Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Harnessing the Power of the Smart Mob

March 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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Great Expectations

February 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Well, well, it’s a public brouhaha!

It’s not really in the purview of the adrenaline dose that is the TimeOut Chicago exposé to sort out the dust and mud that gets kicked up in the process, so I’m glad that Patrick over at BackstageJobs has already started to explain some more of the background of TOC’s article this week on the Bailiwick’s rosy picture of its own financial woes and those of us who cried foul. This was a conversation that Tony started in response to a a few weeks ago, and has been picking up steam as a story ever since. And don’t read me wrong here – I’m thankful also to Jake Malooley and TOC for doing what they do best – shining the light down in the ugly boiler room of Chicago theater we’d rather forget about and not being afraid to break down a few doors to get down there. I’m just saying now someone’s got to repair the hinges, is all.


What has happened since the initial volley of public venting is a general agreement among several of us mentioned in the article that this kind of issue doesn’t simply exist at the Bailiwick – it’s an industry-wide problem of theaters that are taking advantage of the semi-pro semi-volunteers that work for them. And it’s very rarely a case of the big malicious theater exploiting the unsuspecting artist. It’s more about the consequences of willful ignorance. Most theater managers, Zak included, have the absolute best of intentions and they truly believe they are providing artists with opportunities and reasonable access to the industry. This is a problem of miscommunication leading to unintentional exploitation.

From my own experience, the Bailiwick was one of the first theaters I worked at in town for a single reason: they post jobs constantly, and at the time they came up pretty high on a google search for “Chicago Theater Companies.” That makes them a very appealing theater to someone who doesn’t know the scene and is, as I was, green, green, green. I had a rough, confusing experience there, but I was paid what I was promised. A later production I remain unpaid for, but in the scheme of things I don’t really care about the money, and I won’t be knocking on Zak’s door to collect, ever, thus completing the skip-to-my-loo solution that Zak proposes:

“I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be angry,” he says. “If someone says to me, ‘I had a $100 check and I couldn’t cash it,’ I would say, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go get it cashed. Let’s solve it.’”

One of the reasons I never made a big deal about that particular fee is that I’m largely at fault for not being paid – I never insisted on a contract before performing the work. I was even hired on the Bailiwick’s behalf through another artist, and David and the business manager at the time weren’t even involved in the conversation, and that’s my fault for continuing to work without a written agreement. More experienced theater artists and vendors don’t make this mistake – most of the people I’ve talked with that do business with the Bailiwick and frankly, most theaters, are on a 100% – 50% COD policy with them before work is performed and goods are delivered.

There’s another big reason I’ve never gone collecting – I’ve made that lost dough back in indirect trade. In an industry as poor on cash flow as this, we cannot underestimate the power of trade to solve disputes. I’m no longer angry at Zak, which is one of the things I tried to communicate to TOC before the article came out. I’m glad the conversation happened, but I want to make it clear that this needs to turn into a conversation about best practices for every theater and freelance artist in town, not simply one theater company that has a bad reputation. As Patrick says, bad reputations will come and go. The ANGER came from a very specific and recent incident of not $100 but $3000 that he owed a close friend of mine, putting that friend in serious financial trouble for several months. Since the blog conversation but before the TOC article, David has made amends for that debt. I know that David’s capable of great and honest generosity… one of the things I mentioned to TOC is that David was directly generous to my own theater – the Bailiwick loaned us a dusty and unused lightboard free of charge for several of New Leaf’s productions, including our breakout show The Permanent Way. I don’t know what we would have done without that board for that show, and that was more than worth walking away from a couple productions unpaid.

I don’t relive all this to add fuel to this particular fire – I mention it because one of the ancillary skills that all theaters and freelancers need to get together and develop right away is the ability to write, read and live by contracts for all work done in any theater, before that work is done, and no matter how small the producing company. If we want Chicago Theater to be anything but a well-intentioned golem chewing up emerging artists and young companies in a cycle of missed reimbursements and shabby rental spaces, we all need to get really specific about what we expect from each other, and we need to have a fair and equitable mechanism to hold companies and individuals who don’t follow through on promises accountable. Too often the contract discussion becomes about money, and I think it’s unrealistic to limit agreements to that in theater – it needs to be about all our resources – time, equipment, in-kind donations, space, working conditions – everything we rely on.

We’re all about quickly converting lessons and theory to calls to action on the blogosphere these days, which I think is pretty sweet. Here’s what I’d say is a call to action that can is fair to new theater immigrants and the Bailiwicks of the world and will even the playing field a bit:

1) Insist on a contract for work that you do, even if unpaid. If a company doesn’t give you an agreement, write it for them. Don’t just bitch about your past grievances – write them down in a sample contract and map out things you’re willing to put up with for the art, and things you’re never willing to put up with. Some examples:

  1. I will not put up my own money for show materials and be reimbursed later – if I agree to procure goods to aid the production, I will be provided with funds from the company before the purchase is made.
  2. I will be paid half of my fee no later than a week before opening, and the remainder of the fee at strike
  3. I will be provided a safe place to store my valuables
  4. I will not be expected to go up on a ladder
  5. Tech week notes will be given to me in a timely fashion – no later than 12 hours before they are expected to be implemented in the production
  6. Company is responsible for equipment or property donated in-kind to the production run, and will be liable for $XXX replacement cost in the event of theft or damage.

