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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Better Nutrition for Healthy Living

January 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments, Tools

The recent Jerry Springer-esque throwdown on the TOC blog comments section this morning has, indeed, devolved into a lot of angry shouting and not a lot of listening. The good news is that it’s throwing some light on a major disconnect in our community that can be worked on. A lot of people are reading it (it’s certainly the topic at the tech table today with bloggers & non-bloggers alike) and I’m finding that most non-bloggers are both passionate about the discussion but are also choosing not to participate, as G said this morning, lest they “feed the bad energy monster”. It’s true, I feel positively gaunt after reading the discussion, like I binged last night on beverages infused with gwarinine or whatever they call it. The adrenaline is primed, and blood is in the water. Discussion is no longer possible, but lessons have been learned on both sides. Well, okay, maybe not their side.

Today is not the day, alas, due to looming deadlines, but I’m gearing up for an exploration of different models of online communication and their relative merits in feeding discussion and collaboration. There’s a structural reason why blog comments breed this kind of piranha-like debate: comment sections have a built-in lack of accountability and absolutely no incentive to build relationships or credibility. That’s why the culture of blogs is so different than say, Facebook: The people are the same, but the defined goals of the web application powering the conversation are different.

This is a(nother) hugely important question to an industry as resource-poor as Chicago Theater. With nothing but volunteer time and funding (including audience ticket sales) to fall back on, theaters need to be able to have extremely efficient and powerful discussions. Prominent blogs lend the power of wide public discourse, but they sacrifice efficiency – each commenter on the blog has different reading lists, for instance, so it’s a fairly common experience to have very indignant, but essentially separate, arguments. See also Scott Walter’s analogy of the frustration that gets generated when you tap out a rhythm of your favorite showtune and having your friends guess what the hell you’re tapping. That kind of shared experience and knowledge is critical to having meaningful debate and collaborative policy development. If the conversation is poor on information, the results become based on gut instinct, and if that’s your poison, try debating Stephen Colbert some time.

Luckily for this situation, the last few years have seen an absolute explosion in collaborative networking technology, and the results of that explosion have been carefully detailed in this Top 50 list of social networking sites that Jess was nice enough to forward to me. Not all are useful to promoting theaters (don’t try to find your next production manager on Monster.com) but a surprising number of them are.

Right, onward and upward. I’ll be back with that soon.

Yummy Yummy YummyA final postscript for podcasters: The New Leaf Girl in the Goldfish Bowl Podcast Episode 2 is up today, and we’re about to go weekly. In it, director Greg Peters has a comment that really resonated with the whole TOC subargument about the moment he knew his childhood was over: It was the same moment he realized his adult teachers were idiots, and that they were more focused on disciplining him than teaching. My initial reaction to the anti-non-equity contingent on the comments was similar: I felt like I had just been slapped in the face by a total stranger and told that I better eat my brussels sprouts and like ’em or I wouldn’t grow up to be a big boy.

Luckily, I adore Brussels Sprouts. I also know how to cook them better than those people.

In any case, I’m proud of what the New Leaf podcast is becoming, and I’m excited about the possibilities of opening up a rehearsal process to the public (or even a potentially national audience) for feedback. It’s hard to criticize someone’s work blindly when you’re sitting there in the bar with them, listening to their thoughts and how they’re approaching the work. Podcasting is a format that breeds excitement and participation.

And there’s more! If your theater doesn’t yet have a podcast (unless you’re The House or New Leaf or (shudder) Broadway in Chicago, I think this means you), be sure to attend the FREE League Theater Dish event on Podcasts on February 11 (Update from Ben Thiem at the League: The event is public, and is at ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont on 2/11 at 5:30. RSVP to Ben at ben@chicagoplays.com

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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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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Infrastructure

January 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Squirrel PopsicleWinters are a bitch.

It’s cold as hell, and we have it easy. Try walking outside sometime and looking up into the dead, empty treetops on your street – you’ll probably notice clumps of leaves and twigs, high up near the top.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s your neighborhood squirrel’s home. They’re sqwunched up in that little ball of insulation, shivering through wind, snow, sleet and freezing rain.

