at strike, not least of which because the ME won’t try to throw his wrench at your head.
  • Tie line for wrapping cable should be long enough to start in your hand, wrap all the way around your elbow, then come back up into your hand. It’s easier to wrap the timeline completely around your trunk of cable once (which takes weight on the cable) then do a quick, tight shoelace knot over the pipe which is easy to undo and redo as needed.
  • The goal with securing your cable is to not wrap around or over lighting cable, because that is not nice – under is better.  It helps to load your stuff in before light hang!  Then you’re sure to be out of the way.  You will still likely need to secure your cable in a bundle with lighting cable, and in those situations you want to redo the ties as you left them.

BE PREPARED.

  • Use QLab.  You can learn the basics in 15 minutes.
  • Load your files in and program a QLab cue list so that someone is operating the entire show off a go button instead of a hare-brained iPod library and volume control which invite confusion and error into the mix.
  • Plug your computer into a mixing board.  Plug the mixing board into your amps.  Plug your amps into your speakers.   If you have them, use goodies like audio interfaces, patch bays, and powered speakers.
    Think through the entire sound system from inputs to outputs, and make sure you have the equipment you need.  Do you have enough of the right types of cable to put your speakers and the booth where you need them to be?
  • Make sure your equipment is in the air, cabled, tested, and that you are ready to cue the show at least 12 hours before start of tech (advanced designers can live with less buffer, but this will help you plan for contingencies).  I try to be pre-programmed to a large extent before I start, but I’m always at least 5 cues or 5 minutes of show ahead of where we’re at in tech so that there’s a minimum of “holding for sound”.
    Give a clear cue list to the stage manager.  I give them cue lines and/or visual cues, cue numbers, and a description of what the cue does.  Walk them through any paper, dry, or wet techs to make sure they know exactly how things should be called.  If they need to wait a beat before taking a piece of music, tell them what you’re going for.  Preparing the stage manager to call the design is a huge part of making that design work, and it’s the core thing that beginning designers gloss over.
  • Ensure that the show computer is hooked up to the sound system, that it works, and that whoever is running the show knows how to turn it on, shut it off, and fix it if it explodes.
  • Make sure you are always ready to take quick notes that make sense to you later.
  • Be where you need to be, ready to do the job, when you need to be there.  #lifelessons

DON’T HURT ANYONE.

  • “Anyone” includes but is not limited to you, your fellow designers, your assistants, the performers, the crew, the administrators who promote your work and sign your checks, and the audience.
  • If you are responsible for hanging, moving, or aiming your speakers and you haven’t done so before, consider that you’re about to dance on a ladder while holding 100 lbs above your head, and that perhaps doing this on your own is not the best way to learn how to do this safely and effectively.  Ask for trained help.  That said, if you must forge ahead and you know the task to be safe, here’s some pro tips (tips for pros.)
  • In venues with ceilings from 0 – 20 feet high, I still use a rope.  The rope I use is rated for 3-4 times the weight of the heaviest speakers I can lift, and is tied with a proper bowline knot to a rated quick link which I attach to the speaker.  I lift speakers with a team of two, one on the ground, one on a ladder.  I’ll run the rope over a supported grid pipe, hook the quick link to the speaker, have someone on the ground take weight on the speaker while standing away from the drop, move the speaker, secure the speaker in its new home, let in weight on the speaker, then aim the speaker with a guy line.
  • If you’re loading in speakers to a grid more than twice your height and you’ve never done it before, see also “Don’t Kill Anyone” Item 1.
  • Get a roll of tie line which will be useful for speaker aiming.   Typically speakers are secured to the grid with one or two rated pieces of chain and rated quick links and ideally a safety cable for good measure.  They can then be tilted with a long piece of timeline used as a guy line.  TIE LINE SHOULD NEVER BE USED TO TAKE WEIGHT ON THE SPEAKER.   Secure the guy line to a secure point on the bottom of the speaker, then attach that tie line to a different grid pipe, creating a triangle and aiming the speaker more directly towards the audience sections.  With practice, you can use the Rolling Hitch to quickly aim the speaker with a perfectly aimed, taut guy line that is easy to strike or refocus.

USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

  • If you don’t know how to place speakers and/or read a groundplan, elevation, and light plot, you’ll want to get into the space and try to visualize where you want sound to come from.
  • Music that doesn’t come from the world of the play (non-diagetic music) tends to want a proscenium-y “wall of sound” feel – so hanging 2  left and right speakers off the grid or to the sides of the stage is a great start – if the space is proscenium.  If you’re in a thrust configuration, you may need to go to four speakers and play from the voms.  There’s a bajillion caveats to all that, but that will get you close enough to be nice and dangerous.
  • Visualize the shape of the sound to know where to put speakers.  Sound propagates from a speaker in an expanding cone  (you can kind of picture this by drawing a line from the edges of the speaker cone out – on average a 45º spread coming from the speaker.  Each speaker has different specs that you can look up online if you really want to know.  You don’t want those spreads to cross over each other in most cases, so usually you’ll tilt speakers slightly away from each other so that you have a minimum of overlap but still completely cover the entire audience – ideally with a stereo image.  If you raise the speaker up, you can angle the speaker so that more of the audience experiences the same volume rather than blasting people in the front.  So if you have a thrust configuration, you’d alternate Left and right signal to the four speakers so that every section of audience gets both left and right sound information.
  • Feedback should only happen if you have mics pointed at speakers that playback signal from those mics which pick up signal from those speakers which playback signal from those mics (see what I’m doing there?).  If you do have mics, try to design with only handheld SM58s, which are really hard to feedback, and most performers know how to use reasonably well if it’s that kind of show.  If you have wireless, you’ll probably need more help and budget, an apprenticeship, and you’ll also want to read Kai Harada’s excellent Kai’s Sound Handbook which will neatly cover the things you need to know for the next stage of your career.
  • Music that comes from the world of the play (diagetic music) probably doesn’t come from the proscenium, maybe, right?
  • Try each cue a good deal louder, then try it much quieter.  Repeat until perfect.
  • Sometimes music doesn’t always want to be the same level for the length of the cue. We call this kind of adjustment a “fade.” #youknowthelingo

Have further words of wisdom for designers in trouble?  I’d love to hear it.

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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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Rewriting Ourselves

August 24, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

One of the things that became clear at our New Leaf Brunch Launch this week was that, while our friends and audience clearly love the approach of a season question (yay, score!), it wasn’t yet clear to them exactly how New Leaf chooses each question, each year.

The answer: For us, the season question is always the question of everything. Now.

Last year was a year of new beginnings for us. “How do we build a future from a present we didn’t expect?” New Leaf was finding itself switching gears into a new kind of work, a new kind of intensity. In our personal lives, our company members were finding that the allure of career – even a part-time, low-income career, but One That Was Calling To Us – was becoming increasingly more attractive with age, somehow more necessary than a life of stability in service to ideas that we didn’t quite believe in.

So we left those jobs, and that safety net. We leapt into the freelance sector. We connected with our creative calling, and found ways of making that work necessary, and lucrative. We shopped around for non-group health insurance, and although it hurt, we paid for it, because it meant freedom and a new kind of security.

In our artistic work, we explored death, and we confronted ourselves with the inevitability of our own deaths. We explored the cost of a life left unlived, and we interrogated ourselves and identified the aspects of our unlived lives that would become regrets given the chance. We discovered the hard-won value of a path chosen instead of defaulted into, and we forced ourselves to choose our own path, and we forced ourselves to blaze that trail into a wilderness that was… Calling to Us.

And so here we are. A tribe, together, in some pretty rough and unexplored terrain. We’re a theater company that is small with a big reach. We’re creative workers with less regular (and less soul-sucking) employment who have the tools to build a lifestyle, but we need to get to work sowing opportunities and reaping small bits of income, or we will starve. It is clear: our question is changing.

So from this atmosphere forms a new question, with new work that we must do to crack open that nut and really make us look and examine our lives beyond our work. A new question that constantly pushes us to renew.

