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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Theatre Day: Coming to Chicago?

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

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

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

Sometimes it just falls into your lap.

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

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

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

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

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

Simplicity will be key.

Damn Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Theater Media Roundup: Theaterforte is Back

December 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

A quick and dirty Theater Media Roundup for you today: Because this one is simple, and good.

Long-time foundation of the American theatrosphere (with one of the most prolific sidebars I’ve ever seen) Matt Slaybaugh of Theaterforte took some time off of blogging this year and recently returned with this video:

This is an ideal shoot-from-the-hip use of media to communicate an idea, and here’s why:

1) It’s edited. Do not. Ever. Say. The Word. Ummmmmmmmmmm. On Camera. You’d edit your blog post or play, right? Edit your video / podcast / smellcast. What’s bizarre to me is that many people fall into a habit of thinking of video & media editing as a way of *over-complicating* the content of the video. Editing a video is functionally no different from editing an essay, play, book, what have you. It’s just the art of focusing your delivery mechanism to your communication. I cannot stress this enough: The choice we have when we tap technology to serve our message or story isn’t as simple as “Ornamentation or Nothing at all. If you’d like a great example of how effective low-budget and low-time-investment simple spliced transitions can be, see also Ze Frank. I do like how Slay doesn’t overedit here – he lets us in on the energy and humility of generating honest and personal thought, without letting us get completely mired in his moments of unrehearsed distraction.

2) I know what Slay sounds like now. I cannot stress how important this is to an online collaborative culture. The big difference between the page and the stage is that you have to make choices about your voice, the words (and therefore ideas) that you stress, the intention of the words that you’re saying. Same is true of blogs versus online video. The web strips our emotions and irony out of our words, unless we’re consciously adding them back in, like this: Bam! Not so with video. Slay communicates his sincerity and excitement for the new direction of his theater company without fear of misinterpretation.

3) Slay stays honest in video. A little bit like staying crispy in milk. When you’re able to communicate honestly in one media, that’s no indication that you’ll be able to communicate in another media. This was the big leap I had to make when I started this blog: I felt like I could communicate honestly through sound, but I still struggle every post with keeping my writer’s voice honest, because it’s not a muscle I exercise as much.

The answer is often: simplify, and return to doing what you do, even if you do it in a new format.

4) Form follows function. The idea: The internet is an important tool for generating discussion and collaboration. The form: let’s remove the normal misinterpretation of tone and intention that comes with most blog posts and put a human face to things. That’s why this is a better video post than a blog post.

I think this struggle with honesty where most theaters are at right now with their New Media experiments – in both attempts at marketing and attempts at incorporating video projections into shows – it’s about learning to be honest through a new method of communication. Clearly, I still need to learn that blog posts should be short. It’s frustrating, and there are failures. It’s very surprising to me that there is so little patience in the theater community for this process, that there’s this idea out there that adding video to a theater’s website or incorporating technology into a play’s design is either universally pointless or necessarily detrimental to the work itself. Of course, we have to concede that theaters hurt themselves when they use new media in ways that are inappropriate to their identities as artisans, and that happens when they don’t take the time to develop and incorporate the technology all the way. But when a theater’s use of new media does match their aesthetic closely, sparks fly. It’s like what happens when a performer learns to really project for the first time. The voice begins to soar around the space, jettisoned from their diaphragm, and suddenly, a simple technique has amplified the performer’s power and presence. Do you need it? No. Does it help? If appropriate, hells yes.

As promised, I’ve written a little something on the process for Touch that will be showing up on the New Leaf Theatre blog today. It includes a little narrative peak into my sound design process for this show. Hope you like it – and thanks for all the words of excitement for the show, you local gang you. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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Street Vendors make the best Lemonade

October 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Chicago Theater, Community Building

Our ongoing experiment with the TCG Free Night of Theater at New Leaf is going so well it’s hard not to draw some very quick and dirty predictions about storefront theaters’s viability in the face of an economic downturn. Some things we’re finding (and I’ll let the rest of the Box Office staff at New Leaf give more detail here in the coming days):

* Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.

* Most theater goers don’t realize that storefront theater can be excellent. Because we tend to be experimental and/or developing artists, storefront work doesn’t have a consistent quality other than that intimacy. But there are shows that are hands down excellent in that grab bag, and we’re nearly always intimate, and we’re comparatively cheap, storefront theater becomes a no-brainer entertainment value. Human contact in a time of economic hardship is at a premium. We offer close-camera human experience.

* When patrons get past these two hurdles, and like what they see, they have an exciting reaction: Ownership. They feel they have discovered something secret that now belongs to them and they seem to be more excited to tell their friends about the experience than a regular patron would be. Since storefront theater publicity is often built primarily on word of mouth, this is potentially the most valuable patron experience we could ask for. Of course, the data isn’t in on how these patrons comparatively follow through in spreading the word – we won’t know that until the end of this season at least. But by greeting new patrons with a goodie bag of season information, 2-for-1 tickets and a lobby atmosphere that is more real, genuinely friendly, and built by a community than our big-box theater cousins (all because we’re not paid – we LOVE to be there) we’re hopeful on this front.