You know, whatever it is you need to do your work safely and happily. It’s your contract. You decide what goes in.

Some clauses may not fly in any given agreement – but both parties will know what to expect from each other, and disputes will be more easily resolved, because they’ll be resolved calmly before the pressure is on. That’s the beauty of a friendly and simple legal document.

If a company or individual isn’t willing to draw up a simple one-page contract, or if they find it unnecessary – that’s your first sign right there that maybe they won’t be willing to follow through on other promises they make to you, like paying you – or paying you back.

normal_fgw_337.jpg2) Under no circumstances should you rent space from a company without first reviewing a contract, inventory of provided equipment and services. I actually think that boilerplate agreements for all rental spaces in Chicago should be transparent enough to go right on the public League of Chicago Theaters Wiki, allowing theater companies a clear comparison of what renting each space entails. Aside from the dough involved, these agreements should include clauses regarding:

  1. Hours of Operation, AND all hours available to a rental company
  2. Noise levels permitted
  3. Dressing Room square footage and conditions
  4. Box office services or space provided
  5. Lighting & Sound Inventory in working order
  6. Heating & Cooling regulations
  7. Trash removal

3) Both of these kinds of agreements taken together can accomplish something kind of extraordinary for a small theater – taken together, they quantify the costs, time, and human resources required to produce a show. As any grant writer will tell you, that’s a difficult number to pin down and it’s invaluable when justifying more funding for your theater. Letters of agreement provide a buffer of understanding and that can pay off in load in and tech week. Too many small companies will try to shoot the moon and go into a production without knowing exactly who will staff the box office or who will take out the trash. That’s the kind of oversight that will make your artistic team really cranky, and that’s not good for the art.

4) You’re not going to get it right the first time, that’s why contract negotiation is a skill and not something you cut and paste off the internet. Give yourself some time for a nice healthy post-mort after every show you do, and work the conflicts and the confusion into your next contract. I keep a word document on my computer, and I’ll just add a line when a behavior becomes unacceptable to me. I’m getting to the point where I’m going to add “Sound Designer will be provided with a simple and stable tech table in the space for load in and tech,” because I have an array of computers and hard drives that will get damaged if they’re sitting between the seats. Or, maybe I’ll just suck it up and get over it… and buy a table myself that I take with me (Tax write off, anyone?). Either way, I’m working happier, my equipment is less likely to be damaged and I’ve taken the responsibility I’m comfortable with taking for my own working conditions. I’ve made it easy on the theater that I’m working with, but that also means I’m more likely to get aggressive if they renege on paying me on time. Patrick’s example for being aggressive with a delinquent company is perfect:

3 different lighting designers tell me of the show they worked on where the paycheck never came. They continued to design and program the show with the promise that the check would be there at first preview, then at third preview, and then “definitely at opening.” These three designers, each designing at different theatres on different shows for different companies at different times, all arrived at their theatres early, saved the show(s) to disk, pulled the disk out, and ERASED THE SHOW FROM THE LIGHTING BOARD. They then waited until the SM or PM arrived to inform them that there would be no lighting for the show until they had a check in their hand. In at least 2 cases, they were the only ones to get a check that night (though others had been given the same promises runaround).

You can’t just pull this kind of behavior off and expect to keep your reputation for being a team player. You need to be crystal clear with those that you work with from the moment you begin a job: This is how you can work with me to develop a happy and mutually beneficial relationship, and this is what you can do that will make me go nuclear and take away your ability to produce the show you want. If you don’t have that legal foundation when you want and/or need to go nuclear, you’re up a creek. If you have the legal foundation, however… well, when the TOC exposé is written about it later you can pull out your contract and your notes of exactly how the producing company acted in bad faith.

I know reading and writing contracts makes most of our eyes cross, or even worse, saddens us because it injects a certain amount of litigious behavior into the art. But I don’t think that sadness gets us off the hook – if we throw up our hands and refuse to do it in the name of simplicity or faith in humanity we get only what we deserve – unaccountable rental houses and theater companies that have an unforgivable habit of running us over in defense of their own survival. I think we’d all rather take the time to write a one-page contract and update it from time to time than risk trusting someone we shouldn’t that they’ll pay us back for all that lumber and winding up $3000 in debt with no freaking recourse. And, if more of us who do act in good faith work to protect that good faith, we can all breathe a little easier in the future.

And the streets will be made of cheese.

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What was that Geena Davis Movie again?

