Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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October 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments, Tools

Once more from the brink. Theater is what happens as you plan more theater.

The past few weeks have been some of the most hectic and challenging of my sound career, as we at the Goodman have put up not one but two enormous musicals, Turn of the Century and Million Dollar Quartet, which I’ll be happily mixing during its stay at the Goodman. To top it off, I’ve been designing sound and projections for the New Leaf season kick-off, Six Years (see below for a blogger discount, all ye Chicago bloggers), and filling in for a friend in a sound design elective at Northwestern. So, clearly no smarty-pantsiness coming from me during that time. On the contrary, it spawned quite a bit of dangerous assery on my part. My loopiness set off what was for a little while an alarming string of accidents that made me check myself before I wrecked myself… including unintentionally (I swear) hitting my boss in the head and smashing my thumb (oh come on, you knew it was coming….) between a crescent wrench and an instrument yoke. Not fun.

So I can add a reawakening of safety measures and being well-rested to my list of reasons not to blog over the past few weeks, and indeed, I’ve been gun shy until now about picking back up the commentary during a time that required constant focus. In the meantime, I’ve been running ol’ Donny Hall’s post on Caudal Autotomy through my head like a mantra for two weeks, waiting for my literal and figurative nail to fall off so that I can grow a new one. Thanks again for that post, Don, it was gold made of lizard tails. Sometimes life is a big steel wool loofa that takes off the dead skin and most of the living stuff too, and I think it was just my turn.

One of the reasons for the sleepy and manic is that MDQ is, by far, the most difficult mix I’ve ever taken on, in one of the most abbreviated techs I can remember for a show of that scale. It’s also easily the most fun and most rewarding show to mix. It’s a blast of a show, and one that pushed back in an unexpected way. (Hint: part of the “pushing back” comes from the wall of rock that hits you from the massive array of 8 Meyer CQs in the Owen theater. We’ve never squeezed quite so much SPL into that particular space, and it was certainly a fun trick to do so.) So come and visit if you find the opportunity, and stop by the sound console when you do and say hi.

I was lucky enough to be working with sound designer Kai Harada, who was one of the first sound designers to make the leap into the web to comment on the theater sound community’s red-headed step-relationship with the rest of the theater community that was prevalent at the time – and I think is happily turning around. His online reinforcement resource, Kai’s Sound Handbook, is a great read for schools and folks looking to broaden their understanding of the art and science of sound mixing and want a little bit of real world opinion and experience thrown in with the technical information. It hasn’t been updated in eight years or so, but until he gets around to that, it’s one of the best free sound resources out there.
And the dude knows what he’s talking about, even if you might disagree with him on some of the specifics. We ALWAYS disagree about the specifics, after all. That’s half the fun of collaboration.

So it was nice to break out of all that after opening MDQ last night. This morning I jumped in as sub in the sound class and taught a bunch of students about basic editing with Logic Express, which was more fun and less fearful than I had expected. It was nice, almost edifying, to see some solid sonic stories coming together after only an hour or so, including this one utterly hilarious one that started with footsteps, then a woman sighing deeply and sadly, and then the kerchunk whirr whizz of a copier going crazy. It never fails to astound me how one little brilliant choice that I get to witness will just make my day. Sigh. Copier. Giggle.

Which brings me to the work being done on Six Years. I feel like haven’t had nearly enough time with this truly stellar cast and crew (including New Leaf regulars Marsha Harman and Christian Heep, storefront veterans Sean Patrick Fawcett, Kevin Gladish and Mary Jo Bolduc, Circle Theatre member Darci Nalepa, and up-and-comers Chris Carr and our stage manager, Amanda Frechette) and what they’re doing with this play just cuts me to pieces. Sharr White’s script needed only the slightest touch of design, so in many ways my job has been simple if abbreviated, and tonight’s dress was very much about absorbing, reacting, and just enjoying the performances. More importantly, my next few days are about returning numerous favors to my wife Marni, who leapt in with both feet as production coordinator when it became clear that I was about to go incommunicado.

It’s a time for regrowing those damaged and sore parts. A time for sleep and letting the unconscious mind make the connections for a change.

And soon it’ll be a time for looking at the sound load out and the schedule for the next changeover… Whooooooo, doggy.

