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Maintenance

June 04, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, projects

So this was on my desk two days ago. An inbox of low-priority filing that went back to October 2007. Yikes.

I realized, as this particularly busy season draws to a close (at the Goodman Owen stage alone our season included the premiere of Million Dollar Quartet, Ruined, the O’Neill Festival, Ghostwritten, most of which were tech-heavy monoliths), that it has been over two years I’ve done a real spring cleaning. It’s really only in June or August when we find an appropriate moment to do this kind of invasive cleaning and reorganization – where you open everything in your house up, one piece at a time, blow out the dust, and ask yourself the question: do I need this anymore? If I had this object or system around to solve a problem, does the problem even exist anymore?

July and most of June’s always devoted to the 24-7-30 Cherub program, last year’s cleaning was postponed by the immediacy of three large Goodman projects – Gas for Less, Turn of the Century, and the Latino Fest, and the year before that was devoted to planning, traveling, and getting our family to our wedding in Nova Scotia.

This year, I have cause to clean. (ha ha to KF). My wife just turned in her notice at her day job, a day job that has both paid the bills and caused immeasurable stress and disappointment in her life over the past two years. Instead, Marni has trained herself in a wide variety of graphic design and skills along with a group of like-minded creative types, and begins freelance design and project management work for a number of clients, including this design firm, doing work that challenges and empowers her. The choice to leave traditional, corporate employment at a time like this is not an easy one – we’ve needed to scramble to find health care, for instance, which by itself could cause someone to turn back. But the known benefits and promises of opportunity are many: flexibility in hours means our schedules will no longer be opposite, and we’ll actually get to see each other awake from time to time, and it’s amazing how much more energy and happiness you can have in your life when you do something you actually find enjoyment and value in.

Leaving the day job means that Marni’s coming back as a teacher at Cherubs this summer, and will be leading the fundamentals of design class. This is an amazing job – basically teaching 10 high school students who already love theater the language and tools of design.

So I’ve been devoting a lot of time to maintenance lately: cleaning the house, sorting through hardware, fixing the internet, archiving scripts and old work projects, repairing and upgrading equipment, getting rid of the stuff we don’t need anymore

Bit by bit.

Getting our house ready for a new life.

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Saturday Night Shakedown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curb Your Hysteria

November 26, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments


It’s amazing how fast the vibrating glow of hopefulness that was the post-election Chicago Theater scene chilled to a blind panic once the first shows started to shutter their doors. I miss that hopefulness. Miss it desperately, actually, because it seems that it wasn’t given a chance to unpack. I miss the stiff-upper-lipped approach that Barack proposed in his acceptance speech – “we have a lot of hard work to do, and we’re gonna get this done.”

In the last week, I have received about four e-blasts from medium-sized, and highly respected theater companies in town asking for emergency donations – in which they either explicitly or implicitly imply that they’re about to shutter their doors. Things are certainly bad, but as the communications of impending disaster started piling up, I couldn’t help but wonder… With people losing their jobs (including theater jobs), houses, ability to feed themselves, and get through one of the leanest holiday seasons of our lifetimes, is funding theater in the same ways a priority for the communities that we are part of this month?

So that’s why I think the Zeitgeist today belongs to the clear-headed Dan Granata.

You can’t spend any amount of time starting into the heart of darkness that is our aggregated numbers [on the Chicago Theater Database] and not seriously rethink one’s personal ambitions for a life in Chicago theatre and our collective goals for the community as a whole. So if there’s a “secret agenda” to the CTDB, it’s this: to help us move into the Fourth Age of Chicago Theatre….

The storefront movement has thus far failed to become a bonafide transformational model because we have no concept of what defines us beyond “small” and “underfunded.” We have no idea what success looks like for Storefront Theatre that doesn’t involve becoming a Regional Theatre (or, much less likely, a Commercial Theatre). And if you don’t know who you are or what you are trying to achieve, you can’t make the decisions that will take you there.

Dan’s not the only one rethinking the trajectory of theater this week and best how to come together to offer something productive for our patrons. Ye Olde Hat Tippe to Butts in Seats for taking a comment of mine and running with it:

One observation I wanted to make that no one really preempted was that despite how broken (and increasingly going broke) the existing system of funding the arts is, it seems to me that since about the beginning of the 20th century the arts world has been given the breathing space to discuss these issues on a large scale.

