Theater For The Future

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

May 3rd – Michael Merritt Awards & Designer Showcase

April 24, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

Yup. Still here. Still cooking. Big news on the horizon, no less.

One of the things that’s cooking is coming up quick – on May 3rd 5pm at the Goodman, there’s a big ol’ exposition and awards ceremony of the work done by theatrical designers in Chicago. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: The Michael Merritt Awards.

Several designers will be honored at the ceremony (notably set designer Collette Pollard who will be receiving the Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award, and a celebration of the work of lighting and set designer Michael Philippi who passed away suddenly this year)

My personal favorite bit of the event is the huge designer showcase, where dozens of designers in the Chicago area will display their portfolios to the artistic leadership of the city.

Interested? I know am. Check out the press release details below if you’d like to either present your own work or check out some great designers to hire. Oh, and it’s on facebook, too.

The 17th Annual Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration program, posthumously honoring and celebrating the work of lighting and set designer Michael Philippi (Desire Under the Elms, Death of a Salesman), “an esteemed longtime collaborator and friend”, will take place on Monday, May 3, at the Goodman Theatre.

Scenic designer Collette Pollard (The Illusion, Stoop Stories) will receive The Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award. There will also be a presentation of three student scholarship recipients representing The Theatre School of DePaul University (scenic designer Williams G. Wever), Northwestern University (costume designer Jeremy Floyd) and from Columbia College Chicago for The John Murbach Scholarship for Collaborative Design (lighting designer Wade Holliday).

The doors open at 5 p.m., with a viewing of the fourth annual ‘Theater Design Expo’, showcasing the works of over 50 Chicago-area emerging theatrical designers and a portfolio review of graduating design students from some of the finest programs in the country.

Goodman Theatre’s Artistic Director Robert Falls, a founding member of the Michael Merritt Endowment Fund Steering Committee, will lead a panel discussion from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. about the Goodman’s experiences working with Michael Philippi in recent times and during Bob’s past tenure as fledgling artistic director of Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre Company. Philippi’s design collaborators Michael Bodeen (Composer, Sound Designer), John Boesche (Projection Designer) and Ana Kuzmanic (Costume Designer) will join in the dialogue. Nathan Allen, Artistic Director of The House Theatre of Chicago, Dixie Uffleman, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Production Supervisor, and House Theatre Designer and this year’s Emerging Designer Award recipient, Collette Pollard, will also bring their perspectives on creating and sustaining a new theatre company in Chicago, then and now.

The awards presentation will begin at 8 p.m. Attendees will enjoy a Chicago style supper buffet by Conn’s Catering complete with beer, wine and soda from start to finish until 10 p.m. Tickets/Exhibitor Fees are $20 per person and $5 for students. For ticket reservations, phone (312) 369-6105 (credit card orders are accepted) AND email to reserve an exhibit space.

The Goodman Theatre is centrally located in Chicago’s Loop at 170 North Dearborn Street, in close proximity to I-55, I-90/94, I-290 and Lake Shore Drive, as well as all major CTA rail lines and many bus routes. Discounted parking is available for $19 at the Government Center Self Park, located directly adjacent to the theatre at the southeast corner of Clark and Lake Streets, and parking coupons will be available at the registration table in the Goodman Theatre lobby.

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Developing Leadership – Thoughts for Chicago Storefront Summit III

March 04, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

It’s been a longer than expected ramp up to the third Chicago Storefront Summit – which will be happening on March 22nd, and I hope you’ll join us again or for the first time. In the process, I had a couple “what the hell are we doing here?” conversations with Rebecca Zellar of the GreyZelda Theatre Group, who has really stepped up to help this ad-hoc group schedule, coordinate and dispatch the various breakout sessions and communications that crop up when you try to get 100 loosely-structured organizations to talk to each other.

We realized in this discussion: the summit is very much about giving the folks who run storefronts the tools, resources and opportunities to practice leadership – both leaders charting the course for their own company as well as leaders of the entire artistic community.

