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Plugging It.

November 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Shows

Let there be no mistake: If you are in or near the city of Chicago, you should see Six Years at New Leaf Theatre before it closes on November 22nd.

I’ll make it easy for you later in this post. But first let me make the case to you.

It’s not because the acting is superb. Though it is.

It’s not because Sharr White’s script is deeply resonant in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we started the rehearsal process. Though it is.

It’s not because we at New Leaf deeply care about fostering a dialogue with the entire theater community and theater-going public with our work. Though we do.

It’s not because New Leaf’s work is crafted and priced to be a high-value evening. Though it is, and this week Time Out Chicago has said as much with a big red star labeled “Cheap” next to our Critic’s Pick – a coveted prize that I can’t remember seeing on another show.

It’s not because bloggers are always Pay-What-You-Will at New Leaf. Though you are.

It’s not because this is your last chance. Though it is.

It is because Six Years begins a triptych season – an important season for a relatively small company – that asks the question “How do we build a future from a present that we didn’t expect?” It is a question that needs to be answered. Now. And we believe that our work offers an opportunity for our audiences to break open big questions like that in a new way – an entertaining way that engages and fosters conversations and thought for days after the show.

We ask that question three times this year, on three scales, in three shows: Once as a nation of families. Then as an individual, alone and without support. Then as a community, together. We ask it three times because when you ask a question like that, you need to feel the question out on several levels: The big picture, the local picture, and your own picture.

I hope you can make it. I want you to make it, and I’m eager to know what you think and what resonates with you. Because you are smart, and your opinion will inform my work.

This post was inspired by a great post that just popped up from my new second-favorite theater town in the world: Here’s looking at you, Vancouver.

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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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Wonder Twins Activate! Form of: 2008-2009 Season Launch!

August 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Uncategorized

Holy crap. August is inevitably a crazy month for a theater company, isn’t it? Time to get our acts together!

This two-week block marks the first real test of my retooling of the web presences of three storefront companies – not necessarily the graphics or layout of those sites, but the custom content management systems that makes the sites theoretically easy to update. Why bother? Well, my thinking goes: if a website is a mouthpiece for a company, you’d want to attach the mouth directly to the brain, not to some troll like me banging on his binary keyboard and mumbling something about “hexadecimal ftp bandwidth mumble grumble.” Blogs are a nice and easy way of making it easy for companies to speak about their work, but it’s the non-bloggable events in a theater company’s summer preproduction that really necessitate quick turnaround on the ol’ website: When a cast member has to leave a production because of a plum gig, when you confirm a space and production dates at the last possible minute, when you have to rearrange your season due to, oh, a rights granting service that isn’t communicating with another rights granting service.

All hypothetical examples, I assure you.

So I’m trying to delegate and train other folks in these companies a bit, because I’m beginning to realize that NOT everyone is comfortable with the webby language of things like FTP – and I’m seeing a need in theaters to have some training in this area. (I’m tossing around the idea of putting together some screencasts on this site for some of the basics, as I’ve been hugely indebted to the excellent Ruby on Rails Screencasts out there and want to share the love a bit. Post a comment if you’re interested in any topics in particular…)

Last week I met with Libby Ford and Rebecca LaDuke of Greasy Joan & Co., to train them to be able to update the company website as, well, the gods tend to laugh at our hubristic pre-season planning, and at some point they’re going to need to do it. And it’s been clear from the past year that you don’t want a lone webmaster in those moments, as they’re often unavailable.

The training session went really well, and it was like: Relief. On all sides. Libby and Rebecca are much more intuitive when it comes to the mission and the voice of the company, and hooking them up with direct access to change the language on the site was like blood returning to a limb that has fallen asleep: A little awkward, a little painful, but oh my god RELIEF.

