Theater For The Future

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

February 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Action Figure SaysScott Walters has an interesting call-to-action post today which is an offshoot of one of the most promising sustainable and growth-ready models for a theater of the future: The Tribe.

The basic ideas at work here are similar to that of the ensemble, but with an added commitment to interpersonal development.

Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre’s members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers…

… I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group…

… But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn’t take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!”

Here’s what my friends feel about working in corporate America: it’s empty. Another place to go where you try to avoid the people next to you. I think there’s a growing consensus not only in the arts or in the progressive movement that the corporate model is really only good at generating more income, it does very little else to raise the quality of life. To some individuals, the choice to join corporate america is to skewer one’s raw creativity and risk and exchange them for security. This is a choice that we are expected to make by our society, by our families, for our own good, and to become a professional artist isn’t necessarily frowned upon – it’s just odd behavior, like going off the grid. Just as damaging is the knee-jerk and insecure response from eternal bohemians – that joining that rat race equates to selling out.

I think Scott is opening a door here that leads to a third possibility, a possibility of building relationships that reaffirm the artists value to society. For the record, this is a value system held by Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls. When corporations run artistic organizations, the result has typically been homogenization and nationalization of product. Broadway is only a small reflection of that… take a look at the dregs on TV after the WGA strike to see what a mess the profit model has done to that industry. Or music sales. The incentive is to create the next big thing for the whole country, and the models to create work that is successful in those terms, certainly

The fact is, Corporate America needs artists to help them feel/seem/be human again, and the country is ready to believe that message. The time has come for us to empower ourselves and become artistic consultants. It’s not selling out when you call the shots.

One such artistic entrepreneur is Sandy Marshall of the highly successful comedy troupe Schadenfreude. Sandy has really effectively retooled his comedy writing skills to an equally challenging purpose: tongue-in-cheek brand identity, copywriting, and web design. And I’m happy to disclose, I’m working with Sandy on some of his projects for some of the best pay I’ve ever experienced (more on that – and why I’m doing it – later. But all these relationship disclosures are becoming increasingly comical in a community so teensy that one can’t trip over a flying monkey without first disclosing a professional relationship).

To get a sense of Sandy’s approach to his corporate work, check out his video spot for camera-shy mortgage broker Dean Vlamis:

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No one in corporate america would think to sell themselves like this without artistic input. And yet, I think we can agree – it’s probably the most effective spot for a mortgage broker that you’ll ever see. That’s what we can sell to them – the strange and unintuitive ways that one can work an audience to build honesty and trust. We can sell them subtext. And we can also be proud of that profitable work, and bring the skills we learn in that endeavor back to our primary artistic endeavors… the ones that challenge us as artists. While we’re there, I’m sure we can pick up a couple donors and some young eager temps to boot. Go to the people, and bring the theater to them.

It’s important to mention here that Sandy continues to have a primary commitment to his work and his name whether he’s working on Schadenfreude or with a corporate client. If a corporate client begins to sway him from his mission as an artist or as a consultant (or as a human being), he lets them go, or more likely doesn’t take them on in the first place. Did you know you can do that? You can Fire a Client. Money doesn’t have to dictate everything, your priorities do. Selling out is a choice that we make for ourselves – and it’s a choice we can take back.

As far as my own involvement with Sandy’s company as a freelance web programmer, that role developed out of a set of skills that I had accrued and developed slowly and naturally in my regular theater work. I started out as a young and eager-to-please sound programmer, which gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how to tell a computer what to do. When New Leaf launched a website for the first time five years ago, I learned Cascading Style Sheets to help maintain the site. When The Side Project needed a website capable of lighting-fast and often weekly updates, I needed a simple system to do this in order to save time, so I learned dynamic web programming using PHP and mySQL, which pulls data from a central database to display on multiple pages. When I found out that my co-worker Patrick ran the website that had gotten me dozens of jobs across the country off of an archaic and glorified word processor document (hint: rhymes with “BluntPage”) that caused him about 10 hours of stress a week, I learned a lot more about PHP in order to pay him back for the opportunities and automate the job listing process.

All this is to demonstrate: We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. In my theater company, we have a history of people with day jobs in the branding, marketing, positioning fields, and so for a theater of our age, we’re (surprise!) pretty sophisticated branding thinkers. We got there by literally bringing home the books from the office. If you’re bored at work, use that time to use your work to benefit the life you actually care about. Or identify skills you wish you had and hit the library. Challenge yourself in manageable steps and mini-projects to build your power moves. If you’re capable of producing a show, you’re capable of working wonders for a corporate client who will pay you handsomely for that effort and fund your next project. If we accrue and develop skills that we need in theater (or in the corporate world), they’re not just valuable for theater… they’re valuable everywhere, and we can use that value to get what we want: a society that understands that art makes our lives better. Or fame and fortune, if that’s your bag.

