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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Raise Money. When No Money Comes: Save Money.

March 06, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, Teachable Moments

I have been thinking about this for a couple weeks now:

I love About Face. Their work is important. Their youth program is solid, and yes, I’d agree that it is unique. Inarguably About Face created several of the best long-running works I’ve seen in Chicago: I Am My Own Wife and Winesburg, Ohio. And there are a lot of others that I missed.

But. I cannot help raise $300,000 for About Face. Other than by drawing your attention to it, as many others have this week. If you can help, you should. But I’ve been trying for what seems like years to raise even $10,000 for my home theater, and that has never easy for a theater of our size under normal economic conditions. And I know from among other things the League Fiscal Survey that About Face is not alone and will not be alone in the coming months. I am imagining, right now, a sea of $300,000 pledge drives and that. just. will. not. work.

I get the pain, even if I don’t really understand of the specific conditions. There was this particular day I visited the offices of the soon-to-shutter Famous Door theater after the run of Great Society that I had worked on, days before they started rehearsals for their last production. This was a company that still inspires me, years later, for their seminal production of Cider House Rules that introduced me to Chicago theater – and what Chicago Theater could be. This particular day the tone in the office was… demoralized. Framed pictures were piling on desks. I remember that. No one was moving out… yet. But preparations were in effect. There was big debt being talked about in rumors. The managing director sheparded into a closed office a last-ditch group of independant funders. It was gut-wrenching to watch a theater that I loved break apart. I wish they had as a company reduced their overhead to a manageable level before they had to cease and burn out. Instead, they seemed to do what was best for the people in the company… dismantle the company to allow everyone to pursue their incredible acting careers.

This is not an idea I enjoy writing. It is a moment of support through challenge:

I can hear the furious typing of reprioritized budgets, and backup plans set in motion. Remember what we all know: we should support most what makes our work live most. (Hint: it’s the people, it’s not the office, the furniture.) It’s only partly the space, though we need to support the venues that support us just as if they were a company member. It’s the work, it’s not the size of the production budget. It is that ability to connect with students in your education program and teach them in a lasting way. You may not be able to pay the people, but find new ways to support and connect with your artists.

We must, must, must, must, must, must, must adapt or we will die. That starts with rationing. This is a climate change for the arts. If we are a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg we can do four things:

– Wait it out. And drown.

– Panic. And drown.

– Phone a prominent national zoo for a helicopter rescue and a cushy but ultimately transformed life as a toothless and contained exhibit in a museum. And hope they pick up the phone before we count all our unhatched chickens.

– Swim to the nearest rocky outcropping before we float away into open ocean and learn to bite through tough Walrus hide. As if our life depended on it.

Survival is more important than the Money.

Here is a list of things I am doing to help my collaborators continue to do the work they do in the face of nightmare scenarios. I have no resources to my name other than time, connections to other awesome people, and ingenuity. So I know these ideas don’t require significant amounts of money. Post your own additions in the comments:

– Unemployed? Spend your time learning new skills. I am training about five people right now about skills that are marketable beyond the arts., and as you can tell from that link, have already gotten some dividends on that training in a little over a year. HTML, PHP, Ruby on Rails Web Programming, Graphics Design, Podcast recording and production, DVD authoring. It is HARD to learn while you’re unemployed. It is hard to battle through the feeling of personal whatever to make small steps of progress again. So latch on to people who know skills like and beyond these, make them breakfast, and learn from them as if your life depends on it. Think about the possibilities you can tap into: there is an expanding market right now for highly-skilled freelancers as full-time coders and records. It’s not a pretty situation any way you slice it, but I’ve seen theater workers, who need these skills anyway to support their primary work, bring a unique and attractive creative energy to technological and design work. It’s vastly easier than managing the logistics of creating theater (yeah, I said it, eat that private sector) and in the right proportions will support the work rather than sap time away from it.