Meanwhile, in Rogers Park: The Side Project has ALSO been running on all engines in preparation for the coming season. A major cleanup operation is underway thanks to our new production manager, Jeremy Wilson, including the furnishing of an improved green room in the upstairs space and a massive Yard Sale to clear out furniture from the storage space. (There is still some available, I’m sure, if you’re in need of chairs, tables, or artistically broken window casings) This past weekend has been about designing a big ‘ol brochure that highlights the FIVE resident companies doing work there this year: The Side Project, LiveWire, Idle Muse, Blackbird, and Rascal Children’s Theater, as well as Point of Contention, which is mounting one of my favorite social-responsibility-themed plays, Radium Girls. The brochure also highlights the emergence of a new approach to selling a season on a storefront level: A cross-company flex pass. Along the lines of the Looks Like Chicago season deal, it’s kind of a grab bag of theater. TSP will be offering two packages this season: A Side Project Flex Pass that gets you into one show each from Side Project, Live Wire, Idle Muse, and Black Bird, and a Rogers Park Flex Pass that gets you one show each from Side Project, Lifeline, Theo Ubique, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

The challenge with that amount of programming, obviously, is keeping the dates straight. The Side Project’s new space has always been scheduled to within an inch of its life, but this year it feels like: Let’s make a template for production. Let’s make a template for marketing. Let’s make a template for box office. Let’s make a template to get the word out. Let’s use technology as a lever. So that we reinvent ourselves in our work, not in how we present that work to the world.

This theory seems to be working well for New Leaf this year as well. We’re seven over-booked people and so historically those kind of last-minute surprises have always felt like real damage rather than simple conditions in which we must work. This year, it’s about efficiency and agility and this word… “Leap.”

So today was about making the final decision about performance venue and announcing our season to the press and to the world via our website. There is always that last minute flurry of proofreading and copy polishing, like something out of The Front Page. Here’s my philosophy on writing marketing copy: I ultimately don’t like doing it, I’m not the best at it on my own, but I consider it a skill that I must cultivate to be able to invite people to see my work. In fact, I don’t think of it as marketing, since that kind of bursts my bubble. I think of it as language that is a public extension of the performance. And there’s thankfully a simple test for when copy is good and when it is bad: Adjectives and Adverbs = bad, Verbs = good.

Verbs leap off the page. Verbs distill meaning and pump your heart. Using descriptive adjectives in your copy is equivalent to using descriptive indication in your performance — audiences don’t believe TELLING, they believe DOING and LIVING.

So New Leaf tends to vet copy through the group, and as a group we’re starting to get excited about that part of the work: Finding the right language, the right verbs, the right articulation of this energy we feel as a company. No, it’s not the same kind of excitement that we have about the performance, but it’s a warm up to that performance… It’s like the trumpets blowing as we roll our pageant wagon into town, signaling that the players are on their way. We have to bring our energy and wits to that work as well. And since rolling the pageant wagon around is something we do all the time, often with moderate results, you sometimes get the urge to try a completely new tactic, to axe the wagon into little itty bitty toothpicks and buy something a little more snazzy. But you don’t, because this is the wagon you can afford. So it’s about finding the right crowd to roll the wagon through, the right thing to say as you walk through. And the only way to find that real and lasting connection with the crowd is to approach them with informed honesty. To be honest, to ask that one question you really want to ask, and hope that it is their question as well.

I felt this fear and excitement as we edited the website copy of New Leaf’s season announcement over Google Talk today, and we chose words that described how we felt about our final show of the season: An original work that we are developing as a company of performers and designers, The Long Count. It’s a leap of faith for us to trust our storytelling abilities and aesthetic to the extent that we promise to create a compelling story from our own framework. Since the voice of New Leaf at least for the moment is one of transparency, and honest self-analysis with our audience, we looked for words to communicate that fear but also our trust in our own abilities as artists. And we came up with:

“The Long Count will invite the company and our audiences to leap into the myriad possibilities revealed in the future we can’t foresee.”

There’s that word again. Leap. A Verb. A Verb that moves.

There are a billion choices like this that pop up every day in August. Where can we host our fundraiser? (“How about the Holiday Club?”) Who can we get to donate raffle prizes? (“Didn’t our pal DG just get an iMac and has an IPod touch he wants to give away?”) We need music. Where can we find music? (“My friend Mark Dvorak is a folk roots musician and he’s interested…”) And so we’re working this year on making those choices faster and with less trepidation: Trusting our instincts.

So good luck making your own choices as the season winds up… Like a spring with just a little too much tension.

Oh, and yeah, I was serious. Come to the New Leaf fundraiser FRESH! on August 27th for your chance to win an iPod Touch. It’s all the fun of an IPhone without a $90/month service plan.

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Connecting with the Audience

April 27, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

Two experiments that can help us understand how big this task really is:

1.) Internationally reknowned playboy and violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played a trick on commuters with the Washington Post. He dressed in clothes that might be described as Wrigleyville chic and played six challenging and downright magical classical pieces “like a God” on a multi-million dollar Stradivari – all this across from an Au Bon Pain.