Oh, and don’t forget: If you’re a non-profit, you’re still a non-profit. Start a personal LLC and become a donor to your company.

Doing corporate work can mean doing corporate work on your own terms. That’s how we keep ourselves from losing ourselves. It’s a new world out there, and it needs leaders who understand the human value that the arts generate, and they ain’t gonna come from the old leadership pools.

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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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All Meta and no Real Work make Nick a Dull Boy.

January 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, productivity, projects

Nick knows ProductivityWhile the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project is chugging away, adding a few shows each day, I’ve dove head first into the actual production work that I’ve been carefully procrastinating on this month. The ideas are still bouncing around, but the time to execute them using the glorious tubes of the interwebs is running dry for the moment. That’s cool, right? We’re cool. Baby steps.

Some thoughts bouncing around this week:

– Our new sound intern at the Goodman is from the realm of sound, but is brand spanking new to theater. It’s been really fun to see him open his eyes to the possibilities while watching the process behind Shining City. It looks like he’s really falling for it, which is really great to see. Yesterday, I put the Opening Night Calendar to the practicality test and used it to find four shows – all in previews or early in the run to help his wallet – that showcased the variety of Chicago theater to a newbie with an appetite. It’s been a great reminder for me personally just how much is out there, and we’re not even done yet. Thanks to new adds Point of Contention, Theater W!t, Speaking Ring, Stage Left and Live Bait for being early adopters and Kris Vire and Rob Kozlowski, who both drove some traffic to the project over the weekend.

– Read this totally kickass analysis of why, systematically, the music industry is slowly drowning itself, and what other industries can do to avoid a similar fate.

– A spectacular cross-blog conversation on the importation of actors to regional venues has popped up here and here and here. I am grossly under-informed on the topic, or I’d join in. From my vantage point in the storefronts and even a great deal of the larger theaters, I see a lot of great local working actors, which makes me happy, and the imports don’t often last. I know it’s a major issue, and as Marc Grapey and David Cromer would say, we designers don’t have to deal with the import issue as much while we chew our bon-bons from atop our great piles of cash. Again, though… cross-pollination is a good thing, so if we can encourage it to actually happen and maybe balance the trade deficit a bit, we might be able to pump out a little lemonade from the situation. It’s losing actors to LA and NYC and other regions that I dread, but getting them to visit every so often is good for all. So while I have little to add, I think it’s pretty neat that the arguments are being refined right where you can read them, add to them… and now you can do something about it.

– The discussion of international theater festivals in the last post led me to try out a few great online resources, including the Chicago History Database which is operated by a history-minded English professor from Valparaiso University and assisted by Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams. The site’s mission is to track the founding, disbanding, archival materials, and key membership of all theater companies in Chicago, big and small.

The process of finding information on a now defunct cultural institution, the Chicago International Theater Festival, which last convened in 1992, proved to be more difficult and speculative than I would have thought. And finding information like this, which is key to a developing artist’s career and theater’s development. I think in Chicago’s scene there are a number of theaters that travel the same path as long-gone theaters because of a lack of institutional knowledge and community memory.

After all, one who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it. (Institutional Memory is one of those things that I mention at almost every company meeting. I’m a die-hard supporter of saving and processing the past and present for the benefit of the future in any organization.) Difficult and history-changing tasks like opening a new space or organizing an international theater festival leave traces of extremely valuable information and lessons that can be passed on to other theaters, or used in the pursuit of city law reform or improving public support. Plus, why do something twice when you can do it once?

Can you tell that I’m justifying the need for another crazy group collaboration project? It’s so crazy it just might work. (I’m so crazy I need to get to work.)

So the scarcity of institutional knowledge in storefront theater got me thinking: Just as our system for managing our collective scheduling might be insufficient to maximize the potential of Storefront Theater in General, how successful are our current methods for knowing just what work is being done in town right now, and knowing what work has been done before we even got here? Armed with that kind of cohesive knowledge, could we more easily notice trends, and use the lesson of the past to benefit the entire storefront community?

Like any possible project, it was time for me to survey what’s currently out there and what exactly was dissatisfying about it. Institutional knowledge certainly exists, it’s a question of where is it being stored, and who is storing it. There are a number of Chicago listing sites that also provide some insight into the wide kaleidoscope of the Chicago Theater Scene. The lists I was able to find when I first moved to Chicago just happened to be the ones with the top Google results: Centerstage’s largely comprehensive list of theaters unfortunately is usually quite out of date; Illyria’s Chicago Theater Homepages lists most current companies’ websites, but hasn’t been updated since February 2007; and Chicago Traveler has a good hit count but is by necessity driven by commercial interests. Other more recent sites try to get the list right, including a formidable recent attempt (powered by php, of course) by Theater in Chicago’s attempt to dynamically map every theater in Chicago.

