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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.

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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If Twitter were a theatre pub, it might sound something like this

January 12, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Two of the most mind-blowing conversations I’ve had this year have both been late at night and joined in by a bunch of twitter pals. They’ve been energizing and challenging – I seem to do better in creative, collaborative brainstorming environments – and at the end of it all, I think I understand the theater ecosystem we’re trying to create much more clearly.

If you don’t like combing through other people’s conversations for bits of inspiration, I’ll be summarizing with handy flowcharts later.

Read the full conversation after the jump


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New Leaf launches a new financial plan

December 19, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

From the moment we saw this post from Chris Ashworth in October, New Leaf buckled down to create a vision of what sustainable theater could look like in the 21st century. It was a clarion call for an idea that had been churning and developing in the company for years.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to begin to roll out the results today.

Our theater must move away from a patronage model of funding and towards a partnership model. I don’t think any of our patrons would argue that art and the artists that make it couldn’t use more support in our society, both financial and social – we have all seen the ancillary benefits that are generated when you connect an artist with their passion – beauty, clarity, revelation, emotional release, simplicity, dialogue. But we also believe that society, corporate culture, and community organizations could directly and immediately benefit from a creative integration of the artistic process and the byproducts of artistic thinking into their work and daily experience. Most of America’s exposure to art is the finished “product” – a couple hours of watching a play, taking in a recital, or browsing paintings at a museum. If what we offer is an experience, our product is not the result, it is the entire experience from concept to creation to completion. And audiences routinely miss or are restricted from the meat of what that experience has to offer.


I’m not gonna lie – this feels like a crazy risk right now, at one in the morning. But putting your mouth where your money is always was going to be a risk.

I’ve immersed myself in the past few months in histories of artistic renaissance both ancient and recent, reading stories about the financial models of the Medici and how they funded one of the most vibrant and ultimately constructive cultural revolutions and sequences of rediscovery in history. The mob-esque patronage model of the Medici was highly supportive of the artist, quite untransparent, seems pretty attractive out of the context of plague, excommunication, brutality, and almost certainly political dysfunction, which all makes it seem oddly familiar to an artist in Chicago.

And on the other hand I’ve also read up on the organizational work of the generation that are now my artistic mentors – the folks that built Chicago theatre and specifically storefront theatre from the ground up and found ways of making it work that lasted through at least a couple major recessions.

(sidebar: if you wanted to know what it’s been like producing in Chicago in the last ten years, check out these decade-wrapping articles from New City. There’s some stunning archival work on display.)

I also feel like, as per usual, it’s a crazy long post. But we have several difficult cases to make. On the one hand, we have to make the case that in an economic downturn, investing in art in general and theater specifically can be directly beneficial to the investors, not just indirectly beneficial in the form of some vague warm feeling of generosity. Which brings us to the other case to be made: Theater may be non-profit, but we need to get out of the mentality that we therefore deserve financial support. Because if donors give money out of guilt or a heart that bleeds for unsupported artists, it’s misplaced. I’m sorry, but we just don’t need money like organizations that fight poverty and hunger and violence and disease do. If anything, we should be working for them. We must either be satisfied with just putting on plays with our own resources alone, which I think is a perfectly acceptable way of producing theater, or if we produce for the benefit of broader social goals, we need to articulate those goals and create direct and accountable value in our donor’s lives.

This shouldn’t leave us in a quandry or a place where we need to suddenly justify our existence, however. The answer is that we need to do a better job of featuring our people. Your company, after all, is your people, and their talents, and their projects, and their dreams, and their vision. To forget that is to risk losing them, and so instead you fight for them. You fight to keep them, you fight to support them, you wrangle and jostle to provide them with rich opportunities in which they will thrive.

I think the mistake we’ve had to make as theaters, especially mid-sized and small theaters, in the past few decades as we often aimed our ambitions towards national and grand scales is that we largely forgot that “our people” includes our audience. We must embrace our scale and scope and choose to feature them too, not just take their money and tell ourselves “yes, we deserve to take their money.” We must draw them out and be able to say: “this person paid for this set, this prop, this sound design. This person made this happen. And it wasn’t just humble generosity, no, this person has talents and dreams that match ours, and we want you, dear audience, to take this thing we made out of that energy and that support and go and support them, and each other.”

It’s so crazy. Here’s hoping it just works.

This post was brought to you, once again, by E. Hunter Spreen. She is a supporter of this blog and my coffee habit that I would like to draw your attention to. She stopped blogging for a time because she had the H1N1. I hope you will join me in forgiving her for having human limitations and reading her just the same. And after being inspired by her example, I actually put her coffee money towards a brief upcoming mental health break from technology and the city that I love. Cheers, E.

