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How to get the Right Website for Your Theater Company

April 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere

When we first got the proposed design for the Newleaftheatre.org site in 2004, the marketing team of the era was in absolute awe. We were sitting in the spacious, well-lit trendy “living room” of one of our company members’ friends design firm (won’t tell you which one – we’ve been lucky enough to have three such relationships in our eight-year history) and we were each handed this shiny binder with images of orange bevels, warm handwritten text, and black-and-white stills from our current production. It was SNAZZY. For a company that was tiny and had no money, this pro-bono design was the get of a lifetime. We still get comments, in a market five years older, about how great our site looks. That site has caught the attention of artists just landing in Chicago, and we get the privelage of working with them first… because we had a web presence that was simple and sleek and showed us off.

Cut back to 2004. I’m sitting there, trying to figure out the world of marketing as an artist, and I came to that meeting with a question. I was to be the webmaster once the site was rolling, and I wanted to be ready. I had been learning this neat new (to me) programming language called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.. The possibilities of CSS seemed to fit right in with such a sleek design – easy to read code meant that the site would be simple to update under many unforseen circumstances. For example, a vertical production photo instead of a horizontal one. I asked the question: “Would this site be coded in CSS?”

Sure, it may have been a rude and rube-ish question to ask a hot shot designer who just handed us the keys to a beautiful pro-bono design. And I felt that rush of guilt immediately, and I backed down.

And you know what? I’m STILL cleaning up and working around and limboing under that jerk’s code five years later. Look at it! Go to Newleaftheatre.org, click on “view source” and look at it! It’s a freaking mess! Table code every which way, embedded font tags that make the simplest updates cumbersome and confusing… The very definition of an unextensible site. Over the years – as I’ve learned more – I’ve slowly updated under-the-hood in little half-day bursts to allow for a database-driven site (which in turn compresses a half-day of updating the site everytime we put on a new show to about half an hour), and fancy things like photo montages, twitter integration. But the thing that prevents all these things from really gelling? Not enough time to massage and fix the shoddy programming that underpinned a beautiful site.

So, you know I love you. I don’t want you or your theater to have this fate. So here’s some tips and ‘gotchas’ to look for when your board and marketing department get a crackin’ for a new website.

1) Be very careful with conflating the identity of a graphic designer and a programmer / web developer. It is actually rare to get both in the same person, and boards tend to like designers but forget the programmer. (though now that’s starting to shift: Social media means there’s now a primary focus on web developers — but everyone still assumes that they also design, which many of them don’t) To really confuse the issue, designers also often think they can program (you know I love you guys), and programmers often think they can design (you’re my peeps). If someone says they are both, look at both sides of their portfolio. You need BOTH when you’re creating an online identity, but given the realities of long-term theater budgets, I’d argue you MUST have a good programmer or you will be fighting bad programming decisions for the life of the site, and that will cost you in time and missed opportunities. You also want to make sure that in addition to submitting a nice proposal (ooh! It’s velo-bound!) and coming in under budget and on time, your designer and programmer are hearing you and thinking creatively about how to translate the identity of your company into both a functionality (programming) and a look (design). It’s the same thing as theater, and board-types from the corporate world forget that when they put on arts marketing hats. (Don’t get me started with the corporate world and web presences – they know they need one and that theaters are bad at creating them but 90% of them don’t know how to achieve that on a granular level.) You know what designer/director trust feels like in your company, and you know what a designer who can’t execute their ideas looks like. And what do you do when they design beautifully but can’t execute? You hire them a technician – an ME, a sound engineer, a Technical Director. Same theory applies here.