Why are there so many lists, none of which are comprehensive? There’s several divergent motivations at work here for taking on the task of creating a comprehensive picture of the entire Chicago scene and the network of artists that work together to create it. The first motivation is pure Metromix: The commercial value of providing a listing service to audience members, and these sites are positioned to get the web browsing public to spend top dollar on glossy entertainment. As such, they leave out some of the younger companies and often do not update the information on even the mid-sized companies on a regular basis. Why not? Well, because that’s an overwhelming amount of information that changes almost daily. It may be valuable information, but it’s not valuable enough to these organizations to justify a full-time employee to seek the information out.

Another possible motivation? Positioning your site as alternative media source. You can easily feed your site’s content by the press releases of small companies eager for attention. Both Theater in Chicago and Centerstage position themselves as alternatives to larger media outlets that provide a different kind of coverage. It’s debatable how effective and sustainable those strategies are given the recent collapse of the Chicago Reader, and there’s a key problem with the information contained in almost all of these listing sites: Accessibility. These are all listing sites managed by lone gunman webmasters, who you need to email and rely on to have your information go public. The biggest problem with this strategy (and the working strategy of my Calendar project, for that matter) is the editor-in-charge off in a room somewhere that you need to know about and have access to in order to get your data published. It’s a lot of work to create a completely standalone site, and when you’re done, you need to work out how to cut out a chunk of the market share of the people looking for this information. When you’re talking about theaters who are so young they don’t really understand the context of the theater scene they’re operating in, how can anyone expect one of these listing services to ever be definitive repositories of our history and our progress?

So I realized that what I was really longing for was an improvement to the current Theater in Chicago Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia already has that kind of market share, and it’s going to be one of the obvious sources of information for the forseeable future. The entry is duly based on the definitive Richard Christiansen book, A Theatre of Our Own, but the list of theater spaces and companies is woefully incomplete. Some of the highlights of the ghosts of theaters past (Organic, but no Wisdom Bridge?) Anyone can add both their theater’s entry containing historical information like founders, artistic staff, production history, and mission, and they can also make their presence known in the greater context of the community in the main article. And anyone can edit (and hopefully not vandalize) to provide some measured balance to the whole picture, and create something worthwhile for history and public context. Most importantly, talent that is young, new to town, and wanting to see where they might flourish could easily see a more complete picture of the pieces that make up the world’s most vibrant theater scene.

Community projects move mountains. Many hands make light work, and by making the projects simple (post your theater and the theaters you remember on Wikipedia, everyone!), you can create big, intricate knowledge and labor bases that can help a lot of people with challenges we may not be able to imagine. This principle can be applied to any number of tasks, goals and dreams that seem unreachable now. If everyone in the neighborhood builds a park, everyone in that neighborhood will be able to enjoy that park.

So I’m gonna get on that… and you theater managers and activists should be proud enough of your young history to record the important points in the Wikipedia article yourself. Some savvy theaters have already done this – the history page shows updates from Boho and Sansculottes, for instance.

I’ll be getting on that right after I get these seven shows open. Because, well,… meta, real work, I’m in trouble.

Back to work!

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An International Renaissance

January 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Sometimes I think New York is poisoning the water for the theater industries in the rest of the country. In this review of the Hypocrites’ recent NYC debut of The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, Village Voice critic John Beer opens up with a smarmy potshot at Chicago:

In a Chicago landscape of actors’ showpieces and unapologetic realism, Sean Graney and his company, the Hypocrites, stand out because of their cool conceptualism.

Boy, that got my goat this week. Not the well-deserved praise of Sean and the Hypocrites… Um, “Landscape of showpieces and realism?” In a city that bred RedMoon, Lookingglass, Mary Zimmerman, Greasy Joan & Co., … Does he even know that Mamet left town? Why even bother classifying this city except to weaken it? There’s too much going on here to really even define real trends. It’s either a melting pot, or you’re not telling the whole story.

