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Three Can’t Miss Retrospectives

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, Uncategorized

Ever notice how it takes most of January to really process the previous twelve months?

Exhibit A – Ian and Simon from Praxis Theater and the Next Stage collaborate to give us a quick rundown of the events of the international theatrosphere (with a focus on Canada) of the past year – the year this little baby started to gurgle, crawl and periodically lose control of its bowels towards understanding, collaborating, and promoting theater in the context of our generation.

Exhibit B – New City Chicago posts today a list of the top 50 performers [in the theater-building sense] on the Chicago Theater scene. While it could also be titled “50 people I hope will hire or give me money” it can’t be argued that this is a list of people who have substantively built this city’s theatrical environment from the ground up, and their stories are all worth knowing about. While I’m kind of disappointed that Roche Schulfer only gets a footnote in Bob Falls’ mention (Roche has been the long-time architect of several key parts of the Goodman’s clearly successful financial strategy, programs within LORT, and the League of Chicago Theaters), it’s nice to see folks like side project artistic director Adam Webster get their due.

Exhibit C – Time Out Chicago’s Ten Most Wanted productions of Chicago Theater 2008. By the CTDB’s admittedly incomplete estimate, that’s out of at least 1,000 productions. What can I say? I think Chris and Kris care about where theater is going and even if you disagree with their specific preferences, it’s easy to see that they care about this community and its work – and the organizational health of both – even when they feel the need to skewer them.

My own lessons from 2008 –

1) Do fewer shows. Do them better.

2) Spend that extra time with friends and family. It’s also gotta be face to face, not simply facebook status updates, though those updates can be warm and fuzzy. These two things feed my work in ways I can’t always understand, but I know I need them.

3) Give focus to get focus. Or: This year, I’m hoping to continue smarter and increasingly better projects to promote other people’s work and by doing so I will get that feedback I need to make my own work sharper. We’ve got a fleet of new plays to get off the ground and that takes an all-in type of community to do the hardest work there is: connecting new audiences with the parts of the scene that they want to see but didn’t know where to find it.

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The Uberplaylist: Come Back to Rock You

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

As a sound designer, I like to really geek out when it comes to the fully integrating iTunes and the iPod. A couple years ago, I got really miffed at the limited number of ways that one can sort music during say, a commute. It’s pretty much creating an awkward on-the-go playlist – which doesn’t play nice with my preferred shuffling through tunes when I’m exploring unfamiliar music, or giving a song of one to five stars. As any theater critic will tell you, an appreciator of art needs a star rating system like a fish needs a bicycle.

You’re humming U2 now too, aren’t you?

But the star rating system on each iPod is the most accessible sorting mechanism on the fly, and you know what I have about five of? Moods. So I’ve assiged each star a mood, and created smart playlists that match the star rating and, like my own personal Pandora, I can now accrue songs with similar tones and energy levels into big honking Uberplaylists that I can return to when I need some familiar energy.

What are these moods?

One star: theatrical songs that will eventually be the sonic clay to my audio pottery.

Two stars: Pep. Great for all nighters and parties.

Three stars: Nostalgia. When I want a road trip to immediately feel like it’s being filmed for a movie like Garden state because I’m just that melancholy, voilà.

Four stars: Velocity. It’s crunch time, and I need to bang out some kick ass on a deadline? Would you believe that it’s time for some Jesus Jones b-sides?

And for days like this morning, Five stars: Come Back to Rock You. I’m telling you, devilvet: ’95 was a great year for music.

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Civic / Arts Partnerships in a time of Economic & Political Upheaval

November 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

My posts are what happens in the tight spaces between gigantic comments on other blogs.

We’re over at Don’s place today, as he sets off a first volley of discussion about real, working city & theater partnership models that should be proposed and refined and shopped to new and changing political administrations: right now.

Basically, the argument goes: the government will get more bang for its art-supporting community-organizing buck by supporting lots of small, local programs rather than a few massive ones. Here in Chicago, we have examples of several arts support programs in a microcosm that quickly pokes holes in arts admin ideology with healthy doses of arts reality. So the programs that have survived are often quite instructive, and we lay them out on the table for you.

Brilliant stuff, and I can’t think of a more apropos subject for the arts in an economic crisis. How do we serve the community, stay alive and vital, without being a burden?

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Plugging It.

November 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Shows

Let there be no mistake: If you are in or near the city of Chicago, you should see Six Years at New Leaf Theatre before it closes on November 22nd.

I’ll make it easy for you later in this post. But first let me make the case to you.

It’s not because the acting is superb. Though it is.