– Fighting an uphill battle against the tide alone? Collaborate. No collaboration can stand without building a trustful relationship first. Be dependable and depend on others. Theaters all need to face this problem three days/months/years ago, and each theater is still coming up with solutions in their own private laboratory. For the love of god, there’s a reason why the medical community publishes their work. Share your thoughts, plans, and goals with other theaters towards the end of mutual support. Get specific, get vocal, get transparent. Those seem to be the traits that are rewarded by community attention right now. Perhaps itemize what specific line items your $300,000 fund drive will go to support. There is often a $5,000 solution to a $20,000 problem… if many eyes are on the lookout, you’ll find it faster. Also, on a really basic level – talking out your problems with your peers provides all kinds of psychological support that helps nurture creative problem solving.

– Closing down the office? Where will we have in-depth creative discussions? Where can we focus our energy? I’ve explored the low-cost possibilities of public spaces, online forums, and all the wonderful breakfast joints this town has to offer for a more efficient kind of collaboration. And you know what, it’s hard, but it works.

For more on this problem as it relates to Chicago Theatre, listen to this analysis / Q&A from Justin Kaufmann, Jonathan Abarbanel & Kelly Kleiman at WBEZ.

I’ll say it one last time (since it is a mantra):

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World Theatre Day: Coming to Chicago?

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

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

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

Sometimes it just falls into your lap.

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

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

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

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

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

Simplicity will be key.

Damn Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Things Done on Twitter

February 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

It took me a while to get my sea legs, but the past few days has me settled on a response to Ian’s query on Praxis Theatre.

One of the most clear uses of the Twitter network is to solve problems. Unlike blogging, which is about thinking, exploring, deepening the discussion, my favorite uses of the Twitter format have been about getting quickly unstuck and taking collective action.

In the past 48 hours, the fast-growing and largely international theater Twittmob has been used to discover connections, shared interest, and get some very interesting things accomplished:

Selling / Reusing / Trading old props
Gathering momentum behind national political action
Comparing notes on how to take better headshots
Announcing newly available same-night discount tickets
Organizing and Spreading the word about various details of upcoming International Theater Events
Connecting with like-minded strangers
Making after-show plans quickly and efficiently
Notifying next of kin that you’re narrowly evading the path of a tornado

To someone who’s never used (and often refused to try) Twitter before, one of the most powerful and least understood features of the format is the way a Twitter tribe will use hashtag searches to quickly expand the network of people looking at or working on a Tweet.

Under normal circumstances, if you post:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone know how to fix?”

The only people you’ll be asking are those already following you… all your friends who also don’t know the first thing about plumbing. But make a simple change:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone have any tips on #plumbing?”

Twitter automatically links your tweet to the #plumbing search page, which is watched by a wider group of interested users. I’ve found those users / power lurkers to be more engaged, more connected, and more able to communicate through social networks than the average blogger, which I suppose is not surprising.

It’s not all made of Awesome on the Twitter, though. You may have felt (as I did about rereading my own early blog posts) that new bloggers go through a phase of self-absorbed perspectives as they begin to immerse themselves in (or distance themselves from) a larger blogging community. Twitter being a much younger technology than blogs, there is sometimes a similar, tiring emergent behavior. New Twitterers (and their eager mentors) spend a great deal of time on Twitter talking about how great Twittering is. Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I type this. Think about the rush of excitement and simultaneous trepidation you felt when you first SMS texted a friend or family member. You’d get seventeen messages from your Aunt Suzy the next day saying “Im Txting U at the Grocry Stor!” Deep breath, and then we move on.

Just as there is a somewhat accepted online etiquette in play in emails, web authoring, blog commenting, and in texting, there will eventually be an accepted etiquette that emerges from the Twitter community. It’s not quite there yet, so it’s a bit like the wild west right now… everyone is looking to stake out a plot of land with their donkey, and everyone goes about it in kind of their own wonky, loud way.

