Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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18 Comments to “Conversion”

  1. Nominated for best blog post of 2009.

    I wish I could say I understand how you feel, but I suspect I’ve only come halfway to your point in the process. I think we’re all in this process of thinking and turning things over in our minds — even those who say this revolution of theatre cannot happen. The laws of physics that determine momentum and velocity also determine boiling point. I suspect that sooner or later, these thoughts will boil (or perhaps less violently, simmer) to the surface where our theatre will be permeated with the ideas of a new generation.


  2. How do we know if we are making a change for the better? I have to say I am feeling it already.

    It has to do with using social media to get more (drum roll) social. Some of us have been using this thing to create real connections, to enable conversation rather than sound bites. We have be talking to each other both online and in person.

    That happened because of the blogosphere and other social media outlets.

    But many out there aren’t even convinced that the social media revolution is going to take hold, or that it is worth the trouble. How many of us have hear people ask doubtfully “So ,should I look into Twitter?” hoping you’ll say…nah, it’s no big deal.

    I know some out there who view this whole social media mode of distribution and communication with contempt. I’m not talking about senior citizens who’ve never touched a mouse in their life, I’m talking about 20 and 30 somethings who feel some sort of burden now that they have all these places in which to check and see if they are in anyone’s thoughts.

    I am talking about folks who don’t like getting a 5 facebook reminders, myspace bulletins, twitter, email, every 3 days about a show coming up.

    I would argue that such inundation is not the best way to convert keystrokes into action. You must promote, yes. But, sometimes you have to let enough time pass, give me an opportunity to forget the last post before you hit me with another…. OK back to the point which is…

    Even though these social media have definitely opened up a venue for more and more noise to fill the void, they have also opened up opportunities to talk to connect, and that is just as likely to get me to come to someone’s show as being told for the tenth time, that some reviewer liked or didn’t like the piece.

    I am currently going to be directing at least 5 projects this year. Last year, I directed one. That is conversion.

    Not only am I seeing more shows, i am seeing them with more people, more friends, which leads to more communication more debate and is enriching my life. This weekend, I am going to see Hairy Ape with at least 3 other friends, all of which I either met online though the blogosphere or have recently reconnected with as a result of a project again tied to the social media. Even if we can not see the degrees of separation that convert talk, posts, and twitts into action. It is happening. It is a good thing, and It will proceed so long as we do.

  3. I definitely got overwhelmed with Twitter there for a second (and it won’t be the last time) but I also know enough about social media that it’s not the technology’s fault… it’s the way you use it that can cause the stress.

    I think I share your observations here, Bob. What has happened to the theater blogging community locally here in Chicago over the past year is a kind of accelerated networking and collaboration, and it has been public, transparent, loud, and exciting. However, with a few key exceptions (very notably the League of Chicago Theaters itself) the people that have really benefited and jumped into this model with both feet, if you’ve noticed, have been theaters with nothing to lose: Either theaters with a comparatively young production and fundraising infrastructure like New Leaf, your new incarnation of the Mammals, RBP, or theaters who have been around for a while with a MISSION of doing theater with nothing to lose, like WNEP.

    Testing the effectiveness of social media technique doesn’t happen if your controls are all theaters with nothing to lose. Results of a test cannot be analyzed on our own anecdotal experience alone… we need to extrapolate our experiences and demonstrate the physics of how the online format can actually work for live performance. Many people like us know and trust that learning how to effectively funnel online social networks into communal social artistic experiences is one of the things that theater must do to remain viable into the future.

    My version of conversion, my test of effectiveness, the nut that I think we’re about to crack: I think we need to prove that this conversion ALSO works in this new world with more than just anecdotal experience, and it needs to work with larger theaters.