So what happens when everyone is worried about going broke? Well, we tighten the purse strings. But that doesn’t mean we stop living their lives. In the case of dining, instead of going to fine cuisine, people opt for Olive Garden. Or they take that chance on that local dive.

So, the prediction: Most of us have already seen how the downturn has made grants dry up quickly as foundations scramble to secure their assets and make larger and more flashy large-scale donations that don’t benefit small theaters. If storefront theater can make the case, this could be a year where as theater goers flake off from their big-house big-ticket subscriptions they take a low-risk chance on the work being done in storefront venues. And if the work is good and the experience is good, they might just stick.

But timing is everything. The election, necessarily, will be sucking all the oxygen out of the local and national news cycles right on through November 2nd. I’ve been talking with several theater companies trying to promote their shows right now (hell, I’m one of them), and my advice to them is: Save your energy, wait, and hit hard after the big election come-down.

After then, theater-going groundhogs everywhere will come out of their Cable News comas and want to be a part of life and collective imagination again. Be ready with your best work, your comparatively cheap tickets, and your comfiest chairs. Communities are built from your neighborhood out.

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Thought Attacks! Speaking About the Value of Theater

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

In what I’m pretty sure is going to become a regular series of conversations, several theater bloggers have teamed up today to bring you their thoughts on the value of theater today. Coordinated conversation has a way of exploding thought. And here’s my $0.075:

For me, this collaborative conversation is a value in itself that is often generated in theater – it’s an open environment to develop compelling thought. It doesn’t require a camera, microphone, or a web server, but it does require the reality check of audience interaction. It’s the simplest public interaction, and putting on a play is the only bully pulpit I know of that is ultimately accessible to all.

I often describe the “job” that we do in theater to my students and colleagues in this way: “We’re in the business of changing people’s lives.” Sometimes that means alarming your audience, and often it simply means allowing them to find deep resonance in a single moment of a play – we don’t fully understand or can’t fully predict the specific effect that a piece will have, but the effect happens because there is power and energy in being in the same room.

The theater is a place of exploration. It’s a place where resonance can be discovered in unexpected places. It’s a place of active entertainment in a world of passive entertainment. It requires – and rewards – a certain level of imaginative involvement.

Don Hall and Slay today both reflect on our common goal of boiling down the core values of theater today, and the purpose for this conversation does have potentially far-reaching implications. People who value theater value a particular kind of open-eyed view (sometimes secular, sometimes liberal, but always open-eyed) of their society. Those kinds of people – people who desire a certain amount of change of the status quo – have a problem when bringing that idea and convincing people who are comfortable in the status quo that change is needed. Like the demon in The Exorcist we need to be able to learn, as a community of sometimes-like-minded individuals, to name the thing we want to truly conquer our problem. Open-eyed people reject the dogma of talking points, but they also understand their power.

As much as we may hate them for their “violence of articulation”, we need strong, clear talking points to stand up against other media and understand what we can do. And since you’re on the team, we need to understand our negatives, and how we can turn those negatives into more focused energy on our positives: Theater isn’t not as polished as film, it’s not as solitarily immersive as literature, it’s not as energizing as music, it’s not as connected as youtube or blogs, it’s not as convenient as television, it’s not as serious as religion, it’s not as powerful as politics, and all that has resulted in a single reality: we have less perceived importance to society than any of these. We are a different creature that has a different, under-explored function. If theater was simply a cultural dinosaur, it would have gone extinct sometime in the 80s

These are a core values that are what keep me doing theater rather than web design or other such nonsense: Critical Community Thinking. Exploration. Resonance. Accessibility. Collaborative Entertainment.

That fact of accessibility – that it is ultimately possible for anyone to create a theatrical event to test their ideas – will always save theater. It is an enduring artform – and has been since the groundlings – the enduring cockroach of human interaction. As ugly as we may seem to some in society, our theaters are where the people on the fringes of society can strengthen society through subversive stories worthy of Shakespeare’s Fool. Ultimately theater teaches us enduring – and valuable – lessons about other human beings, because theater doesn’t happen unless we interact with them first. We’re in the business of changing lives, and often that life is our own.

I’d like to second Don’s question: How do you get your non-theater friends into the theater? What convinces them, other than a favor to you that they will then hold over your head? What descriptions of theater’s value that you read today resonate with you? What are your values for the theater for the future?

Other blogs across the country discussing the value of theater today:

Don Hall
Slay
Theatre Ideas
Rat Sass
The Next Stage
Theater is Territory
Bite and Smile
That Sounds Cool
A Rhinestone World

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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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