Oh yes… and before I forget: We’re offering pay-what-you-can tixx to fellow bloggers for Six Years, which opens this wednesday. We’d love to see you and hear what you think.

Because what doesn’t kill us will leave a nice scar that we can be proud to show off at the bar.

P.S. Anyone else been participating in TCG’s Free Night of Theater (arranged locally by the League of Chicago Theaters)? Holy crap has it been popular.

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Why I’m Not Worried by a Sleeping Theatrosphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonder Twins Activate! Form of: 2008-2009 Season Launch!

August 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Uncategorized

Holy crap. August is inevitably a crazy month for a theater company, isn’t it? Time to get our acts together!

This two-week block marks the first real test of my retooling of the web presences of three storefront companies – not necessarily the graphics or layout of those sites, but the custom content management systems that makes the sites theoretically easy to update. Why bother? Well, my thinking goes: if a website is a mouthpiece for a company, you’d want to attach the mouth directly to the brain, not to some troll like me banging on his binary keyboard and mumbling something about “hexadecimal ftp bandwidth mumble grumble.” Blogs are a nice and easy way of making it easy for companies to speak about their work, but it’s the non-bloggable events in a theater company’s summer preproduction that really necessitate quick turnaround on the ol’ website: When a cast member has to leave a production because of a plum gig, when you confirm a space and production dates at the last possible minute, when you have to rearrange your season due to, oh, a rights granting service that isn’t communicating with another rights granting service.

All hypothetical examples, I assure you.

So I’m trying to delegate and train other folks in these companies a bit, because I’m beginning to realize that NOT everyone is comfortable with the webby language of things like FTP – and I’m seeing a need in theaters to have some training in this area. (I’m tossing around the idea of putting together some screencasts on this site for some of the basics, as I’ve been hugely indebted to the excellent Ruby on Rails Screencasts out there and want to share the love a bit. Post a comment if you’re interested in any topics in particular…)

Last week I met with Libby Ford and Rebecca LaDuke of Greasy Joan & Co., to train them to be able to update the company website as, well, the gods tend to laugh at our hubristic pre-season planning, and at some point they’re going to need to do it. And it’s been clear from the past year that you don’t want a lone webmaster in those moments, as they’re often unavailable.

The training session went really well, and it was like: Relief. On all sides. Libby and Rebecca are much more intuitive when it comes to the mission and the voice of the company, and hooking them up with direct access to change the language on the site was like blood returning to a limb that has fallen asleep: A little awkward, a little painful, but oh my god RELIEF.

Meanwhile, in Rogers Park: The Side Project has ALSO been running on all engines in preparation for the coming season. A major cleanup operation is underway thanks to our new production manager, Jeremy Wilson, including the furnishing of an improved green room in the upstairs space and a massive Yard Sale to clear out furniture from the storage space. (There is still some available, I’m sure, if you’re in need of chairs, tables, or artistically broken window casings) This past weekend has been about designing a big ‘ol brochure that highlights the FIVE resident companies doing work there this year: The Side Project, LiveWire, Idle Muse, Blackbird, and Rascal Children’s Theater, as well as Point of Contention, which is mounting one of my favorite social-responsibility-themed plays, Radium Girls. The brochure also highlights the emergence of a new approach to selling a season on a storefront level: A cross-company flex pass. Along the lines of the Looks Like Chicago season deal, it’s kind of a grab bag of theater. TSP will be offering two packages this season: A Side Project Flex Pass that gets you into one show each from Side Project, Live Wire, Idle Muse, and Black Bird, and a Rogers Park Flex Pass that gets you one show each from Side Project, Lifeline, Theo Ubique, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

The challenge with that amount of programming, obviously, is keeping the dates straight. The Side Project’s new space has always been scheduled to within an inch of its life, but this year it feels like: Let’s make a template for production. Let’s make a template for marketing. Let’s make a template for box office. Let’s make a template to get the word out. Let’s use technology as a lever. So that we reinvent ourselves in our work, not in how we present that work to the world.

This theory seems to be working well for New Leaf this year as well. We’re seven over-booked people and so historically those kind of last-minute surprises have always felt like real damage rather than simple conditions in which we must work. This year, it’s about efficiency and agility and this word… “Leap.”