    In this economy, with mid-sized theaters taking the hardest hit to their financial infrastructure, I’m not sure if that’s going to delay or speed up the process. Because you’re right… it’s not about getting a twitter account, it’s about incorporating the transparency of social media directly into the way a theater and its artists communicate with the outside world. And that’s risky. I am seeing this a bit with Jack Tamburri’s work on the Court blog, and Adam Thurman’s exposure of marketing for the Court, and certainly on the Steppenwolf blog. But Steppenwolf has already seen with the Nambi Kelley incident how transparency can backfire on the artistic conversation. Though I think the company itself handled that incident with some grace, I think those conversations are still very much in a bubble.

    The social keying-in that you’re experiencing could also be attributed to your rise as a networked artistic director engaging in artistic dialogue with other theaters. That’s been happening for decades – It’s not necessarily about the Twitter / blogging format, though that is how you trained yourself to do it. ADs and ambitious artists routinely see each other’s work, compare notes, and their networking is often a truly friendly gesture.

    What is different now is this transparency/broadcast thing. Our artistic actions as bloggers/twitterers become models and representative of our region, even if we’re still young and god help us uninformed as companies. While Bob Falls has the financial heft to bring in companies internationally for a show, we have the online dexterity to continue the artistic discussion over the long term. That makes us able to diversify and test our thoughts and assumptions over a wider net, faster. On a different day I could tell you what that means.

  4. Wow, alot of stuff here to reply to

    “My version of conversion, my test of effectiveness, the nut that I think we’re about to crack: I think we need to prove that this conversion ALSO works in this new world with more than just anecdotal experience, and it needs to work with larger theaters.”

    Devil’s Advocate – Why? Why does it need to work for big theatre? See, I think that the Steppenwolf incident here is a perfect example of how this sort of transparency does not work for institutional theatres whose financial responsibility doesn’t always meld with potentially provactive statements by artistic associates perceived to be within the brand. These behemoths of the community or even mid sided entities aren’t just hogtied on twitter and blogs. Provocation is circumspect in all their PR and in the actions of their illustrious company members and in their subscription season decisions. Tortoises live long long lives so too do redwoods but ability to rapidly respond to environmental condidtions, even in a virtual environement dont go hand in hand with the type of cultural paradigm established to best ensure such longitivity. I’ll stop there for now, before a ton more tangents mainifest.

  5. Well the Steppenwolf example has less to do with the size of the institution and more to do with saying something stupid. No matter the size of the institution or the reputation of the person, if you say Tennessee Williams is burning in hell because of “his troubled life” you’re probably gonna get some push back regardless of the size of your institution.

    It was an ignorant thing to say, inside or outside a rehearsal process. That’s not a problem with transparency. It’s a problem with saying stupid things (esp ones that can be equated with hate speech.)

    And if that’s not what was meant, Steppenwolf screwed the pooch in their response. I don’t think it has to work for large institutions. But being stupid is easier to brush off for them.

    Kris Vire wrote a while back about this, but it’s pretty simple. If a company doesn’t have (or get) an online presence they’re gonna die. That’s a pretty effective stimuli for folks of all budget ranges.

  6. Agreed, Tony [and by extension, Kris]

    Regarding DevilVet’s Advocate – because I want to be a theater company that pays its artists, and that means *becoming* a mid-level theater. It’s the same thing print media and music industry needs to do right now… identify financial support structures that will allow them to continue to do and proliferate their work while generating income on the internet. That’s the thing no one’s really figured out yet.

    I don’t subscribe to the belief that brand means a reigning in of artistic expression – a brand should always be a structure that supports and propels the artistic conversation forward by providing clarity. If it’s too restrictive or doesn’t support the organization, it’s time to change your brand.

    I think, from where I stand, that a transparent artistic brand broadcast via the web is actually very compatible with large cultural institutions. But it takes a comprehensive new understanding of how communication is generated by theaters and it takes a massive reintegration of business into art into business into art until they’re one cooperative entity again.

