Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Sound Design Interview on Talk Theatre in Chicago

May 25, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere, Sound


Chicago-based sound designers Josh Horvath, Ray Nardelli, and little ol’ me are interviewed by Anne Nicholson Weber in this week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast. Ray and Josh talk about their design for Rock & Roll at the Goodman Theatre, and I talk a bit about the work I did for Piano Lesson at Court Theatre.

It’s a continuation of the discussion – and actually a great starting point if you feel lost – of aesthetic considerations of sound design that several bloggers have been talking about here and elsewhere over the past few weeks – from collaboration, using the text as a starting point, to having a conversation with your audience through sound. For those who caught my Twitter preview, the mythbusted phenomenon of Metonymy wisely didn’t make the cut, alas, but I’m sure you can tell where we brought it up – as designers one of our aesthetic goals is of course to make you (figuratively) crap your pants.

Also, there’s a little bit of throw down between the Chicago vs. Broadway approaches to theatrical aesthetics in general, so… Blood in the Water!

Hope you like it!

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Saturday Night Shakedown

February 21, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

I am not writing a blog post. I am simply getting all the crap running through my life on e-paper. A lot of this stuff I’d love for you to drill down to if you’re interested, but for now short and sweet is all I can do.

– League of Chicago Theaters meeting about World Theatre Day ’09 was, in one word: Exhilarating. In three different words: Here we go. Look for the League announcement next week at some point. If you are a theater ANYWHERE, you can be involved and you should be involved, and it doesn’t have to be taxing to be a big deal. March 27. Look it up.

– We’re totally having a World Theatre Day conference call tomorrow. London, Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and Australia are talkin’ at the same time. This project is like an onion made of crazy fearlessness – an international game of “Yes, and…”

– I think one reason this doesn’t feel like blogging is that I haven’t been keeping up with my Google Reader very well, and having trouble processing other blogs these days. Understandable, but guess what: Being connected with a larger discussion is important for the health and relevance of one’s work.

– I’m back with my old friend Idris Goodwin and many new friends working on American Ethnic, this awesome collection of short-form hip hop theatre at Remy Bumppo. It’s gonna be *ha* exhilarating, and yes, Kelly Tsai might hold a pitchfork like that.

– Today was the first round of auditions for New Leaf’s next (and first ORIGINAL) work, The Long Count. I am so excited to bring this play into rehearsals I might just explode, which would be embarrassing. Both of these new plays, by the way, have been developed via Google Doc.

– Sat down with the other company members of The Side Project to talk about next season and following the next steps in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable, low-cost theater venue. Drafting the model and organizational structure in the coming weeks with the rest of the company… I think there might be some exciting stuff to share there, and I think if it works The Side Project is gonna be a significantly more kickass place to work. If we’ve had a conversation about this and you’re interested, shoot me an email.

– I have not forgotten about the Chicago Theater Database, and we are still inviting new folks to grab a username and update their stuff. However, that artists auto-fill problem is still there, taunting me, periodically causing mischief, and for the moment at least, it is still running around the countryside tormenting the peasants. In happier news, not working on this has allowed me to actually achieve some sleep.

– Last day of Hypocrites today, the Dutch arrive monday!

– Oh yeah, did I mention I’ll be designing this at the Goodman? It’s five hours long, and will be concluding the engaging and I-think-I-can-safely-say successful O’Neill fest. I think I might be in love with it. Note the pics of the Neos taken with hats and warm coats to metaphorically signify the lack of heat in the Neo-Futurarium. They’re going from there to here. Chicago: City of extremes.

– Don’t look now, but a certain big regional theater has a sweet new 26-channel QLab 2.0 sound playback rig. Hint: rhymes with “Qleppenwolf.”

– Been kicking up a bunch of educational work thanks largely to Cherubs students, including a big sound upgrade install at Whitney Young High School, wireless mic consulting for New Trier High School, and it looks like I’ll be helping out a pal with teaching a sound for science fiction course at Northwestern. [sound of light sabre]

– Twitter is seriously pulling the rug out of my impulse to blog. Mostly because I’m finding micro-blogging to be so compelling and useful to my typically action- and momentum-oriented projects. So if I seem to be going dark, check out the latest over here or in my sidebar.

– My sister is graduating from high school this year, and has landed a leading role in our high school’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. This is awesome. She is the third best singer I’ve ever heard. And I’m a sound engineer. This gal can belt something fierce. I am a proud brother.