So today was about making the final decision about performance venue and announcing our season to the press and to the world via our website. There is always that last minute flurry of proofreading and copy polishing, like something out of The Front Page. Here’s my philosophy on writing marketing copy: I ultimately don’t like doing it, I’m not the best at it on my own, but I consider it a skill that I must cultivate to be able to invite people to see my work. In fact, I don’t think of it as marketing, since that kind of bursts my bubble. I think of it as language that is a public extension of the performance. And there’s thankfully a simple test for when copy is good and when it is bad: Adjectives and Adverbs = bad, Verbs = good.

Verbs leap off the page. Verbs distill meaning and pump your heart. Using descriptive adjectives in your copy is equivalent to using descriptive indication in your performance — audiences don’t believe TELLING, they believe DOING and LIVING.

So New Leaf tends to vet copy through the group, and as a group we’re starting to get excited about that part of the work: Finding the right language, the right verbs, the right articulation of this energy we feel as a company. No, it’s not the same kind of excitement that we have about the performance, but it’s a warm up to that performance… It’s like the trumpets blowing as we roll our pageant wagon into town, signaling that the players are on their way. We have to bring our energy and wits to that work as well. And since rolling the pageant wagon around is something we do all the time, often with moderate results, you sometimes get the urge to try a completely new tactic, to axe the wagon into little itty bitty toothpicks and buy something a little more snazzy. But you don’t, because this is the wagon you can afford. So it’s about finding the right crowd to roll the wagon through, the right thing to say as you walk through. And the only way to find that real and lasting connection with the crowd is to approach them with informed honesty. To be honest, to ask that one question you really want to ask, and hope that it is their question as well.

I felt this fear and excitement as we edited the website copy of New Leaf’s season announcement over Google Talk today, and we chose words that described how we felt about our final show of the season: An original work that we are developing as a company of performers and designers, The Long Count. It’s a leap of faith for us to trust our storytelling abilities and aesthetic to the extent that we promise to create a compelling story from our own framework. Since the voice of New Leaf at least for the moment is one of transparency, and honest self-analysis with our audience, we looked for words to communicate that fear but also our trust in our own abilities as artists. And we came up with:

“The Long Count will invite the company and our audiences to leap into the myriad possibilities revealed in the future we can’t foresee.”

There’s that word again. Leap. A Verb. A Verb that moves.

There are a billion choices like this that pop up every day in August. Where can we host our fundraiser? (“How about the Holiday Club?”) Who can we get to donate raffle prizes? (“Didn’t our pal DG just get an iMac and has an IPod touch he wants to give away?”) We need music. Where can we find music? (“My friend Mark Dvorak is a folk roots musician and he’s interested…”) And so we’re working this year on making those choices faster and with less trepidation: Trusting our instincts.

So good luck making your own choices as the season winds up… Like a spring with just a little too much tension.

Oh, and yeah, I was serious. Come to the New Leaf fundraiser FRESH! on August 27th for your chance to win an iPod Touch. It’s all the fun of an IPhone without a $90/month service plan.

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Context

June 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

First of all, thanks to Jacob Coakley at Stage Directions magazine for the editor’s note that mentioned my Chicken of the VNC post – and more importantly the idea that sharing our skills and acquired knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor for us all. For any of you just joining me now from Stage Directions, check out more of my sound design goodie bag, and feel free to ask questions.

So Context. As in: the context that we operate from when we create artistic work or artistic commentary. And the context of others, and the context of others and the context of others. Thank you, THANK you, gentlemen, for sharing your context.

It is so helpful and enlightening to understand the background of an artist. Half the show for me is leafing through the program and remembering the last show or conversation I had with an artist and understanding the work that I see in the terms of what they’re working on and exploring now. Because of this habit, I’m a true fan in the Long Tail sense of the word of many actors and designers in Chicago, and I’ve caught some moments that I’ve carried as utterly magical that I think most audience members don’t normally appreciate – because they’re moments of improvised learning. By understanding the background of an artist, you can catch the moments when the artist suddenly “gets it,” and pushes past their previous limits. I don’t really enjoy divorcing the work from the artist. That feels like amputation to me.