The fact is, some animals make it through the harsh winter, and some don’t. But the squirrels do what they can to make sure that they make it.

There’s been some pretty disheartening news from storefront theater this week both Live Bait and the Bailiwick are in danger of collapsing and closing their space’s doors. I wish I was surprised, and I wish this wasn’t an annual tradition, just as predictable the new crop of newly-budding storefront troupes pop up just after graduation.

I’m not a social darwinist, but there’s something that fixtures like Bailiwick and Live Bait could have used to protect their institutional assets to fend off the climate change of a rapidly shifting cultural demographic: An infrastructure that is closely fitted to their institution, lightweight, simple, and powerful.

What do I mean by saying something that impetuous? Let’s look at Live Bait. According to the article, and consistent with what I’ve seen there, the problem isn’t money, it’s time. For over twenty years, the Live Bait space has been run by a husband and wife duo and often a third or fourth management overhire. This is just not enough people to sustainably run a mini-rental house. Trash piles up, strikes aren’t completed, repairs need to be made, bills need to be collected. Sharon Evans and John Ragir have put in their time and they deserve a change of focus and time to focus on their personal creative endeavors. The problem for the institution has been finding like-minded folks that they could trust to delegate the work. Now there’s no one who can run the ENTIRE theater infrastructure for them – from the minutiae that I mentioned to maintaining board relationships, filing taxes, and making long-term planning decisions about the building itself – and that’s like having no theater infrastructure at all.

Mission Paradox outlines the importance of valuing your own time in his blog this week, and I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. But building your theater infrastructure doesn’t have to mean refashioning your organization in the image of the Goodman or Broadway in Chicago. It simply means using the resources you have at your disposal to build yourself a home that will last through the long dark winter that your organization will inevitably face.

Resource 1 – Your people. Build trust and a common vision with your company. Sustainable organizations don’t rely solely on the input from a single leader. Teach everyone in the company as many skills as possible. Encourage each others’ growth, value each others’ time, and only bring on folks into your company that are in it for the long haul. If you’re an individual thinking about joining a company, think about that long haul. Be honest with yourself, and each other, and you’ll find a lot more energy in that honesty. Earn each others’ trust and check in with each other to make sure you all stay happy. It’ll be okay if someone needs to leave someday – if what you’ve built together matters, it’ll keep going if someone needs to pursue other endeavors.

Resource 2 – Your stuff, your place, your home. These are the twigs that are around you. If you used a prop bucket in your first five productions, you’d save that bucket, wouldn’t you? Try not to rent something twice when you can own it once. Bigger ticket items in this category are things like your space. Don’t get a space unless you have deep pockets and a plan for using it, and the people power to keep that use going.

Resource 3 – Your audience. Build them up. Talk to them, a lot. Talk about your organization like you care about it. Build your organization so that you DO care about it, so when anybody walking on the street asks about your theater, you know what to say, and you know how to excite them and convince them in that moment to come to every show you do for the rest of time. Include your board in this category – share what you do with people, and they will want to help you grow it, because you’ve let them own a piece of your success. If you treat donors like audience and audience like donors, you have a simple relationship with everyone, and you’ll still be getting those donations. You’ll get those donations by caring about what you do, and letting the world know that you care.

Resource 4 – Your time. None of this stuff does anyone any good if you burn out. Burning Out on theater is a wasting disease killing our industry. Here’s the real secret to building infrastructure that will help you avoid that fate. You don’t need complex box office structures and subscription series and mailings and cold calls to your phone list unless the STRUCTURE of your audience and your organization demands those solutions. Remember, our world is changing pretty fast these days, and these are old solutions to old problems. You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by listening to your audience and recognizing what they’re actually responding to, not what you think they’ll respond to. You don’t have to search far and wide for effective innovations that save you time – Just build your strategies and procedures well, test them, measure them, and make sure they still make you happy after you’re done with them. Make those strategies and procedures as simple as you possibly can without sacrificing their effectiveness and quality. Put joy into your process. I’m serious – if you have a hard time enlisting your company members to run the box office or come to strike, make those tasks fun. Write funny box office manuals. Throw a strike party. Then, you’ll all have energy to keep it going and enlisting other folks that will help you keep it going.

