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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

April 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I was thrilled to be asked by The New Colony contributor and blogger Benno Nelson to engage in an online debate that took the temperature of theater blogs in this our internet age. That’s why I totally didn’t join in until a couple minutes ago. What can I say, it’s tech.

At any rate, here’s the discussion so far, and you can join in yourself. You’ll hear from Benno first and then you’ll hear from me.

The internet will be for maybe only a few more years the Wild West, the Manifest Destiny of our age. Not everyone understands what it is or how to use it, but most everyone knows they cannot be left out of it. This applies, of course, to Theater Companies. There have been some attempts to codify, or at least examine the components and goals of websites, and particularly blogs operated by Theater Companies. The consistently excellent Kris Vire has, for example, offered a few ruminations on this topic, but I think it is worth our attention here as well. The justification for including it as a Cliché, I feel it necessary to point out, is that the possession of a “blog” seems to have grown into an unconsidered necessity for theater companies and I want to draw attention to this thoughtlessness and worry about it.

First of all, it is so self-evident that it is almost absurd to point out that the primary activity of Theater Company websites is marketing/advertising: making it easy for a potential audience to get telegraphic information – who, what, where, when, why – about the company and their productions. But what is a Theater Company blog, and what is it for?

Well, it’s actually not very simple. A clichéd response would be that a blog allows a theater company to maintain an online presence. What the hell is that? In the case of The New Colony, for instance, what do they gain by having these columns up once a week? Ideally, I suppose, they get increased traffic by becoming a place people can count on for new content: in the internet, updates are the equivalent of a neon sign. The more updates, the more content, the more people are likely to check your site and keep checking it. Does this sell tickets? I really don’t know, but when I saw FRAT it was full almost to capacity.

The Steppenwolf also relies on content generation, but they are much more streamlined. That is, their posts are all about the Steppenwolf, their shows, their season, their collaborators. It is essentially like an ever-expanding playbill. Interestingly though, for a company like Steppenwolf or The Neo-Futurists where much of the draw of the company is in the company members, the blog offers a great way to deepen audiences’ familiarity with and knowledge of these members. By including a post by Joe Dempsey on joining the cast of Art, for instance, we get a better idea of who he is. Perhaps we’ll want to see him more, and return to the theater when he returns.

What is a bad theater company blog? One that is hard to read or navigate (with regard to design), or contains meaningless information, or is updated infrequently. The insistence on web 2.0 interaction is a little tiresome for me, because I don’t believe that the companies really care what I think; these seem to me rather more an extension of the farce of post-performance talk-backs, but I hope I’m wrong.

The interesting thing about the internet is that it is in some ways a great equalizer. It is essentially as easy for a tiny company without even a reliable performance space to operate an excellent website as it is for the Goodman– to make a home online and offer consistent and engaging programming there as on stage. It is not a requirement to offer this, but it is really not particularly difficult and if it exhibits that Theaters are engaged in the world as we come upon it today, not desperately keeping up and not hopelessly aloof, then they are certainly worth the trouble. But the panicked desperation to have a blog because it is the thing to do leads to a lot of bad blogs and a haziness about what they can and should be.

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

While I’m late to contribute to this online debate, it’s certainly not for lack of interest. A number of the concepts of content generation that Benno explores here (capturing more traffic, deepening interest of the work already being done by theaters, cultivating an ability to communicate clearly and interestingly about one’s own work) are things we tried to throw into relief with World Theatre Day – an event a number of Chicago theater companies threw in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chopin Theatre.

For me, the Chicago WTD celebration was about putting some of these theories into practice and, hopefully, feeding that growing energy of theater’s online presence back offline into a live spectacle. Before the event, theaters from all over the world were asked to contribute video, audio and images of work and play – content they were already generating in the normal course of producing theater – to an open blog. That video and content was then projected and shared in the event on a big screen. During the party, a team of volunteers captured quick video snippets and interviews, and uploaded it within minutes to the open blog using the dirt-simple video capturing tool that is the Flip Camera. International theater artists live-tweeted their responses to the fun was being had in real time, and I posted those tweets back up on the projector screen. It was like internet connection feedback.