The clearest example of the way the storefront generates opportunity for an artist to develop their own leadership skills is in the way they’ve been organized thus far. Each summit thus far has been organized quickly, agilely, and with an absolute minimum of top-down leadership and maximum of bottom-up leadership. Each breakout meeting has begun with an artist who asks a question like “why aren’t women well represented in theatre leadership?” or “who else is doing theatre like me?” and the loose network comes together to compare notes, draw conclusions. All the coordinators – folks like Andy Hobgood, Matt Hoff, James Palmer, Dan Granata, Rebecca and I have been working on is how best to faciliate those discussions in a way that continuously promotes broad participation. And that is a tall order. But the framework has allowed people like Brian Golden, Margo Gray, Jenn Adams, Matthew Reeder and others to generate and perpetuate more and more conversation that, I think, has been very valuable to them and many others.

The summit is in many ways a less immediately effective but more mission-critical in-person companion to efforts at theatre management brainstorming like the collaborative idea nursery of (or the twitter hashtag #2amt if you’re nasty). The #2amt conversation became a successful methodology almost accidentally for innovative brainstorming because it quickly synthesized a broad range of perspectives on a broad range of topics. It combined the brainpower of theatre producers (@dloehr, myself, @matthewreeder, @travisbedard, @trishamead), theatre funders & patrons (@ericzieg), theatre promoters (@scottyiseri, @davecharest) and theatre critics (@krisvire, @mreida) to solve common problems from all angles at once. It was, and continues to be, an agile way to have a conversation.

It’s harder to xerox that agility in an in-person meeting that needs to balance dozens of personal schedules and time limits: but the fact is that #2amt is not an accessible conversation for most theater makers to participate in, and conversations that come out of community groups like the Summit and the League of Chicago Theatres are still more potentially actionable than the high-level strategizing and future design brainstorms that #2amt is so good at.

So: I think we have to try.

There is a question – a point of resistance, in some ways, that manifests as a reasonable curiosity – that we’ve gotten a lot when being asked about what we’re trying to accomplish through the summit: What is its purpose?

A fair question. This is what I think.

The summit is a forum to discuss and share best practices at this level of producing theatre. It includes non-equity, independent, DIY, and newborn theatres that have a comparatively small amount of institutional memory and/or institutional overhead. Our discussion includes but is not limited to finding the simplest ways of getting storefronts the help and resources they need, and then – ideally – taking cooperative strategic action within the context of other established theater / arts advocacy orgs (such as the League) to more effectively articulate the solutions that will actually help us as a community of independent theatres.

Developing our own ability to lead, indeed.

The Third Chicago Storefront Summit
Monday, March 22
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Greenhouse Theater Center
(h/t to RZ for making it happen)

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World Theatre Day in Chicago – 2010

February 25, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

At long last, details are firming up on this year’s March 27 @ 9:30 World Theatre Day celebration at the Chopin.

First, let’s review some of the awesome from last year.

And now here’s the FACEBOOK INVITE.

World Theatre Day is an international celebration of theater and the impact that theater has on communities and individuals across the globe – and it’s just now catching on in the U.S. Last year, Chicago launched the first community-wide celebration of World Theatre Day in the United States, and this year, we’re doing it up even more.

Join us at the Chopin on Saturday, March 27. In the evening, experience a special World Theater Day performance of The House’s WILSON WANTS IT ALL or BackStage’s ORANGE FLOWER WATER. Then, beginning at 9:30 as the City’s saturday shows come down, join us for some complimentary food, music, conversation, and performances all provided by the League of Chicago Theatres, the Chopin Theatre, and folks in the Chicago theatre community.

Every space in the Chopin becomes a promenade party, with a little bit of something for everyone to celebrate our corner of the world, and reach out to all the others. Downstairs will feature live music and loungey hob-nobbing with the folks who make Chicago theatre tick. In the lobby, social media connections fuel an international conversation with a host of Chicago’s international friends. And on the mainstage, Chris Piatt, former theatre editor for TimeOut Chicago, brings his PAPER MACHETE live magazine to investigate – and roast – Chicago’s historic relationships with other cities in “The Second City Complex.”

World Theatre Day is all about generating cross-cultural dialogue that explores the power of theater to celebrate life and effect social change through collaborative performance. This year, we want to put you and your theater in the driver’s seat of that discussion, by encouraging you to send a public shout out to an international “sister” company of your choice.

STEP ONE – Make Contact. Find an international theater company or artist – maybe you already know them, or maybe we can hook you up with one – and think about what issues, ideas, and dialogue you would want to share them. Tell them about World Theatre Day and what we’re doing in Chicago.

STEP TWO – Talk it out. Record a video or audio greeting to that sister company, and have them send one to you. Share your thoughts about issues, listen to what your new international friends are working on and trying to accomplish. Find common ground.