This may be news to those actors, musicians and visual artists who are waiting tables, watching kids and working as customer service reps at insurance companies for as their first through third jobs in order to support their creative activities.

And offline, I got a wonderfully thoughtful email from someone who saw my disappointment (actually, some random patrons’ disappointment) with Dirty Dancing and other big-box spectaculars running in Chicago as a big old missed opportunity:

The theater has become an attraction for its own sake. What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step… But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners.

Update: Benedict Nelson, the commentor above, is an excellent blogger from Chicago who I was previously unaware of! For Shame, Nick of the past! Check out his blog, The@re and his thoughts on why to defend the revival and what classics offer for the content of theater today.

Given the level of panic in the American bloodstream right now, I don’t know if this is an effective time to forward a bill to your patrons – instead, it’s is a time to reconnect people with what they get from the theater. Let’s break it down: we’ve had hundreds of productive posts about what exactly that is on the theatrosphere in preparation for moments like this. If the human landscape of an economic meltdown is depression, loneliness, panic, hopelessness, and hysteria, Theater offers the power and agility of communal imagination that it wields is a powerful tool to fight those forces of societal atrophy, and we are people who know how to create moments that jolt people out of their normal thinking habits and see things from a new angle.

Let’s face it: Theater artists are the BEST at being poor and continuing to function.

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

We need make the theater a warm place to be again, rather than some additional source of guilt and financial drain. We need to support the efforts of each other, and identify and fill the needs of our patrons. We are people who know how to throw the best parties in dark times (post-Weimar Germany, anyone?), because we focus our energies and resources on the creativity of the party rather than the expensive trappings of the party.

And if you can’t afford to produce? Re-concept your show and relocate until you CAN afford to produce. You can do it. I believe in you.

My personal guru, Lynn Baber, says to our students at Cherubs every year: “You have to give focus to get focus.” So with that in mind, if you’re reading this and wondering, where do I donate my spare bucks before the holidays?: Don’t donate to my theater right now. We’ll survive, and we’ll still have another great show for you to enjoy in January, because we’ve been very careful with our money and our debt load, and we know how to make a pretty amazingly good soup out of leftovers.

But speaking of soup, please do put your money somewhere where it will do some good for people in your neighborhood this holiday season. More people than normal are hungry, and facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, and we can help them get back in touch. Invite your theater family over for thanksgiving dinner. Hunger makes people hysterical, and makes social problems much harder to solve. It’s time to take a breath, be thankful that we have enough, and help solve these problems with society through art in a lasting way.

While you ponder, let’s all stop being so serious already (I have a big problem with this). That’s why I hope to see something different this holiday season in between shows – WNEP’s SCHMUCK DIE HALLEN or the Neo-Futurists’ A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol.

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Why I’m Not Worried by a Sleeping Theatrosphere

September 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’ve been talking with some folks who are making the leap to Chicago – there’s of course Brian over at Director Sector who I’m excited to be collaborating with on a number of theater/web hybrid projects, and I was on the phone this morning with an electrician who’s moving to town this fall. Two of my younger sisters are also moving off or preparing for college, and considering all their options in a very uncertain time. In talking with all of them about the resources, networks and strategies available to someone joining a new community, I was reminded (and I hope have suitably warned them) about that rough year I had when first moving to town, living with my high school friend John in Bridgeport, picking up the odd design and the odd temp job. Not everyone experiences it, but those months spent disconnected from the community you’re living in can be so poisonous – or they can be renewing. Like that feeling when your broken bones are mending, the solitude of living solo in a new community is itchy because you’re healing. But when our perspectives are disconnected from the reality of our social environment, we’re unable to act, we’re unable to engage, we’re unable to do the basic work of theater – connection.