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New Digs

November 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

It was time to bite the bullet.

Today is the final day of my last two shows of the season, High Holidays at the Goodman and End Days at Next Theatre. To celebrate, I’m officially (and finally) migrating this blog to its permanent home at Welcome.

You *could* update your blogrolls / links / feeds / etc. But I’m hoping that I’ve got these 301 redirects and feedburner settings set up that it should be nice and seamless. I’ll be keeping those redirects up in perpetuity. You were nice enough to link to this site and my articles. The least I could do is reduce your workload.

Let me know in the comments if you notice anything weird.

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Theatrical Play-doh Fun Factory

November 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

This past week, I had five shows open at the same time. So that was fun.

As they start to close down, I’m delightfully surprised how other thoughts are popping into my head other than “OH GOD WORK OH GOD EAT OH GOD WORK OH GOD sleee… NO! GOD!”

For instance, something that is probably broken inside me told me to jump in on the (continuing) discussion on Playgoer about micing actors – now in straight plays – and what it means for the future of theater. It’s something I think about a lot as I mix microphones and other sounds at work, but that doesn’t entirely explain why I’m arguing a) to limit my employment opportunities for the good of all and b) why storefront theatre is financially destined to supersede big box theatre. If I was to be honest with myself, we’re oh so very not ready to make that conclusion yet.

But here’s the argument for it anyway.

On the one side is CLJ’s “good” or transparent sound – sound that is properly delayed and sourced to the actor using the principle known as the Haas effect – (look it up). It is truly convincing, so much so that we as engineers often get asked why we’re not amplifying the actors – when we are. On the other hand is over-amplified sound that makes actors sound like they’re breathing like walruses hanging from the giant center cluster in the grid. That’s not helping anyone push the art forward. And there are gradients in between, and times when over-amplification is the aesthetic goal.

The biggest question for me is sustainability. Both transparent and non-transparent sound have a problem – it’s horrendously expensive to body mic people, and I’m worried that the format of the 1,000 seat theatre is getting less popular. I’ve seen shows easily spend around a half-million to a million dollars to get that sound right – and they need to hire one of the probably a couple dozen sound designers who can effectively design on that scale in a transparent way. I’m talking in the united states. How is that ever going to work?

I wonder if the solution here isn’t an embracing of theatricality. The audience often thinks they want loudness when they actually want clarity. I’m coming from an environment (Chicago) where our best selling theatre is in an increasing number of smaller and smaller houses. The intimacy helps clarity of both sound and performance, and not at a great expense. The quality of the experience improves.

It’s very true – the old methods of vocal projection were born out of necessity, required skill and craft, and we miss those things, and we shouldn’t forget them. Nor should we mistake them for better days. Large houses and big voices engendered a style of acting that clearly communicated to the audience – but became outmoded as technology changed. Look at the difference in acting styles between the silent movie era and the talkies – huge differences brought on by a slight shift in technology. We’re seeing that shift again as the technology has lept forward in the last ten years, but I think our response isn’t as creative – we’re somehow still pursuing the naturalistic realism of what – Miller? nah, that’d be fooling ourselves- when we could be using sound in the theater to further illuminate the human condition. And again, louder does not necessarily equal more illuminating.

The question isn’t how to hang on to old methodologies – it’s how to embrace new capabilities in pursuit of a human truth.

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Bad Form: Cirque Marketing Dept. slips on its own banana

October 30, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

This morning, several Chicago theater bloggers received a robotic love note from the representatives of Cirque du Soleil, who are opening a show in town that I’m only going to wryly allude to. Because I’m insulted.

Chloe Steve (great use of two first names!) writes in my comments:

Its a great idea.I also take immense joy in sharing with you that Cirque du soleil is in Chicago now………It should be great……..

As actual journalist™ Kris Vire gumshoed a few minutes later after HE got a similar comment on his blog, Chloe appears to be a hired hand posting from India.

Now, I would LOVE to have an actual conversation with Chloe “If that is your real name” Steve about Cirque and the intersection of Chicago and south asian theater. That would be cool, and there’s actually an annual precedent for such a conversation.

And indeed my beef is not with the hired hands. It’s with the promoter, and it’s with folks who would look at their numbers and judge the success of their marketing efforts based on butts in seats and nothing else. What encourages me about the emerging style of DIY arts marketing emerging in Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and now most notably Baltimore is that it is based on real connection and rich conversation instead of mechanical SEO mumbo-jumbo. It is becoming the art and science of nurturing long-term relationships with your audience instead of cynically treating tickets purchased like a widget that you manufacture.