2) The Good-Fast-Cheap-(Pick 2)” rule applies. As much as I just bitched the dude out, I do think that getting an experienced designer on a pro-bono basis absolutely pays dividends over the long term. Pro-bono means that the designer – for once in their career working for the man – is allowed to play and push their own creative limits, so you can really end up with staggering work if you cultivate the right relationship. To that end – If you’re getting Good and Cheap (gotta have cheap, right?) DO NOT THINK THAT YOU CAN PUSH FOR FAST. Budget plenty of time to get the results you want with little investment. The designer has to take you and your deadlines seriously, but for instance – don’t fall into the trap of the ‘partial launch so that we can hit this deadline.’ This is just asking for trouble, because your developer will usually need to develop two working sites within the time frame that they would normally be building one. Two mediocre sites do not equal one good one. When you sacrifice good, you will burn them out, and then they will drop you like a hot tamale. Check in with them. Find out what makes them excited. Continue to engage their interests, and they’ll keep working with you – just like any collaborative artist.

3) I swear to god, no one does this, but it’s so much more important than getting the right the visual look of a site. When a process neglects Content Management training, designers tend to push their Content-Management-of-choice on you, the client. This allows them to fake you out a bit and get you off their back – when they’re on home turf most designers have great agility and can *appear* to provide all three pieces of the magic triangle: Good, Fast & Cheap! You Win!

Not so fast, Sonic the Hedgehog. Allow enough time in your timeline to make sure that you understand under-the-hood programming choices. You should budget time to have a rep from your company research & discuss the relative merits of each Content Management System (CMS) with the preference but without the bias of the designer/programmer. Some CMS’s that might be proposed:

– Dreamweaver / Text editing. Run away, already. Dreamweaver is an HTML tool, not a CMS, and updating the page will require HTML skill. That means crazy maintenance time and/or costs and a greater likelihood that your updates will break the page.

– Designer maintenance. Not a viable option for the theaters these days, and if you went pro-bono, it’s a laughable thought. The goal here is that the CMS should be easy enough to use that any company member can update the site – because at some point, marketing will be a burden.

– XML or database-driven site interpreted by PHP / Ruby / Javascript. Now we’re talking. Requires some very basic coding knowledge in some cases, but data is separated from design so your updates will not mistakenly break the site. In this case, what goes into the database (the “schema’) and what gets hardcoded into the site should be a subject of some scrutiny, since your programmer will probably not get it right on the first guess. Extending your site later will require another visit from the programmer in most cases – and increasingly, as new technologies like Twitter pop up every long weekend, that could turn into a sustainability problem. Unless you REJECT change.

– Joomla or Drupal. Perfectly servicable CMSs with built-in databases, though it can be confusing to some – including me, and I know five web languages. Try it out first. Tony will recommend Joomla every time. Tony, you’re a crazy person for this reason.

– WordPress, again with a built-in database. My flavor of choice because of its ease, ubiquity, and extensibility, but it needs some tweaking to wipe away the wordpress “look” and would also need considerable modifications to power say, ongoing box office functionality. I’m biased, too, remember. Again, try before you buy. We did quite a bit of this sort of tweaking with Dan Granata’s new net-home, Theatre That Works.

This post was (once again!) sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me a nice late-night mug of Genmai-cha. The toasted rice tea reminds me of Iwate, Japan. Sigh. Thanks (oh so belatedly), Elizabeth!

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17 Comments to “How to get the Right Website for Your Theater Company”


  1. Good post.

    I don’t think I’d recommend Joomla every time. I think the learning curve on the user end of Drupal is far more difficult and few folks have the time to learn it, plus there isn’t as much in the way of templating for Drupal. So for smaller org’s that don’t have a staff developer Joomla makes more sense.

    (plus jumi and a few other plugins let you add custom code to individual pages and modules so you can really go to town without touching or modifying the main code base (the scary part for many) when new technologies pop up, or if there’s an app you want to quickly port.)

    It is a different way of looking at it as the templating (look and feel) is split off from the code base so at first you have to think about the architecture rather than the html/css.

    I think with Joomla and other CMS’s the initial setup can be confusing for newbies, but there’s a ton of free resources and once set up, maintainence is pretty simple and a couple of clicks and it’s up to date in seconds.