    I think it can work because WNEP does make money, that’s just not what they’re about. New Leaf is making money too… but we’re also not paying salaries. Our company is about supporting our artists and our audience through renewal, and that means paying for our artists’ time so they can really dedicate themselves to experimenting in our culture / environment. That means a certain level of growth will be necessary.

  7. I think we all agree the suggestions about Williams’ everlasting soul were at best stupid. The point for me is that transparency mean (again to me) openness that sometimes results in this sort of stupidity. Which then leads to censoring the conversation in a required attempt to avoid unheeded provocation because checks need to be cashed and tickets need to be sold, thousands of tickets maybe even tens of thousands of tickets in order to pay the bills. Happy Ouroboros Day.

    When we say generating income on the internet, are we talking about selling tickets on the internet or providing some virtual service or promotional items? Turning buzz into butts in the seats?


    Lets not suggest I’m advocating subtle racist or homophobic hate speech online. I think what I am suggesting is that online vitality requires something different from the traditional approach to Public Relations. I am spelling that out becuase I think Public Relations means something different than PR. Even the abbreviation to PR belies a haste born of out preference for other seemingly more fulfilling tasks.

    Online Public Relations or Community Relations requires stamina and even I dare say an actual presence, that few artistic types have the taste for.

    I think that the blogo-twitterverse is working for some of us at the bottom not merely becuase we have nothing to lose, but because our hunger for more drives us toward these new ideas and new systems of distribution.

    A midsize company is going to be slow to response to change if not resist it especially when it see issues like the Williams in Hell scenario.

    So, are we talking about sell more tickets online? Selling more tickets via better buzz online? Achieving financial independence as a arts org by having a more transparent online presense?

    The talk intrigues me but I dont see where the focus is

  8. Like a lot of long blog posts, this one was more about getting an idea that was festering out to have some other folks like you poke at it.

    The steppenwolf reference, as far as I’m concerned, is a sidebar.

    To answer your question about the goal of online transparency in theater, Bob:

    Yes: Community Relations (and that includes press that are representatives of the community – I know you don’t usually truck with press but the fact is some of them are very convincing idea shapers and it’s better to have them pushing your work forward)

    Organizational transparency and rich communications create rich and deep connections: a reunification of the artist’s work and the audience’s life.

    That means: More buzz

    That means: More attendance

    That means: More people willing to personally fund the work of the theater

    That means: More community organizations willing to provide in kind or bartered services to the theater

    That means: More citizens who trust that arts are worth something to them. That means fewer opportunities for senators to pick off arts funding like a limping gazelle to make themselves appear fiscally responsible.

    That means: More art that matters to more people.

    That’s what I think focusing on conversion buys us, and yes, I hesitate to add the words social media to that sentence, because that will give the impression that transparency and opening up the creative process is something that only happens on the internet.

  9. “(and that includes press that are representatives of the community – I know you don’t usually truck with press but the fact is some of them are very convincing idea shapers and it’s better to have them pushing your work forward)”

    Ouch… I’m a little uncomfortable with the brush you use to paint me here. It feels a bit chiding and glib to me. But, if that is your impression of my relationship to the press I am probably not going to be able to change it.

    I agree that the press is an excellent way in which to push work forward (if the press finds you to be in fashion).

    It is not out of hostility towards potentially naysaying critics (I actually have had the good fortune to get more positive press than not…and always welcome it as anyone should) that I think the future of arts information distribution is not the traditonal press or even that press’ presence online.

    However, I am truculant about the relationship of the arts in this country to not arts criticism so much as entertainment journalism.

    It is more about how arts criticism as we have known it in pre-blog days is going by the wayside. That even as our advocates among the critical celebrity speak loudly in our favor, their shareholders care less and less and coverage just slowly erodes away.

    I see a day sooner than we think when (gulp) theatre coverage of anything less than a 100 seat house goes away from major publications. We’ll see this in less than a decade. Papers like the Reader will end up looking more like the Sun Times and anyone smaller than a midsize company will most likely not be considered for coverage at all. This happens…I dont attribute any sort of malice to it, but I think it happens.