It’s this kind of willfully ignorant attitude about Chicago Theater that wafts here and there through the NYC theater buzz that makes me think that Chicago theater, for its own health and self-worth, needs to open back up a big international theater festival, and skip the whole “export to NYC” phase that we’re enjoying the fruits of these days. Never mind that America could use a stronger dialogue with the international community in general, I think Chicago’s Theater community doesn’t make enough big plans like that, so our reach doesn’t always exceed our grasp, and we end up reaching for New York or LA instead of the stuff that could really challenge us as artists. I think that a big international spectacle, like the Olympics or the annual international film festival, or the Third Coast Festival, could be a lightning rod to reengage our local audience with the theater treasures we have in town, and provide fuel to enable both the Chicago and all domestic theater communities create more vibrant art.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be working at my current gig as a sound operator for the Goodman’s Owen Theater (did I disclose that yet? Well here you go. Yes.) when the Latino festival brought Marta Carrasco and her company to town from Catalonia for a performance of her latest work, GaGa, and the final performance ever of Aiguardent.
Lian Sifuentes’ Fashionably Late for the Relationship
I should add, thanks mostly to a few key friendships and classes in my college years (especially with my pal Lian Amaris Sifuentes, who recently made a big splash in NYC with her Fashionably Late for the Relationship piece in the midst of Union Square) I am a die-hard fan of really personal performance art, so Marta Carrasco is totally my bag.

Marta’s performance was only half of the story of the cross-cultural exchange happening in the room, of course. Most of the companies coming in from across the world also brought a full support staff, including a technical director, and my charge, the sound engineer from the company, Santi Miquel. I cannot begin to tell you how fulfilling it was as a theater professional and an artist to have a conversation with someone using primarily our common language – Sound. Santi didn’t have much English, and I don’t have a lick of Catalan to my name. Our conversations – quick conversations, that were required to set up the show that was about to perform – were mostly bits and pieces of English, French, and lots and lots of equipment jargon. We spoke in decibels, in mixing board, in minidiscs, and in cues. We spoke the common language of theater operation. In between techs, we google earthed our hometowns, and explored the places we had seen – Santi’s house was particularly memorable, a little shack on the steep side of a mountain overlooking most of Catalonia. The whole festival was a blast.

It’s not often that theater technicians can safely achieve that wonderful childlike state of discovery that feeds wonderful and thriving art. But everything about those two shows stuck with me closer and more intensely because I was both in my element and out of my comfort zone. It was calculated risk-taking and the payoff was a fullness of experience for both the audience and the artists creating the work. You know. Theater.

Aiguardent, especially, was one of those shows that just haunts you forever. In a solo work exploring the past of her alcoholism, Marta begins the play seated next to a table with a jar of water facing her. As she stares at the jar for minutes on end, you slowly begin to sense of rotation… and you realize that Marta is dancing, seated, rotating slowly with the table and her chair on casters. Her eyes never leave the jar. The effect is almost cinematic – as she dances, her circles (while seated! at the table!) grow larger and larger, and the audience experience is that of a winding camera shot, rotating around this central figure, immobile and staring into her drink. That image – of dancing in solitude, in loneliness, and the simple theatrical technique that achieved that effect, was something I had never seen before on the stage, and was overwhelmed to have witnessed it.

And it was just ballet on casters!

At the time, we were preparing at New Leaf to take on another calculated risk – we had just secured the rights to the first U.S. production of a David Hare play, The Permanent Way. We were a tiny theater, so this was a huge coup, but if you’ve ever read or seen the play, it’s more understandable why a U.S. production hadn’t been attempted – it’s a series monologues, weighty, horrifyingly in-depth analysis of the seemingly British-centric problem of a deadly series of British Rail crashes brought on by unusually disastrous bureaucratic bungling. To us, the play resonated heavily with our CTA woes here in Chicago, and also as an intelligent exploration of how things like the Iraq war can happen without the proper oversight, but that didn’t change the fact that the show was going to be a hard one to convince an American audience to sit through – Two and a half hours of monologues, descriptions of experiences by Bankers, Union Leaders, Lawyers, Judges, and Counselors.

And then, I remembered Marta’s dancing. I mentioned the effect to our director, Brandon Ray, and he began to see a theatrical staging angle to the play that hadn’t occurred to us before… Bureaucrats on chairs, dancing their way through the descriptions of the crashes caused by their own bungling… Stock market hacks reliving – literally dancing through – the events that they helped bring about from within their offices and their cups of tea. Brandon had a staging breakthrough and expanded this concept thanks to some massive exposure to international theater and techniques outside of our own comfort zones.

The Permanent WayI’m pleased to report that yesterday The Permanent Way was mentioned as the #2 “Fringe” Show of 2007 by Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune. It remains to this day one of the most important and special productions that I’ve worked on, and I don’t think the show would have been nearly as effective without the reappropriation of staging craft that was courtesy of Marta Carrasco. Someone could potentially argue that we “stole” the staging from Marta – as Parabasis warns in this article on the evolving Intellectual Property law precedence – but the loss would have been a new, different, original, and entirely separate work of art. We were inspired by Marta. We adapted it and used the technique for our own purposes – but not the exact movements or even the spirit of those movements. All artists do this, all the time. The sources are myriad, and both conscious and subconsious. And individual personalities, bodies and brain have a lot to do with the creatively mutated results – since most of our cast didn’t have dance training, we couldn’t approach Marta’s ballet-esque precision and grace if we had tried. At the end of the day, I became a better artist when I was exposed to her performance – a performance that I understood entirely outside of Marta’s context for her own work. It was just something that I saw and responded emotionally to in a way that I can’t with plays that I understand on that intellectual level, or with plays that are content to be confined in my preexisting context of experience.