I try not to push theater folk into coming to Chicago specifically, though I will lobby for it when the alternative is New York. For some, Chicago can be a familial network of artistic support, and for some, it’s a crowded game. I greatly admire folks breaking new theatrical ground like Cherubs Faculty Associate Paige Clark (who is starting a theater company in San Antonio) or Zachary Mannheimer’s continuing project with Subjective Theater Company, and their drive to build the Des Moines Social Club. My new ground to be broken has never been geographic, however – my life didn’t offer that option – and instead I’ve been interested and equipped to deal with structural changes and new ways of developing ideas, and that means testing those structures with as many contexts as possible. For me, Chicago is the lab in which I can play with structure, scale, and interconnectivity of how theater can work. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m ready to draw conclusions about those experiments yet.

Before I got connected with the theater community in Chicago, I had incredibly inaccurate and subjective opinions – both glowing and fearful – about how the theater community here operated. And like any flawed assumption that you use to cope with your situation, those opinions got reinforced as dogma and prejudice against/for this way of doing things or that way of doing things, and if you’re lucky, you get data later on that helps you break that prejudice down. No one is immune to the process of prejudice. It’s just how the human brain works. That’s the beauty of the scientific method, but of course there’s a problem – objectively analyzing social constructs like the impact of theater on a community is notoriously difficult.

As could be expected, I’m mulling over another spat of outlandish but perhaps fruitful argument generated by Scott Walters over at Theater Ideas. Given a context of pure theory, Scott is an inspiring academic guru of theatrical community organization, but in the time we face now – a time of political change that initiates a debate of social change, and a time where the arts face assault from a culture that wages unjust wars and lets entire cities drown – the practical needs of the theater community that I operate in are at odds with his divine fury in support of a “purer” theory-driven movement.

This feels instead like a time of realignment. The arts are about to lose their traditional government and grant funding left and right. We all know it, and I think it could even be seen as ultimately just – as long as the money goes to more worthy causes like education, alternative energy research, rebuilding and renewing the gulf coast cities, universal health care, and especially veteran’s medical and psychological care. Those are the things I’m willing to fight for funding for through whatever, not my own skin. I’ve been happy to see that most of us in the arts understand this and don’t make the mistake of clamoring to hang on to our existing models of funding. We instead say: Hey, let’s find a way to do our work – important work, dammit – that doesn’t burden the communities we are trying to serve. That to me is a simple and workable definition of this new model for theater that we’re seeking to articulate – a theater for every community, because of the community, but not draining that community.

Scott seems to get frustrated with realignment, because he feels he has done that work already. He makes regular, even daily calls of report, report, report our progress, and accuses the rest of the theater movement of generally lazy thinking. But if he is the overactive analytical left brain of the theater movement in this country, he’s in danger of letting the body of the movement get sleep deprived. The playwrights, designers, directors and technicians that blog along with him often act as the hands, eyes, and ears (and in the case of Don Hall, the asshole – kisses Don) of the theater movement – and we need our regular exercise and REM sleep.

What does that sleep look like in the theatrosphere? It looks like doing theater, and not always blogging about it. It looks like taking the time to think about the political and social crisis in this country and how our art should reflect the choices that people in our country are making now about our future trajectory. It looks like training ourselves by testing new articulations of old ideas (what else is rehearsal for?) It looks like taking the theories of a new model of theater and testing them through a season selection, a rehearsal process, a design, a marketing plan, a critical review. It looks like retreating to the wilderness to reconnect with the real reasons to do this work. It looks like spreading the word out from our e-bubble and changing the cultural dialogue one artist at a time – which is 90% boring work and 10% hopeful inspiration.

Of course it’s working, since the theater community is so very small: I can see in the green room banter that there is a renewed consensus and commitment to finding a better way of connecting the community to the art that it wants and needs but doesn’t know how to ask for. No one, especially the regional theaters, think that the status quo is going to work for much longer – or that it’s working now. I hope that the work that Dan G. and I are doing with the CTDB – which is ultimately about collecting highly detailed information on a single community, albeit one Scott is sick of hearing about – show Scott that it’s not just his eyes that are open to the change that must happen if our work is to survive and matter and do some good for us and our neighbors. Scott regularly uses the contents of American Theatre Magazine as his canary in the coal mine for how successfully his model for truly regionalized theater is being implemented, and no wonder he’s frustrated. ATM is the public face of the TCG-flavored status quo, and he’s shown many times about how their skewed data analysis and commentary doesn’t typically do their data collection any justice. Policy formation always begins with an accurate census and assessment of community need, and if the little guy is to make the choice, they need the data in their hands, and they need to be empowered to analyze it themselves. If we seek to change our model, our way of working, we must apply a little bit of scientific process: we can work to collect empirical data, and use it to break down our prejudices and test our theories about art, artist, audience, and community. Because while we need dreams, theory and action to engage with our work, they all need to work in balance with each other and with the real world.