February 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

About six months ago, I had enough. I was a company member at three theaters and serving as the web master for all three. What was astounding to me was the sheer repetition of the tasks and conversations all three companies were having:

“What kind of mailing list management software can we use to e-blast our patron list?”

“What ticketing service should we use, or should we build our own?”

“What should our process be for recruiting board members?”

“How can we more effectively distribute postcards?”

“Are posters worth the price?”

“Is being a member of the League of Chicago Theaters worth the annual membership fee?”

Deja vu became a way of life.

And I thought: There’s a reason why this is happening. Our theater companies aren’t communicating and sharing best practices with each other. Why not? The League question especially really bothered me. I looked up their mission – have you read their mission? It goes:

The League of Chicago Theatres (LCT) is an alliance of theaters which leverages its collective strength to promote, support and advocate for Chicago’s theater industry locally, nationally and internationally. The League of Chicago Theatres Foundation (LCTF) is dedicated to enhancing the art of theater in the Chicago area through audience development and support services for theaters and theater professionals.

Hot Damn! That’s what I was looking for. But why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t the League providing leadership – or the right kind of leadership – for storefront theaters?

I really tried to figure it out. I got it in my head that structurally they just couldn’t do it, because inevitably in a mix of LORT-sized theaters right down to itinerant theaters, representing the interests of individual small theaters just becomes overwhelming and frustrating. Storefront theaters are strapped for cash, self-centered and often very, very green in terms of how they administer themselves. They also can turn their organizations around on a dime and what they need one day is very different from what they need the next. That’s a recipe for Chaos Soup. It’s hard to get a small theater to even ask for help in a clear way, let alone ask for help in a way that can be provided.

So what would work? I got some friends – trusted colleagues with mutual respect – together over some take out thai and we brainstormed up some structures that would actually work to help storefronts learn faster and incorporate infrastructure more completely and lastingly. We talked about the possibility of splitting storefronts off from the league, and starting something new that simply represented and worked for storefronts and the specific infrastructural needs that storefronts represented. It would need to be built as more of a grassroots organization that could listen to the stated needs of companies and use experienced individuals to interpret solutions that could fix multiple problems with a minimum of effort.

It was at this meeting that the fatal flaw of such an organization became clear. There were five of us in the room, and we couldn’t agree on a flipping thing. New ideas were proposed, and then shot down emotionally. Babies were thrown out with bathwater because we had a room full of passion for change, but we didn’t have a clear survey and picture of the entire theater landscape. We had different priorities, and only enough time to deal with our own agendas.

I refocused. The passion that I discovered in the group was good, firey stuff, but the lack of traction was killing the momentum. We needed a better road map, and the initial idea to build momentum slowly by adding trusted colleagues and building a critical mass coalition was the root of a flawed concept. We didn’t need secrecy and safety, we needed a big, public call to action, and pretty much total transparency every step of the way. People don’t trust people or organizations that carry hidden agendas – no matter how benevolent those agendas may be – and that lack of trust will kill any traction that a movement has before it even begins.

So I started a blog. And others have already been blogging. That’s the clarion call right there. And having an open public dialogue has worked as a strategy – long-time bloggers are noticing a change in the tone of dialogue, increased readership and coverage.

One of the most regular readers has been Ben Thiem of the League. Last week he and I sat down to compare notes and see how we – and you – can pool our efforts to build something better for the community.

What became clear immediately to me in our meeting is that the League is willing and even eager to improve and streamline the resources they offer, but the financial and human resources are not there to back it up. The last few years of the League has seen its staff shrink considerably, and marketing budget dry up to almost nil. The initiatives keep trickling, but without time or the money to buy time, they falter before they have time to build up steam. Making that worse (and Ben’s the first to say so) is a closed and bottlenecked system for providing the most valuable resource that the League supplies – information. What Ben does all day now is answer individual emails from theater companies and manually copy their information over to a website database, or look up the answer and get back to someone. In the era of dynamic web services and collaborative content management, that crap has got to end.

That was the second thing that Ben made very clear to me – the League wants and welcomes help and input, but doesn’t currently have a mechanism other than email blasts and their website to spread and build information. That’s why the information coming from the League can seem weak – because it’s bottlenecked coming up, and bottlenecked going out.

That’s where we all can help. The biggest idea that came from my Storefront League pals is that Storefront theaters are rich with a single resource – volunteer time. As projects like Dan Granata’s uber-list of Chicago Theaters and Missions has demonstrated, a lot of us have a reasonable amount of free time on our hands that can be used to create or compile useful knowledgebases and information that can help a lot of people. What we are lacking is coordination. In the last week I’ve been invited to three different (and all well-intentioned) Ning groups and facebook pages and blog comments feeds that are all trying to do the same thing in a different back corner of the internet. We need a system to pool these individual initiatives and hours of volunteer time into a coordinated, accessible, and centralized resource. And we need that system of collaboration to not generate animosity and degrade our willingness to cooperate. It needs to be open, public, and built on a foundation of inclusion, and that will make it less likely to fall apart like previous initiatives that go back to the founding of Second City.

