Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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We Have Ignition

March 23, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, projects

The blogs of the theatrosphere weren’t the only things lighting up last week. This weekend alone I have been in touch with six movers and shakers who are all choosing now as the time to start cross-theater initiatives. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me, friends. They’re all in early stages, but they’re all incredibly exciting collaborative projects that you and your theater needs to get in on:

1) An IMDB for Chicago Theater. The CTDB? Dan Granata’s list-making of Chicago Theaters isn’t a vanity project. It’s about creating a tool to explore the network of connections that we have, and harvesting value from those connections. Since succeeding in theater often comes down to who you know and who knows you, such a tool can’t be underestimated. I’ve talked about this project before, but it’s starting to roll now… The relational database may now be jumping to the web, where it can team up with eager volunteers: That’s you, friend. Some possible benefits from such a site:

a) The ability to allow users to find and explore their own connections that lead them deeper into the detail of the industry. Did you like Kaitlin Byrd’s performance in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl? Well now you’ll be able to quickly and easily find out what else she’s been in and what she’ll be in next. This is a key feature that speaks to fostering local talent – it will be a way to provide the context of career to the specifics of a single performance.

b) Accountable user reviews. You can see the greatest challenge facing a theater simply by listening to the conversations in line: No one – NO ONE – sees a show unless it comes recommended by someone they trust. Some people trust certain critics, certain playwrights, directors, or theaters, and that’s been the answer so far. Well, let’s follow Amazon’s lead and allow user feedback to determine recommendations of other shows – shows maybe you’ve never heard of – but nonetheless are related to your interests. Step one: allow everyone to be a critic, and have “critic pages” where you can see EVERY user critic’s collected reviews – and determine for yourself whether you trust the glowing praise or the angry vitriol.

c) It’s built by the community, so it will serve the community. This is our challenge as web architects, and I think we’re up to it: It needs to be simple as sand to put up your own history and forge your own connections. It needs to be as fun and rewarding as friending people on facebook – with the added benefit of connecting you with local folk who are interested in seeing your work – and having their interests reflected in your work. And it’s worked before: as Bethany of Free and Cheap Theatre has told me, even after nearly two years of being offline, there is still a vibrant community of people who clamor for a service like they had before with Free and Cheap Theatre. It just needs to be built sustainably. To me, that means the community – not any single individual – needs to build it as it uses it.

d) Insert your idea here. The database we’re planning will be extensible, that is, able to incorporate future ideas and applications. If it relates to the information of theater in chicago, it can probably be stored, analyzed and capitalized upon. From an ethical standpoint, this means that needs to belong to the community, not a private enterprise. Many theaters in the past few weeks have discovered the joys of the Facebook Page to promote and analyze a core fan base, but have any of them considered where facebook’s ad revenue goes to? (hint: it’s this kid and his stock holders.) My personal feeling is that this project could not only “build the pie” of the theater going artist, but also feed a revenue stream to fund other projects that benefit the theater community in Chicago. This ain’t no money making venture, but if it takes off it could serve to help and benefit the people that use it.

2) Shared storage space and resource sharing for multiple theaters. This idea took off when two interested mid-sized theaters with a common problem (excess waste due to a lack of suitable storage, and high cost of props, furniture and costumes) decided to team up. I won’t name the theaters quite yet because the production managers initiating the project have boards they have to answer to, and this project is well in the “any-misstep-could-kill-it” phase. Also, it’s late and it’s Easter, and they’re not checking their email tonight… But our face-to-face is happening in a week or so, and already five other theaters have declared interest in the project.

Essentially, the proposal is: Pool our resources. As Joe, production manager for the largest theater involved, put it: “We have to throw out enough lumber every season to build 30 Side Project and New Leaf sets.” At the same time, Joe’s theater has very little access to props sharing arrangements like the one that the Side Project has with its visiting artist companies like LiveWire and DreamTheatre, so its prop budgets need to be pretty high. By creating a community storage facility with a unified organization and internal rental agreement, theaters can pool their money, throw out less, and find what they need with a minimum of headache.