This is a letter of encouragement I sent to one of my web clients yesterday as they launched their website and thus their marketing campaign for a product they’re selling:

Keyword choices should more or less be happening in your copy, which google pays much more attention to than in your meta keywords. Your copy is already rich in keywords like *blonk*, *sploit*, *aWOOOGA!*, etc. So that’s a good start!

The most effective method of increasing SEO for your site that we’ve found at Marshall Creative will be more challenging for you as a developer of state of the art products – the biggest weight that google gives to a site is when trusted sites link or refer to content on your site. This can be achieved by 1) identifying what the trusted online neighborhoods in your industry are and 2) engaging those neighborhoods in content-rich dialogue as a part of your day-to-day marketing behavior. The more you can engage other blogs as a commenter (or even in some cases twittering thought leaders in your industry), or media outlets as an expert, the more likely those sites will choose to feature content links to your site. As you accrue those connections: Bam. Your site results surge forward in all your major keywords. This isn’t a question of just getting people to link to you in your sidebar – you want the right people TALKING about you online.

And sometimes in other odd keywords, as well. It’s not an exact science – at times it can be like drinking from an intermittent firehose. Thanks to this post on my personal blog, I have somehow become very high in google’s results for hog butchering. Luckily, I also have pretty good results in things I ACTUALLY do as well.

See that? Marketing theater is about talking about MORE THAN THEATER, and saying more than just “Chicago theater is awesome. This show is awesome.” In what specific ways is it awesome? For crying out loud, this is DYING for some creativity here. It’s about connecting the dots from the show to the subject, or the creators, or the sheer weight of the craft that goes in to Cirque’s production of [name omitted]. Think about the genius of Redmoon’s Golden Truffle. It’s a show… and a truffle tasting. And they’re truly integrated experiences. Nothing feels awkward or forced about it, and bam: You have brought an entirely new market segment into your theater. Cirque is better than this.

The really sad thing is that before this, I had a really great story pitch that I could offer to Cirque. You see, Cirque (along with the Mouse) was one of the forces that developed LCS (Level Control Systems), the top-of-the-line sound control system that we use at the Goodman. If qLab is the efficient and affordable Prius of sound control, LCS is the crazy expensive but completely configurable James Bond-mobile, and it’s quite useful with complex sound systems used by, well, Cirque, the Mouse, the Goodman, and several Broadway in Chicago shows (duh nuh nuh nuh! snap snap). The story of LCS, (now renamed D-Mitri after being aquired by top-of-the-line audio manufacturer Meyer Sound) is almost as incredible as what it is capable of, but you won’t hear that story, or the story of mad genius sound designer Jonathan Deans or any of his brilliant apprentices, because instead we get “Chicago theater is great! Including Cirque.”

Dissapointing, isn’t it? If the marketing of a show with a budget this large is this disappointing, well then I’m sure the show will be too.

And to all those who got spammed by cirque: Boycott. Boycott. Boycott. Don’t review, Don’t Go. Until the marketing department changes their ways.

(photo by NitaKang)

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Getting Everyone to the Same Place for a Conversation

August 27, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Things fall apart. But that’s why we like to put them together.

There’s enough moving parts and friction in the Chicago theatrosphere this week to raise the temperature of Lake Michigan 2.4 degrees F.

If you’ve been interested in getting together with a bunch of local theaters to find what common ground looks like…

Now Seems to be a Good Time. It may not be convenient (who needs to launch a season? Raise your hand!) , but when is it?

Some Reading for you:

The New Colony calls for a Chicago Storefront Theater Summit

And some historical perspective worth paying attention to:

Don Hall & friends

Bob Fisher & friends

The RAT Conference & the Storefront Theater Model

And even further back:

What in the world would you call Chicago Theater?

Sharon Phillips Explains the Early History of the Storefront Theater Movement for You

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Summer Sabbatical

July 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

The kids are here.

As the Cherubs program begins (we’re on day 2!) I’ll be going offline through the first week in August to:

Design six shows
Train 2 students to load in a complete rep sound system
Train 3 students to break apart a text and find / mix the perfect sounds to go with that text
Help train 9 students to be amazingly proactive and on-the-ball stage managers
Engage 156 students (along with 49 other jaw-droppingly awesome faculty) in a creative discussion that will form the bedrock of the best summer of their lives.

So, I gotsta go do that. There’s some fun stuff cooking that I can’t wait to announce.

But right now? I get to be here.

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