– My brother is, at the end of the month, going to be setting sail from Oahu to Palmyra Atoll – 1,000 miles of empty Pacific Ocean, using traditional star-guided-and-tasting-the-sea navigation with this boat. Palmyra is a target 4.6 miles across. I have been asked several times how I do all this crap without collapsing, and the answer is: I will never be as bad-ass as this guy.

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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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Yaaaaay Words.

November 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

H/T to Mirror up to Nature for drawing attention to Isaac Butler and Rob Kendt‘s latest project – The Critic-O-Meter, which Isaac at least has been hinting at for a couple months now. Using as much data collection as allowed by nature with subjective reviews, their project seeks to derive a letter grade from the collected reviews of every Broadway and Off-Broadway show in Le Grande Pomme. Stamp. of. Approval.

New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski also pointed me in the direction of this handy tool which demonstrates how beautiful data analysis can be. I’ve been thinking for a while now about collecting some word clouds from theater company and blog sites and displaying them to help provide some biofeedback about the words coming out of our mouths. These Wordles are only made from the most recent 6 posts from the following blogs, So as always, the more data you feed in, the more illuminating the analysis.

Theater for the Future:

Don Hall:

Steppenwolf Blog:

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones:

All images created by Wordle under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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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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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Better Way to Paper the House

June 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

It’s no secret that early word of mouth is the key to a successful run. That’s why it’s a common business practice to fill the house with all your friends and industry folks that first cobwebby week of a run, so that the engine of buzz can get primed. Except there’s a pretty major caveat to papering – the practice often floods the tank, filling the books with reservations that never show up. It’s hard to shake the assumption that theater that you can see for free isn’t theater worth seeing, and so papered seats aren’t really taken as seriously as they should be.

That, surprisingly, all changes with $1 comps. I gotta hand it here to Ken Davenport – that unsettlingly bottom-line-oriented Off-Broadway producer from the iPhone commercials (I’m personally unsure about the idea of a producer using remote technology to conveniently monitor lurker comments and feedback on fan sites and twitter those comments back to his director– but to each his own process). However you feel about his perspective, Ken certainly knows how to work an audience, and that’s worth reading his thoughts.

$1 Comps is a freaking great idea – and it’s withstood the rigors of Ken’s real-world test. It subverts the psychological damage of perception that “free theater” has to overcome – 96% of the comps in his experiment were redeemed. Yeah, that’s right – he tested the idea, collected data on it, and executed it. Remember we were talking about that? He’s also identified ways of making the $1 comp practice better next time around – by reducing the workload on the box office, for instance. Worth a look!

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Harnessing the Power of the Smart Mob

March 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Just came across this incredible post by Kevin Kelly. What’s he’s talking about is exactly what I think the increasingly resonant theater blog conversation needs – a way to shape and focus the conversation without limiting the conversation. Through that shaping and focusing, we’ll find what we’re all craving… Action. A way to take the big, uncontrollable river of artists and energy and time running through the aging canals built by Broadway and Margo Jones and drive it through a new channel.

Chicago is famous for one of the great engineering wonders of the world: A river that was made to flow backwards. Kevin’s dead on: We can do group projects of this scale, but it takes not necessarily editing but engineering to direct the natural force of the stream of artists coming to town every day. Maybe it’s time to take those road trips out to Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Kentucky and see how we can form stronger relationships with the folks doing theater out there? Maybe we can help connect artists unable to work in town with places that could use their help?

Zack Mannheimer’s digging a new river out in Des Moines. The question of the hour is: How can you irrigate your community through your art and through your life? The conversation engineering is happening at the same time the conversation itself is happening, but the engine hasn’t fired yet. Some innovative approaches to focusing the conversation have come from Devilvet (Recipe Cards for theater models that work), TheaterIdeas (the Theater Tribe Ning Group), and, as I’ve mentioned, the League of Chicago Theaters (ChicagoPlays Wiki). Their inability to catch on yet all stem from the fact that they’re inefficient communication tools – recipe cards are simple and exciting, but they don’t always contain enough information, the Wiki has a number of powerful features but let’s face it, is unsexy and is complex to use, and the Ning group is like a group blog, and blogs are proving to have limitations when it comes to generating and documenting action and projects.

There are lots of sticks being rubbed together these days, so if you see a spark, start blowing.

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