Because it isn’t as free as data, this is the project that could be helped the most by the involvement of a community. This is a project that would need to be sustainable and financially solvent. It’s already clear that renting a space of the size required on our meagre budgets alone would be foolhardy, so the project needs eyes, ears and minds that can collectively work out some of the key details: Is there a donor who has a warehouse and is eager to take a mother of a tax break for the benefit of nearly every theater in town? What’s the best way to organize all these props and costumes? Where does the labor come from? How do we protect the rights of property for small theaters in such an organization? How would we resolve disputes if a valuable property is needed by multiple theaters at the same time? The answer may well be: Let every theater deal with their own storage solution, (UHaul here we come! Oy!) but we won’t know unless we really ask the question.

Here’s the best part about all three of these projects: You can start helping now, even in the “twinkle in our eye” stage. I’ve set up an online forum through this site (now with Sidebar action!) where you can help roadmap these projects, adding your input, suggestions, wishlists, feedback, resources, and reality checks every step of the way. After trying a number of formats, I’ve landed on the phpBB forum as the best existing method of getting a large community to collaborate on a project with a minimum of digression. I’ve also setup forums for other existing projects like Don Hall’s Off Loop Freedom Charter, because if you see someone pushing a rock up a hill… well, let’s help him out.

Also, this forum is meant as a practical and local companion to Theatre Ideas’ TribalTheatre Forum – which is a rich exploration of the theories behind the Theater Tribe ethos that is inspiring many of these projects. It’s not that theory, coordination, and action should be at all divorced from each other, but sometimes the conversation needs a little more focus.

There are two words that are still ringing in my head from the dozens of blog entries about the value of theater: “Communal Imagination.” Those two words formed a call to action that landed with me and many other artists interested in deepening their connection with this community, and this is the action: community-driven projects that are the result of community-driven imagination.

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Follow Up: The Violence of Articulation

March 19, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building


We tremble before the violence of articulation. And yet, without the necessary violence, there is no fluent expression. When in doubt, I look for the courage, in that moment, to take a leap: articulate a thing, even if I’m not sure it is right or even appropriate… “If you cannot say it,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “point to it.”

— Anne Bogart

Here’s how other bloggers and commenters define the value of theater. The goal of the exercise is to find an unbreakable kernel of value, a nit that cannot be picked, that applies to all theater, and appeals to the needs of our time. To that end, I’m trying to summarize the core message of some of these posts: boiling them down and collecting them to hopefully achieve an accessible message that doesn’t water down the meaning of that message. Watering down the meaning is normally acceptable for talking points, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to theater folk. Which is ultimately a challenging and wonderful thing. Read the complete posts yourself and suggest other understandings and values on the brand-spanking new Tribal Theater forum (run by Theatre Ideas), because a lot of meat in what they’re saying is in the description. That said, a slogan requires succinct clarity, and that means the core message – the talking point – is always brief and electric.

Update before I even post this: Of course, Theater is Territory is already doing this job of compiling and comparing pullquotes from every blog they find. Great Minds DO Think Alike. So I’m changing my tack for this a bit. As Theatre Forte mentions, the question that inspired this series of posts is not an accidental first shot… it’s the first question that gets asked when you try to identify a cohesive brand for an ununified group: What are our shared values. It’s what Obama is doing in his speech on race – identifying our shared values. The second step in branding (an ugly word, yes, but a powerful principle) is boiling the rich, passionate responses into single sledgehammer values. And the third step is pounding the pavement with a unified message. That unified message may never come, but it does serve to focus the way we speak when we speak about theater. I’m just posting the single words that are finding resonance in multiple blogs, and arranging those in some like-minded categories.

Accessible / Identity

Involvement / Active / Immediacy / In the Moment

Communal / People / Community / Social / Teaching / Connection

Truthful / Honest

Flow / Energy / Exploration

These words are really the protein of a message, and we can’t forget the sauce. One phrase that really rang with me is Parabasis’ “Collective Imagination.” Chew on that… Theater is Collective Imagination. That shit is spicy.

Next step for you, dear reader: Which of these words gets you going, and/or what words / short phrases have you read in today’s blog postings that got your heart pumping? Also important: what phrases shut you down?

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What was that Geena Davis Movie again?

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

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

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

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

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

“How can we more effectively distribute postcards?”

“Are posters worth the price?”