So yes: there’s many different ways to generate content as a theater, and there’s many ways to streamline the process of generating new content. But there’s a couple points here where Benno and I seem to have completely different perspectives. One is on the preeminence of new content over easy content. We agree, before you get too excited, that this content has always got to be good. This difference of opinion makes sense, as I’m a production manager of a small company who knows that when you make time for creating new content during a production process, you inevitably rob time from another project … like opening your show. Since marketing is a contract of trust with a potential customer, the model of “you must create new content on your online presence every week or you will lose your online audience” just isn’t sustainable in my experience. What I think is sustainable is something similar… a model of “capturing” your

While Benno is suspect, I’m a total believer and convert to the value and, yes, necessity of social networking as a conscious and intelligently-utilized component to a company’s online presence. World Theatre Day in America simply would not have happened this year without the presence of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate and fuel it. We quite literally organized every aspect of that party – from putting together the talent and equipment to getting the hundreds of partygoers to show up – all through a Facebook meme that allowed individual theaters to add their own branding sauce to the event. That said, Benno’s point about the way he feels about the way especially very large and very small theaters have been using social media – that “they don’t really care what he thinks” – well hell, attention must be paid here. If you are a theater that wants to take advantage of the huge currently-erupting geyser that is social media, part of the bargain is that you must demonstrate care about what your readership thinks. When they feel it’s not a two-way relationship, they bolt.

Remember to remember the obvious: rich two-way dialogue is what theater is all about. The fact that there seems to be a prevalent idea that post-performance talkbacks – or indeed any structured dialogue between theater and audience – is a “farce” is a sign of trouble in my book. That’s a signal to me that we need to reengage and re-conceive how this dialogue could really take place in the future. There have been many moments in the past year that actually indicate to me that theaters take the nurturing of this dialogue very seriously. I was witness to some electric moments of audience engagement in the talkbacks and performances of the O’Neill fest at the Goodman.

Speaking of the internet being an equalizer, it’s a little sad to note that this is because NO theaters, and really no industries on the planet right now, have the infrastructure currently to incorporate Social Networking and web content into their day to day operations. I’ve seen big, small, and medium theaters miss or delay big opportunities to engage in online dialogue, because they’re all still getting the hang of it. The wonderful talkbacks I mentioned above were captured – as the sound engineer I actually did the recording – but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t been rereleased as podcasts yet after over a month. The reason everyone is buzzing about these services and their effect on society right now is because those effects are potentially revolutionary. The effects of blogs on print journalism have shown exactly how revolutionary they can be. I’m not one of those (anymore?) that think that theater is in trouble, since theater ultimately thrives wherever people can talk with each other. New Leaf has been very lucky, as a very very small company, to be one of the beneficiaries of that equalizing force. Getting involved in bringing World Theatre Day to Chicago has put us, a tiny storefront theatre company, in contact with the strategic planners of TCG and in direct collaboration with the League of Chicago Theaters. Sharing our ideas has the added benefit of making us thought leaders. Before I get too excited about that, remember that our theories are only as strong as our data. Companies like Steppenwolf and the Goodman may prove to be the adopters that really matter, since they can accurately test how effective this new form of communication really works.

This is an unprecedented moment in theater’s history in the internet age. Finally, technology is not simply working on producing more widgets or harvesting more resources, we’re focusing our innovative energies on the fundamental challenges of human communication. And I think theater has a lot to teach technology in that department. But we, as a theater community, have to re-learn to have a dialogue in new formats first. And we’re doing it! Gold star.

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World Theatre Day: Coming to Chicago?

February 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building, On the Theatrosphere, projects, Uncategorized

The last weekend of Companhia Triptal’s Cardiff found some small pockets of free time for the company to explore Chicago, and especially Chicago theater. I had been talking with Bries Vannon about how much he had been inspired by Triptal’s work, and I had been talking with Triptal director André Garolli about how much he wanted to witness as much Chicago theater as he could fit in. It was around 4 pm on a Saturday between the matinee and the evening performance, and there was a wide open slot and a desire for exploration. I told André that a small local theater company was doing a highly experimental production by Fernando Arrabal and his eyes lit up. I told Bries that if the company could arrange a 4 pm run, a few folks from Triptal could catch the dress rehearsal, and his eyes lit up.