As I’ve been saying in the last few posts – we have a lot to gain through real cross-pollination – with the New York theater community as well, if we’re open to it. I know that I’m embroiled in conflict-of-interest based on my employment and my past experiences there, but I’m excited as an individual artist by projects like the just-announced Goodman theater Eugene O’Neill Festival, which as Chris Jones glosses over will include “O’Neill productions from Chicago theater companies as well as from international theater groups invited to Chicago.” That’s the kind of thing that gets my blood pumping, and gets our own audience to question their own context of experience, which currently convinces many of them that they aren’t theatergoers.

It’s a big world out there. It won’t always come to us, we have to go out there and live with it. Like it or not, we are living in an empire. This is off topic, perhaps, but it another thing that gave me ulcers today was hearing of the tribute-like backbending that the Cambodian trade minister is enduring to keep American-encouraged fair labor laws while the attached American Trade Pacts are expiring, and that the first I hear of it is not from politics but from the great storytellers at This American Life. If you don’t like our relationship with the rest of the world, then maybe it’s time to travel outside of Rome for a while. Bring a friend, and in some places you may need to be leery of the water.

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Using all the Parts of the Pig

December 24, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Pig CutsApologies to all you vegetarians out there, but this pork-cutlets-as-art metaphor is gonna get ugly quick.

As the past few weeks have taught me, even though I devote nearly all my time to theater, I still have very little time to devote to theater. In the many conversations I’ve had with other theater professionals about their attempts to develop their careers and strike a balance between love of art and need to eat, I find that’s really true for theater professionals at all points in their career. It doesn’t end. Everyone still does their work, the show goes up, and maybe someone came to see it in the process.

If OnlyThen it all gets chucked in the dumpster. You may be paid more in the bigger theaters, but unless you get lucky and picked up for a remount, it doesn’t change. There’s no DVD extras or webisodes in store for your storefront show. Just the trashheap. Downer.

So say I’m a managing director and I’m producing this show. We have these designers, performers, dramaturgs and directors working on it. I love them – they’re all hard workers and smart, clever, articulate people. We’ve come up with a clever tagline – a nugget of text that we’re going to be putting on the postcard that makes the show sound amazingly compelling in 15 words or less. If we’re lucky, we’ve got an in with someone who knows a little graphic design and as a favor we pull them in to make a pretty picture and boom, that’s our poster. But it’s gonna take us another two weeks to get ahold of our web designer to upload the graphics and get them to talk with each other, upload the show data and code the HTML. We open in six, so hopefully that’ll be enough time to get the word out to our close base of regular patrons who know to check the website. In the mean time we’ll get our marketing typeset, proofread, and printed, and tell everyone in the cast and crew to start pounding the pavement with postcards. That’s what we have time for.

SnoozefestWell, that’s not a growth model for audience development, and it’s the model that most 1-5 year old companies have unless they’ve got a marketing background and deeper pockets than they let on. It leads to an insular industry-centric audience which in this author’s opinion is strangling the dialogue between audience and artist that must happen in order to grow a more vibrant theatrical culture.

In our continuing saga of developing our production (make a show) and marketing (let people know about the show) process at New Leaf, we have a theory that we can achieve a lot more by being smarter with our resources than by generating more resources. Sure, on the one hand we have this finite amount of effort and dough that we can spend towards developing a production, and on the other hand we have these big goal/dreams of audience development numbers we want to hit and things that we want to accomplish as a company – whether those goal/dreams be writing more grants, reading more plays to consider for the next season, or marketing to a new audience (or even defining who our current audience is, exactly). Now, we don’t really have the time or the money to create more work for ourselves without sacrificing the quality of the work itself, and no one wants to sacrifice the detail in the work to create a bigger box office take. To me, that means finding different and multiple uses for the same kernels of artistic meat that we already have – the play, and the artistic components already being poured into the production.

This is where dynamic websites and other creative media can help a theater company use (wait for it) The Whole Theatrical Pig.

A little explanation, which may be unnecessary: Static webpages (like HTML pages) are pretty self-explanatory, and basically function as online word documents, where one person changes, formats, codes, and uploads each page. One page links to another. Updating a static website is like, well, almost all the laborious computer work you’ve ever done: Adding a new show is usually a major undertaking, with changes to be made of a baker’s dozen of eye-crossing pages of code; images to be uploaded, cropped, linked; and then there’s opening up a ticketing system for the new show.