Only a few brave souls so much as slowed to listen, and there was uncomfortable shuffling in lieu of applause. (natch)

2.) Building Stage is developing their next production, Master Builder, publicly on their blog. The goal:

We really wanted to use the blog as part of our process, something that was integral to the creation of the work, as well as a tool for opening up our process to our growing family (company members, collaborators, audience) to witness, comment on, and influence.

After starting two weeks ago, the production team has 10 posts on a broad range of production topics, including Sound Design, Props shopping, costumes, themes and directorial concept, and of course, marketing. Comments so far from folks uninvolved with the project: 1 – an interior decorator. (that’s a good start for two weeks on a blog, no?)

We’ve been chatting at New Leaf about audience experience for a while and what we’d ideally like an audience member to take away from each experience with us and our work. Over the years we’ve cooked up a number of different methods for teasing those experiences out of them. In marketing speak, this has been about changing the positioning for our theater – getting our audience to shake up their expectations of a storefront theater by experiencing us in different and unexpected contexts – at work on our blog, on their iPods – and also about integrating each world of play into a greater “world of the company” via our mission.

Theaters actually experiment with the audience/artist relationship a lot in the hopes of drumming up new interest – but the audience is uncomfortable with unexpected contexts for our work, and often gets confused, scared off, or dismissive of innovative tactics. Audiences are smart, and they are universally agile when it comes to protecting their time and interest from the possibility of public performance by disengaging from a pitch, request, or an uninvited interaction in under 15 seconds. That’s the amount of time you have to close the deal, so if you spend it trying to close the deal, you’ve already lost.

The calculated smell of popcorn works wonders for movie theaters, for example…

This all leads me to think that saying that we “experiment” with audience interaction isn’t really accurate – this ain’t no lab we’re running. We downright gamble with pet ideas that we think will work, and are usually less than scientific about using data and controls alongside with real innovation. If we somehow learned the discipline of statistics and combined it carefully with our street performer instincts that can reengage a wary patron, we might actually take away firm knowledge and show the world something it hasn’t seen before. That ultimately means change that is slower than theaters want, but faster than marketing professionals, boards, and other suits think is possible.

I think we can all agree: it’s nice to have that great music shared on the way to work, isn’t it? Maybe that should be a more regular part of our lives.

Oh, and to the Building Stage, who is creating a fairy tale world for the Master Builder out of elements found at IKEA, may I suggest this lamp to be used as a practical, it’s worked wonders for us in the past:

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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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The Glacier Shifts

January 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

Glacial ActivityFirst of all, a thrillingly honest perspective today from Dan Granata on the old inter-community feedback question, and the specifically difficult challenges facing performers on that front. Also of note is that funny way that theater lifers seem to get a little cracked as they hammer away over the years. This hit me most of all as I’ve been making steady moves this year towards becoming a Chicago theater lifer, for better or worse. Who knows if that’ll stick over the next decade, but sometimes you just see when you’ve arrived home, and it’s time to go “all in.”

Can you hear the ground shifting?

Two recent announcements made me check my seismograph.

The first was the League of Chicago Theatres’ announcement of the finalists for the second ever Emerging Theatre Award, which is awarded to theaters that “have been in existence at least 3 and no longer than 10 years, and have demonstrated artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility in business practices.”

This years’ finalists are:

ADVENTURE STAGE CHICAGO
DOG AND PONY THEATRE
SILK ROAD THEATRE PROJECT
THE GIFT THEATRE
T.U.T.A.

And the deadline for voting is in one week, February 1st.

Yes, no New Leaf, but that’s cool. We’re going to be a much better candidate next year, that much I can say, and this is a solid list of finalists. It’s really great to have another grant in town, this one specifically to be used to enhancing a theater’s marketing presence in the company. It’s even BETTER that this has been organized as a community-offered grant, with League member theaters offered a vote in the process. The one criticism of the award that some leveled in its first year was that it went to the House, which seemed to be a theater that certainly met the criteria but didn’t really need the marketing help. Even more eyebrow raising was the possibility that the award was being used to provide Broadway in Chicago with cheap artistic labor to produce the next blockbuster Broadway hit (not a bad thing at all for storefront theaters with a marketable product, but check out this Parabasis article on the potential ramifications of the increasingly common practice of enhancement. Which is essentially generating or even test-driving a for-profit production in a non-profit theater. *SpArrOw*. Excuse me, did some one cough?)