This is the mechanism of international cultural exchange. Making this one connection made me hungry for more, and deeper connections.

Sometimes it just falls into your lap.

As I hinted in the last post, it hasn’t just been New Leaf that’s been all a-twitter in the past few days. After all, the regular contributors to the #theatre feed on twitter include local tribes from Vancouver, Australia, Texas, Toronto, London, and a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated localities, all hungry for a deeper cultural exchange.

As Jess Hutchinson lays down the gauntlet today on Violence of Articulation, March 27 is the day all these tribes and the communities they represent have an opportunity to connect. The world of theater could get a whole lot closer. Read her whole post. It made my heart race.

On March 27th, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate that choice, and build our global connection and sense of collaboration at the same time. What’s this World Theatre Day, you ask? I’ve never heard of World Theatre Day, you say? Neither had I. Luckily, Rebecca Coleman can explain it for us:

World Theatre Day takes place every year on March 27, and is the brainchild of the International Theatre Institute. It’s aim is to: “promote international exchange of knowledge and practice in theatre arts (drama, dance, music theatre) in order to consolidate peace and solidarity between peoples, to deepen mutual understanding and increase creative co-operation between all people in the theatre arts”

Little time and less (read:no) money might look like prohibtive factors to our successful participation on March 27, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my family of fellow artists here, when it comes to a challenge we prove that Yes We Can. In a town where our lighting grids are often held together with paper clips and hope, our rehearsal spaces also serve as our studio apartments, and our costumes are pulled from our own closets – we’re not going to let something like a lack of funding keep us from getting our voices in the mix.

Simplicity will be key.

Damn Right.

So I’ve been thinking… How do you have a *simple* World Theatre Day? It’s something we’ll certainly be comparing notes about (and talking about face to face at the League of Chicago Theater meeting on Feb. 20th – hope to see all you League members there)

Well, you take the advice of master Chicago architect Louis Sullivan: “Form follows Function”.

To me, the ITI’s “creative cooperation” language is the most energizing call to action. The primary function of having a World Theater Day is to connect the local community with a sense of global community through the medium and experience of theater. Simple, Creative, Cooperative, Connection are the key ideas there.

To kick off the brainstorming (and please, Blog on, ye travelers)-

1) CREATE A FLICKR PHOTO FEED TO SHARE IMAGES GLOBALLY
Connecting people can be done richly through online media exchange, though some online media can be too time-intensive and complex for an in-the-moment event. Video and Audio streaming becomes not necessarily expensive financially, but expensive in terms of making computers, video cameras and microphones available to the local public. Photos, on the other hand, and the ubiquitous Flickr, are both well supported and integrated with a range of software, operating systems, and smart phones. Plus Flickr has some simple features to feedback the content to each locality: Setting up an ongoing slideshow of captured moments is as easy as hooking a computer up to a big screen or a projector. Comment-enabled photos make a global conversation about a local moment possible. The twitter folks have started experimenting with this service to share production photos… check it out and see what it can do.

2) CREATE CENTRAL INTERNATIONAL & LOCAL HUBS TO DIRECT TRAFFIC TO ALL THE WORLD’S CONTENT
Global events can get a little chaotic, and without reinforcing newly-minted connections with established channels of communication, each local event may experience confusion and difficulty connecting to the global movement. It’s important to prebuild the event with central infrastructures that encourage the generation and funneling up of local content. I think Rebecca Coleman already has this tricky bit started with the group-authored World Theatre Day blog that can be expanded to feature all kinds of content, planning, and exposure in the coming weeks. The 2/20 meeting at the League will be a great way to establish this hub of participation between the interested theaters of Chicago.