    All arts coverage will end up online very soon. And it is this that is both frightening to some and exciting to others. We will see a day when a show like RBP’s will be covered only by bloggers and non-professional enthusiast becuase someone somewhere after briefing a committee of shareholders will deem it is just not the cut of cloth people are wearing that month. Again not malice, just the way of the world.

    We have the good fortune to have Jones review a show like Cardiff even though it plays for only a week. But those are the exceptions. Wonderful exceptions fantastically guided by a Goodman curation in conunction with a critic’s decision to cover it, but I dont know, is this what we perceive to be the norm?

    I think the future conversion of social media (I’ll say it) to non virtual energy in support of a scene, a company, a theatrical endeavor is essential not only to rising stars in the soon to be mid-size theater level but to everyone out there who is striving to create anything.

    The incubator of Chicago theater happens mostly in small houses and short runs. I believe that. I also believe that the critics/press are now painted into a corner due to economics that means they are forced to pass on most of this type of theatre.

    p.s. Just because I am the Devilvet doesn’t mean I am not Bob as well. Anybody with google and five minutes can discern that. When I sign as devilvet, I am still transparent.

    I feel like I’m pushing this topic off the course you’re setting so I’ll stop now. I just wanted one more rebuttal before I went back to my blog.

  10. Call me crazy, but I don’t see the Steppenwolf thing as a sidebar. I think it is pretty illustrative on why there is a difference in communication between large and small institutions.

    The problem with that is that for a long time there have been two different ways to communicate, internally and externally. There are still “experts” that say an organization cannot communicate to folks outside the institution in the same way as they do internally.

    That’s not transparency and it’s not authentic. It also doesn’t work anymore. So lack of conversion is brought on through lack of authentic conversation.

    Now is there less at the large institutions because they’re scared of really engaging their community in a dialogue with a level playing field? (ie not talking down to people outside the organization as if mistakes are never made) Or is it because enough folks still go that they don’t feel the need to?

  11. I wish you could have seen the talkbacks for Emperor Jones, even the entire O’Neill fest – I think you’d see that those large institutions aren’t scared at all, they’re just slow to make the change to the new transparent format.

    That first talkback for EJ (and I’ve heard, the subsequent O’Neill talkbacks) were just incredible at the level of public discourse that the work itself was able to generate, and the amount the Goodman artistic staff (notably Education Director Willa Taylor) was able to shape the conversation towards – quite simply – collective revelation. And that included people being so mad at the play they wanted to scream, and people so mad at the interpretation they wanted to scream, and people who wanted to be mad so much that they had a kind of ecstatic change and actually reformed their initial perspective while watching the show. Amazing to hear that conversation take place.

    Frankly, I don’t think the large institutions have the biggest problem with engaging their community, because they’re able to assemble more of the community. They’ve certainly failed to spark dialogue from time to time – some institutions more than others – but I think their central problem is having the large numbers of people that attend conversations like this feel like they’re participants in the dialogue (which often are moderated and limited in time). But the dialogue is certainly *happening*. I also see this as a clearly changing trend right now – I’ve seen poorly attended AND poory structured talkbacks before, but especially around the O’Neill fest, I felt the ground move in the past year – also at Steppenwolf, also at the Court. Also at some other venues.

    I’d question the assumptions that underlie your final two questions, Tony – and I appreciate your questioning my sidelining the Steppenwolf incident. You’re right, the way controversy is handled and managed IS central to the questions presented by a transparent organization.

  12. Nick, if you’re talking about conversations in person like a talk back I’d concur–if the discussion is strictly about the work in a way that the organization can control the conversation.

    When people leave the sanctuary of the multi-million dollar complex the often will have very different things to say. As far as online media goes, Steppenwolf and The Goodman and Lookingglass etc, have failed almost every time they don’t control the conversation. And letting go of the conversation, to my mind, is step one of conversion.