Happily, I think this list allows me, at least, to put to rest any doubt I had about the program.

So who would I vote for? Well, I’ve only had the privilege of working with Dog & Pony, and I’ve directly seen the work of Silk Road. I’ve talked in depth with company members and freelancers who have worked with every theater on this list, so I know at least a bit about how each company works. So I’m aware of the excitement surrounding each company. So then for me it becomes a question of: Which of these theaters is best for the community at large, and who could use the help the most?

For me, that becomes a tossup. I see Silk Road as one of the only theater companies in town creating theater for and about a huge and underserved demographic in the population. That’s important work which brings new audiences to theater, and I think they do an amazing job with it. (Merchant on Venice was one of the most delightful shows of the year this season). On the other hand, Silk Road’s upcoming partnership with the Goodman means they have several developmental and marketing hands pulling them up already. And thanks to designer Andrew Skwish, their marketing materials are already the best in town. THE BEST.

Dog & Pony does really gutsy work that really excites me. From Jarrett Dapier’s stagings of the works of Sheila Callaghan, who I think could prove to be one of the most gifted playwrights of our generation,to Devon DeMayo’s balls-to-the-wall promenade project As Told By the Vivian Girls (a nine-room exploration of the works of eccentric Chicagoan Henry Darger) to be staged at Theater on the Lake later this season. This is also a theater company that has strong relationships with the city and potentially has the infrastructure for big growth along the lines of Redmoon that brings a new audience to see other storefront shows. But what they don’t have is money and a strong enough brand to carry that growth. I think if you want to invest in a company at a time where it could make all the difference, Dog & Pony’s your company.

This is not to slight TUTA or The Gift. They’re fine companies that value their artistic staff well and are true to their missions, but I don’t see them building communities on the scale of Silk Road or D&P, and I think community-building is what will eventually help us all. The Gift, in particular, already has a particularly savvy marketing plan, an ensemble of savvy movers and shakers, and friends in high places (check out their list of close artistic advisors) that are serving them well, so I’m not sure if their need is as great as some of the others on the list. I’m sure they make a great-looking candidate for Broadway in Chicago, of course, and their need is definitely greater than the House’s.

The one theater on the list that I feel a little queasy about is Adventure Stage Chicago. Not because of the work they do – I’ve heard it’s great, and many of the artists working there are excited about the company. I also think a healthy children’s theater has been really important to the overall growth of the theater scene here – the work being done by the well-funded, well-managed, and city-supported Chicago Children’s Theatre is some of the most exciting work I’ve seen for any audience in recent memory (we still sing songs with glee from A Year with Frog & Toad up here in the Owen booth). The tricky thing about ASC’s candidacy for this award is that they aren’t necessarily “emerging.” I don’t know much about ASC, which means I don’t know how completely they reformed from the preexisting Vittum Theatre, which had been in operation for over a decade. (I’d love any enlightenment from all you commenters out there). Was it simply a mission change or is it an entirely new theater and new staff that is capitalizing on the existing Vittum brand?

All told, it’s a good list, and I’m excited about this annual award again. I think it’ll be a great opportunity for industry folks to really get to know all the great theaters in town and get some positive cross-pollenation going.

I told myself this would be a short blog post, but I need to also mention the other announcement that came in the mail today… The Jeffs are auditing their brand.

and don’t forget the

In a letter to Chicago theater companies, the Jeff Committee announced the results of a preliminary Brand Audit process (conducted by Patricia Heimann & Associates and Peak Communications) which will be followed up with more discussion and feedback from within the organization and throughout Chicago.

New Leaf went through a complete brand overhaul a few years ago, and when done right rebranding isn’t just about a change in logo. It’s like organizational therapy. It means focusing some inter-organizational scrutiny on the entire process and culture of how the Jeff committee works and how it is perceived in the community. It means refocusing the mission and removing the bad habits that sometimes develop when you’re trying do something crazy in scope – like providing the valuable service of seeing and evaluating very nearly EVERY show in Chicago. It looks like one of the big things on that agenda is finding a way to introduce a little more organizational transparency:

Because Committee members are positioned as judges with the power to influence success or failure of a performance, respondents want to know the selection criteria for judges. Respondents felt they should be informed how committee members are selected, the committee’s extended relationships and define more fully the committee’s overall role in the theatre community.