Blogs alone don’t succeed here, because they are not a collaborative tool. They are mouthpieces, or in orchestral terms, trumpets. They’re useful to get attention on a cause, but if we have any hope of getting this marching band rolling, we’re gonna need some other instruments and we’re going to need to use them for what they’re designed to do.

The League gets this, but isn’t currently built with grassroots momentum and coordination in mind. It has several major programs in the works, including a long-term plan to overhaul their website and create a “web 2.0″ site featuring user-updated content. This is where I kind of went all giddy, because to me the goal is to let the computers and the internet duplicate our work, not the league. I’m so sick of forms filled out in triplicate it’s making my eyes cross – it’s a waste of everybody’s time. What I’d eventually love to see is a single place where the community buzz can build up and people can share their news and coordinate with each other on their own terms. A Moveon.org / Facebook / IMDB / Wikipedia for Chicago Theater. A network of RSS news feeds that allow theaters to update their website and the league website in the same keystroke. A place where audience members can check out the collected works of artists and thereby become more involved and engaged in following their future career. A place where theaters can coordinate and enlist help from new-to-town volunteers who need inroads into the community. Something that generates excitement, knowledge, buzz, and community involvement in one place, for everyone in the community regardless of budget.

The first step is going back to the initial need – we need to build a place where theaters can discuss, develop, share and implement best practices. Right now. At the same time, I think we need to learn to dance the collaborative dance with each other again, in an environment that isn’t as combative as the blogosphere. We need an initiative that can prove to ourselves and to the League that storefront theaters and the artists that work in them are capable of creating incredibly valuable infrastructure for the whole organization, simply by talking and capturing our ideas in a centralized resource. Best of all, I think that resource already exists, and is only missing our involvement: The League of Chicago Theaters Wiki.

Do you know about something that some people don’t know about? Write it in the wiki. Do you have a question that you can’t seem to find the answer to? Ask it as a stub article in the wiki. Have you fastidiously compiled a list of resources that could be valuable information for other people? Plop it in the Wiki. Want to help, but don’t know what you could contribute of value? Write a comment below, and I’ll tell you specifically what articles you can get on, or talk to your theater colleagues and come to an agreement about what your company could spend some time on that could benefit us all. Make it a habit to donate 15 minutes of your time a day or an hour a week updating and adding useful information during your boring day job. Go through pre-existing articles and add footnotes and support materials. If something is just plain wrong, give your own perspective, or learn from the other perspectives out there. Think about what things would make a knowledgebase useful to you and your theater, and make sure that the wiki has those things. Develop the information, and encourage anyone who is new to town and eager to start their own company to learn the context of their new enterprises by going to the wiki and doing some good ol’ one-stop-shopping research.

To get you started: Last night, I saved a list of League Member Theaters complete with [[wiki links]] to create summary pages for each of these organizations. I’m also reorganizing the Resource Guide page to match a more traditional theater administration structure – Marketing, Development, Production, etc. If you regularly work as say, a props designer, this gives you a logical place to create pages for Thrift Store links and a link to the props designer list serve. When in doubt, save yourself some time by linking to external sites that you know to have quality information. The idea of a wiki is that the information is alive, and the community powering it keeps the information current and honest – and therefore valuable. It shouldn’t burn you out – if it’s working it should actually generate excitement and possibility for you and your organization. Many hands make light work.

If we’re successful, our work will open the eyes of the League and bigger players in town. Connections will be cemented. If we succeed in creating a valuable resource and they still can’t value our collective time, we’ll still have that resource – the mechanism of collaborative action, not the wiki – and we can take it with us and build what we need. My suggestion to Ben, which he obviously can’t sell to the League until an alternate income source is generated, is a time trade for young theater companies – rather than paying a hefty membership fee, young theaters should be able to earn League membership through volunteer service. I think we can convince them that that’s a good idea if we can demonstrate that our volunteer time is valuable, and that the wealth of the community isn’t at all about cash flow. The wealth of the community is everyone in it, including the people who aren’t connected yet.

The wiki is also a logical next step to developing and exercising the dialogue that has been generated on theater blogs in the last few months. It’s where the rubber starts to meet the road, and there’s more on the way once we see what falters and what works. I think the current dialogue is getting bogged down in theoretical policy discussions, because blogs encourage theoretical policy discussions. Wikis and forums encourage other kinds of dialogue – A wiki is a knowledgebase, an online library with no due dates. A forum is a place where ideas stick, can be picked up and developed, but nothing gets forgotten in the ol’ RSS news cycle. If you’d find a forum to be useful, I’ll put one together tomorrow, but again, my goal is to unify the conversation rather than fracture it further.

