Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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The Point Between the Diminishing Returns

January 16, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

Arts organizations are increasingly finding themselves caught in this place between using unfamiliar technology in their work and rejecting technology outright to return to traditional roots. Which we’d never think of doing in say, health care. Take a look at arts marketer Adam Thurman’s recent explanation of why he doesn’t use Twitter:

All these things are just tools. They are all just Big Shinny Hammers. Don’t let tool selection distract you from the main job, which is create remarkable artistic content.

Only use social media tools that you think you could be the best in the world at using.

The immediate, quicksilver environment of rapid technological innovation forces a balancing act between overdoing it by investing in tons of equipment that is current, exorbitantly expensive, and difficult to master; or underdoing it by taking DIY to a level beyond one’s experience and risking the dreaded half-assed implementation of half-baked ideas. That’s when you wind up building a lightboard out of exposed parts from Home Depot.

I’ve given a lot of advice to people trying to avoid these twin fates, and there isn’t an easy solution, but I think this comes close to a couple good rules of thumb for any technology purchase:

1) In every situation, compare notes with a trusted advisor. Thse means asking several people and testing their answers against, well, reality, and then retaining the advice of one whose advice seems to most closely resemble informed common sense.

A trusted advisor should let you do the work so that you can work towards self-sufficiency.

A trusted advisor is a lot like a therapist in this way. They help you through your own blindspots.

2) Buy Used. eBay, craigslist and firesales: screw retail markup if you’re a non-profit. If you are or know a theater in trouble, keep the equipment in circulation by helping to broker liquidation sales with companies who aren’t in trouble. Use the advice you’ve collected to distinguish between cheap gold and cheap crap.

3) Learn how to maintain your equipment so that it lasts longer. This goes double for equipment you rent out – a great way to diversify income and offset the capital investment. Use the summer lull to clean and blow the dust out of old gear, and regroup. Keep the place where the equipment is stored: clean, cool, and free of soda bottles.

This may all seem *really* obvious, but actually following through with all three of these principle is really rare in theaters. Only a handful of the dozens of storefront booths that I’ve been in have been laid out intelligently and cleaned in the last five years, let alone regularly. These kinds of environments breed broken equipment – and other organizations suddenly flush with cash can generate a lot of waste because money becomes the convenient solution rather than ingenuity.

When the economy tanks, ignorance of the specific properties of your inventory becomes increasingly hubristic.

There is in both directions – too cheap and too expensive – a point of diminished returns. The question that you can ask to chart your path through technology: What has the greatest long-term value that will also serve my short-term needs?

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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