Given what folks have been saying about the odd lines between theater practitioner and theater evaluator (see Dan’s final paragraph), I think that improving organizational transparency is a FANTASTIC step. The kind of step that makes me want to hug the Jeff committee members one at a time. Because it’s not going to be an easy road.

It goes to show that public discussion of perceived problems helps address those problems. Duh, nice insight, Nick. Making your voice heard is the first step in creating common techniques and public policy that creates solutions. Developing solutions that are both reasonable and new creates value for everyone in the industry. As Dan says and David Alan Moore backs up, our chosen profession has a way of making reasonable people leave the discussion, and that’s a clear hurdle to building a more healthy community culture. I feel the burn too, and it’s a battle with myself to keep writing and designing and periodically checking in with myself to make sure my actions aren’t making things more difficult for the other folks in the boat with me.

At the end of the day, the Jeffs are us – committee members are picked from theater practitioners and appreciators in the community – and they already have a record of serving the community that far exceeds the record of organizations like the Tonys. Their institutional health and vigor should matter to us, and we should help them to make their vision and mission clearer and more achievable. The better our process for quickly recognizing quality work being done in town, the more our fair city can be seen by the rest of the world as a place where that quality work is nurtured. And that will mean that there will be more quality work to go around for us to work on and for our audiences to enjoy.

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Transparency

December 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I finally got around to catching up with Chris Piatt’s PerformInk analysis of the year in Blogs, Blogs, Blogs!, which is highly recommended reading for both theater community watchers and theater community builders. One paragraph struck me in particular:

Yet, despite its (at least for now) comparatively small readership, everyone in power fears the blogosphere for a different reason. Journalists can be scrutinized without sanction and—their source of real terror—their social station could eventually be taken by unpaid, untrained writers. Meanwhile, theatres and artists fear bloggers their P.R. machines can’t control. In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the fear that most people have (and I share, to some extent) of engaging in public dialogue. Especially my theater friends who look at me funny when I say I’d like to show audiences the crazy argumentative design conversations we have. It feels like that fear is a part of a more general trend in America these days. The increasingly engaged blogging community has developed during a period of weaker-than-normal debate in the political sector and a good eight years of journalism that could-have-been-but-wasn’t. We’ve lost the habit of sorting through our values in public debate. Now, minds are made up before the conversation begins.

And as far as this blog goes, the impulse to write a blog that really analyzed the mechanism of theater seemed to awaken in me an overpowering and paranoid fear that my various employers and students and other theater companies would then know my thoughts and use them against me. Or lose faith in those ideas. Or find me in conflict of interest and blacklist me. There’s that fear that a transparent dialogue and open exchange of ideas will result in gossip, hurtful language and infighting. And it does, sometimes.

But that’s not the community that I moved across the country for – past New York, I might add. We’re capable of generating model theaters, and model theater organizations, and trend-setting work, so we should also be capable of vibrant blogging and reporting about that work. I agree with Chris here about the dubious character of anonymous posters – If a thought has value, it needs to be shared and tested with constructively critical thought, so that the idea can be strengthened and refined. Mutually beneficial conversations can be had when people take some ownership of their opinions and stand for something. With most critics’ wordcount limit, I think that the blogapalooza might be the place where these more complex ideas can be discussed, so I’m glad that theater reporters are among the first to jump into the game and provide some detailed analysis. It’s their game too.

That’s of course why none of us should be worried about this new public forum ripping our livelihoods away – there’s a difference between transparency and unfiltered opinionating, and that difference has value. Drawing connections and providing analysis that others are not equipped or unwilling to do has value. No matter what form we work in, or what our readership level is, if we are committed to creating the best work that we are capable of, we will always be rewarded by that work. If fear is allowed to get in the way of the work, the work will always suffer, and maybe that tells us something. Gapingvoid sums up the fear of transparency nicely:

Transparency’s a tricky one. Transparency relies on human beings, and human beings are generally a frickin’ nightmare.

But forget the hardcore mechanics of running a company for a minute. Let me ask you another question instead:

At the company you work for, how afraid is the average person of making a mistake? Of not being right? Of backing the wrong horse and being found out later?