To those of you reading this from outside Chicago – I don’t think I’m excluding you here. I think developing a lasting infrastructure works best from the bottom up, so I think it’s good practice to start local. The things we learn here in Chicago have the potential to quickly change the way theater is done in the entire country.

There’s so many other programs that are in the pipeline and several upcoming initiatives from the League that you’ll want to hear about. I think this post is long enough, but keep your ears to the ground, and stay involved.

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White Hot Grease Fires of Pure Entertainment

February 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

I learned something today. Definitively.

It’s not about money. It’s about energy.

Don’s right… we can’t succeed if we simply copy the corporate model. The corporate model is hideously inefficient, and it wears theaters out because corporations can solve problems with new hires. We will never have that luxury, and that means that corporate strategy can’t just be bandaided in place into an arts organization.

Adam’s right … ignoring the lessons and practices of the corporate model is foolhardy. They’ve solved a lot of problems and generated nearly all of the infrastructure we rely upon to both do business and create art, and every time we look at the non-profit or corporate model we can cull something incredibly valuable from it, even if we’re creating an entirely new model.

What we need to do is innovate with the current structure as a starting point, and commit to that innovation. We need to emulate, not copy, the successful practices of corporate America or the great LORT successes of the past, use our very very limited energy and action wisely and dare I say cooperatively, and where we can help America and Chicago rediscover itself is in the quality, honesty, and vitality of our product: Ideas, story, and humanity.

It pays off. Quick.

Tonight, Cindy Crescenzo (who I’ve never met or talked to before this evening’s Theater Dish event on podcasting sponsored by the League of Chicago Theaters) used New Leaf’s blog and podcast as an example of what to do and how to talk about yourself using new media when you have almost no resources.

Marsha and I just about had a heart attack. I have the numbers to prove it: Cindy is one of ELEVEN people who have downloaded the podcast to date, and it’s made that big of an impact in two weeks. Because it is something new, and something different. And yet, it’s not – it’s simply having a more honest conversation in a forum where people aren’t yet comfortable having an honest conversation.

Thanks for the shout out, Cindy, and for those of you just tuning in: Let’s get started.

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Yes, Rob Kozlowski, There IS a Santa Claus

December 26, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I was reading through Rob Kozlowski’s Christmas Wishlist for Chicago Theater and I was struck by Item#5:

Make every Chicago theatre company work with each other to make sure they don’t share opening nights. Critics want to see your shows. They really do.

Everyone – EVERYONE – I’ve talked to on every side of the theater community about how Chicago Theater works, Opening Night conflicts and the lack of cross-theater company coordination is always on the complaint list… it’s usually one of the first things mentioned, since it seems so easy to accomplish.

Well, no time like the present, right? Let’s get this DONE as part of our collective New Year’s resolutions. I’ve created a public Google Calendar for this purpose (see below to subscribe and post your own theater’s information!), but in the spirit of collaborative transparency and getting the ball rolling, I’m going to include the thought process behind the strategy.

Getting even a quorum – let alone a majority – of theaters to use any sort of half-baked system is difficult. There’s a number of possible strategies to make something like this work and get past the hurdles inherent in how the community does and doesn’t talk to each other. The best example of how difficult getting theaters onboard with a common system is the fact that the League of Chicago theaters already has such a calendar that not enough people know about, let alone use. In fact, the first I’d heard of the calendar was in doing the obligatory google search during the writing of this post. Apparently Rob and several other friends who work all the time in LOCT member theaters had never heard of the calendar, so that tells us something about how well it is utilized. I think this is because there are a couple of downfalls of the the League’s solution to the problem, which I’m hoping a Google Calendar-based system will alleviate.

1) This needs to be dirt-simple, and something that everyone has access to (or even something they ALREADY have access to)

Google calendar isn’t exactly dirt-simple, but it is something that a large section of the theater community either knows how to use or can learn easily with benefits beyond just being able to read this calendar. Edited to add some additional how-to info to help theaters add their dates quickly and easily, see bottom of post

Also making this simple? This calendar is just for this one thing – You tell me your dates, and I’ll tell you mine. However, it can also be used for several ends – feel free to include your venue’s address and your show web page since this is public and Google-searchable. We may eventually be able to find hard-core theater goers subscribing to this calendar to see nothing but opening nights (or opening weekends), which could be a huge boon in the ongoing effort to get people to see a show early in the run and generate word of mouth. No promises, of course, but like any web tool: the more people use it, the more results.

2) The system needs to be both totally accessible and reasonably free of abuse. If every theater company in town can’t update their information, it won’t work. If a single theater company or user floods the calendar with off-topic or useless information, the system will cease to be trusted, and user enlistment will dry up, making the information stale and unworthy.