Notice how money isn’t even on this list? Money is water. You don’t just need water, you need a big bucket so when it doesn’t rain for a while, you still have something to drink.

And even if they’re cold, don’t pet the squirrels. They’ll make it.

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I’m being hypnotizzzzzzeed…

January 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

By listening to the Broadway in Chicago Podcast, otherwise known as the “Bi-monthly Have You Seen Wicked Yet? Podcast.” I don’t know why I torture myself.

But it does give me leave for my own moment of blatant self-promotion. You know, for balance.

We have just ramped out a new New Leaf Blog which we’re going to be using to open up our rehearsal and development process a bit to our audience.

Also, I challenged myself to my first same-day podcast for New Leaf’s first rehearsal of Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (which was a few hours ago). You can check out said podcast online here and of course subscribe through iTunes.

I’ll clean up the html tomorrow and make sure the dang RSS feed is pinging properly. For tonight, I rest contented.

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Follow Up: Someone else is already writing our history

January 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

revisionist_history.gif

I did some digging this evening in the history of the Wikipedia entry for Theater in Chicago, because I’m sneaky like that, and I noticed a single user whose posts seemed, well… motivated by commercial interests, shall we say. One user has written about 40% of the article, including almost all of the recent history, and her entire user history is made up of updates to the pages on Broadway in Chicago, The Ford Center, LaSalle Bank Theatre, Cadillac Palace, Jersey Boys, Wicked, and, a few short months after the presentation of the Broadway in Chicago Emerging Theater Award and Marketing Package, the House Theater. And a review! For posterity. To the victor belongs the spoils, I suppose.

She also links her Broadway in Chicago pages to artlcles on Musicals, Broadway, Theater. Her entire user history, in fact, has been dedicated to one purpose: Let the world know about the joys of Broadway in Chicago.

As it turns out, I actually don’t think that this user is working for the folks at Broadway in Chicago. Some of her chat with the diligent article moderator – all of which is public – make it pretty clear that she’s just trying to help out in an area that she cares about, not one she’s paid to support. She appears to have just populated the information directly from the Broadway in Chicago site, driving all that Wikipedia theater traffic right to the people who need it least most. Maybe she’s just a big fan. I don’t blame her for being a dutiful web citizen, but I do know she has provided a perspective on the industry and the community that desperately needs balance.

The whole episode demonstrated to me just how easy it can be for a small amount of work to make a big impact on a community – both positively and negatively, depending on your vantage point. It also reinforced the argument that any sour grapes about haves and have-nots I may have are pretty silly, when it wouldn’t be too hard to sit down with the other folks in town and paint a clearer picture of the scope of the work being done in Chicago Theater.

So Julia1287, if you read this someday: I’ve got a couple comp tickets to some shows I think you might be interested to see.

P.S. I love wikis. I hope you do too. More on wikis in theater later.

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Transparency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Go, qLab, Go!

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

qLabSpeaking of things that make us smile…

I was listening on NPR to Chazz Palminteri on his broadway debut of the one-man show that made him a household name, A Bronx Tale.

Lo and behold, A Bronx Tale is the second major broadway debut of the little sound playback program that could, qLab.

qLab’s main industry competitor is the old stalwart SFX (which was simple, quick, industry-wide, and somewhat affordable at $800 for a pro license plus $1600 on average for a dedicated computer to run the thing), and until about a year ago, qLab was still so buggy that it wasn’t a reliable substitute. Only difference now? First, it’s freaking FREE for basic features. Second, the small team of developers working on it basically non-stop have made it feature-rich and incredibly reliable (it helps that it runs on macs instead of frankenstein PCs), and now it even supports video playback. Third, did I mention that it’s free? There is no four. Fifth and last, qLab’s feature set now EXCEEDS *greatly* the old capabilities of SFX. To the point that when I need to program a show on SFX because that computer is available, I immediately start whining.

Yes, you heard me right. A Year and a half, and a buggy backwater project is now running the next big BROADWAY Show. It’s a proud day for the sound design community. And it couldn’t have happened to a better team of software developers.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go preprogram my next qLab show, Butt Nekkid, opening soon at the Side Project.

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