And then there’s your answer. The less afraid he or she is, the more transparent your company can be, with itself and with the outside world. The more afraid he or she is, the more opaque you’ll have to remain.

The primary requirement for a transparent public discussion (or transparent management of the cultural institutions we get to play with) is disclosure of motives. We need to disclose not just what we want from the community and what we want to create in the community, but it’s also important for us to speak openly about the framework with which we see that community. For example, it’s interesting to see from Chris’ writing (especially his stellar TOC piece on McTheatre a few months back, duly reviewed by blogger Don Hall) an emerging framework of Big Producer Money vs. the interests of the underdog Storefront community. He’s right, of course – especially where City money is concerned, god help us. On the other hand, I think that framework makes the story about mortal combat between Wicked vs. Straw Dog, and that’s not always where I want to be thinking from, because that sure does look like a hopeless fight.

I’ll offer an alternative framework to the storefront woes these days that I’ve found to be more inspiring. My creative life has been in flux these days, and in the interest of full transparency, I’ve needed a more inspiring way to look at the situation to prevent the ever-lurking theater burnout from knocking on my door. I see Chicago theater as a unique community where at the end of the day, finances matter less than the artistic development of the work and the artists creating that work. The difficult pill for me to swallow is that great artists come here when they first start out, and they do five to ten years of work before they have the chops to make a living in another industry or in another city. Either that, or they keep developing forever, and here, that’s another form of success. It’s a public lab, where half-finished ideas get equal airtime and sometimes those ideas actually get developed and turned into really compelling stories. New ideas can be tried on a tiny budget. In Hollywood, half these ideas don’t get greenlit because failure means bankruptcy – what does get pushed forward are the sure crowd pleasers, but not necessarily the ideas that our society NEEDS. In New York, well god help me I don’t really understand New York, but it the work I’ve seen exported from New York and in New York is either the same sure thing McTheater or razor-sharp nihilism – hateful, despairing, and bitter art from people who have become disconnected from their homeland. Which, sure, these days… I’d like to become disconnected from my homeland.

In Chicago, we’ve got both of those types of shows, but we’ve also always had a third type – something that makes more wholly American than New York and Hollywood ever could. It’s a deep connection with ‘realness’, and it’s the same desire that drives us to retain our historic buildings but also renovate them and rebuild them. It’s the same vision that makes us want to both drive out the Bush administration at the same time we want to clean up the Chicago political machine. It’s the same awareness of our world that makes us want to desegregate our hometown and create theater that Looks like Chicago. It’s a kind of theater that wants to reclaim the word ‘homeland’ and make us feel proud of our Americanness again, and how we can make that pride up to the world. That connection with ourselves, our realness makes us capable of wonderfully and wholly American theater – Theater that deserves to be seen on an international level and draw international attention, and interact with other international theaters.

This is a framework where Chicago is not, and never will be, a second city. It is an Ambassador City. Why even bother with spinning the framework of the Chicago Theater landscape this way? It’s not to gloss over real problems. But it is to create a public idea that allows for growth. If you look at the sum total of theater PR in this city, and if you consider Chris’ McTheatre piece to be the most comprehensive appeal to the market to take action, I think the one-sentence perception that the public picks up is: “Good, local theater is never going to have a greater general value than Big Box Theater, so it needs to beg for City support or risk death.” That’s a distortion of Chris’ finer points, but it is what the headline tells you, and how the story spins. The PR spin I wish we were putting out there as a community is: “Theater has rich societal value, and this theater community, like other arts communities in town that have more public support, is garnering international praise without that funding. Chicago’s theater community is a key way Chicago can generate stronger international partnerships if it is treated as an export commodity.” Since PR is all about saturating a market with a unified message, if we want to really use PR to grow the entire community, we will need a common framework or vision that demonstrates rather than declares our value. We need a framework that allows us to grow, and recognize our own value.

Maybe this is all my personal PR machine talking, but I’m pretty confident that my ability to control public opinion about my own work is going on nil. More transparency: I clearly haven’t written in a while, and this blog was an opportunity to flex some pretty atrophied muscles. (I’m using the whole pig, but I’ll keep working on those run-on sentences). What I do know is that if you build a compelling idea, people will be compelled to build on that idea and generate real results, and a blog is a good place to test out those ideas that compel you.