Dynamic websites, on the other hand, have a mind of their own. Like theater, they are in motion, and they can be quite sensitive to specific audience input. Logic is built into the framework of the site to make repeatable tasks (like uploading content or displaying content in a unified style) much more automatic. Blogs have been a really popular dynamic framework of this type that makes uploading content and formatting it both pretty and super easy. And several Chicago theaters have capitalized on the blog as website platform – Collaboraction’s site is powered by Typepad, a popular blogging application, and features up-to-the-minute updates from the production team on the show currently in development. Silk Road’s recently re-launched site, designed by company member and designer Lee Keenan (no relation, we think), also features a lot of WordPress blog-powered content for each show, including review updates, self-generated news updates on company members and even their new comfy audience furniture.

This year, I joined Greasy Joan & Co., marking my third company along with New Leaf and the side project where one of my primary functions as a company member is updating a website with the latest and greatest news from the company. With the side project’s crazy visiting artist schedule alone, that’s close to 30 productions a year to update online, to say nothing of fundraisers and readings and new company members and company news. Updating static sites was looking to be apocalyptic in scope and a blog framework wasn’t going to cut it, since these companies were primarily concerned with the plays and not the process behind the plays (like say, Collaboraction’s clever use of their Blog).

So we built show logic. Now each of these thirty shows that you see online has some sort of simple data file – either a text file or a user-accessed database with basic show data, like the Opening Date, cast and crew lists (sometimes with links to their portfolio pages), that clever tagline I mentioned before, and reviews from the show. If I make any change to this master database, the site logic will use that new data to dynamically update the website as you download it. The most basic logic we use on all three sites is the closing night check – when a show closes on a given date, that show instantly jumps from the “current” page to the “past productions” page after that date, and I don’t have to open my laptop.

I just go to strike.

What I’ve found that works for me is to create a logic structure and back-end interface to the site that uses the existing company production process in its own logic. For instance, if you have a bunch of non-technically-inclined company members, you need a dirt-simple and intuitive admin interface so that everyone can feel empowered to update the site and do their part to keep the content fresh and current. (Websites should be no exception to the collaborative environment of theater) If you have a full show schedule that is constantly in flux, you’ll want an easy way to have every calendar update track through to every page it needs to – from your website calendar to the show detail page, to the company-used calendar to schedule your space. It is possible to work every quirk and skill within your company to your advantage, it just takes a little bit of effort and a lot of self-knowledge.

The Dining RoomFor example, at New Leaf, we have a great photographer, Chris Ash, who takes close to 500 shots of each of our productions. What a gift, right? But when the site was static, we found that we really needed to whittle that glorious mound of visual gold down to just six killer shots for our production history page, and the rest went to waste away in our archives. Then, there was an hour or so of coding to get the images to center correctly on our page, and reformat the images to be the right resolution, blah blah blah. Now that the site is dynamic, we pick 25 or more images, and upload them along with an mp3 of music from the show. That’s it. No coding. The site does the rest of the heavy lifting, detects that the files have been uploaded, and the result is a comparatively immersive slideshow experience for our users. It takes us less time, uses more of the juicy creative meat that our artists have generated, and gives the audience a better experience.

And I should add that dynamic web technology and functions are being developed at a lightning fast rate by a thriving open source community. These people are DYING to have you use their code for FREE, to do ANYTHING you want with your artistic idea. The opportunities to get the guts of your art to a wider audience using new media are staggering. It is not outside the realm of possibility – right now – to say, record your production meeting, scan a couple set drawings and costume renderings, pick out some show music, have your director say a few words on the way to the bar into your laptop, upload it to your server and have your website dynamically mix a video podcast episode and seed it to iTunes, your homepage, and automatically send your subscribers an email about the new behind-the-scenes look at your latest show while you enjoy a nice pint and dart game with your design team. With just a bit more work, you’ve taken a meeting about color chips and made it a compelling sneak peak that will convince people listening to you on the bus the next morning to see your show.

This example may be a little bit too automated for its own good, sure. But I would also argue that any repetitive piece of business that a company performs – from bulk mailing to ticket sales – can be alleviated by some kind of collaborative automation. And I’d also argue that there’s a lot of fantastic artists that burnout because of those repetitive tasks that never seem to end. And there’s a lot of eager patrons that never make it to the theater because those repetitive tasks don’t really reach them. If considered with a little care and big-picture Zen, every bit of effort that we spend working on a show can be doubled by a clever use of technology, and no one needs to feel futile and lost.

That is Theater for the Future, my friends. Use the whole damn pig.