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

Deja vu became a way of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking some time for the big picture

February 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

I was told that I needed to see Atonement (which will be one of like, three films I see in the theaters in a typical year). The sound design / composition was, as promised, exquisite (I think Marsha and Jess, who told me this had to be one of the three, saw a kind of combination of the musical concepts from The Dining Room and Girl in the Goldfish Bowl).

But what struck me was the same feeling I had felt after seeing Saving Private Ryan: this sense of guilt for everything, for being alive in a time of surplus, this deep regret that my grandparents’ generation had to fight for these basic necessities and barely escaped with their lives. It made me want to call them again, to talk with with all of them and relive their memories with them, and be thankful for their surviving: my grandfather Phil, a pilot in the CBI theater of WWII, who I was lucky enough to see a few months ago, and the grandfathers I can’t speak to anymore, Charles Keenan who also served, and my Japanese homestay “grandfather” Masami Ueno, who grew up on the other side of the war. There are fights that our forefathers fought then and since then so that we wouldn’t have to. They are fights of violence against aggression and injustice, and they are also fights of rebuilding that constructed the infrastructure of our lives. It is very difficult not to take the fabric of your life for granted.

The baby boomers also contributed a kind of violent and righteously indignant intellectual shift – a second major reaction that formed our world to day. The 60s developed this kind of revolutionary approach to everything, a new dogma that held that old infrastructure must necessarily be rebuilt from scratch in order to be truly new and truly equal and truly free. This kind of intellectual violence, like WWII, was absolutely necessary but also had side effects – it bred equally violent reactions that served to perpetuate some of the same attitudes they were trying to squelch. See also: Fundamentalists of all stripes.

I don’t believe that our future can be won with violent reactions on the geo-political front or on the socio-intellectual front anymore. What I do believe in is a taoist kind of sustainable and constant change and adjustment – short bursts of energy and readjustments that use the momentum of past actions, but that don’t get stuck and mired in blind conservatism, habit, dogma or laziness. A change that is cooperative and flexble, like a river wearing down rock. It will take enhanced awareness and diligence on our part in our daily lives and in our relationships, and an open-eyed acknowledgment of our collective past. It will take a willingness to engage in small acts of creation to counteract the destruction of the past and the constant decay and death that is a part of living. It will take stories of life and growth to encourage the life and growth itself. It will take…

(wait for it)

Atonement.

(groan)

So back to our corner of the world. A few weeks ago Artistic Director extraordinaire Jess Hutchinson forwarded me this white paper from a study on what the young leadership of non-profit organizations are up against.

It might be a bit dry, but I find it to be quite palate-cleansing after a week of blogosphere mud wrestling and theater URL cataloging, all mixed in with an ugly guilt over the sacrifices of the past. Given all this, reading the paper felt like downing a bottle of shaved ginger.

I’m going under for a few days while we tech How I Learned to Drive at Backstage Theatre Company, and then it’s back to developing a few more of these collaborative projects that we’ve been working on in the last few days. Sorry if I’m at all leaving you hanging, Dan, but I’ll pick up as soon as I can. So for now, I’ll leave you with some of the study’s general findings that are resonating with me like a Model-T with two bad spark plugs and a hangover:

Once young leaders gain entry and standing in their organizations, they are confronted with the realities of structure, power, accountability and culture that define organizational life.

Decision-making in non-profit social change organizations often lacks clarity and transparency.

Young leaders grapple with developing good models for exercising leadership, power and accountability.

Power and structure: who is accountable – and to whom – is part of the responsible exercise of power and leadership.

Young leaders are often disenchanted when there is a gap between an organization’s external values and its internal culture.

Balance between work and personal life remains a daunting challenge for young leaders in a culture still steeped in sacrificing all one’s time to the work.

Good mentors are hard to come by – and urgently needed – as we look toward the future of movement building.

There are specific complications in mentoring and support when leadership is being transferred from one generation to the next in organizations that include family members [e.g. some unions].

The lack of adequate mentorship and broader intergenerational dialogue means that important lessons of history and experience are inadequately transmitted, or are lost to a new generation.

[Young] leaders seem particularly eager to be good mentors to the next generation coming up after them.

Young leaders feel that the Baby Boom generation has cultivated relationships with funders that are not being passed on – and that they need assistance in making those connections.