STEP THREE – Share. Make a record of your conversation – a video greeting, an audio recording of a skype conversation, a collaborative art project, a photo – and post it to the internationally-contributed World Theatre Day tumblr blog, just by emailing a link to what you’ve made to, or ask us for help at

Follow the international events leading up to World Theatre Day at, and see you at the World Theatre Day party on 3/27!

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The Long Road of the Chicago Theater Database

February 22, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Dan Granata and I were interviewed a ways back by Chicago Art Machine about the current status of the Chicago Theater Database, and what makes a fancy community-wide project like that hover in stasis while other projects roll forward.

The interview just went up, and it’s interesting to see how the current evolution of theater resources mirrors other things happening in the rest of the art world.

Moreover, as we’ve worked on this project, we are finding more and more resources out there that do some of what we want to do, or seem to do much of what we want to do but aren’t well-implemented, so we’ve been reassessing what the best way forward is. We certainly believe in the project, and think it adds so much value to the community of theatre artists of which we are members, but we’re also wary of following in the misguided footsteps of so many well-meaning arts advocacy/development organizations who plunge headlong into building something from scratch—trying to be the “end-all, be-all”—without seeing what’s already available or what could be achieved by pooling our resources. In a way, we’re trying not to fall into the same trap we see theatres and theatre artists fall into all the time: wasting energy recreating the wheel when there’s a guy selling spokes down the street.

– Dan Granata

Read the full interview here.

In other news, I’ll be live chatting with the good people at TheatreFace this week about the wonderful world of Sound Design. You can check that out at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST Wednesday, February 24, in their chat room.

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Busy Chicago Theater Kitchen!

February 09, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

Okay, seriously: there are so many cool projects, parties, and celebrations to encourage Chicago theater to reach out to the world and the nation coming this spring and summer, I can barely contain myself. Here are just two of them that I hope pretty much you and everyone you know in theater can jump on in and participate in.

Chicago and environs: Save the date and spread the word, please:

Saturday, March 27. Chopin Theatre.
9:30 until question marks.

Details coming soon. We need volunteers to help set up the event (sign up here), and stay tuned for yet more ways to participate in this international theatre celebration.

TCG Conference Performances

Second of all, I’m helping (along with the League TCG host committee) put together a series of performances to showcase Chicago theatre at the TCG Conference in June. We just released a call for proposals (see below) for two opportunities – late-night-party performances, and flash performances that pop up unexpectedly throughout the conference.

If your company is unable to attend the conference, this may be one of your only get-in-through-the-stage-door opportunities to get exposure at the conference. You do not need to be a league member theatre to participate, and one of our major goals is to represent the incredible diversity of Chicago theater at the conference through these performances. I hope your theater company can come up with a performance you can share with TCG Conference attendees!

The League of Chicago Theatres is hosting the 2010 TCG Conference in Chicago this June. A diverse selection of theatre companies are sought to represent the breadth and richness of Chicago theatre by creating performances that will be showcased throughout the conference in Flash Performances and at the Late-Night Party. A Flash Performance is a performance that erupts from thin air, engages an audience of 5 to 100, and then quickly disappears. Flash performances will be artfully coordinated to occur in unsuspected places (streets, hallways, el stations) several times a day throughout the conference in order to provide the attendees with a taste of Chicago theatre. A Late-Night Party performance will enhance a party atmosphere, and might include installations, amusements and performances of all kinds. The event itself will be a “carnival” style party featuring light snacks, drinks, music and multi-disciplinary performances- offering conference-goers an opportunity to unwind and let loose after a long day of workshops and networking. The goal is to give the attendees from across the country a sense of the artistry, collaboration and surprise that is Chicago theatre.

The conference will take place June 17-19, 2010. The Late-Night Party will take place on Friday, June 18, 2010. A small panel of theatre artists will select a diverse range of companies to perform. Please submit your proposal and supporting documents for consideration by the panel to Ben Thiem at

Click here for more information and to Download Application.

Deadline for submissions is March 5, 2010

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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

Read the rest of this entry →

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What is the Question of the Year?

January 02, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

I got to re-balance my creative input / output ratio in December. And it felt goooooood.

“What is this compassion? Because I don’t really know what it is. So I want to know, really, what is it?”

Aunt Dan and Lemon

“Thinking rationally is the way to be happy and the key to learning more.”