So don’t be ashamed to take a nap when you get tired. We’ll need you nice and rested and sharp for work tomorrow.

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A Strategy for Educational Initiatives

August 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects, Teachable Moments

I’m cross-posting my comment on a thrilling post from Laura at Trailing Spouse Blues – “What’s wrong with Educational Theater?” – which is itself a response to The Next Stage’s lament over the the perceived loss of opportunity as the next generation grows up without a broad exposure to theater.

I’m doing this cross-posting: Because it is apropos.

This is a freaking amazing thread, Laura.

Just got back from teaching 168 high schoolers in a summer program (Cherubs – Check it Out) , and let me tell you: the name of the game is immersion.

I’ve taught technical theater electives at a few high schools and middle schools, and I have to say the kids are always on your side to learn more. If there is a roadblock to learning coming from them, it’s that they don’t trust the motives of authority figures, which is a pretty simple roadblock to subvert. You work earn their trust – If a teacher demonstrates genuine excitement about a subject – which most of us are more than capable of – it NEVER fails that the kids pick up on that excitement. Do something jaw-dropping. We can all do it if we’re skilled at our craft. Reach into that little showstopper bag of tricks that you have – a directing exercise, a quick self-deprecating story, a design trick, or simple acrobatics. You’ll have ’em hooked and you can begin the lesson. Maintain that trust and you may lose them – but they’ll come back to you to learn more.

From what I’ve seen, the structure of primary and secondary Education with a capital E these days is challenging. Distractions are everywhere – classes are blazingly short, filled with cell phones, and many parents encourage a compression of their children’s lives with too many AP classes and extra-curriculars. You know. For a good college. You know. For a good job. You know. For happiness. Later. When it’s too late.

Now theater can be just another extra-curricular to stress kids out, to be sure. But while this schedule takes up their whole day, I’d argue that this structure isn’t really immersive – it’s full of stuff, but fails entirely when it comes to having the kids, you know, engage with the material.

Theaters are actually really well equipped to provide a rich learning environment, but not in the form that we first think of – performance and talkback. That’s simply asking kids to be polite, shut up for a while, and then reengage without really understanding the context of how theater gets made. The thing that kids need the most exposure to – if the goal is creating the next generation of theater appreciators – is the doing of theater – the choices that get made, and the excitement of text -> rehearsal room -> design -> stage. A small theater is a great place to learn the most basic of communication and teamwork skills.

When you immerse kids in a learning environment – with multiple teachers or even authority figures who are all committed to the idea of engaging, teaching, and pushing the student to explore the material on their own – amazing things happen. It’s actually a simple equation, but one that requires too many resources for most schools to provide. But theaters CAN provide those opportunities if they were to structure their educational initiatives with some care.

Just imagine the difference between a performance and talkback where the kids show up moments before curtain and when they show up two weeks before opening.

Let’s say you give a student or a small group of students an opportunity as say interns for a small theater. Don’t make them do your dirty work for you like bathroom cleaning – have them help you rehearse and make their own choices as the cast and crew make their choices. Have them watch your designers as they build sets, props, hang lights, program boards and set sound levels. Clue them in on WHY you’re making choices, and WHY other choices would change the show. Help them see how a big, unified production can be created by hundreds of small choices.

That is valuable training for any child. And if it makes them appreciate the work of the theater artisan, so be it.

I should add – my theater company New Leaf is really trying to make this kind of program happen right now – thanks in no small part to the lessons we’ve learned from teaching at the Cherub program, a program that as I’ve mentioned many times changed my life as a theater educator. New Leaf has already had our first successful high school-level internship (go Emma!), a student who assisted the sound department in designing two shows in our last season. We’re really looking forward to trying the format out in the directorial department and potentially formalizing the program after trying it out a bit more this season. Because we do want to teach, and it’s not about a revenue stream for us – unless you count a group of people who will be fans of theater forever a revenue stream.