In some regions of the country, funders were perceived as biased toward certain models of work to the detriment of new models, especially those conceived in communities of color.

There is no infrastructure to support the transition of older leaders, and no roles into which they can readily move.

The culture of transition should be supportive and affirming, not blaming and punitive. Smooth transitions can be helped by personal and organizational planning.

As they evaluate the lives and legacies of the Baby Boomers, and consider what their own lives and legacies might look like to subsequent generations, younger leaders are offering some new insights based on their own aspirations and experiences.

Young leaders are looking for balance and reconciliation with older generations.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, despite the oppression, there were things in place to rejuvenate the community that don’t exist now…we’re scrambling to create those mechanisms.”

“Our issues are always incredibly difficult to win. You have to be in it for the long haul if you ever want to see
a victory. I was just updating our victories and it stopped at 1999. And I was calling all my colleagues saying, ‘Didn’t we win anything in the last four years?’”

“Are people seeing results from their work? I mean, I know you see it to a certain extent but when you look at, kind of the societal issues and the kind of fight that’s out there, it’s kind of very disenchanting. And it’s like well, is this making a difference?”

“Everybody in nonprofits is talking about how this is the most difficult time they’ve ever seen. It’s a lot of pressure on us – and I have to talk to a lot of people to remind myself it’s not me – it’s not my fault.”

It wasn’t their fault either. That doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility.

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Conversations Abuzz, and Brainstorming Value for Theater

January 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

A couple conversations on various blogs are hot hot hot in the last 48 hours (and taking up all my time in posting responses). They are posts that have generated a lot of community thought, and underscored both the value and the pitfalls of developing ideas and solutions as a group. I’m summarizing them for the benefit of those of you that don’t read a lot of other theater blogs yet but are interested in the collaborative aspects of blog problem solving.

If this doesn’t interest you, skip down to the picture of my proposal for a marketing campaign so bad it just might work.

1) The aforementioned exploration on the TOC blog of who the hell are these people anyway? Recent additions include pleas for reason and pizza. Insightful follow ups on Kris’, Patrick’s, and Rob’s sites.

2) Rob asked about whether previews should be sold as regular performances. This sparked a more general conversation about the value of previews on Creative Control, Grey Zelda and once again Storefront Rebellion.

3) Don Hall wants to lower ticket prices and/or increase the perceived value of theater. (And it turns out that Roche Shulfer wants the same thing.) Awesome. Finally something we can agree upon.

We’ve Got Your Writers Right Here

Before you complain about the link: I know, I know. It’s a placeholder.

I hinted in the last post about a Theater Dish event that changed the landscape for me. That specific Theater Dish was a talk about marketing innovations prepared for the League by Larry Keeley of Doblin Marketing, one of the architects behind the WBEZ programming renaissance. I still have his Powerpoint presentation which he generously posted for League download, and it’s one of the most inspiring and genius documents I’ve ever read. Check it out yourself. Unfortunately, while that particular talk was dead brilliant it was overshadowed by what happened next: the announcement of the resignation of Marj Halperin. (She went to become campaign manager for Forrest Claypool’s bid for Cook County Commissioner, so that was worth it). All told, it was a pretty eventful night for my first League event. I just wish more of Larry’s suggestions had been implemented by now. Frankly, this is where the League could use the help of the vast volunteer resources of storefront theaters to accomplish some of the big-picture goals on the table.

That’s where I’m coming from. I want to get this stuff done, and speed us along to the part where we see if it works. The solutions are out there, you just need to know where to find them and get started on implementing them, one step at a time.

I mentioned a few off-the-cuff possibilities to easily add value to your own theater productions on Don’s blog, in many ways inspired by Larry’s extremely leveragable and collaborative suggestions. Post your own.

Then we roadmap, people. It’s project management time.

Five minutes of Brain Storm

Blogs. Check. But every theater should have one, and there should be blogs that cross over into other disciplines and draw connections back to theater, and for every question we ask on a blog we should have four bad answers like this one.

Podcasts and Videocasts. Otherwise known as: make your own TV show and wave it in front of your ADD friends and say “Ah, it’s great to have good writing on this screen again. You seen that last Grey Zelda show? AWESOME script. That dude can write.”