    They are used to the funnel method of marketing, and have adopted online tools to try and expand the funnel. But that’s not really how online media works most effectively.

    probably a blog post in itself. . . but the problem with shutting down the controversy is that is when you can see the organization for what it is, and that is when conversion is truly possible if the org. is authentic.

  13. Tony – What I’m trying to communicate to you is that in this last round of talkbacks, the large institutions are NOT shutting down the controversy, they’re embracing it. Within the walls, and outside the walls. There were protests outside the Goodman, a couple of them came in to see the play, and there was an actual dialogue about the play, race relations, expectations met and unmet about the Goodman.

    Be careful, because I we need to continuously test our theories against what’s happening, day to day.

  14. Nick, can you point to somewhere online where I can the Goodman or the Press’ take on these Emperor Jones talkbacks? I’m sure I can find an article about the controversy. But, in a virtual sense were these talkbacks covered online? And if so, to what degree of success.

    Is it relevant that EJ was an invited company rather than a subscription show? Would Goodman itself ever produce a piece on its season approximating the EJ?

    Perhaps if there were a way to show us after the fact about the EJ talks rather than wishing we all could have been there, the arguement that big houses are ready and willing to deal (or manage) such provocation would be evolve easier. Something like a transcript or a youtube video.

  15. Well, there’s the newly-minted Goodman blog:

    Some of GMan’s talkbacks have been recorded and then rebroadcast on one of the WBEZ platforms, though I don’t recall there being any specific recording of that talkback.

    It is relevant that EJ was Wooster Group, except that the talkback was pretty much orchestrated by Goodman and the Goodman does this (to great effect with the Student Subscription series, some of my favorite performances) with all of its self-produced work as well.

    I do agree with your general thrust here, Bob – It’d be really useful if all these talkbacks were captured and made somehow available to prospective patrons so that the discussion could be broader and a greater audience net in itself. Ultimately, when the discussion is broad, continuous, and in depth, there’s less chance of having the audience shut down when they are turned off by a particular choice… that structure gives them the chance to reengage.

  16. “It is relevant that EJ was Wooster Group, except that the talkback was pretty much orchestrated by Goodman and the Goodman does this (to great effect with the Student Subscription series, some of my favorite performances) with all of its self-produced work as well.”

    See I dont think we’ll agree on this, but I think Gman gets the essential “cover” it needs since it is a Wooster Group show. However, it is gutsy to leave those blog responses up. I have to give Gman credit for that.

    I would say it would be more than useful to record the talkbacks, and that without a recording of them, they are nice rarities to the minority in attendnence but ulitmately a tree falling in a forest where most can not hear it to the community at large.

    If these talkbacks are so essential, so progressive, so moving (I dont doubt that they are) They need to have a life beyond the evening itself in order to evolve (my new word today) their relevence to a chicago community at large.

  17. I dunno. Their blog is a good example of what I’m referring to.

    Why, with the resources at their disposal, does the largest non-profit theatre in the midwest have a blogspot blog, instead of one that is actually fully integrated with their website?

    The post you link to would have been a fantastic opportunity to engage online in a meaningful and continuing dialogue. Instead Steve takes a defensive posture and essentially regurgitates a press release, then directs people to the talk backs. Which is great, however it’s a huge missed opportunity to not continue it online.

    Much of the content on the rest of the blog is essentially re-purposed pr.

    So in a way, it is an online version of if I was to meet up with you and Marni and grab a cocktail. Then talk about myself to two hours And then if you start to say something, excuse myself to go to the can. Then start yapping again as soon as I return.

    But then if y’all come over to my house we can have a great discussion.

    I hope I don’t sound like I’m singling out the Goodman, they are far from the only institution like that.

  18. Or then again, maybe they should hire you to be their blogger whenever they let you out of the sound booth. :)


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