So yeah, to The Next Stage: You’re right. College isn’t the time. It’s younger. But all is not lost on our hipster youth, and we definitely need to approach the problem with both seriousness and enthusiasm.

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation

August 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

It’s hard to put into words what teaching at the Cherub program is like. So I give you this.

I feel positively renewed.

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Another Tease

June 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Tools

In Our Town, we like to know the facts about everybody.

There’s David Cromer, who I first knew as one of the directors of Cider House Rules (my first sound op gig in Chicago). Our affectionate nicknames for him and Marc Grapey, our other fearless leader on that show, were “Tigger and Eeyore.” Corrie Besse, that’s a name you don’t want to forget, she was the teensy powerhouse that wrangled the cast of 32,000 backstage in the upstairs Victory Gardens space. Look at that, she’s worked her way up from ASM to SM. Still wrangling a cast of thousands and a props setup to make the fearless quake.

Alison Siple is one of those mad genius types. My favorite work of hers remains these angel wings made of umbrellas (her specialty!) that she did for one of our plays at Cherubs. Then there’s Jonathan Mastro over there by the piano. You might have seen him before on the piano with the Monkeys, or perhaps you were lucky enough to see him tickling the ivories for the Chicago Children’s Theater premiere production of “A Year with Frog & Toad.” We still sing the grand finale of act 1, “Cookies” up in the Owen booth. No matter what the show.

Then there’s Tim Curtis. Last time I saw him was back on the Visions & Voices stage during Accidental Rapture. I still play my Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse sound cue from that show to demonstrate sonic storytelling (and you can get a great Lord-of-The-Rings horse breath effect using the snort of a walrus).

And good old Devin Brain. He’s one of the guys that helps make things work on all those Hypocrites shows you’ve been seeing – I remember sitting with him on the orange carpet during Porno at the Side Project with Grant Sabin trying to figure out how to best rig those damn TVs to the grid. He’s a pretty stellar director, too.

The structure is nearly at the beta testing stage. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go yet – it’s ugly as sin and there’s some duplicate data in there. And missing! Where the hell is John Wehrman? He’s a part of this show too, just off of New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. And to bring it full circle, there’s in the space itself the memory of the last event that took place here – the beautiful wedding and reception of Kaitlin Byrd and fellow Plagiarist Ian Miller a few weeks ago. She lead that cast of GGB and, if you look way back, you’ll notice that she was in that cast of thousands in Cider House as well.

I just love a wedding, don’t you? They’re just so beautiful. We are carving the gravestones of these memories here. To leave a mark where there was none. To draw connections. To remember.

And this is only one window into our history. We’re ready to start collecting your info if you have some to give.

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The Capture

May 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

When I first started designing, I took handwritten notes. Scribbles, really. Each note said something like “dloor up 7 after…” I have horrible handwriting under pressure in the dark. Also, I didn’t write very quickly, so I’d leave a lot of trailing sentences as the play progressed and new cue mishaps grabbed my attention.

Frankly, I didn’t yet have a process, and I was designing in a panic. I used notes as shorthand to trigger my memory of what happened particular run, and then doing the notes meant reconciling that memory with the director’s divergent memory and then taking an appropriate measure to correct that cue for the next run.

The problem with me and this method became clear the first time I designed my annual summer juggernaut – the ten repertory shows of Cherubs. Each show ran an hour, and teched in an hour and forty five minutes. After tech, I would have one dress run to make any last adjustments, and then performance. Each night you tech two shows, and then the next night you tech two more. At the end of my first week of Cherubs tech I had a pile of incomprehensile scribbles like “Fade out the drone when she does that thing upstage” with little memory of the play itself. I needed a better way.

And I didn’t just need it for Cherubs. I looked at the designers whose careers I wanted to emulate – Andre Pluess, Lindsay Jones, Ray Nardelli, Josh Horvath. These individuals are unbelievably prolific, if you haven’t noticed. I think Lindsay pulled off something like 30 shows in 10 states last year. They worked everywhere, all the time – in Chicago and regionally. In watching their processes, I noticed patterns in how they organized their notes, cues, and files into standard formats and structures no matter how different the show was.