3) CONNECT, INVOLVE AND SUPPORT YOUR EXISTING INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATORS
In Performink, Kerry Reid lays out the incredible flowering panoply of Chicago’s current international collaborations. From the Goodman’s internationally-aimed O’Neill festival, the recently announced collaboration with Linz, Austria on the upcoming Joan Dark, Chicago Shakespeare’s World Stages presentation of the Rwandan production The Investigation, and the more homegrown DIY internationalism of Chopin Theatre’s I-Fest, Chicago demonstrates an existing adeptness at connecting the international dots. While creating new connections will be a huge potential value from WTD ’09, it will be easier to Simply Connect our existing international projects to the event, and reap the benefits of deeper dialogue and a higher international profile.
Establishing a blogging, twittering, or other content-sharing partnership with a single similarly-sized sister theater company may be a great way to draw attention to both theaters with a mitigated risk of local branding issues. You know, “Don’t forget your theater buddy!”

4) CONNECT YOUR LOCAL AUDIENCE WITH THE GLOBAL EVENT
Here’s where each theater’s approach can be anything goes. You have a relationship with your audience and you know what they want and respond to. The goal here is to create a global feedback loop of excitement and experience.

Maybe you arrange a backstage tour. You bring a photographer or videographer to capture images of your audience walking through, experiencing where the magic happens. Those images get uploaded during the show, and the global community responds to the images. After your show, as your audience leaves the theater, you invite them to see what the global community has said about your pictures, your show, your moments. Maybe some audience members from your sister company are ready to talk on Skype. Maybe your audience can spend some time browsing images of other global events, and making comments of their own. Maybe you present them with a website or the address of an after party where they can continue the experience.

This is just the beginning of what is possible… What is the fastest, simplest way for your theater to connect your audience’s experience and the experience of your work to other audiences across the globe?

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Fly on the wall opportunities

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

On the train, after my show, I overhear three women reading through their dirty dancing programs. They are cross referencing the asterixes in the program with members of the actors equity association. It seems to be their first introduction to the AEA.

One of them says, “I’m going to tell so and so: don’t get your hopes up.”

These are the moments where I get angry at broadway and cash-in productions. The audience comes to them with hopes. And the story is so often disappointment.

Few patrons have high hopes when they risk their evening slumming it in a storefront show. But that’s why we can blow our audience away when we display quality, immediacy and craft.

But we are linked – indeed dependant – on larger theaters. We are part of the same brand of “theater,” even though we have been consistently a different animal for over 30 years. This is something that I think is lost on arts marketing gurus when they tell me that the key step for me is to improve my product. It’s not entirely true… I have to improve my product, and then find a way to keep it good for four years while we find our audience – self-funded – on a largely word of mouth marketing campaign. It works… slowly.

I want to improve the brand of theater in total, because I find myself in an unfortunate position – shows like dirty dancing don’t benefit my theater with their show-specific splash of marketing. But when those shows disappoint, my theater DOES suffer.. These patrons think… Man, i hate theater. If a large budget show can’t deliver satisfaction, how could a tiny theater run by a couple dozen people with a $3,000 budget?

That’s the message I’d like to deliver to them: we can surprise you. we can create a memory that doesnt’ disappoint. But my marketing budget can’t yell over the noise… and my first step isn’t going to be bemoaning the capitalist system in the hopes that will make my efforts suddenly socially relevant again.

Our message is spread slowly, cheaply, inevitably, one person at a time. I do doubt I’ll ever reach these women on the train with this message: good theater doesn’t disappoint. It’s like treasure, you have to sift through a bit, and maybe you have to find a trusted reviewer or friend who can help you find the good stuff. And it’s not all live remakes of movies from our teenage years or the high school musical we remember being so cliquey and odd – that’s a good thing sometimes, no? But man it is worth making a part of your week.

Good thing I brought postcards.

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How (and why) to write a Company Bible

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Ever seen one of these? It’s a big binder filled with knowledge. Procedures. Contacts. Lists. Accessible Information.

In his big comeback post, Scott Walters illustrates very clearly the reasons for an artist to be proactively collecting and sharing the knowledge of what it is they do and the tricks and insights that make the work itself easier and more effective: knowledge is power.

… Those who wield power in the theatre — the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff — do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action — and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think.

The lifespan of an artist within a theater company is often a lot like the lifespan of a fruit fly. Artists often want to do one thing – say, perform – and get signed on to do that, and run box office, and figure out how to market a play, and raise money for that play, and keep the bathrooms clean… It’s tiring, and the passion for your work either carries you through the balogna or it doesn’t, and after five to ten years you start dreaming of a normal adult life that doesn’t involve begging and scrubbing and poverty.