For me, I’m starting to see the patterns in how we communicate, and the patterns that form into psychic blocks. I haven’t been a blogger for very long, but I have been involved in the public discourse of theater arts for a few moons, and I’m seeing a new round of exciting energy that reminds me of a similar round of exciting energy. This new round comes primarily from this galvanizing and energizing series of posts from the New Colony, calling for a long-term manifesto and summit to organize and legitimize storefront theater in Chicago to take the helm as a trend-setting theater community. This is not the first time a flare has been fired calling for Chicago to take the helm as a world leader in creating new, exciting theatrical work. But because it comes in a time where many are chanting that call to action together – we have begun to tell that same story together with and through our lives – it feels like there is real momentum, that we are approaching a tipping point.

A story is never a complete truth, but it is always a compelling truth. A story ignores much mundane detail in the name of focusing our attention on what matters, on what needs work, on what needs focus. The story says “our work and our leadership is not as diverse as we are,” “our work is not risky enough, not bold enough,” “our work does not feature enough new voices, and so old voices retain too much influence.” A story is idealism, codified and written, with the beginnings of practical applications of that idealism – bold new ways of being – wrapped up in the myth and the fairy tale.

I empathized with this story of the New Colony’s – an entire framework for viewing the situation of Chicago storefronts – and, predictably, I was reminded of my own experiments at forming initiatives and coalitions. This is when I was an even younger arts advocate and as someone entirely new to engaging with public discourse. I recently looked through some old notes I had created for an ad hoc organization I was trying to put together – the Storefront Theater Alliance of Chicago, or STAC, I think we were calling it. I remember the meeting I had with several trusted folks in other small companies to plan out and carve a mission for this alternative organization that would represent the specific needs of independent theater – advocacy I didn’t feel happening and so I didn’t believe existed. I remember the moment when the plan all fell apart… we decided on our mission, a mission we could all get behind. And we looked up, just to check, the mission of the League of Chicago Theaters, and I saw:

Our mission and the League’s mission were the same thing. Nearly word for word. We were working towards the same goal. We were asking the same question from two very different angles.

That was, I think, a week before I first emailed Ben Thiem at the League and really started engaging him in conversation. Learning what he was working on, and giving him (public) feedback about the programs they had put on that had made a big impact on me. (Larry Keeley created this amazing manifesto for Chicago Theater to effectively simplify, unify and modernize our marketing and unite the community behind a few key initiatives that would break open the watermelon of new audience development, so to speak. I still keep that powerpoint hosted here. Read it. It’s a good story.)

That conversation led me to think deeper about the needs and situations of theaters beyond my own, and gather data, and see how my energies could be used to further other people’s stated goals – goals I believed in. Instead of writing a new story from scratch, I’d become an editor, a shaper of other stories, helping other advocates test messages and unite the community behind common purpose.

My question was changing, can you see?

I did more research, I talked with friends who had done even more research. Eventually, through Dan Granata, I read the stories of the beginnings of the League way back in the first revolutionary storefront movement in the 70s. I began to see that my efforts were part of a cycle of group behavior, and realized that if we didn’t understand the story of people like Lois Weisberg we were never getting anywhere… Storefront arts organizations have this way of proliferating and periodically you would have three or four ask the question of why storefronts didn’t cooperate to leverage their energies for cultural change. You had a lot of people get discouraged very quickly in the face of financial and political and personal limitations. I got a little obsessed with counting things in the hopes that the full picture would yield clarity, because I could see – from my initial perspective, I was not seeing the entire picture. But progress starting happening, slowly. Deb Clapp was named as the new head of the League, and on this one day Deb sat down with many of the same folks that had been involved with STAC – plus the Goodman and some other larger theaters – and bam, we planned Chicago’s World Theatre Day celebrations in a couple hours. It was easy to unite and cooperate, because it was for the collective benefit of all.

I felt that advocacy, suddenly, and felt myself becoming a stronger advocate. And I’m still not seeing the entire picture.

Here’s the thing – I believe in what the New Colony is asking, and I think – still – that they are presenting questions that we must all choose to act on. (So do it, seriously. Let’s stop putting it off in the name of our own immediate needs, get coffee together and hash this shit out, a common goal and a common purpose, because the world is waiting for change to be articulated and germinated.) Let’s also try to bring everyone to the table so we see how big this question really needs to be. Let’s learn the old questions so that we can adapt them into new questions. I believe in the transformative power of story, because I’ve seen its effect on my life, on our lives, on our city, on our country. The stories we tell rewrite what we become, somehow.