    For some folks Drupal is a better choice. But I think a lot of the apps (like box-office etc.) is where wordpress is really lacking. I think for a blog wordpress is pretty tough to beat, but if you’re looking for a cms that integrates it all under one roof, wordpress isn’t the best choice.

    I know some folks who also really like movable type. I think the house uses Xoops. At least that’s what it looks like.

    Here’s great site where you can try out the front end and back-end of all the open-source CMS’s http://www.opensourcecms.com/

    I think the first question folks need to decide is “what do I want this to do?” I don’t think enough though is put into that and it shows on a lot of sites.

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  2. This is a great post and a great topic. I’ve received so many requests from buddies to help them make websites, not because I’m a particularly good maker of websites (I’m not) but because the process is so intimidating and obscure to the non-technical. I used to pour hours and hours into doing pro-bono work because I wanted to help them. As the years dragged on I realized this had been a mistake. They couldn’t do anything without me. It wasn’t good for me, and it wasn’t good for them. With a little encouragement, they began to tackle the process of educating themselves more, and *that* was the right move. So my addition to your points above is that even if you get pro-bono work (which can be great), YOU ARE NOT ABSOLVED OF RESPONSIBILITY TO EDUCATE YOURSELF. I don’t care how non-technical you are. You’re a smart cookie. You can do this. You can learn a new thing. You don’t have to be an expert, but if you want to have a website, you have to accept learning something about websites. Sorry if it sounds painful, but it’s going to be ten times more painful if you don’t.

    The other issue here is that the whole concept of a Content Management System is fundamentally a hard problem to solve. A beautiful, unique site that can be painlessly updated by non-technical staff is Not An Easy Thing.

    I keep hoping to stumble across a genius CMS that usees a super-simple but super-clever trick. And just the other day I bumped into http://www.cushycms.com/ The tour video makes me think this might actually be the thing that does CMS correctly, or at least the kernel of the right idea. But I haven’t used it, and I don’t really have a lot of knowledge about the full spectrum of CMS tools. Do you know of any other CMS tools that strike your fancy beyond WordPress?

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  3. As a web developer (not a designer) I think this post should be read by more than just theatre companies. It’s very relevant for almost all small businesses looking to create a new website.

    I’ll mention that finding a GREAT pro-bono designer is not easy. Despite the economy, they are finding paying work in ample supply. Finding a DECENT designer is not as hard, but it might backfire easily (average designers seem to code everything in Flash and have no concern for the CMS you use).

    With that said, great job on a worthwhile read for the theatre industry!

    Randy Burgess
    JBRB

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  4. Clearly, I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to CMSs. Ha ha, yes, I forgot Flash, which, if flash is anything more than an add-on to your site (to say, power video playback), let’s add that to the run away category, because you’ll never be able to change the site again, not ever.

    I think I tend to agree with Chris’ thrust here – each CMS is just a framework, not a magic cookie that you get to choose forever. But everyone wants it to be the magic cookie (in some cases DEMAND that it be the magic cookie), which leads to the Good vs. Fast conflict. Each CMS just leads to more decisions and more education over the long or the short term. Each one is a way of thinking about how to build sites, not instructions for doing so, and each can be as complex as a language or as simple as a dialect.

    But think of how useful it is to know another language when you need to speak it. This is useful training – available for free on the web – for a whole host of skills, potential jobs, and expansion of your artistic endeavors through clever use of the web. That’s a good thing because it is a scary thing.

    I’d be interested to think what non-programmer types think of the ease of that CushyCMS intro video. It does look very promising and extensible, but you’d definitely want a programmer who makes good decisions about what you as the user can edit (the programmer would likely set up the parts of the page you can edit, and that choice could be limiting.)