The main difficulty with implementing a dynamic website for most theaters is getting the programming resources in to work with the company and create a system that matches very closely how the company works. You’ll get better results from creating site logic that fits your company resources closely, but that requires a website programmer that intimately knows and cares about your company, and more importantly understands where it’s going.

Can I be Your Intern?Now that kind of talent may be hard to come by for most storefronts. To say that programming resources of that scale are out of the reach of any theater company is simply untrue, though. Setting up a blog is cake these days, and getting any of the pre-fab content management applications (that dirt-simple backend I was talking about) like Joomla or Drupal working with your site is a pretty cheap endeavor. The software and platform to use it comes with your current web hosting service for free (I promise), and if you can’t get your 15-year-old cousin in Des Moines to fashion a genius PHP or Ruby-on-Rails brain for your current site (she’d totally do it for extra credit) you can always spend a couple bucks on an anonymous helper. Even a craigslist search will return a few affordable and skillful recruits like this resourceful young gentleman.

One caveat to enlisting the support of any old web designer for a project like this: As I mentioned in my last post, making your site dynamic isn’t quite the same as a redesign – in newleaftheatre.org’s case, adding a fairly full-featured dynamic backend to the site didn’t really involve any visual changes to how the site looks to the end users. It’s not the same as asking someone to “redesign my site,” which more often than not involves changing your visual look, which can be damaging to any existing brand you may have. So if you’re a theater company and would like to explore the possibilities of a dynamically powered website but don’t know where to start, start trolling your already extensive network specifically for a web programmer or web application builder. Your buzzwords to listen for in the interview are any of the following: PHP, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Joomla, Drupal, CakePHP.

Extra credit if you can guess the acrostic formed from all the buzzwords I used in this post. Kidding.

Happy Holidays, and have an extra slice of whatever you’re eating.

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It’s All About the Story

November 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Tools

voyagercoverjpg_2big.gifWe’re gearing up at several of my theater companies for a couple marketing summits, using different strategies for that immense undertaking, but the research involved in the process into other examples of Chicago Theater marketing has got me wondering – why aren’t theaters the best marketers in town?

Marketing is essentially a storytelling excercise, as Lois Kelly describes in her book Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. You’re using the worldview and values that already exist in a potential audience member, and crafting a message that says “seeing this play is a way to express your values, share them, revel in them, and hell, change the world.” (for a concise summary of Lois’ 9 genres of marketing story, check out Guy Kawasaki’s blog. Or cross-reference Lois’ stories with Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. Ah, it’s great to compartmentalize everything you’ve ever heard into neat little categories.)

Theater is one of the most innovative, powerful, and cohesive storytelling formats out there. It creates shared experiences, unlike printed media; it’s cheaper to produce (and in general less ruled by profit) than film; it’s active and even athletic compared to the disembodied voices of Radio. In theater, you can tell stories with the whole human, for the whole human, and still engage the imagination of an audience.

On our good days, theater artists are some of the best storytellers out there. And Lois Kelly tells us that the only reason people buy anything these days is because they are convinced by a marketing story (she’s of course not the only one). If you get that Nintendo Wii, you will unite the generations and create a community and lasting friendships, complete with slow motion victory dances, and it’s all thanks to the ancient wisdom of polite Japanese businessman. So why can’t theater get a wider audience? Because while we are great at crafting innovative and complex visions in 50-seat black box theaters, we’re not always well equipped to tell a good marketing story – which by necessity needs to be dirt simple and loud.

I think there are three basic hurdles to successful storefront theater marketing. The first issue theaters tend to have is that the idealistic desire for detail and/or innovation in storytelling – which serves the work so well – often also leads self-marketing theaters off track. Let’s assume that you’re putting together a postcard for a show. With all the text and imagery fighting for our attention in any given day, you will be lucky to have 2 seconds to hook someone into hearing your message before their attention span shuts you out, so that 4 paragraph dramaturgical summary of your play on the front of the card probably isn’t going to cut it. Marketing messages can’t ever be complex. However, as with the example of the Wii and most television commercials, just because your message has to be simple doesn’t mean that the box it comes in can’t be detailed and exciting and be filled with all kinds of goodies and emotions. It’s just that the first thing everyone needs to get is a unified, simple message. Two Seconds. Bam.