Site-Specific stagings of issue plays or locally-inspired plays that matter to the community. Ask the Chicago History Museum to sponsor showings of a time-traveling play about the current CTA debacle in that old rail car they have. Who wants to write that? I’ll production manage it. Seriously.

Get excited about other people’s work, and talk it up. Talk about your fellow Chicago Theater artists like they were superstars, and see through their financial and temporal limitations to see their genius and value their efforts. Be ambassadors to the general public and make talking about your theater habit at your day job as easy as discussing what happened on The Office last night. Theaters should not have to waste their time marketing to the industry, that’s a horrible losing game. Help them out by proactively seeing, discussing and encouraging the best of their work.

Don’t overextend. You get a lot done if the work excites you, but despair will shut you down. Don’t get mired trying to add false value in your actual work. Use just enough design, not too much. I say this as a sound designer, knowing full well my entire role in theater depends on you thinking you need sound in theater. You don’t. You don’t need projections. You don’t need a set, you don’t need programmable lights. You need what the show needs. If you can’t hire or bribe a designer for a theatrical element, don’t use that element at all, and think of some other way of getting by without it. That’s honesty and truth, and that is valuable, and creates a vital final product. Remove any need to pick up the hammer during rehearsal time, and use the time to coax better performances from your cast and build stronger trust within your ensemble.

Food. Drink. If not in the theater, as a part of an easy-bake planned evening. Make friends with the owners and/or staff at your local restaurants and cafes, and get them excited about your work. Wear them down, and kill them with kindness and excitement. When they get excited, they’ll talk about you all day long to every customer.

Train yourself to use talking points about your work. Use those talking points to convince your friends to be an ambassador for your work, and for the work being done in town in general. You don’t have to be a crazy automaton about it, but if you’re legitimately excited about something, let it show.

Audience Participation Events. Let the audience see the guts of how you make your show. Get the ensemble to invite friends to sit next to the stage manager and designers during tech and show them how freaking hard they work, and make THAT the show. Invite them to talk with the cast and the director about what everyone is thinking about in the room, and walk them through the process. It will make your theater focus as an ensemble, and every person that gets to do that will see the show in a totally different light. To a non-theater person, it’s like they’ve been invited on a film set with the stars. Seriously. It blows them away.

Keep it Smart. People want smart right now. Don’t fall into the double trap of dumbing down your work or thinking your work is smarter than it really is. Theater is just smart enough that it’s refreshing.

Bring theater to the people, and people will come to the theater. The most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth buzz, and with the number of people in our industry, there’s no reason we can’t make theater an activity that 40 – 50% of this town participates in on a regular basis.

Of course, that means that we’ll need to coordinate our efforts a little bit. Think we can do it?

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Flow, or “Be an Opener of Doors…”

January 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments

A big thanks to TOC, Kris Vire and Chris Piatt for the shoutout in today’s Time Out Chicago. For those of you checking out this blog because of the article, welcome, and I hope you enjoy the discussion.

I’m writing from the tech table at the Goodman’s kickoff production for the Horton Foote Festival, Talking Pictures, with sound designer extraordinaire Richard Woodbury, sound guru Dave Naunton, and intern Dan Schrek, so I thought that it’d be appropriate given the bump to acknowledge the people that help me through my wack-ass schedule with their own work, input, and support —

My teachers and students.

In theater, everyone’s a jack of all trades. You’ve got to be in order to survive. There’s so very little money in theater that you sort of develop a habit of carrying lots of buckets (or spinning plates) to capture as much value as you can from each experience.

And then you give away those nuggets of wisdom like trading cards.

But it’s not always a happy garden of cooperative flower-bunnies. I recently had my young & angry side brought right out front and center by another blog post discussing a theater company in town particularly infamous to industry folks that is currently throwing my good friend into massive personal debt by refusing to reimburse him for expenses. I tiraded against this and related incidents, publicly, and I wasn’t the only one.