I had a great first face-to-face conversation with Paul Rekk at the Jeffs last night, which I hope was helpful for both of us. His post a few days ago helped clarify for me the reasons for our divergence of perspective – we come from radically different backgrounds.

I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. The status quo there – the one I felt compelled to rebel against as a teenager – was one of alternating impotent liberal wishful thinking and cutting 90’s progressive cynicism. Amherst, in case you’ve never heard of it, is famous for its five colleges in close proximity that you may have sensed recently in the shadows of Scooby Doo reruns, its horribly authentic yet utterly disconnected Belle, and the unfortunate human rights record of its namesake, the Honorable Lord Jeffrey. Most alarming to my adolescent brain was that most of the folks in this extremely politically active town ignored the basic precept of fellow Masshole Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

In Amherst, all politics is International. The town is overrun by politically astute 18 – 24 year olds all running away from the demands of their families for the first time in their lives – and the professors and administrators that make a comfortable living off them. The local community might as well not exist as far as the colleges are concerned. I grew up a townie in a school filled with the sons and daughters of professors – which means I was on the empty pockets side of intellectual gentrification. I wrote my early plays about the old men in greasy spoon diners, trading the real wisdom of the world as the world sped up around them. The encroaching property taxes that made retirees leave their hometown after decades even went to prop up that old museum piece of New England democracy – our “functioning” public town meeting that ‘led’ our town through a process that resembled permanent filibuster, while the real power was held by a permanently appointed Town Manager. Imagine a City Mayor appointed for life! Oh wait… And most folks my age were too busy making a show of rejecting the idea of establishment and re-rejecting the disestablishment. So they’re all far too busy to engage with the actual establishment – they wanted nothing to do with local reform or local community. They would rather buy the Che Guevara t-shirts if you know what I mean.

And so of course I ran from my community in the end. I moved to Dallas and saw the most well-SUV’d part of Texas mobilize for the War on Terror by purchasing ever larger and more reckless tanks of gasoline while embracing a skin-deep caricature of patriotism. I watched my family with my electric binoculars fight to stay united, grow up, and not lose their homes to the social will of my hometown. And I found another family, an urban family, and a place where I felt useful. And that’s when I stopped my adolescent self-pity in the face of my own terror and self-recognition, and saw the poison I drank in each lost connection.

This is my context: I sense a deep hypocrisy in the cynicsm of willful disconnection and disassociation with those connections that exist between us. I deeply value progress, but the advocates of progress became in the nineties an incredulous kind of lazy and entitled. And then we saw the consequences of that half-assed progressivism – as part of the country claimed we never had any values at all and took over, running our values into the mud.

I think that’s turning around now, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our generation isn’t going to face an onslaught of responsibility now that we’re taking over the wheel, institution by institution. I feel a call to service these days – to not repeat the mistakes of the village that raised me and taught me – how they forgot their roots and their neighbors in their push for progress – while also upholding the values of that village in the face of eroding American values and eroding American justice that we all feel. When I first moved to Chicago, I think I wanted to escape from the erosion of the places of my past – but even here, I don’t feel safe from eroding values and eroding justice. I don’t feel safe from complicity in the many injustices of this country and this world simply because I’m in a place where people share my values.

We’ve all felt that kind of powerlessness in our lives – the question of “why do this at all? I’m not arguing a legal case that will affect a life. I’m not fighting hunger or disease or poverty. I’m not relieving disaster victims.” Well, to disengage from that responsibility simply because we are powerless to fix large social problems as individuals is not a valid solution to me. In my context, the way to make an impact on the world is to practice connection. It is to practice and value detail in craft, to create quality in all our lives. This practice fights that sensation of powerlessness in a human-sized way, to create a real, vital community through our collective creative work and our ability to listen to each other. Communities are built individual by individual, and piece by piece – and it’s communities that have the ability to create change.

Death, decay, and destruction take care of themselves. Growth requires food, water, and a big bright light shining on it. In my context, if you’re not re-building, you’re damaging.

In my context, you can choose to create and support the craft of your peers and neighbors on a sustainable scale, or you can tear down and destroy – models, ideas, and work – and leave an empty shell of a wasteland. That’s not a clean slate as far as I’m concerned… It’s a world where positive energy was stopped and paved over by negative energy into a place where it couldn’t grow anymore.