One such idea that compels me: Maybe one opportunity we have with this blog-a-go-go is the ability to have a more transparent discussion about how to build Chicago theater’s reputation outside of the industry. Like with the Mayor. He has flunkies that read blogs. And he knows that there’s more to Chicago theater than New York exports, but he doesn’t yet know what Storefront theater can do for him. Yes, Broadway in Chicago has got his funding now. But if he gets his Olympics, someone should tell him that all those visitors ain’t gonna be all that compelled by Wicked.

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For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago

November 21, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

Oh, if we only didn’t need money and could focus on art, right?

There’s been a number of creative web fundraising ideas floating around the storefront community – and theaters have been doing a pretty good job copycatting the ones that are easy to use (though it’s still unclear which ones are most financially effective for arts organizations).  There’s those good ol’ web marketplace affiliate programs like CafePress.com or Amazon Associates – where your patrons shop through your site for swag or targeted products or just plain anything – and the e-marketplace gives you a cut.

More recently, major search engines have gotten into the non-profit fundraising game and created programs like GoodSearch.com which donates a portion of its ad revenue to non-profits that send users their way instead of Google. And (perhaps in retaliation?) Google created Google Grants, which sort of works like free AdWords for non-profits and increases exposure. 

There’s never a truly free ride, of course. Affiliate programs are partially there for the benefit of the affiliate, but there’s a much bigger profit to be had in having minions convert their (high-value disposable-income-weilding) patrons into big, giant streams of fresh, flaming consumerism. As I described in Part I, these programs only generate reasonable sums of money for the affiliate when you start amassing a great big critical mass of users on your own, and before that happens, it’s just a trickle.  

But, Chicago Storefront Theaters don’t have a lot of resources to chase that money, so they participate in these programs on a small scale because they require very little effort beyond the initial setup. A little easy money is better than staring into the void of funding a show on the ensemble’s collective credit cards.

About five months ago, Chicago businessman (and actor) Steve Misetic decided to throw his hat into this ring.  Like most Chicago Theater cheerleaders, Steve was frustrated with the way that Chicago Arts Organizations often have to fight with the rest of the country for the attention of our local big businesses. He noticed that theater companies were throwing their patrons’ money to e-commerce companies in California, while local businesses spend ad money with national firms, and both seemed the poorer for it. The result of this frustration – his brainchild SaveChicago.org (which launches this Friday) – was modeled on the success of other affiliate programs and the success of locally powered sites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.  The basic idea, in his words:  

SaveChicago.org is the first online marketplace where local merchants and local consumers are able to find each other on the Internet.

SaveChicago.org mobilizes the audiences of non-profit organizations into a unified consumer demographic as members of SaveChicago.org.

Local merchants then pay to reach this first ever critical mass of local consumers on the internet.
SaveChicago.org then gives 50% of the money these merchants spend back to the non-profit groups who’ve helped us mobilize these consumers.

SaveChicago.org keeps local advertising dollars local and sustainable by re-injecting the money back into our local economy via non-profit organizations, instead of letting the money escape into Silicon Valley.

The website we have built is a completely state-of-the-art e-commerce site that basically does to local advertising what Ebay did to garage sales. We’re putting local businesses together with local consumers and splitting the money with non-profit organizations. No one has figured out how to do local advertising on the internet until now.

If this sounds at all convoluted, it’s because Steve is trying to bring together three very divergent groups together with a common marketing strategy – local merchants, local shoppers, and at this point, even the non-profits that the site is designed to support. His mission, other than the glory of saving chicago theater and culture forever, is to generate those deliciously sustainable and work-free revenue streams for non-profits on a local level – hopefully to the levels they require to turn off the fundraising (aka “begging”) bullhorn and regain some long-forgotten sense of dignity. He’s also learning the PR and marketing and e-commerce games as he goes (with professional PR support and a killer web developer), and trying to bring together two e-commerce models that haven’t worked together thus far – local savings sites like craigslist and national affiliate programs like Google AdWords – with the goal of creating a revenue loop that feeds back on itself and grows the local ad money pie for the benefit of organizations that can do some good with it.