I experimented with excel spreadsheets and text files. The disorganization and lack of clarity continued – though I did notice that I had a speed increase and a greater percentage of complete sentences because I’m a faster typer. So I was capturing more of the same bad information I worked on self-discipline in the moment and looked into some preliminary shorthand lessons. It didn’t click with me. New problems started emerging as I experimented with new methods – I would bring a level up one day only to bring it down again after sitting in a new seat only to bring it up again after sitting in the first seat again. I was pushing and pulling my hair out.

The breakthrough came for me when I thought about the nature of the information I was trying to retain. Levels. Cues. Moments. Memories of the events of a run. Records of previous runs and notes. Whether I had taken care of a note or not. Notes from a director. Notes for a stage manager. Notes for myself.

I decided to create (ta da!) a relational database and see how that worked for me. I broke the information of my work into core models – cues, subcues (like fades and layered sounds in a cue), notes. Five years later, it looks like this:

Not the greatest interface, but it’s been built incrementally with only my brain, so it works great for me. Notes are in yellow there. As a show progresses, I scroll through my cue list. If I have a note, I just type in one of the yellow boxes and I have a quick pull down menu of basic types of notes to give me some quick context – “Director” means it’s something I need to ask the director. Its direct, and in practice, simple. I should note while the data structure is complex enough for me to use this system in every show, it’s also flexible enough that I can ignore great sections of it when time demands that of me. I really only use the subcue table, for instance, when I run using CD playback shows where overlapping sound files still need to be managed. Computerized playback often makes that paperwork more or less moot, so it just sits there.

By capturing the data I also noticed an immediate benefit – separating the data from the display of that data by taking it off a piece of paper or a spreadsheet freed myself to use the data in new and different visualizations. I could create a new layout that automatically created a cue list easy for a stage manager to read:

Or a quick pull list of notes to do in a hurry:

With six or seven shows and some troubleshooting, it became a system that I trust more than my handwritten notes and my swiss cheese memory. It became a way to freeze those pure, immediate reactions that I have in the space and in the moment and use those to inform my notes. And since I began analyzing the way that I captured information and the structure of the information that needed to be captured, my handwritten notes have become decidedly more disciplined and focused.

But that’s what works for me. What’s important is the way that you structure your own capture. You need a way to capture all the relevant data that you can fit into your bucket, and a way to intuitively and simply filter that information later. We are flawed creatures, and it’s not only possible but likely that at some point you’ll try to fool yourself into thinking you took one action when you took another.

There was another important capture that took place in recent months – the company members of the side project sat down and captured through a brainstorm all the roles and responsibilities of the company so that we could better enlist and provide support to Artistic Director and theater operations superhero Adam Webster. By capturing and filtering the things we did as individuals over the course of a season, we began compiling a bible of simple manuals for tasks and procedures that were involved with running a theater – everything from filing taxes to taking out the trash to repatching the lightboard. We took this information out of our cluttered minds and put it in a repository where anyone can come in and take over, and in doing so the problem of “running a theater” became smaller and more manageable. When you look at the life cycle of company membership, that kind of capturing and filtering process creates institutional knowledge that is the difference between the life of a theater company and its demise.

This is one of the reasons that I think creating a database of Chicago Theater is a worthwhile project and not simply navel-gazing. It is made up of collected and searchable and therefore endlessly useful data. If it is successful, it creates a model for other public resources of data in the theater community that by necessity would be more accessible than say, TCG’s data that Scott Walters used to such great effect. It captures hard facts that can be organized to suit your purpose that day. It allows us to check things that we believe are true (“You know what Chicago needs? A production of Our Town in April 2009!” They’ll never know what hit them!) against the captured data of collected memory that inarguably is true.

On a side note: Speaking of manuals, I’ve been exploring the utterly hilarious Poignant Guide to Ruby in my learning process of the Ruby on Rails programming environment for the CTDB. I think the devilvet in particular will appreciate the use of off-the-cuff cartoon foxes and elves to spice up the process of (yawn) learning a programming language.

When you’re reading and writing a manual, I cannot stress enough the importance of retaining your sense of humor. This is the thing that I often forget.

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