    Tony, Joomla is not alone in having lots of free resources and a community that supports each other that you can draw from – same is true of WordPress, PHP, certainly Rails. The trouble is that each of those communities are only semi-reliable. Going it alone without a guide means investing all your web authoring time into learning this one language, and Joomla strikes me at least on the surface as a particularly dead end – it only helps you learn more Joomla, which means that you’ll keep recommending Joomla. I’ve watched Joomla grow, and as the community wants more features, the community is habitually making Joomla more and more complex. I’d say to someone starting out, if you’re going to have to jump in and learn something that complex, better to learn XML and PHP and how to find the right XML parsing libraries if you’re going to invest that much time, because then when you’re done you’ll understand the underpinnings of ALL these CMS’s. As you said in your own post, you don’t have time to learn PHP, but PHP is the underpinning of both Joomla and WordPress.

    As you dig further and further into CMSs and web languages, I do think it becomes more of a toolkit of lots of them that you use in different circumstances. For your projects, Chris, I think if you don’t already know Ruby on Rails (which powers the Chicago Theatre Database, that’s a little bit of web-fu that I think would flower in your imagination. Rails is a straight-on web language framework and is not for the faint of heart, but the community that surrounds it is full of people who would write better posts than this one – a big focus on maximum simplicity and maximum power. But not good for the everyday theater website – a lot of power most wouldn’t use and one of the scariest learning curves around.

    Finally, Randy – You’re absolutely right about finding a great pro-bono designer. Very tricky. I forget that because my theater company has in eight years found not one but three. The way we did that is by taking day jobs as receptionists in marketing firms. It’s a trick I think can be applied to almost any high-level professional service that theaters need but don’t have access to – you need a day job anyway, so go get one that’s gonna work for you.

    Of course, during that time, we’ve found exactly none great web developers, which over time has led me down a path of relative self-sufficiency there. However, it’s taken collaboration with other web developers to get me out of my awful awful self-taught habits (q.e.d. the unreliability of open source communities) which has actually caused some snags with my self-generated sites like thesideproject.net.

    4
  5. Separating the code base and architecture of a site from content and updating is a must for any small org. IMO.

    You can waste weeks writing a custom code base or you can use one that already exists. In the end where most small orgs fall flat on their face is not in getting someone to make a fancy website for them, it’s in keeping it up to date.

    You say in your post:

    “It’s a freaking mess! Table code every which way, embedded font tags that make the simplest updates cumbersome and confusing… The very definition of an unextensible site. Over the years – as I’ve learned more – I’ve slowly updated under-the-hood in little half-day bursts to allow for a database-driven site (which in turn compresses a half-day of updating the site everytime we put on a new show to about half an hour), and fancy things like photo montages, twitter integration. But the thing that prevents all these things from really gelling? Not enough time to massage and fix the shoddy programming that underpinned a beautiful site.”

    The problem with most websites in not in development, it’s getting the tools into the hands of the end-user. I’ve used Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Movable Type, (and some crappy asp and .net ones) and old school hand coding in various languages. Each is a different tool with different pluses and minuses.

    However, while I’m the only one who can do web development (so far), anyone in our company can update our website and keep it up to date.

    5
  6. The thing I like about Cushy is that it appears to do a great job of solving 90% of the problem: the long-term, collaborative contributions of content by non-technical members of your organization.

    What I hate about most CMSs is how quickly they layer on abstractions, and how deeply complex a web page becomes. They’re giving us an all-or-nothing choice: “you either write the page by hand, or you submit entirely to our magic black box”.

    The first option gives you theoretically complete control, and allows you to match complexity with need. However, in practice you’re constrained by your expertise and your time, and after the site goes live, the implementor becomes the bottleneck.

    The second option cedes control to the magic box, introducing complexity and constraining what you can do to the features of the box. However, no single person is the bottleneck, and you may well have access to technical features you could not have accomplished with your own skill set.

    The Cushy model seems to say: let’s take the best of both worlds. Let’s give the responsibility of design and development to a human being, not a magic box. But let’s build a new magic box that only solves the content and collaboration problem.

    In other words: the biggest problem of the typical CMSs is in the initial creation–and any subsequent mini-creations that may happen later. The biggest problem of typical web development by humans is sharing the load of updates. “So,” says Cushy, “let’s solve the updates problem, and let humans keep on solving the creation problem”.