– L. Ron Hubbard, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (h/t Granata)

I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work for me. It’s like preemptively choosing the solution for a problem you haven’t come up against yet.

In past years I always thought, “This year I’ll do more blank and try to be less blank.” But the idea of approaching a theatrical season as a question (instead of say, a theme) or approaching software development from the reiterative question of “what is the way to build what our clients need” has yielded some exciting fruit this year.

And so I wonder: My life seems awfully recursive. A question seems like it might be useful.

The danger is in picking the wrong question. “How can I make my business more profitable?” for instance might lead me pretty far astray, though it is certainly something on my mind. At this point in this year, I’m thinking a lot about stability because it’s been a tumultuous year. My wife and several of our friends all left full time work / half-hearted careers to pursue part time work / full-hearted careers. Watching and helping them develop those full-hearted careers has, I think, been the unasked question for me in 2009. Can you survive that way, ‘living your dream’? And when you do, does it stay your dream? What of that romance can you hang on to, if any, and would you want to? And the answer was: It is possible to be more fulfilled by your work, and the difference between plenty and just getting by is in the strength of your connections to community and friends. Those are the tools that we use to overcome fear and poverty (and one of the reasons why I think it is important for me to stay in theater still).

So the question for this year deals with stability – “How can I be more stable and more sustainable?” The nice thing about a question is that it’s three-dimensional – the shape of the question shifts depending on the time of day or the context in which you consider it. My current, two-dimensional answer to that question is that “stability” for me does not mean for me a prototypical “financial security” – it means a sustainable level of activity that is full-hearted and doesn’t physically kill me or prevent me from enjoying my life or prevent my wife and friends and family from enjoying theirs. Balancing work, play, and family takes work and consideration – I wouldn’t want to ask that question frivolously.

Stability for me is linked to that question of compassion from Aunt Dan. As a designer (both web and sound), or really as a person who provides services to clients, I require compassion to do my job/life effectively, since I essentially act as an artistic and technical advisor to another storyteller. I hear what a storyteller (a director or an organization) is trying to communicate or accomplish with their story, and I create the tools or atmosphere in which that communication is possible. I require compassion and empathy to be able to translate the director’s complex vocabulary and emotional understanding of their story into my own emotional understanding of the story, and in the case of web design, incorporate the reactions and responses of many, many users into a final, finished and ideally universal understanding of a complex narrative. That question, quoted above, is the core of what I didn’t connect to with that script (which I should add was excellently produced and presented by my pals at BackStage Theatre – all artists I deeply respect.) Without compassion, I don’t operate, and my designs don’t resonate with other people, and I don’t get hired again – which of course, always may happen. Compassion for me is a sense of empathy, an often misguided but for me visceral and tangible sense that I understand the motives and worldview of another human being. I couldn’t operate if I didn’t feel some level of compassion for and from my collaborators, or an audience, or the users of my websites.

But compassion also quickly throws me out of balance and creates a vast amount of instability in my life. (I can hear the Objectivists in the room chuckling, and I’ll get to you later.) The art itself is always a solitary and personal reaction to that compassion, which comes from something internal to me, hopefully not an external, societal, or conventional response to a given design challenge (“It’s night! We need to hear crickets!”) Compassion muddies that personal relationship I have with my work, and left unchecked can muddy and complicate the quality of that work. Compassion with my clients compels me to take on too much work to fill my clients and my collaborators needs before my own. Finding the right valve that gets me to shut off the sense of compassion in favor of the sense of taking care of myself at just the right moment has always been a challenge for me. In many ways and on many days, my sense of compassion is least developed with this guy, Nick Keenan.

Changing and developing our lives and the people that we are and the Things that We Do With Our Time On This Planet is not a question of carving or molding ourselves out of clay. We’re given certain talents and certain flaws, and I believe very strongly that those talents and flaws are closely linked together – amazingly, fascinatingly so. Applying dogma to our lives that we developed before New Years past (about so-and-so pounds lost or whatee-hoo books read or blah-tee-blah engrams we need to audit before we achieve Clear) can unintentionally damage our honest experience of February, April, June, and September.

I wonder if the question will stick better than the resolution. The question is a iterative procedure that is scalable, a kind of Kaizen ritual that provides structure and allows for individual variation and diversity, person-to-person and day-to-day. Life is shaped like a question, not an answer.

Living that question is audacious humility, and I could use somma that.

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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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