All this wrangling, courting, and dreaming big has I think created a very interesting situation on the eve of SaveChicago’s launch – at least from my vantage point outside the down-and-dirty planning – and there’s a couple big challenges ahead for the site in its infancy. The first hurdle is to demonstrate a clear need in the community – not a need to support the arts, but a need for shoppers to find deals and for merchants to find those shoppers. Without this incentive, the whole growth mechanism falls apart – Google and craigslist built that kind of national name recognition after years of providing free, innovative services that were more convenient than the phone book and classified ads, respectively. In his initial planning, Steve envisioned companies like Starbucks spending their advertising dollars on his site to reach local shoppers. Put that way, there’s no reason for Starbucks to buy in to website marketing when they’re already reaching plenty of customers right on the street. To generate that need, Steve has created an Angie’s List-esque membership program for shoppers and promised deep discounts from member merchants that can’t be found elsewhere to those members. And Neo-Futurist and SaveChicago.org groupie Mary Fons points out, the merchants that will be the biggest beneficiaries of a program like this will likely be that mom-and-pop cafe down the street that need to get you to patronize them instead of Starbucks.

The second hurdle to make a system like this work is one that papa Google and uncle Craigslist actually created pretty organically, over time – a critical mass of market share. For merchants to want to give these secret, targeted discounts, they need to know that the people using SaveChicago.org will grow their businesses. That kind of patronage doesn’t grow overnight, which creates a third hurdle: To help grow the patron base, Steve will be leaning on the member arts organizations to help promote the site and drive traffic, patrons, and merchants his way, at least until the ad revenue is self-sustaining.

And the biggest hurdle of all? Convincing all three groups that SaveChicago is a brand worthy of their trust. Chicago Theaters are actually quite conservatively-minded businesses for the most part… their risk tends to be small (though proportionally huge to their income), and they tend to feed their creativity into the product, but not so much the actual making of money. The reactions from other industry types that I talked with to Steve’s initial volley of e-mails promoting the site were skeptical at best, and Steve’s language (which was still being retooled for branding and positioning, and of course betrayed his intense personal excitement) didn’t always help:

Subject: SaveChicago.org to make fund-raising obsolete: Launching November 23rd

Could you imagine getting checks in 2011 from a Fund-raising drive completed in 2008?
Take 5 minutes to register your non-profit with SaveChicago.org and earn recurring income from a one-time fund-raising effort.
no cost – no obligation
Launching on November 23rd, 2007

Savechicago.org is the first company in history to attempt to consolidate the supporters of non-profit organizations in order to create the “critical mass” needed to generate real advertising dollars. We want non-profits to stop begging local businesses for the 5% of their ad budget they feel obliged to donate to charity every year. We’ll get you access to the other 95%.

When the spam filters didn’t whisk away his audience, phrasings like “No cost – no obligation” sparked interest but didn’t inspire confidence, despite his best intentions. Since then, Steve has hired a PR rep and refined and focused his language a bit, which will make his merchant patrons a lot happier and his non-profit beneficiaries a lot more trusting. The first checks will also help to change that tune as well. Smirk.

So what does Steve have going for him? Some folks are already way on board, with a non-profit member list that already includes several high schools, hospitals and churches, hotshot neighborhood development organizations like Rogers Park’s DevCorp North, and a few representatives of the theater scene, including Barrel of Monkeys, Rivendell, The Artistic Home, and Raven, which has never shied away from closer neighborhood involvement. Steve’s also aware of what he’s up against. Which always helps.

Plus? I think his idea is truly innovative and creative. If he can manage to implement it, he will at the very least create a locally-based version of an AdWords-like system, even if that doesn’t immediately translate into flowing rivers of cash for his affiliates. That “local” part of the business model is huge – if you’ve ever bought or sold anything through craigslist, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole human, dare I say theatrical, element to the transaction because at some point you’re not just exchanging money and goods, you’re coming into contact with a stranger. The time I sold my old iPod to a craigslister was, while brief, an incredibly exciting day for both of us. I used the cash to upgrade to a video model, and I left most of my music on the old one. And I have A LOT of music, so the buyer pretty much jumped up and down at the deal he got. That kind of excitement can only happen on a local level.

There’s a spark of something here – local cooperation, a spirit of being neighbors – that I think needs to continue even if Steve’s web experiment doesn’t pan out. Steve is also going to need to work his butt off to build that trust and enlist help. I know I moved to Chicago because of idealism like that, and I applaud Steve for thinking really big, and taking the big risk. I think there’s a potential renaissance out there for Chicago Theater and interdisciplinary arts, but it will take a big spark and plenty of fuel – and that means we need to build that fire together and share the wealth.

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