And is the crux of some of our online arguments, no? In other contexts, harsh criticism is valued as pure truth. It’s valued that way because the folks who have that perspective have been witness to comfortable lies for too long. They see how cooperative initiatives can be co-opted by self-promotion, the PR game, and profit. In their context, the ultimate sin is self-censorship and watered-down art in the name of decorum.

I know that this hope for community and mutual support – not dishonesty, support – comes off as wishful thinking in our context-less world of the internet. Here in Chicago, where my Yankee roots don’t share a lot of the same background as the midwesterners who have had to tear down some actual injustice and external ignorant destructive forces to get to play in this White City, my all-for-one-and-one-for-all message comes up against some legitimately divergent viewpoints. Which is fair, and I’m eager to learn to be at better peace with it.

My context informs my work: The theater I have chosen to call my home has a very clear mission that speaks to these beliefs: we “create intimate, animate theatrical experiences which renew both artist and audience.” I also consider teaching and opening doors for younger artists or artists without my experience to be a cornerstone of my life’s work. Teaching for me isn’t about giving the right answer, it’s about asking the right question. It is about testing ideas, but also understanding them, supporting them and letting them thrive on their own terms.

So deliberation in the theatrosphere is not about finding the penultimate truth for me, because I don’t believe in those lofty ideas on a hill. I believe in perspective. I believe in seeing each other’s work, and seeing each other work. I believe in growing within and embracing our own context.

All politics is local.

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Auto-Podcasting for the Design Process

June 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Okay, so I’m an inventor, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The clutter that is a necessary part of invention has to be seen to be believed. I’ve got chunks of hardware strewn about my studio, ready for soldering, repair, and reconfiguration. My hard drive is filled with various impenetrable chunks of code – modules, platforms, and other eratta. All waiting to be configured. So when two of these chunks end up working together in any way, let alone an incredibly sexy way to support creative development, it’s cause for celebration. And maybe some cleanup.

Last night at, oh, three a.m., I made one of these connections that had been staring me in the face – a way to easily share sonic research with creative teams that I work with a minimum of effort on my part. Last night, I set up my first automatically generated research podcast. I just upload files, and my website creates a podcast that the whole production team can sync with.

Here’s how it works. First and foremost, a little background:

1.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOU.

A few years ago I configured my portfolio site to be a lot more easy to update. If you’ve ever played around with HTML and uploading files via FTP, you know that it’s a process that is fraught with time-consuming repetition and maintenance. When I started uploading 10-20 files for each of five shows I was working on at any given time, I knew I needed a more streamlined system.

At the time, I was learning more about PHP, a scripting language that enabled me to do handy things like set variable values, define helper functions, and repeat these helper functions. Best of all, I could grab open-source helper functions from friendly programmers and make them work for me.

For the portfolio site, I first set up a little loop that simply read the contents of a folder and displayed those contents as links. So now, instead of manually coding “a href=” tags for each linked file like a dutiful little hamster, I get an automatically generated page for each folder on my site, that looks like this page to the left here. I spent maybe 45 seconds of thought and time in creating this particular page – it’s simply the result of my site’s stylesheet rules and the file reader function of PHP. Pretty nice for under a minute plus upload time.

2.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOUR USERS & CLIENTS

The big problem that eventually cropped up with this method was compatibility. Of course. With Internet Explorer. Of course. I made use of the quicktime “embed” player which is both really easy to set up from a coding stand point and the unfortunate victim in a lawsuit between Microsoft and ActiveX. Basically, Microsoft lost their ability to license the player in Internet Explorer, and for each embedded file, an IE user gets one of those really ugly “Enable ActiveX control on this page?” error messages that we all love so much. Gross.

So, I plugged in a new module: the configurable, flexible and totally free JW FLV Flash player. Combined with a MP3 Meta data reader, my research pages now look quite a bit sexier (and because it’s flash, it’s a lot more compatible). MP3’s have cover art, titles and artist authors embedded in them, and my website now reads that data and makes a lovely candy-coated interface.

Total thought put into this per show: Still 45 Seconds.