It’s not because Sharr White’s script is deeply resonant in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we started the rehearsal process. Though it is.

It’s not because we at New Leaf deeply care about fostering a dialogue with the entire theater community and theater-going public with our work. Though we do.

It’s not because New Leaf’s work is crafted and priced to be a high-value evening. Though it is, and this week Time Out Chicago has said as much with a big red star labeled “Cheap” next to our Critic’s Pick – a coveted prize that I can’t remember seeing on another show.

It’s not because bloggers are always Pay-What-You-Will at New Leaf. Though you are.

It’s not because this is your last chance. Though it is.

It is because Six Years begins a triptych season – an important season for a relatively small company – that asks the question “How do we build a future from a present that we didn’t expect?” It is a question that needs to be answered. Now. And we believe that our work offers an opportunity for our audiences to break open big questions like that in a new way – an entertaining way that engages and fosters conversations and thought for days after the show.

We ask that question three times this year, on three scales, in three shows: Once as a nation of families. Then as an individual, alone and without support. Then as a community, together. We ask it three times because when you ask a question like that, you need to feel the question out on several levels: The big picture, the local picture, and your own picture.

I hope you can make it. I want you to make it, and I’m eager to know what you think and what resonates with you. Because you are smart, and your opinion will inform my work.

This post was inspired by a great post that just popped up from my new second-favorite theater town in the world: Here’s looking at you, Vancouver.

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A Tip for Maintaining your Energy in the face of Adversity

November 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Never underestimate the capacity of human beings to be absolute shits to each other. And don’t let their behavior change yours.

I don’t invoke God very often in my life.

But MAY GOD BLESS Madelyn Dunham.

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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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Street Vendors make the best Lemonade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Rote

August 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

So Patrick said this:

There has been much discussion about the right of playwrights to demand adherence to every word and stage direction in their script. Some have gone so far as to claim that no-one has right of copyright on any aspect of production of their work except for the playwright. This growing movement of animosity against directors and designers should give one pause.

And Tony said this:

One clause that I can’t abide in a lot of non-licensing houses contracts is the one that states the playwright has authority to approve pretty much everyone working on a show. Because they are creative artists, the Dramatists Guild would have you think, they are the focal point of the creation of theatre. Everything onstage is their vision and everything is subservient to the writer.

But how creative is a playwright writing about–dare I say interpreting–their lives, current events, stories they’ve heard or come across? And how is this different from directors, actors, designers?

And Isaac said this:

There’s a number of separate issues this raises, and I think it conflates a couple that should be kept separate. The first one is simply the idea of gratitude and humility amongst collaborators. Couldn’t agree more. We are lucky to do this, and lucky to work with people who are also lucky to do this, …

To me, changing the text (and here I mean the spoken words, not the stage directions which is a separate and very muddy issue) of a play without the playwright’s permission is pretty near inexcusable. When we decide to do a script, we are agreeing to do the whole thing, and giving ourselves permission to change the text when we want to would open a whole Pandora’s Box that gets us very quickly down a slippery slope to censorship.

Now, it should be said that I work with Patrick, and indeed have collaborated with him on a project or two, so I’m sympathetic to what he’s saying here – I was there listening to the Horton Foote interview that inspired his post with him, and we compare notes a lot. So I understand his largely design and technical viewpoint and vocabulary and I have shared some common non-blogging experiences – including many times where a playwright has behaved in a way that damaged their own show. Or a director made choices that damaged a show. Or a designer made choices… well, you get the idea. I think we can all see these things coming, and sometimes the train wreck caused by ego or dogma is the only thing worth the price of admission. But it’s important to acknowledge that we all have blind sides to the ways that we can also be a hindrance to the process, and it’s often our professional dogma that creates those blinders.

Certainly a lot of the overreactive conversation that was generated from these posts – and which somehow both Patrick and Isaac tried to avoid – can be chalked up to the divisive mechanism that is blogging and commenting – it’s a rich topic with many facets and thus there was quite a bit of subject shift on to Horton Foote said this (he didn’t) or Copyright law dictates that. Blogs have agendas, and a lot of the conversation didn’t really gain traction.

What I saw here was a dawning understanding of how theater will be transforming during our generation. Playwrights are dissatisfied with the industry-standard process. Directors are dissatisfied. Designers and Technicians are dissatisfied. And dissatisfaction, as we all know, is a good thing to have in rehearsal for the real performance.

Tony followed up with a question that, I’ll be honest, bothered me a lot:

In the rhetorical battle for supreme dominance of theatre there are writers in one corner, directors in another, institutions in another, indy companies trying to hold down the fourth.