This is a little harder to achieve with Google Calendar, and will probably have to work itself out with time and more users. Adding an event to a public calendar is fairly easy. The simplest method is to send your opening night info to an editor, like me (any other volunteers?), and we’ll post your event on the calendar. Since overlapping fundraisers have also been a problem for most theater companies, I’ve made the calendar for one-night-only opening nights and special events. But keeping the calendar well-edited is a further challenge. The basic principle that I believe in is: the more honest users who are able to edit the information, the more trustable the information. With that in mind, I can give editing privileges to any member of the theater community who wants to help keep track of this information. Ideally, we’d have a representative from every theater company able to edit their opening nights.

But this opens up some difficulties with editors not playing nice with each other. Wikipedia’s travails with both commercial spam entries and entry vandalism in recent years with web research have greatly publicized both the need for group editorial guidance and simple self-restraint. I figure, when a problem child theater decides to post every single night of their run, we can come down with some gentle and then more firm editorial guidance. Or, we start with fewer editors and encourage individual theater companies to post their opening nights by sending invites to those theater editors… a little more complicated, but the goal here is rock solid, trustable data at all times.

3) The system needs to offer a subscription service.

Subscriptions? Check. Google Cal is designed on group collaboration principles, and also can send updates to your local Outlook or iCal applications. As information changes, you know those changes, and it’s always online so all it takes is a quick web lookup while you’re planning your season schedule. Also, if you use an online calendar on a regular basis, a subscribable calendar will tend to remind you of its existence on a regular basis, and will avoid the fate of the dusty League calendar.

4) Everyone needs to know about it. Even if the information is complete because I’ve done some research and posted some other theater companies’ opening nights just to have some good info there, this calendar will really only do any good in the spring to summer when theater companies really start nailing down firm dates for their season.

That’s up to you, dear reader. I’ve got my people, and I’ll be letting them know. But let’s make the information good, the system trustable, and tell our friends who can use this info.

This is also the perfect first step towards strengthening this cross-company dialogue I mentioned earlier – and that Kris Vire celebrates in his Performink Year-End Wrap up (thanks for the shout out, Kris!) I don’t mean to harp on the League in this blog post, by the way – they offer a lot of underutilized services to small theaters, and I applaud their efforts a lot of the time. But sometimes I think they don’t get the concept of leveraging the resources they have to achieve bigger results, and this is definitely one of those cases. And frankly, I don’t have the personal resources yet to make Chicago known as an international hub of the Theatrical Art, and I’d rather they focus on solving that problem rather than this kind of ephemera.

My big New Years resolution this year is to explore more behind-the-scenes work that I can do to strengthen the community as a whole, so I think monitoring how we can use web tools like blogs and google calendar in increasingly collaborative ways will be a big part of making that dialogue happen. I hope you’ll join me.

New how-to information: After troubleshooting the way Google Calendar works the adding of events to a public calendar, I have a pretty simple solution worked out for most folks. Follow the following steps:

1) If you deal with multiple theater companies and would like a hand in editing this data long term (yeah, super users!) I can share the calendar with you and you’ll be able to make changes to ANY event on the calendar. We’ll call you folks administrators. Or ambassadors. Maybe I can come up with some kind of commemorative pin and hat combo.

2) For most theaters, especially those already using Google Calendar or a compatible calendaring service, simply create your event (including your show’s webpage URL, the address of the venue, and the date and time of the performance or event, and invite calendar@nikku.net as a guest. I’ll get that invite, and copy that event into the master calendar. Any administrator can do the same, so if/when that happens, I’ll give you a couple options.

3) If none of the above work for you, we still need your info. Just send calendar@nikku.net an email with the same information – Show Name, Date & Time, URL, and Address – and I’ll get it up there as soon as possible.

Finally, and most importantly: set your favorite calendaring application to subscribe to the calendar to keep updated on the latest opening night dates:

Through Google:

Or Subscribe in iCal with this link

or Subscribe to the XML feed

Happy New Year, and happy calendaring.

Thanks for the link fix, Michael

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Using all the Parts of the Pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just go to strike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago

November 21, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

Oh, if we only didn’t need money and could focus on art, right?

There’s been a number of creative web fundraising ideas floating around the storefront community – and theaters have been doing a pretty good job copycatting the ones that are easy to use (though it’s still unclear which ones are most financially effective for arts organizations).  There’s those good ol’ web marketplace affiliate programs like CafePress.com or Amazon Associates – where your patrons shop through your site for swag or targeted products or just plain anything – and the e-marketplace gives you a cut.

More recently, major search engines have gotten into the non-profit fundraising game and created programs like GoodSearch.com which donates a portion of its ad revenue to non-profits that send users their way instead of Google. And (perhaps in retaliation?) Google created Google Grants, which sort of works like free AdWords for non-profits and increases exposure. 

There’s never a truly free ride, of course. Affiliate programs are partially there for the benefit of the affiliate, but there’s a much bigger profit to be had in having minions convert their (high-value disposable-income-weilding) patrons into big, giant streams of fresh, flaming consumerism. As I described in Part I, these programs only generate reasonable sums of money for the affiliate when you start amassing a great big critical mass of users on your own, and before that happens, it’s just a trickle.  