3.) IMPROVE YOUR WEBSITE’S PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY

So that’s all nice and fine and flashy. Still a few compatibility issues, and suddenly the site is doing a lot of server-side processing, which causes some slowness in page loading. Some logic fixes improve all that, but is it ultimately useful? Last night, the final connection of how to really milk this system suddenly became clear to me.

The JW Player reads most of its information from an RSS feed – a feed that I am automatically generating using PHP and that MP3 Meta data reader.

Now, what else is an RSS feed that contains embedded audio files? That’s right: Podcasts.

So now, simply by providing the link to the RSS feed under the hood, my collaborators can SUBSCRIBE to my audio research. As I post stuff, boom, the entire team gets the new audio synced to their ipods with their This American Life episodes. And, at the same time, my process remains: Select Sound, Mix Sound, Upload Sound. No further configuration needed.

Go ahead: Try it on. You can subscribe to my serialized audio performance piece, Lexicon, in a few simple steps (If you haven’t heard this yet, by the way, it’s pretty representative of my sound design work. And I’m told it’s fun to listen to – though it was written five years ago, so some of the writing is still… let’s say formative. It’s all about the sound anyway):

1) In iTunes, Select Advanced: Subscribe to Podcast.
2) Enter the url: http://nikku.net/lexicon/podcast/rss.php
3) Let me know what you think.

Finally, if you’d like to try something like this setup for your own process, but don’t need all the bells and whistles (and want some simplicity!) there’s another excellent resource out there for you: The PHP script Podcast Generator creates an entire Podcast Content Management System and backend that can help you create a feed in a few steps. And of course blogging software often has some wonderful plugins that allow you post audio right in your blog’s RSS feed.

Multi-media research is good for multi-media work. More on that as season announcements draw nearer…

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Another Tease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of

May 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

Update for all of you running OS X 10.5 – Yes, it’s true, Chicken of the VNC is indeed obsolete now – every feature described in this post can now be done with the integrated Screen Sharing feature. Check out the comments for details, but you may want to read on to pick up a few tips on creating a remote control system for sound design.

Chicken of the VNCIt’s hard to determine sometimes if technology is making our creative work better and more efficient or just more complicated in new and different ways. Part of the problem is that for most of this decade software and hardware engineers were moving in the direction of modular solutions.

Instead of building great dishwashers, they theorized that it would be better to perfect the ultimate cost-efficient fork washer, leaving you to buy an equally astoundingly cheap cup polisher on a separate basis. This gave consumers (and designers) CHOICE – now you could save a TON of money buying the exact modules they needed separately and find new ways of getting the modules and devices to work together – or you could opt for a simple all-in-one solution that kinda sorta did what you needed, and you’d pay for the convenience. This is one of the reasons that your local designer on a budget looks like some kind of Max Max-era hacker with wild eyes darting from side to side looking for bargains and a magical toolkit of gizmos that will, you know, suture a pants rip in 10 seconds or diagnose whether a light isn’t working because of a broken lamp or because the dimmer load is about to make the circuit box explode.

In this chaos, it’s always refreshing to find a multi-use tool that makes not one but ten things easier to do. It means by using it you’ll be dumping a bunch of extra junk out your toolkit in a giddy and impromptu spring cleaning.

Here’s what it does
Chicken of the VNC is such a tool. It allows designers to do one thing and one thing alone: remotely access and control another computer over a network. Like a wireless network.

But here’s what it really means
Sound designers can be more active participants in the production process. I can sit in the house, experiencing the play like an audience member would, and be editing my qLab show file at the same time. If the sound is too loud, I don’t tell the SM to hold the run and high-tail it to the booth to twiddle a bunch of knobs or wires. This kind of behavior, let’s face it, undermines my credibility as a designer, because I’m stopping the show at every cue.

Instead, I nod at the director, and as they react to the loud sound, I turn it down, from wherever I am in the house. The stage, the balcony, the grid, whatever. With a little practice, I’m fixing the sound and resetting levels before they become a problem.

And voila, I’ve become a designer who has the tools to perform as if I was onstage, reacting to impulses and adapting the dynamics of the sound to better match what I’m seeing and hearing from the performers on the stage. I can design each and every moment of the play – silence through transition – rather than spending the time that I have on 30% of the play. I can react and shape rather than dictate in preproduction what the sonic world feels like.