Now I know the consequences of tirades in an industry this small. I have been told once by someone in power, an artistic director of a LORT theater, actually, (no, not in Chicago) “If you do this, you’ll never work again.” And the type of person who would say that doesn’t deserve their power in that moment. There are just those folks out there that I think don’t get it, who end up scared and entrenched in a system they think will protect them, who tear down something because they don’t yet understand its potential value. And as far as my lapse goes, sometimes we tear something down because we feel powerless – we attack it to serve the almost crocodilian need to feel dominant again. When the young & angry side in me gets thinking about reconfiguring the world to serve social justice, I know it’s over – my brain has shut down and I’m in it for the kill. So after getting it out of my system, I’ve come to realize that in the case of theater, it’s pointless to simply tirade against the injustice that exists in the industry. Now I believe in justice, but I also know the value of practicality, and we’re talking about a tiny industry here. It’s pretty easy to single out a delinquent party and throw out some blame in their direction, but I don’t think that those kind of tirades ends up solving the problem for the next guy or gal. What could solve the problem is a sea change that flips the industry on its cute little bunny ear. Why would that work? Because both the delinquents and the bellicose are dinosaurs – they’re fighting each other to come out on top of an old system. Nothing we can do will save them, because the ecosystem that supported them is crumbling. But there are new ecosystems at work now. It’s the tiny bunnies that will survive the next evolutionary crisis. We are agile, responsive, and we reproduce early and often.

Teaching is what stopped this cycle of envy and despair in me. In my first class, I felt a new fear – the fear that if I indulged my own adolescent railings and beliefs in class, I would shut out my students’ ability to explore material for themselves. It forced me to do nothing but open doors. And that’s when I realized that helping other people open their doors generated a ton of creative energy in myself.

And here, back at the tech table, is when Dave whips out his iPhone to show us the latest features in 1.1.3, including the new (ooooooh / ahhhhh) geo-positioning feature. Richard and I are in a debate over the relative merits of two MIDI sequencers, Apple’s Logic and MOTU’s Digital Performer. Richard shows me that DP can transpose the transition music into any key (he likes the sound of the Phrygian mode). I try to do this with Logic and discover about 17 new features I hadn’t dreamed of before today (but alas, no Phrygian transposition). I show this to Dan, and in the process of even telling him what I’m doing and what we’re doing, I learn and clarify four new bits of knowledge myself. And it turns out Dan knows Ableton Live, which I’m going to need to learn from him at some point. The student has become the teacher.

And it’s not just us hypergeeks in sound land. We swear that we can hear the actors while they hold, static on stage while the director and the lighting designer craft a look, and they are discussing podcasts and the relative merits of various popular sound technologies. More importantly, the constant feedback and sharing of knowledge and insight in the room is creating a new understanding of what’s actually happening in the room. This is the first Owen show performed entirely in the round, and the actors and director and designers and production team are all learning and sharing information about how that’s working. What’s remarkable about this room is that the feedback and information is flowing in almost completely positive and constructive ways. In telling each other what we see, we both redirect and continue the momentum we’ve built up. We learn the world better ourselves without shutting other possibilities down.

Talking Pictures has some oddly resonant themes that I can see leaking into (and from) our thoughts and conversations in the room – the public craves an advance in technology, entertainment delivers that advance in technology, and the advance in technology seems to both destroy lives and offer dangerously exciting opportunities. I think we’re seeing this combination of fear and opportunity a lot in a lot of fields today because of the leveling force of internet technologies. There’s a great deal of paradigm shift and fear in the air… Will the argument over new media kill television and film, are ipods making us all deaf, will digital downloads kill the music industry, is there a need for news in a world populated by bloggers, does user-driven content disable a common public dialogue and exacerbate philosophical divides between us, and will all of this shift lead to a big cataclysmic recession? These are all related questions, and the answers will prove that the questions didn’t even matter.

And yet, we can continue to teach and learn from each other. We can look out for each others’ flow and keep our mutual momentum going. This isn’t just frilly feel-good work, this is about opening connections. This process of checking in, of bouncing ideas off each other, of collaboration – that’s the process that the internet was built on, and the process that will yield the most rewards in the future. I couldn’t have completed my sound design for Bilal Dardai’s Contraption without the assistance and input of Stephanie Farina. As she learned my style of programming, it taught me to refine my style of programming and use her set of ears with mine to make something more compelling. Without that teaching process, it just wouldn’t be the same design. I wouldn’t have developed any sort of fearlessness in my work without a simple lesson from Smith College playwriting prof and Taoist master Len Berkman: “Always start with a bad idea. Then you won’t be afraid of that your ideas are bad. You’ll know they are.”