The second hurdle is usefully segmenting the actual community and marketing to specific populations within that community. Storefront theaters are funny beasts in that despite a prevalent desire to speak to and for a community, they tend to become most successful (though anemically so) with the internal theater industry demographic. That’s often because the theater doesn’t have the time, resources, or statistical ability to understand the day-to-day needs of the community passing by their message. While they may connect with individuals in the community very deeply, they have a harder time understanding the various mindsets of the groups of people walking by their message on the way to work each day. I think theaters also tend to want to bring all people together, and in many ways they can be blind to people who don’t already appreciate theater. Over time, this has created a really unhealthy divide between theaters and general society that many other arts organizations don’t face. This problem is described a bit in Standing Room Only, another book on marketing specifically for performing arts organizations:

Most nonparticipants have consciously or unconsciously eliminated the arts as being of any possible interest or value in their lives. They have drawn a “cultural curtain” and have turned off to anything that is written or said about arts activities…

Nonparticipants harbor many inhibiting images of the arts as relatively austere and effete, effeminate, esoteric, inaccessible, too demanding of study and concentration, arrogant, etc. Coping with these attitudes is not easy, but progress is made when experience shows the contrary or reorients the negative value.

The third hurdle, as always, is resources – money and time. Successful corporate brands can flood the market and streets with tasteful, huge, attention grabbing posters and videos and websites on every street corner. They can hire marketers to do nothing but pound the pavement with their message and get ads, reviews, and blogs to feature their product or message. Storefront theaters, on the other hand, need to step up the creativity to find ways of getting a marketing story out to the world… anyone who’s ever distributed posters and postcards door-to-door knows how difficult this can be. I’m increasingly wondering how effective things like postcards are these days, given that there are much more leveragable outlets for promoting a message. Blogs, MySpace, and Facebook are all recent additions to the more creative ways of mass marketing, and of course assembling a powerful and dedicated board can eventually be a solution to the woes of marketing a show while you’re in preproduction.

There’s a fear that I get when I look at these hurdles in the context of my own theaters… I worry that creating a message that jumps these hurdles will also somehow cheapen the experience of theater at the same time that it makes it more accessible. I think that’s just stigma talking. Marketers, like all humans, sometimes cut corners in their work for less fulfulling clients. But a well crafted message NEVER waters down the product… it’s just a good, well-lit frame for the work itself. And thus, both framing and marketing are arts in themselves, with all the potential success and failure that goes with the territory.

In crafting a branding message, I like to think of the care Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan took in crafting the Voyager Golden Record, an audio compilation sent into space radio broadcasts a-blazing, in the hopes of contacting and sending a message of humankind to alien life. The message was, simply, “This is humanity. This is who we are. Hello.” But the container for that message was incredibly detailed and well thought out – based on the anticipated audience of alien life forms.

As described on the Voyager Spacecraft Website:

Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.

The spoken greetings begin with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and end with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Our audience is always alien to us. Theater folk are excited by that reality. The message we craft to reach them must be both simple and address what we know about them – their fundamental humanity and desire to connect with the people around them. This, I know: If we focus our efforts, theaters can be REALLY good at connecting with other human beings.

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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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The Business of Dramaturgy

November 17, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World

Dramaturgy Reminds You To Smile Dan Rubin – Chicago dramaturg extraordinaire – has written a great analysis of the role of a dramaturg.  Especially notable as far as this blog goes is that he is taking a role that is in many ways literary theater in its purest form and beginning to synthesize the art of dramaturgy with the business of better art.   

It should probably tell you something about the relative value that society places on the quality of entertainment that finding a paid freelance dramaturg gig (in theory a role that directly improves the strength of a project’s artistic vision) is incredibly difficult. More often, a dramaturg finds permanent work as a literary manager, which is a role more focused on artistic brand development – i.e. building a body of artistic work that also happens to be unified and therefore marketable. 

I try to approach my own work as that of a sonic dramaturg – someone trying to build a cohesive sonic vision that fits with the intentions of the director using only sound, and I’m not sure how that jives with Dan’s vision of the dramaturg’s role…. I suppose following the sonic or other sensual vision to great lengths could put me out of sync with the other design elements, which is always a risk, but it’s also extremely valuable to have the designers use dramaturgical thinking in addition to following their artistic impulses to make sure a vision is cohesive. Inexperienced dramaturgs can also sacrifice the human value of an impulse on the altar of things like overly dry period research, as if every world of the play being created in the theater were the ‘real’ world. Naturalism. Thunk.

But having an active, sensitive dramaturg on a show is like springing for a fine wine to go with that meal.  It brings out all the flavors that your chef (the director, I suppose?) has paired together on your plate.  It’s a heady combination.   I certainly can’t afford that glass of wine most of the time.   In a different culture, we might not be able to conceive of eating our food without also deeply enjoying, deep, rich, well-balanced flavors.  But of course, this is America, where life, food, and art are not necessarily experienced in depth.  Our moments are more often experienced half hour blocks in between commuting.  

I hate to say it, but until our culture changes Dan and his colleagues may need to keep their eyes on how they can be marketable talents rather than how their talents can be used to further the art.  How have you dramaturgs found creative ways to use your talents to generate rent money?

Depressed, anyone?  Well go out and hug your local dramaturg.

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