Here’s how it works
I’ve set up in the booth a sound playback computer, which runs the increasingly excellent and free-as-dirt program qLab to route all my layers of sound files to the various speakers in the room. Normally, I’d have to do my programming from the booth or run some kind of umbilical cable to a remote keyboard and monitor. That’s a lot of crap to lug around from tech to tech compared to a single laptop.

First, I set up a computer-to-computer wireless network from the playback computer – simple as pie from the Airport menu of most macs.

Then, I connect to that network from my laptop, again through the Airport menu.

Boom! I launch Chicken of the VNC. After some initial configuration, the playback computer shows up as a VNC server on my laptop. Bookmark that, and then the remote screen is always just a few clicks away.

On my current show, A Red Orchid’s Not a Game for Boys (opening tomorrow!), there’s this ongoing ping pong tournament that is seen by the performers “behind” a plexi screen that is theoretically along the fourth wall. Getting the sound of ping pong and sneakers through glass to come from behind the audience required a large number of replacement files to get the reverb and equalization just right. But it didn’t mean frequent trips into the stamp-sized booth that can’t comfortably fit more than one person without getting in each other’s business and grinding rehearsal to a halt.

Instead, I connected to the playback harddrive using the computer-to-computer wireless network…

Then after copying the replacement files over the ether, I used my CotVNC connection to replace the files…

All while the SM ran a run without stopping.

Not exactly razoring reel-to-reel tape anymore, is it?

The half-life of technology is getting shorter and shorter, and so it’s not surprising that Chicken of the VNC is already obsolete. Apple’s latest operating system Leopard has included a built-in VNC client accessible through System Preferences. I gotta say – I love Apple for the way that they integrate incredibly versatile applications (VNC, Samba, Ruby on Rails) into their core operating system. Like many technophiles, I trust that if something out there is worth running, it’ll probably show up in my laptop next time I upgrade the OS.

I only use CotVNC as an example because, like the excellent and free FTP application Cyberduck which can be used to manage your theater’s website, it’s a brilliant program that does just one thing that will help you in a billion ways. Technology doesn’t replace human performance, however… doing the work well still requires practicing and rehearsing with the tools you keep at your disposal.

I love applications named after poultry.

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Refueling

April 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

One thing I’m positively awful at as an artist is managing my creative intake in relation to creative output. The fact that the only way I seem to be able to describe the need for a holiday is to couch it in terms like “refuel,” “intake,” and “output” should clue you in to why this may be. I think most artists are actually pretty good at this: taking time for themselves and making sure that they get enough ‘soaking’ time to feed their art with life experience. I’m crap at it.

This is one reason I’m really thankful to work with music, because it inevitably flips that switch in my head to a more sustainable rhythm of life. (I keep thinking I need sound design this blog using some kind of internet radio, but that’s another story…) With my iPod on shuffle, the connections seem to draw themselves more clearly, and the work begins to flow again.

Yesterday, as I returned the gear on loan for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl – one of two shows I struck in preparation for my imminent departure to Scotland this evening – the song “One Down” by Ben Folds came on, and all the errands I was running that day were brought into perspective, suddenly and cogently – a song that he wrote to fulfill a quota of songwriting for his studio.

People tell me Ben, just make up junk and turn it in
But I never was alright with turning in a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time on music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out

One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here
One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here

I’m really not complaining: I realize it’s just a job
And I hate hearing belly-aching rockstars whine and sob
‘Cause I could be bussing tables
I could well be pumpin’ gas
but I get paid much finer
For playin’ piano and kissing ass

this is one i wrote just an hour ago and three-point-six at last

Theater for the Future is on vacation for two weeks while Nick enjoys his long-deferred honeymoon.

P.S. – Finally got caught up with Writers and Victory Gardens on the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project, which means I’m just waiting on Goodman and Halcyon (ahem, Tony! – Just kidding) to announce firm dates and most of the largest theaters will be on there, for all your season planning needs. Also, I have discovered that this exists, which means that among other things the calendar will eventually be updated simply by updating the Chicago Theater Database, saving time and heartache for all. Keep sending those dates!

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