But, Chicago Storefront Theaters don’t have a lot of resources to chase that money, so they participate in these programs on a small scale because they require very little effort beyond the initial setup. A little easy money is better than staring into the void of funding a show on the ensemble’s collective credit cards.

About five months ago, Chicago businessman (and actor) Steve Misetic decided to throw his hat into this ring.  Like most Chicago Theater cheerleaders, Steve was frustrated with the way that Chicago Arts Organizations often have to fight with the rest of the country for the attention of our local big businesses. He noticed that theater companies were throwing their patrons’ money to e-commerce companies in California, while local businesses spend ad money with national firms, and both seemed the poorer for it. The result of this frustration – his brainchild SaveChicago.org (which launches this Friday) – was modeled on the success of other affiliate programs and the success of locally powered sites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.  The basic idea, in his words:  

SaveChicago.org is the first online marketplace where local merchants and local consumers are able to find each other on the Internet.

SaveChicago.org mobilizes the audiences of non-profit organizations into a unified consumer demographic as members of SaveChicago.org.

Local merchants then pay to reach this first ever critical mass of local consumers on the internet.
SaveChicago.org then gives 50% of the money these merchants spend back to the non-profit groups who’ve helped us mobilize these consumers.

SaveChicago.org keeps local advertising dollars local and sustainable by re-injecting the money back into our local economy via non-profit organizations, instead of letting the money escape into Silicon Valley.

The website we have built is a completely state-of-the-art e-commerce site that basically does to local advertising what Ebay did to garage sales. We’re putting local businesses together with local consumers and splitting the money with non-profit organizations. No one has figured out how to do local advertising on the internet until now.

If this sounds at all convoluted, it’s because Steve is trying to bring together three very divergent groups together with a common marketing strategy – local merchants, local shoppers, and at this point, even the non-profits that the site is designed to support. His mission, other than the glory of saving chicago theater and culture forever, is to generate those deliciously sustainable and work-free revenue streams for non-profits on a local level – hopefully to the levels they require to turn off the fundraising (aka “begging”) bullhorn and regain some long-forgotten sense of dignity. He’s also learning the PR and marketing and e-commerce games as he goes (with professional PR support and a killer web developer), and trying to bring together two e-commerce models that haven’t worked together thus far – local savings sites like craigslist and national affiliate programs like Google AdWords – with the goal of creating a revenue loop that feeds back on itself and grows the local ad money pie for the benefit of organizations that can do some good with it.

All this wrangling, courting, and dreaming big has I think created a very interesting situation on the eve of SaveChicago’s launch – at least from my vantage point outside the down-and-dirty planning – and there’s a couple big challenges ahead for the site in its infancy. The first hurdle is to demonstrate a clear need in the community – not a need to support the arts, but a need for shoppers to find deals and for merchants to find those shoppers. Without this incentive, the whole growth mechanism falls apart – Google and craigslist built that kind of national name recognition after years of providing free, innovative services that were more convenient than the phone book and classified ads, respectively. In his initial planning, Steve envisioned companies like Starbucks spending their advertising dollars on his site to reach local shoppers. Put that way, there’s no reason for Starbucks to buy in to website marketing when they’re already reaching plenty of customers right on the street. To generate that need, Steve has created an Angie’s List-esque membership program for shoppers and promised deep discounts from member merchants that can’t be found elsewhere to those members. And Neo-Futurist and SaveChicago.org groupie Mary Fons points out, the merchants that will be the biggest beneficiaries of a program like this will likely be that mom-and-pop cafe down the street that need to get you to patronize them instead of Starbucks.

The second hurdle to make a system like this work is one that papa Google and uncle Craigslist actually created pretty organically, over time – a critical mass of market share. For merchants to want to give these secret, targeted discounts, they need to know that the people using SaveChicago.org will grow their businesses. That kind of patronage doesn’t grow overnight, which creates a third hurdle: To help grow the patron base, Steve will be leaning on the member arts organizations to help promote the site and drive traffic, patrons, and merchants his way, at least until the ad revenue is self-sustaining.

And the biggest hurdle of all? Convincing all three groups that SaveChicago is a brand worthy of their trust. Chicago Theaters are actually quite conservatively-minded businesses for the most part… their risk tends to be small (though proportionally huge to their income), and they tend to feed their creativity into the product, but not so much the actual making of money. The reactions from other industry types that I talked with to Steve’s initial volley of e-mails promoting the site were skeptical at best, and Steve’s language (which was still being retooled for branding and positioning, and of course betrayed his intense personal excitement) didn’t always help:

Subject: SaveChicago.org to make fund-raising obsolete: Launching November 23rd

Could you imagine getting checks in 2011 from a Fund-raising drive completed in 2008?
Take 5 minutes to register your non-profit with SaveChicago.org and earn recurring income from a one-time fund-raising effort.
no cost – no obligation
Launching on November 23rd, 2007

Savechicago.org is the first company in history to attempt to consolidate the supporters of non-profit organizations in order to create the “critical mass” needed to generate real advertising dollars. We want non-profits to stop begging local businesses for the 5% of their ad budget they feel obliged to donate to charity every year. We’ll get you access to the other 95%.