For me, there is a lot of wasted energy in reinventing the wheel here. Let’s say a company is formed in 1983, and goes through five leadership cycles in that time. There’s a big difference in quality between the company with leadership that captures the collected knowledge of the company and the company that starts from scratch every time a company member moves on. It’s the difference between accruing institutional knowledge and burn out.

But when you get your feet wet, you’ll start to notice big challenges involved in passing complex knowledge structures on to a complete noob. Awful example from my own experience: Teaching a non-technical person how to mix their first musical. Let’s say your regular technical guru is moving out of town, and you have to basicially xerox them or face the loss of quality that comes with losing talent. There are two ways to go about this, neither of them ideal: You could label everything in the booth with a mountain of post-its and basically say “never touch this – or this – or this,” thereby simplifying the job. This definitely reduces stress in the training period, but it isn’t really a long-term solution – it cripples the student’s ability to explore and learn from mistakes over the long term. It leaves them to build their own foundation of knowledge, and it assumes that the choices you make in those final stressful and despairing moments of your tenure were the right decisions for the long term health of the company – which is almost never the case.

There’s another approach, akin to the development of a curriculum for self-study: the guru creates a comprehensive list of all the pieces of knowledge that one would need to do the job.

A) Acoustic Physics – How Sound Works
1) How sound waves mix in the air
2) The controllable properties of sound – Volume, Direction, Frequency, Timbre, Duration/Envelope,

B) How the Equipment Works
1) Microphone Pickup Patterns (what microphones “hear”)
2) Speaker Dispersal Patterns (cabinet distortion, directionality, phasing problems.
3) How Theatrical Sound Equipment can distort and shape sound waves
4) Mixer routing – Inputs, Faders, EQ, Inserts, Trim, Bus/Group Outputs, Auxillary Outputs

C) Cue Operation and Programming procedures
1) Mixer Manual – for Mute Scenes / VCAs or Scene Presets
2) Sound Playback Manuals – QLab, SFX, CD Players, etc.
3) MIDI and automation – getting equipment to trigger other equipment for simple show operation

D) Common “Gotchas”
1) Everything plugged in?
2) Everything plugged in in the right place?
3) Best signal testing practices – start at one end of the signal path and move carefully to the other.
4) The psychology of monitors and mic placement – getting the performers and the producers on your team with the common goal of the best possible audience experience (or, “If I turn up your monitor there, we either won’t hear you in the house, or we’ll hear you and squealing feedback”)

To be sure, each one of these items could be a dissertation in themselves, and this is more overwhelming for a blank slate student. However, it creates an ongoing resource for the student to explore and research over time and as their experience expands. It also doesn’t set a time limit on the training period – it allows peer-to-peer learning to continue beyond the tenure of the burnt-out ex-company member.

The MOST important thing is of course to create this knowledge resource well in advance of those often gut-wrenching final two weeks of a company member’s tenure. Capturing this information while stress is a factor is a good way to get a crappy knowledgebase. If you’ve ever been trained as a temp, you know what I’m talking about – If you need to know A – Z to properly do your job, some folks will teach you A (“Turn on your computer”) and then B (“This is the Power Button”) and then when that goes off without a hitch, they’ll spring Q on you (“And so then we just need to you to file the 990 Form with Accounting”) without explaining, oh, H (“Accounting is near the elevator”), or M (“990 Forms are tax forms for non-profits.”) or even C (“We are a company that audits non-profits”). And some folks assume you know too much and will rifle through the instructions for X-Z (“Just tell the president your progress by the end of the day.”) and they’re out the door. There is never enough time for the trainer to go through A-Z. And yet real damage happens to companies in both of those moments when A-Z isn’t effectively communicated or learned by the trainee. The corporate world can easily absorb that damage, but theater companies can often die off or suffer direly in fundraising in those moments when leadership changes.