And so this year, I still believe in the old question – I still believe we must build a future and that our present is rarely one we expect – but I believe it with more experience and more choices under my belt. Some of those choices and some of that experience may be untrustworthy – I’m only human and so my failure to revolt doesn’t necessarily mean that revolution isn’t necessary.

But even the faultiness of stories yields amazing fruit. I still believe, for instance in the fanciful and perhaps hubristic story that I daydreamed about at UMass with my upper- and lower-classmen friends – that we would get to be part of an American cultural renaissance, an explosion/confluence of new science that illuminates art and art that illuminates science. Oddly enough, I believe that the act of telling myself that story again and again has somehow manifested itself in my life and my community. And the story of renaissance – that particular series of intellectual and creative reactions – has this ability to align us towards the possibility of radical creative thought (as opposed to radical destruction). It starts us running in the same direction, and starts us building and creating.

And so I ask the question: What are the stories I’m telling myself? Are they lies, or are they truths that I don’t understand yet? And how are those stories changing me, even as I fail to understand them? Do I want them to change me?

Do I need to tell myself new stories in order to become the person I want to be, or to create the community and world I would like to live in?

Choosing stories to change the world is positively mundane in the realm of theater… every artistic director does it, in their own way, every year. But even mundane things can explain the universe we live in – if we examine them closely enough.

I learned that from Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. It’s a good story. You should read it.

This post is cross-posted on the New Leaf Theatre Blog. The coffee ingested to produce it was provided by the incomparable Margo Gray. Thanks, Margo!

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And now, a moment of bloggy Performance Art

August 17, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Go ahead, play all three at the same time.

It’s a theme.

I’ll be with you shortly.

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Those Who Do Not Learn from the Publicity Photos of the Past are Doomed to Repeat Them

June 11, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

It’s that time of the year when a new crop of companies pop up in Chicago, as ensembles of young artists graduate from colleges and form the next big thing, eager to announce a season of work. (I think we’ve counted 12 this year?)

Benno Nelson, a company member of The New Colony (who very well may be the next big thing that formed 2 years ago, or as I like to call them “an annual that managed to pollinate into a perennial”) is already interrogating the value of this particularly short and internal kind of life cycle.

Some of them *will* be the next big thing. But all of them will get there after exploring what came before.

So, with that in mind, I invite you all, young and old, to check out this blog hat/tipped my way by Simon Ogden.

inaproductionof.blogspot.com

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In Defense of Stage Managers

June 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Anne Nicholson Weber, in the podcast interview I posted a few weeks ago, asked the question: “What exactly does a stage manager do?” Josh, Ray and I kind of looked at each other in that moment, thinking: “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”

At the non-equity Jeffs last night (yeah, Jared), I got to thinking (again) about something I think is missing these theatrical award ceremonies – Jeff, Tony, the whole lot of ’em.

How in the WORLD can we structure an award for best stage management?

Because when they do their job right, they are the the glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context. With patrons, house emergencies, prop emergencies, scenic emergiencies, costume emergencies, skipped pages…

Sure, it’s a tricky award to evaluate – there are enough pitfalls in evaluating design (which still can be flashy, brash and loud enough to draw attention to itself), let alone a role that is quieter if not more central to the functioning of theatrical performance. The very definition of good stage management is when it just works, seamlessly, brilliantly, and without leaving any trace of emotional, procedural or intellectual tint on the designs, direction or performances. That is a no-mistake tough job.

You *can* tell when there’s a ninja SM calling a show back there in the booth – usually when a mind-bendingly complex sequence of events is timed so perfectly either very early (first time!) or very late in the run (ready for closing!) that it still leaves you breathless.
I’m talking about you, Ellen, Amanda, Joe, Tim, Kim, Jaime, Alden and so many, many more.

If awarding committees can see beyond the footlights enough to give awards to directors, musical directors, lighting designers, or musical sound designers (the mad science/art of seamless vocal amplification that again, ideally doesn’t draw attention to itself – a fact that led to it not being included in the Tony Awards until last year, 30 years after the beginnings of theatrical sound design), certainly there is some way to evaluate and recognize these foundational artists who through their creative management support the entire team.

