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Introducing: TheaterCalculus™

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Buy Me a Coffee?

9 Comments to “Introducing: TheaterCalculus™”


  1. Joseph Brondo says:

    Very cool. Thank you for your contribution to the community! I’d love to see some sort of facebook integration for community theatre.

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  2. Danielle O'Farrell says:

    Nick Keenan. You are a theatre genius/god. Not that there was any doubt.
    As someone who will be using this……merci beacoup.

    2
  3. You. Are. Awesome.

    We’re in talks to revamp our website and I’m looking forward to sharing this with the company.

    Good work, sir.

    3
  4. Thanks all. Wow.

    Joseph – I’m curious about what your vision of facebook integration looks like. Is it a facebook app of some kind, or more like guidelines for using facebook pages in the name of theater promotion and community building?

    Currently Scott Walters is working on an amazing project specifically for community theater in small communities where the theater actually becomes the cultural hub of a town… he’s got some interesting examples of community theater powering daily events in a Wisconsin town of only 2,000… but it usually takes a network that is built on much more than facebook, it’s built on weekly interaction and simple financial incentives for participation. While the whole world is slowly warming to facebook, is that true for the audience in community theater situations? I’d love to understand the need more – I’m sure that facebook can be used better by theaters, I just don’t know what that looks like yet.

    4
  5. I don’t produce professional theatre, but I do teach math.
    This is very exciting.

    5
  6. Thanks for the information. Good Thought – I have bookmarked your blog.

    6
  7. Wow, is TC going to available to the public?

    7
  8. I’m working on moving it into API territory … There is a *lot* of customization needed to be really effective for each individual artist or theater. After I get a couple sites running the source code should move into that territory. In the meantime, if you are at all familiar with WordPress and PHP, check out Flutter!

    8
  9. Anonymous says:

    LOVE this theme. I am trying to re-do our community theatre web page and I love all the features with the individual pics of the cast and weel, just lots of good ideas!

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