So manuals can cushion the blow as the company grows – or even simply ages – and folks move on. Some of the manuals that I have written for New Leaf and The Side Project include:

  • How – and when – to update the website
  • Run Sheets – how to preset and run a particular show
  • Box Office procedures
  • How to share files over the internet so that group collaboration is less time-consuming
  • Brand manuals (use this font, use these colors, use this page layout, use this logo, and the branding rules that you can bend, break, and the ones you can never ignore)
  • Marketing distribution (a checklist of places to put posters and postcards)
  • Production Timeline & Checklist (what needs to get done, and when it needs to be done)

What I’ve learned about these documents is that they usually need periodic revision – so the best time to write them is as the processes are being put in place or being revised. By writing a manual as you perform the task, you can often do a better capture of clear step-by-step actions and have a better retention of all the dependent knowledge that is helpful in performing your role.

Treating manuals like a simple dumping ground of everything doesn’t work, though – they need to be more or less a complete overview of day-to-day operations, but not an exhaustive archive of everything that has ever happened ever. That’s too overwhelming to be useful. So some diligent and forward-thinking editing is always a useful habit to get into.

For these reasons, the ideal medium for a company knowledgebase is often a wiki – a living, interconnected document that allows certain basic knowledge resources to be outsourced to say, Wikipedia or other blogs & websites. Knowledge can also be organized into a structure to make critical data more clear and supporting data settle into nested structures.

At New Leaf, we’ve used a wiki and a company discussion forum in tandem for about three years, and it’s proven to work very well with our own human natures. Most day-to-day company discussion happens on the forum, filling the forum with a rich silt of acquired knowledge, planning, brainstorming, and chat. It’s almost a daily journal for most of us, a big net that captures all our ideas. We have also worked out a quick sorting and archiving process that we do as part of our production post-mortem process. When a particular nugget of knowledge from the forum discussion proves permanently useful, it finds a home somewhere in our company wiki – the repository of permanent knowledge for the company.

And on the wiki, the information is clearly organized for future company or board members. It kind of looks like this:

New Leaf Department Knowledgebase
Artistic
Play Readings
Marketing
Development, Fundraising & Grants
Production
Box Office

Agendas (these contain items that require discussion in our next face-to-face meetings so that everything gets captured)
Company Meetings
Production & Design Meetings
Marketing Meetings
Board Meetings

Meeting Minutes
Company Meeting Minutes
Post Mortem Minutes
Marketing Minutes
Committees Minutes

Timeline & To-Dos (Each of these is a calendar for each production with template dates, like “Opening -3 Weeks”. We just plug in the dates before each production, and voila, we have a list of everything we need to get done.)
Production Timeline
Box Office Timeline
Marketing Timeline

Knowledge Base
Knowledge Base – Web Tools, Important Contact Info, Stuff to Know in case of emergency
Company Bylaws
New Leaf Culture – The way we like to do things, and why
Production History
Who We Are – Mission, Vision, Values. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Over the past few years, we’ve had the typical internal turnover at both companies that happens as artists grow up and live their lives – and new artists with fresh ambition pursue their artistic lives as a part of the company. The forum / wiki / knowledgebase process has proven its worth through the shifting membership to our newest company members. As they have time, or when they’re confused about how something works, our old discussions and accrued knowledge resources can be skimmed through and learned as needed. This is often an exciting process for a new company member, like opening up an old tome filled with old words and old thoughts. It is a training period filled with knowledge and cloaked in mystery. Can you imagine that in a corporate environment? Our old show notes create a clear picture of our context and our history – and steeping in that knowledge has helped us avoid the dangers of repeated mistakes, without limiting us to a knowledgebase of post its that limit the agility of our current operations. Understanding and remembering the old risks we’ve taken inspire better risks to be taken next time. I’d wager that our effective capturing of knowledge has helped us stretch our annual budgets as well, because we have a memory and a process that allows us to allocate money towards our artistic growth and our newest risks rather than sinkholes of productions past. Best of all, creating the knowledgebase was a dirt-simple, efficient, low stress, and even fun part of the process.

Scott’s speaking the truth again: the key to better lives for you professional artists out there is taking responsibility for your own artistic goals, and empowering yourself with the tools and the knowledge you need to achieve and reach beyond those goals. For me, the thing I needed was a way of remembering where I’ve been. Breadcrumbs along the trail, so to speak.