We need each others’ help to get big change in motion, and that means passing torches and being able to trust others to teach us and help us redirect our own adolescent prejudice. I wouldn’t know about half the things I know about how sound works in theater if my students hadn’t asked those questions that started with “How do you do….” I wouldn’t have become a confident artist capable of making strong choices if my teachers hadn’t turned to me and said, “Okay, what would you do here?” Do this for others, and you’ll see – feedback comes quicker, stronger, and more effectively.

Building a better community, a community that works better, begins with a very simple step:

“Hey, check this out! Look what I can do with this…”

So, What did you learn today?

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“I wanted to live, but I couldn’t,” or, Saved by the Theater you don’t expect

January 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

egyptbev.JPGI visited Bev a few days ago, for the first time since right after the accident.

Bev Longo had been our stage manager at New Leaf for our production of Accelerando two seasons ago. Bev is an accomplished MFA director who had worked as an assistant with Lookingglass, taught for years, but was having difficulty getting reconnected with the theater scene in Chicago and at that point was really interested in doing anything. I know her because she’s also the aunt of Lilly West, my counterpart sound operator for the Albert stage at the Goodman, who helped arrange the whole collaboration. Bev was quietly focused and almost religiously respectful of the theatrical process, and we desperately needed a capable stage manager, someone who would shepherd the project and help it grow. She sort of ended up as a mother figure for the show – running sound and projections in addition to the myriad props presets and stage sweepings and note taking that goes with stage management. She certainly was the central culture rock for the cast, and remains good friends with several folks, including New Leaf regular Tiffany Joy Ross. We hoped that she’d be interested in continuing our relationship with us at New Leaf by directing one of our upcoming shows, and indeed Bev was involved in the casting process for last season.

For a couple reasons, that never ended up happening, and it took me a while to understand why she ended up leaving the directing project suddenly, and with little explanation. Eventually, through much discussing with Lilly, I learned that Bev had a dream of starting a theater of her own, a dream that compelled her to focus her energies on her own work and not the often compromised collaborations with teams she couldn’t always trust. At the time, I didn’t understand and to be perfectly honest, didn’t trust that “go it alone” impulse, but now it’s something I’m beginning to feel a bit more myself. That need for complete trust and focus is strong when you really believe in your own work – when you decide to put all your eggs in that basket – and I think with where New Leaf was at the time, we couldn’t offer her that kind of complete support of vision that she could trust to the ends of the earth, which meant the time had come for her to forge her own path.

Bev was arranging space for her first Chicago production, I believe, when she was hit by a CTA bus at the corner of Belmont & Clark, on August 31st. She landed on her head and spend the next three days in a medically-induced coma. Life has a way of wiping away the petty drama when you least expect it.

Correction from Lilly: Bev was only medically comatose for about three days, which is when I saw her the first time, and the remainder of the three weeks was simply her stillness in recovery and from morphine and other pain killers. For those of you who have experienced a friend or relative with a head injury, this is a big difference – the longer a patient is comatose, the smaller their chances of recovery.

I don’t know why I stayed away so long. Maybe it was seeing her in the ICU, asleep and bandaged. Even though I knew whatever bad blood or disappointment may have existed between us didn’t matter to Bev anymore, I somehow still carried that idea around. I thought that if she had bad feelings about her time with New Leaf, I didn’t want to reawaken those memories with my presence. I tried to help Lilly with just being a sounding board, I suppose, as the family dealt with the massive change to their lives and the innumerable crazy things that happen when families need to come together again to cope with a big change. I didn’t even know what I could do for Amanda, Bev’s daughter, who I didn’t know as well but who had been suddenly thrust into the completely overwhelming situation of being the caregiver of her mother, and therefore needed all the help we could give. Bev eventually woke up from the coma, and like most head trauma cases has to go through a very long recovery process, which so far has involved three four very capable and dedicated care institutions (from Lilly: Illinois Masonic, RIC, St. Joseph’s, and now the Imperial. I wanted to include them before but didn’t have the details in front of me) Slowly movement returned, then some speech, then some sentences with mixed up but somehow still evocative words (When she was asked where she got hurt, instead of “I was hurt in my head” she jumbled up the words and said “I got hurt in my soul.”) Then, some memories came back, and the ability to read and write soon returned as well. In the last four and a half months, Bev has retrained her neural pathways from almost scratch, while retaining many of the long-term memories of her adult life.