What is different – and exciting – about the Twitter format is the disciplined structure and its ability to focus and discipline conversation. A 140 character limit means it’s harder for a single conversant to suck all the oxygen out of a conversation. That means Twitter offers opportunites that complement the opportunities of blogging or Facebook – but on Twitter it’s going to be easier to be heard, it’s easier to collaborate, it’s easier to filter content, and it’s quicker to get results – especially if you have clear questions and you know who you need to ask.

This post was made possible by a cup of diner joe that I enjoyed thanks to @TravisBedard. He’s an awesome blogger, so you should check out his stuff, and follow him on Twitter. That way you’ll be there to catch the brilliance.

Update: Check out @dramagirl‘s post on generating useful discussions on Twitter.

Update the Second: Steve Greer at read write play has created a great resource, especially for you non-twitterers out there: A blog that sifts through tweets and pulls out things to read in the #theatre feed!

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Holy Crap, Hal is in my Computer

January 25, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

After disconnecting my speakers from my macbook, I noticed that my built-in speakers were suddenly not working. On further inspection, I was very surprised to see a red light coming out of my headphone jack.

While it is technically a hardware failure, I was kind of amazed to see it. Apparently, the headphone jack can alternate as an optical sound output using an adapter like this one. I feel like a rube for not knowing about this beforehand. The best part? The digital signal this spits out is Surround-Sound Ready and it looks fairly pro-grade. I’m trying to find how many digital outputs this is capable of spitting out … I’ve seen some reports that it can handle 6.1 Surround, which is 7 discrete channels of audio. Not too shabby for not having an audio interface.

If you work for Apple or Applecare, this is all your fault. Now stop reading. Okay, everyone else: this red light issue might happen to you by accident if you’re as rough with your headphone jack as I am. If your macbook volume is suddenly not working, check for the red light. Never fear if the light does show up, just insert a mini cable or gently insert a toothpick into the port and wiggle around a bit, you should be able to relatch the output into place so that the digital output shuts off and the standard analog headphone jack (and your built in speakers) starts functioning again.

Just don’t be *too* rough. 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone jacks, while ubiquitous, are also a very flawed design. It’s very easy to bend an internal connection in these ports, rendering the jack useless. If you want to use the jack… yup, it’s pretty much new logic board time. Having done that a couple times during tech weeks, trust me: Avoid at all costs. So be gentle to your lappy. Maybe someday they’ll start making mini-XLR or Neutrik jacks for headphones, and we won’t have to worry so much. But they probably won’t be awesome enough to have an optional digital output.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

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

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Let’s Get together and Talk, Alright?

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

Why no bloggy bloggy? Because everyone in the THEATER-LOVIN’ WORLD has been over at Tony’s Joint, sittin’ on the sofa, talking about good work, bad work, content vs. form, and To MFA, Not To MFA, that is the Quandry.

It’s some very interesting food for thought, and if you’re a habitual theatrosphere lurker, it might be a nice and reasonably safe place to test out that $0.02 you’ve been dying to spend. The whole conversation is illuminating some new approaches to a theater-and-blogsophere disconnection problem – perhaps what our world needs now is more face-to-face and in-depth discussions of theater and why we love it and why we need it and how to make it better.

Along the same lines, thanks Tom and Dennis for your insightful and useful comments on my “Here’s a To Do List for Us” post. For those of you reading outside of Chicago, I don’t think anything truly bad (maybe just periodically disappointing) can happen from a locally-driven organization that connects the idealism of the TCG Mission (or any national-scale vision) with an on-the-ground grassroots infrastructure. It gets people talking and doing, and reconnected to other people that can help. The League of Chicago Theaters is a fairly established version of idea here in Chicago, but it’s so both ubiquitous and awkwardly-funded here that its grassroots aren’t always showing anymore. When it does connect theaters to programs that help them, it has proven incredibly successful, and you bet I’m thankful they’re working on our side.

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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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