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Promoters Ordinance Tabled: Chicago Theater Safe from Bureaucracy Forever

May 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

An update comes in from Ben at the League regarding the Promoters Ordinance, essentially, call off the attack dogs:

The vote is off tomorrow. Thanks largely to a public outcry, the committee that released the legislation decided to table the vote. To, you know, free up the phone lines again.

The League wants to clear the air a bit, since they did some preliminary work to prevent damage to theaters – apparently most theaters are meant to be exempt from the legislation even though the language itself is confusing. That’s information that certainly got lost in the uproar.

It’s true, most theaters are not affected – many fewer than I previously had thought. But some folks operating on the far fringes of theater may still potentially be affected if the legislation comes up for vote again – if not by the legislation itself than by the vaguaries involved in enforcing the law.

First, some facts from the League:

Who is not required to obtain a Promoters License?

  • Print and broadcast media advertising an event.
  • Off-premise ticket sellers dealing in advance admission to an event.
  • Performers or agents of performers at an event.
  • PPA licensees and employees promoting their own event.
  • Employees of a licensed event promoter acting within the scope of employment.
  • Not-for-profit corporations promoting their own event.
  • Persons who exclusively promote events at PPA-venues or performing arts venues with (i) fixed seating only, if all patrons are seated in such fixed seats; or (ii) a fixed seating capacity of 500 or more persons.
  • What is an Event Promoter?

  • An Event Promoter is a person inside or outside the City of Chicago who engages in the business of promoting amusements or events within the City of Chicago and is directly or indirectly compensated for providing that service. The ordinance requires Event Promoters to obtain a license and provides guidelines to operate responsibly in the City to ensure the health, safety and welfare of people attending these events.
  • I think this information is enough to relax the tension a bit. It means that venues with convoluted situations are exempt because they are performing the work themselves – I’m thinking of Gorilla Tango and the Side Project, who are PPA licenced themselves but they host for-meagre-profit and unincorporated artists. This really wasn’t all that clear from the legislation itself, and I think the council didn’t help the situation by fast tracking the legislation without educating the public effectively. Not surprising, I suppose, but also not acceptable.

    It’s critical for a young or brand new company to be able to use the venue’s promotion mechanism or even name recognition, or the culture at these institutions will stifle. Without the ability to put on a show with a minimum of marketing and liability infrastructure, Chicago’s annual crop of new theaters would dry up, and the scene itself would eventually be consolidated into larger and mid-sized theaters. That might be fine for some who tire of yet another new company who doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it means that the scene would run out of the fuel that comes from new artists, new perspectives, and experimentation by fire.

    So while I think the fear is gone, it’s not enough to keep me from a suspicious lookout for the next time this ordinance hits the floor. I’m certainly glad the League is looking out for us, but this is not the first time that the memory of the E2 disaster has generated half-baked political policy that threatened to depth charge some of the most important breeding grounds of theatrical and cultural work in the city. It’s not the law itself I’m worried about – it’s the fact that the venue licensing process is already so convoluted and subject to interpretation that adding another variable is all that is required to damage work that doesn’t deserve to be damaged by the municipal government.

    When this kind of situation goes down, I’m reminded of how important it is to understand the licensing laws of Chicago – including how to navigate the on-the ground woodginess that occurs as the law is interpreted by enforcers and community leaders who have different understandings of laws that aren’t written clearly. And maybe this should tell us that it’s in our best interest to be proactive in setting a political agenda for ourselves. We can write – and propose to the City Council – better legislation ourselves that achieves the city’s fear-of-liability-driven goals of safety and accountability without sacrificing the frugality and creative flexibility that makes our community tick. An ounce of prevention prevents a pound of cure – and our surgeon just tried to use a battleaxe to remove the unsightly mole of irresponsible promoters and unsafe venues.

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    Re-Alignment

    April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

    It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

    Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

    The Side Project Annual Retreat
    If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

    Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

    It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

    In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

    The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

    Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

    We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

    For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

    Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

    There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

    And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

    I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

    And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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    Follow Up: The Violence of Articulation

    March 19, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building


    We tremble before the violence of articulation. And yet, without the necessary violence, there is no fluent expression. When in doubt, I look for the courage, in that moment, to take a leap: articulate a thing, even if I’m not sure it is right or even appropriate… “If you cannot say it,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “point to it.”