So here’s the question: If you had to write the rules, how would you choose to evaluate a stage manager’s performance?

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You have no control over your life.

May 27, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

No answers here, just questions.

Big events have been drawing this fact of life into sharp relief over the past week/month/year, on a huge scale and many spin-off, convoluted, personal scales.

The manufacturer of my car, who happens to be one of the leading employers of a nearby state, will likely be bankrupt soon. I’ll probably be getting rid of it anyway, likely for well below the market value. Because honestly? Even if it is valueless, it makes no financial or environmental sense for me to keep it. In another year, that would have been a decision that mattered, and it’s almost an afterthought.

I’m getting to the age when mortality is an internalized fact of life for pretty much everyone I know. This Memorial Day, we lost Will. And we had another health scare the next day that was almost made worse by that ugly, gaping maw in the social safety net that most professional artists find themselves slipping through at one point or another: Uninsurance. Don’t get me wrong, I think children and the elderly deserve universal health care first as we as a society can afford it. But I also believe that we should freaking find a way so that everyone can have access to it. Even the simple fear of losing access to health care has its own cost in missed opportunities for screenings and preventative medicine. I don’t care how Social Darwinist you’re feeling today, I’m done with losing and almost losing friends, and I think we need to find a way to prevent basic health care and especially preventative medicine from being an even slightly financial decision.

Prop 8 woes in California also demonstrate the government’s and more importantly the Body Politic’s ability to remove our rights to well-being and a level social playing field, but there are encouraging signs that at least there’s a winnable battle yet to be had there. It’s not going to play out in the judicial oligarchy, because that wouldn’t really have a sense of finality – the decision lies in hashing out the problem once again in the court of public debate and ballot. There are ways and means to win back that control, and build lasting justice in reaction to a particularly clear injustice.

And there’s one more thing, probably the smallest of all these things, but the one that seemed the most like the universe coming right out and bitch slapping the people I live and work with, declaring: “You. Yeah, you. The technical theater artists and independent theater producers. That’s right: You. Fuck You.”

The Texas Senate, in an apparent fit of pique, proposed and approved a measure to make Lighting Design functionally illegal. The really bafflingly scary thing about this is just how often this happens. In the face of some other social ill, DIY creative enterprise in general can and will at any time be just plain eviscerated and made illegitimate with the sweep of a legislative pen. The tax code does this, the health care system does this, we do it to each other and we do it to ourselves by leaving ourselves vulnerable and unprepared. The society itself does not see this work – by which I mean the work of independent, non-profit theater whose goal is revelation over capitalization – as legitimate. Part of us doesn’t think it’s legitimate either, as measured by our actions and our real impact and influence on our communities.

But that vague sense of laziness is really hard for me to jibe with Will, who lived this life all the way through, without the equity card, without the health insurance, all the while supporting the small companies that he cared about as a grant writer and advisor, touring schools and being a crucial part of bringing developing plays to life for the developing playwrights that he believed in. Ultimately, we give all of ourselves over, and request a modicum of empowerment from society and government just to do our work – to explore troubling and mundane subjects and what it means to be a community and what it is like to share an imaginative spark – without quite this much fear of being left out to hang for spending time on this way of life. One of those subjects could be, certainly, how it’s only been (some) Americans in this last half-century that have lived under the delusion that we do in fact have control over our lives – and what does that mean?

If you don’t have control over your life, then it follows that sickness and health isn’t something you get to choose or earn based on market performance. I don’t know when that idea started to make sense to us. If the licensed electricians legitimized as theatrical lighting designers by the Texas legislature can work and get enough money or support to get health care – a safety net for when not if we eventually fall ill – we should be able to achieve at least that for each other.

Precariousness, large and small. I am thankful for what I am granted the chance to hang on to.

Not everything falls apart. Give a hand to @travisbedard and @jimonlight, who fought and organized intelligently over the past two days for their right to light. If the bill gets changed tomorrow, I’m giving them the credit. And see the steps they took to get there on Twitter – it’s a compelling call to action.

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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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