This is truly one of the greatest battles we can face as human beings, as creatures – a journey back through our mind, finding our way to our body and our words after the old well-worn path has been lost. In that journey, you have a memory of your old mind and yet you cannot find it… the whole house of cards has fallen. The cards are still there, of course, but Bev has to put them together again, one by one.

I knew I was being childish about the whole visiting thing, so while we were working on Shining City – which is a play that really resonates with those that have suffered a similar loss in their family, let me tell you – I finally said to Lilly, let’s go. During tech, whatever, I wanted to see how Bev is doing. And I finally did.

As we walked into the room, I didn’t expect the constant laughter. From Bev, from me, from Lilly. Bev has changed, of course – her scars, her mind, but her heart is the same – wide open and excited to be alive. I say her mind, but I should be more specific – details are mixed up, like memories and vocabulary, but her cleverness and even wit are still there. Bev thrives on company, but Bev is the first person in her boat that I have ever heard of that still knows how to work her audience. When she can’t remember a word, she uses tricks to try to improv her way through. She’ll read voraciously to jog her memory… when she can’t remember the word for potato she’ll sneak out her printed menu from dinner and say “Oh, we had 1 starch for dinner.” And then she realizes that she’s goofed, and laughs with you. It’s hard, yes, but I also see it as downright inspiring. She is living, and engaged fully with her life, and she has a second chance.

She sat us down first thing and told us something, which coming from Bev is a very promising sign:

“Did you know… I was talking with Amanda, and… I didn’t realize before, but I almost died!” She walked us through her scars, with excited and eager eyes, and told us of the injuries and the surgeries that caused them, as pieces of the puzzle that she’s been putting together since she woke up. For the first time, her short term memory has improved to the point where she is now retaining her recent past, and discussions from a few days ago. And she tells her new stories with all of herself – hope and joy and wonder and self-deprecation.

Bev began writing in a journal the other day to help herself remember. Her written words are that tool she can rely on. It’s a tool that her sharp human mind can use to repair itself, survive and thrive. In her bedside table she reads and rereads her MFA dissertation, amazed at her own work and remembering bits and pieces of emotional detail, especially the signatures on the front from her advisors – “These are the people who liked me so much, they wrote it here.” Her dream from the last year of starting her own theater and directing again has resurfaced with a vengeance. She wants to write a play about what she’s been through, what she’s going through, what she will go through. She is writing with the purpose of remembering who she is, and her writing already reveals that she has a rich inner understanding that she cannot express yet through her damaged speech centers.

“I wanted to live, but I couldn’t.”

We’ve been talking at New Leaf about what it takes to write with your whole soul… Writing and creating with all the language that we possess, not just our words – our music, our dancing, our faces, our hearts. We’re trying to open up a new possibility of engaging with our work – going after the work and the themes that resonate with us from a multi-disciplinary approach. Intellect, Empathy, Touch, Music, Shape, Color… all our languages. Bev has always understood this kind of trust and completeness that you need to have in your own work. And she still has that trust that the work will help her through today.

I learned a lesson yesterday. I guess i knew it before, from my own experiences with teaching and stories of Theater eureka moments like Parabasis’, but I have never seen it and felt a calling to it as strongly as I did when Bev read me her journal two days ago. Theater, and the tactics of engagement that we use in the theater, can save your life. That’s why theater is valuable and worth fighting for. Theater and the crafting of theater can give us all purpose, and hope, and a reason to keep plugging away through overwhelming adversity. It can codify our stories and help us remember the things that matter. But you don’t get to compartmentalize the experience, and you don’t get to do it halfway – clapping politely, and forgetting the experience on the way to the parking garage. It’s an experience that changes you. It’s the hardest work you can do – opening up new neural pathways. And that means it’s not just the words on the page, it’s in the eye contact and the touch – in the connection. It’s acknowledging that we have an impossibly long journey ahead of us, and choosing to take that journey anyway, because we take it together.

God bless Bev Longo. She is one strong woman.

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