    — Anne Bogart

    Here’s how other bloggers and commenters define the value of theater. The goal of the exercise is to find an unbreakable kernel of value, a nit that cannot be picked, that applies to all theater, and appeals to the needs of our time. To that end, I’m trying to summarize the core message of some of these posts: boiling them down and collecting them to hopefully achieve an accessible message that doesn’t water down the meaning of that message. Watering down the meaning is normally acceptable for talking points, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to theater folk. Which is ultimately a challenging and wonderful thing. Read the complete posts yourself and suggest other understandings and values on the brand-spanking new Tribal Theater forum (run by Theatre Ideas), because a lot of meat in what they’re saying is in the description. That said, a slogan requires succinct clarity, and that means the core message – the talking point – is always brief and electric.

    Update before I even post this: Of course, Theater is Territory is already doing this job of compiling and comparing pullquotes from every blog they find. Great Minds DO Think Alike. So I’m changing my tack for this a bit. As Theatre Forte mentions, the question that inspired this series of posts is not an accidental first shot… it’s the first question that gets asked when you try to identify a cohesive brand for an ununified group: What are our shared values. It’s what Obama is doing in his speech on race – identifying our shared values. The second step in branding (an ugly word, yes, but a powerful principle) is boiling the rich, passionate responses into single sledgehammer values. And the third step is pounding the pavement with a unified message. That unified message may never come, but it does serve to focus the way we speak when we speak about theater. I’m just posting the single words that are finding resonance in multiple blogs, and arranging those in some like-minded categories.

    Accessible / Identity

    Involvement / Active / Immediacy / In the Moment

    Communal / People / Community / Social / Teaching / Connection

    Truthful / Honest

    Flow / Energy / Exploration

    These words are really the protein of a message, and we can’t forget the sauce. One phrase that really rang with me is Parabasis’ “Collective Imagination.” Chew on that… Theater is Collective Imagination. That shit is spicy.

    Next step for you, dear reader: Which of these words gets you going, and/or what words / short phrases have you read in today’s blog postings that got your heart pumping? Also important: what phrases shut you down?

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    After these Messages…

    February 16, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

    You’re listening to the sweet sounds of a mini-mental health break. I’ll be back with some exciting stuff later to kick off the workaday week.

    In the meantime, you can download this song, which I promise will make you happy. It makes me happy.

    Also, check it out! The Neo-Futurists have jumped in as the third (that I know of) podcasting theater in Chicago. While Dean Evans’ pitch-shifted antics are quite possibly the most disorienting sounds I’ve ever heard, the show does what a good podcast should do: Give you a sneak preview of what the experience of the show is actually like. And it provides a new bonus: if you like Too Much Light, you can now forward this link to your friends who also will like the show. Not that TML has an attendance problem, but there you go. I certainly always use TML for my non-theater friends and family coming to town as a sure bet for an enjoyable storefront theater experience, and this will be a useful tool to help plan their evenings. (“Dude. Check this out. if you like it, we’ll go.”) The second episode is also downright inspiring. I don’t know what they call it, but I like to think of it as “the spontaneous music and choreography episode.”

    Finally, I’m gonna go ahead and ditch the whole ugly adwords thing on this site, because the traffic and readership doesn’t really justify it and it’s not helping you or me… But really? No one wanted to book a hotel in Hungary or prepare for a career in Video Game Development? I will continue to plug good music (which, shh! It’s music from my shows…) on the sidebar, of course. Buy it through me, or buy it elsewhere. Just listen to it, cause damn it’s good. And it’s my penance for flaunting intellectual copyright law. Sidebar ads as self-flagellation, if you will.

    And if you’re a copyright lawyer, I’m just sitting here, providing free advertising for your client. Go sue some teenager who isn’t promoting legal downloads or CD sales.

    Wow. Bitter. Back to sipping my Mai Tai on the beach, paid for by all the money I’ve made off the sweat, blood and tears of music industry corporate execs over the years…

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