    That’s the sense I get, which is why it looks cool to me. It seems pretty easy these days to find someone who has relative technical savvy. Every kid knows the basics of creating web pages. Get a professional design and implementation up front, so you’ve got some hott templates, get one person who understands basic HTML and CSS and what FTP means, and give the rest of your team an easy tool to do all that time-consuming content. Let the tech-savvy person be responsible for the skeleton, and everyone else be responsible for the content.

    In theory, anyway. I still haven’t actually *used* Cushy. What, you want an *informed* opinion??? :)

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  7. http://www.cushycms.com/static/pro

    This is what would worry me about Cushy. you have to by the pro version to have rss or use your own logo and color scheme e.g. red, blue, gray, etc.

    If you think CMS’s are restrictive, Cushy seems far more so. I dunno anyone had a chance to try it out?

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  8. That’s Color scheme for the CMS interface, not the site itself. (another issue with investigating CMS – you don’t want to start comparing the relative merits of apples and oranges, except they aren’t called apples and oranges, they’re called wacky names like Drupal and PHP and FaShizzle)

    The way Cushy seems to work is: you give it access to whatever code you want, insert a bit of Cushy code, and then cushy inserts content changes into whatever code you want. The free version then lets you manange the site via the Cushy site.

    The pro features are for packaging things up nice and pretty on the back end for clients, who will want to see their branding on all aspects of the site, including the ones the public never sees. Given that the goal is separating design from content (you’re absolutely dead on about that, Tony) – I don’t think that’s a deal breaker for most theaters.

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  9. That’s just to brand the editor, not to brand the website.

    Also, I did a poor job drawing a distinction in my previous post between Cushy and any other CMS. Obviously a CMS is supposed to solve the long-term update problem. What intrigues me is that if you really simplify the scope of what that means, it doesn’t overly burden the whole *rest* of the process. It decouples unrelated tasks.

    Now that I’m working myself into a froth about this thing, I guess I should go give it a try and see if it’s anything special after all…

    9
  10. Froth it up. Double whip mocha, if you’re makin’ em.

    10
  11. ahh, must have misread it.

    I guess to use a different analogy, is it worth learning qlabs and sfx, or whichever lighting control console you can afford (so want a congo jr.) so the stage manager has only to push a button?

    That’s kinda how I think of CMS’s. Much more work upfront, makes life so much simpler in the long run.

    11
  12. > I guess to use a different analogy, is it worth learning qlabs and sfx

    Personally? I don’t think it’s worth it. Gimme a live foley artist any day.

    12
  13. Chris, touche.

    Forgot about the whole you created it thing. :)

    Completely unrelated topic, any chance of a future windows version for us poor folk that can’t afford a mac? (worth a shot)

    13
  14. You think I was joking about the foly artist?! :)

    As for Windows, I have no inherent philosophical opposition, but practical considerations disallow it. (I’ve spent some real time considering it, so I don’t say that flippantly. I’ll spare you the nitty and the gritty, but the basic reason is that cross-platform software’s a bitch, and cross-platform media software is doubly so.)

    14
  15. Personally, I side with using Drupal, but it’s my job to learn and apply new technologies.

    The learning curve is steep with Drupal, so it’s not accessible to everyone. Designers tend to hate it if they have to both design and code, and it will overwhelm a non-technical user who tries to use it on their own. Still, the benefits of Drupal are huge once you get the hang of it.

    I hear that Joomla (free) is the easiest of the true CMSs out there followed by Expression Engine (fee), but there are a ton more out there worth a look.

    15
  16. Hi – very good web site you have created. I enjoyed reading this posting. I did want to issue a comment to tell you that the design of this site is very aesthetically delightful. I used to be a graphic designer, now I am a copy editor in chief for a merchandising firm. I have always enjoyed playing with information processing systems and am trying to learn computer code in my free time (which there is never enough of lol).

    16
  17. I enjoy, result in I found just what I used to be looking for.
    You’ve ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless
    you man. Have a nice day. Bye

    17

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