Where does that leave actors? Ya know, the only ones that actually are needed for theatre to happen?

Actors certainly have good reasons to be silent on this issue, since they like to work. I think that may ultimately speak to their foresight on the issue, which I’ll get to later. What bothers me about Tony’s question is that it continues the flawed assumption that the way to sustain the meagre power structure of theater is to separate playwrights, directors, performers, designers, and administrators into opposing camps that must check and balance with each other for artistic control. The underlying assumption that Patrick, Tony, and Isaac all seem to make for the convenience of making a point is that one can assume that any person filling a role such as playwright, director, designer, or actor, will be the primary or legitimate shepherd of the work. These guys don’t believe that those rules are absolute, I’m sure, and yet we seem to be separating the relationship of the playwright or the actor to their work to be fundamentally different from other artistic roles.

The person who should be allowed to shepherd the work is the person, collaborator, or team who is best able to understand and articulate the story through their craft, whatever it is. It can’t be assumed that the playwright will be that person, even if they wrote the words down. How often are the words in the way of telling the story? I have been in rooms where, objectively, the playwright is the one person who isn’t working to tell the same story as the rest of the team. And I understand how deflating that is, because I’ve been that person in the room as well. But in those cases the team is right to move the collective story forward. At least the playwright can license their work on to another theater and eventually see their vision realized. When my designs are ruthlessly cut – yes, sometimes without my knowledge or agreement – no one ever sees them and they cease to be. The work is lost. And if the work didn’t serve to tell that elusive story, it deserves to be lost.

Sometimes the story is best articulated by the audience. Batman & Robin remains one of my favorite yet still awful movies of all time, and it’s not because of the script, direction, acting, or those god awful costumes with latex nipples: It’s despite all that crap. It’s because I saw the movie in an empty theater with friends and we felt empowered to scream at the screen while the movie went on, creating a rich MST3K / Rocky Horror-esque performance to go along with the film.

And didn’t Brecht say something about that once?

I understand Isaac’s point that, well, free interpretation without notification is not how copyright works now. And that’s certainly a fair and accurate “best practices” point to make. But this was always a conversation about what should be, not what is today, so I feel like defying his impulse to quash this particular thread. This is a question of: What should be the policy that we fight for as we all journey together into uncharted waters of arts management in this nation’s history? When is the law or our personal dogma in the way of our work? I’d say: most of the time. I would like to work to make the law safe for artists to benefit from their work without being dogmatic about how a process is supposed to look or behave. One really promising area of exploration here is the emerging Creative Commons options for artistic licensing – a system that both protects the artistic intentions of artists while also allowing for financial protection and various levels of artistic freedom.

And so it’s ultimately it’s that gratefulness that Horton Foote has felt – the gratefulness that any of us get to collaborate with others who check our assumptions and push our work forward – that provides the richest environment for working. Gratefulness doesn’t mean complicity, and it doesn’t mean obedience, but it does mean respect. And when we are grateful for the presence of our collaborators, we drop the poisonous, clutching kinds of ownership and battle of ideas and the process gains a flow and a respect that serves the story. The process becomes less of a zero sum game and more like horticulture. Ideas grow in well-fertilized soil, and when shoots go off in the wrong direction, we don’t burn the plant with pesticide… we bend them back or trim them gently and let the damn thing continue to grow in a revised direction.

What I think Patrick was reacting to was that there are these emerging notions – or in some cases, entire schools – of self-righteousness in theater that make these odd claims along the lines of “where I stand is the center of the theatroverse.” There is this desire to create new paradigms for the theater, and those desires have begun spouting a whole bunch of inspiring but also scary-looking dogma. What I heard from Patrick was actually a call to reason – the fundamental idea that trust in collaboration – the most simple act of sharing ideas and impulses – and appreciation of that collaborative process will feed the work better than strict adherence to any given text, directorial theory, or design principle.

A while ago Isaac made the claim that the value of theater comes from collective imagination, and I have come to hold that as the fundamental principle behind effective theater – which I’ll define (poorly) as theater capable of changing a perspective. So: theater’s effectiveness isn’t generated by the words that the playwright selects for the play, or the way the actor says them, or the blocking and emotional beats that the director has arranged, or the music, scenery, lighting, costumes, puppets, projections or smells, or whether an audience member can sit without fidgeting for two hours. It is whether any of these people can for a moment create or spark an image in each others’ minds that makes the theater worth doing. And we should all find a way – and be permitted by a fair licensing scheme – to try to make those moments happen together.

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