When the spam filters didn’t whisk away his audience, phrasings like “No cost – no obligation” sparked interest but didn’t inspire confidence, despite his best intentions. Since then, Steve has hired a PR rep and refined and focused his language a bit, which will make his merchant patrons a lot happier and his non-profit beneficiaries a lot more trusting. The first checks will also help to change that tune as well. Smirk.

So what does Steve have going for him? Some folks are already way on board, with a non-profit member list that already includes several high schools, hospitals and churches, hotshot neighborhood development organizations like Rogers Park’s DevCorp North, and a few representatives of the theater scene, including Barrel of Monkeys, Rivendell, The Artistic Home, and Raven, which has never shied away from closer neighborhood involvement. Steve’s also aware of what he’s up against. Which always helps.

Plus? I think his idea is truly innovative and creative. If he can manage to implement it, he will at the very least create a locally-based version of an AdWords-like system, even if that doesn’t immediately translate into flowing rivers of cash for his affiliates. That “local” part of the business model is huge – if you’ve ever bought or sold anything through craigslist, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole human, dare I say theatrical, element to the transaction because at some point you’re not just exchanging money and goods, you’re coming into contact with a stranger. The time I sold my old iPod to a craigslister was, while brief, an incredibly exciting day for both of us. I used the cash to upgrade to a video model, and I left most of my music on the old one. And I have A LOT of music, so the buyer pretty much jumped up and down at the deal he got. That kind of excitement can only happen on a local level.

There’s a spark of something here – local cooperation, a spirit of being neighbors – that I think needs to continue even if Steve’s web experiment doesn’t pan out. Steve is also going to need to work his butt off to build that trust and enlist help. I know I moved to Chicago because of idealism like that, and I applaud Steve for thinking really big, and taking the big risk. I think there’s a potential renaissance out there for Chicago Theater and interdisciplinary arts, but it will take a big spark and plenty of fuel – and that means we need to build that fire together and share the wealth.

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I wish we had a League of Awesomeness

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

the LoAAbout a year ago, I started getting addicted to The Show by ZeFrank, a hilarious video podcast that served as the front end for a growing online community that built collaborative art projects such as the Earth Sandwich and Craft the Ugliest MySpace Page.

The Remixes for Ray struck me as a project that had big huge possibilities for theater. The story of Ray is pretty simple… Some guy recorded a short clip of a song (with the lyrics “I’m about to whip somebody’s ass”) and sent it to his daughter to cheer her up at work. He probably sent it to a few too many recipients, and suddenly the clip landed on YouTube. In this episode, Ze and his league of loyal viewers find this clip, and generate buzz to create not only musical remixes of the the little ditty, but a pretty kickass collaboratively-built video as well.

THEN… they find the original Ray, somehow, (don’t ask me… they only had his first name and that he was somewhere in North America) and PRESENT the remixes and video too him. Lives were changed forever, and there was much rejoicing.

All these projects are theater… they get the audience involved in the action, they have an arc of thought to build to the payoff of presentation. They often feel more like theater than sitting in a chair for two hours and listening to cell phone vibrations and crinkling cellophane.

Ze dubs his loyal followers “sports racers” and the secret community of really kickass creative and life-loving folk that he wants to be a part of “The League of Awesomeness.” It’s a little Colbert Report in its sheer playful audacity. I look at our community of storefront theaters, and its League… and I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for audacious cooperation and co-inspiration there. Hot Tix and Theater Thursdays are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t exactly get the groundlings jumping.

As much as I’m jealous of their catapult to success, this is where I feel the House deserves their media cred. Walking in to their theater, you feel like you’ve been invited into a secret society. High Jacobean Drama this is not – they’ve got a lot of the flash, and I wish they were more disciplined storytellers (and more conscientious community builders – though they certainly have enough on their plate), but I will never fault them for not knowing how to create a little buzz of excitement and anticipation about seeing some theater. Secret Order of the Magic Pearl indeed. (I feel manipulated, and (yes, I love Heroes.))

People roll their eyes when I say maybe there’s a way to create an online community or collaboration network for these kind of audience-energizing projects and works… when I say crap like that, I don’t mean more myspace, facebook, blogosphere self-promotion. The weariness generated by the theater community’s blind and desperate self-promotion is a real problem, and a topic for another time. I’m talking about the things that Ze did – for free – in his year of the show.

Take a look through his archives of the show, you won’t be disappointed. Dream More, Work Less, Whip Somebody’s Ass.

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