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The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Getting Things Done on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under normal circumstances, if you post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where do I know them from?

February 11, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Neat new trick you can do with the Chicago Theater Database. So neat, let’s do it on your snazzy mobile device.

Oh crap. You’re talking to your pals and you cant think of that show so and so was working on, or what company they work with. What was that show? DAMN IT!


Oh right. We know how to fix this. In our mobile web browser, let’s key in their full name as a URL with the path “artist”. As in: http://chicagotheaterdb.com/artist/so/andso

And now: Go there.


Oh right. There they are. No searching required.

Oh! Of course. He’s the sound designer for Touch. Doesn’t that close soon? Let’s click through.

Oh crap, that closes this week!

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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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Holy Crap, Hal is in my Computer

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

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

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

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

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

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The Demands of the Problem

January 24, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I may have been drunk with sleepy, and most certainly was typing hurriedly on my iPhone, but Simon luckily picked up on something in this comment over at the Next Stage: an accidental mantra for a new generation of independent theater.

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Multi-track Mixing with QLab and Audacity

January 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Tools

I was telling someone the other day that the goal of modern DIY design in theater is to get to the point where you can use design as agilely as an instrument. The flexibility, immediacy, and coordination one can throw at your work multiplies when you can reshape and work with your materials live in the space, reacting to other designers and performers who are playing with their instruments – whether it’s their voice, their bodies, their sets, their lighting, or their literal instruments.

So when a technique comes around that increases my own responsiveness as a designer, I get pretty stoked.

It’s buried in the wiki, but this explanation of creating multi-track WAVEX files in Audacity 1.3 [which is free] unlocks an amazing feature of the sound playback program qLab [which is free, and poised to release a hotly-anticipated version 2.0]. Bookmark it, and then let’s play, shall we?

Let’s take a real world example, like my recent collaboration with composer Stephanie Sherline on Rivendell’s production of These Shining Lives. We composed and arranged a number of themes for the show, including this one, which we called Music Box:

 

So, a couple of instrumental ideas here, all built using Logic Pro:

A clock metronome
A plucked harp
A rolling harp baseline
A clock counterpoint
A low bass drum heartbeat
A ratchet crank
A reverbed string section

Now Logic can easily bounce all these ideas as a simple stereo file and I could play that music through the main speakers just fine. But I’m gonna do something a little more magical.

I bounced each instrument separately as mono files, and imported them into a single Audacity file:

From there, we set Audacity to export with the multi-track WAVEX format. You can choose, when exporting, to mix certain tracks together or keep them distinct:

This creates a multi-track interleaved audio file, so as the computer plays back the file, all instruments will stay in time with each other. In many audio playback systems, multi-track mixing is achieved by playing several stereo files over each other, but this method can result in a certain amount of tempo drift as one file plays faster than another over a period of several minutes. Annoyance: avoided.

Now we drag this multi-track file into our qLab project, and edit the cue’s volume settings. We see a grid of crosspoints (also known as an audio matrix). Each row is one of our multi-track instruments, and each column is a speaker in the space.

Can you see what’s going on here? Each individual instrument can now be routed to its own speaker or combination of speakers to create a different audio shape, or image. So while our metronome clock tick can come quietly from the radio, our reverbed string section can waft lightly through the window. Or our main harp melodies can play against each other right to left through the main speaker system. It’s like the orchestra playing this music is hidden in different spots in the space, but they are still playing the music together.

In addition, I have added an eighth track, which is a reverbed version of the counterpoint clock tick. By adding in a variable amount of reverbed or “wet” signal to the “dry,” unaffected sound, you can make the overall tone of the music feel more distant or more present, more dreamy or more real.

All this can be done on the fly, as the director restages a scene or you see how the music times out with stage action.

With qLab’s fades, I can have individual instruments fade in or rest over time, or even appear to move around the space. A large, momentous reverbed clock tick coming through the mains can fade to become an ambient naturalistic clock tick coming through the radio. Or, I can adjust the masters for each row to use just one or two instruments in combination, varying the motif a bit. Here’s a version with just the Harp and the Ratchet:

 
or a pensive, waiting underscore:

 

That’s a lot of in-the moment flexibility, all with the same file.

These Shining Lives is now running at the Raven Theatre in Chicago through January 31st. More information at rivendelltheatre.net.

This post was sponsored by my good pal Andrew Wilder of LuxiousLabs, who bought me a medium Dunkin Donuts hazelnut with cream only. My favorite. You should check out his iPhone app, HelloCards, which allow you to send personalized greeting cards – yes, with pictures – from your iPhone. Many of the designs for HelloCards were created by my wife, Marni. (who is to Andrew as awesome is to also awesome.)

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The Point Between the Diminishing Returns

January 16, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

Arts organizations are increasingly finding themselves caught in this place between using unfamiliar technology in their work and rejecting technology outright to return to traditional roots. Which we’d never think of doing in say, health care. Take a look at arts marketer Adam Thurman’s recent explanation of why he doesn’t use Twitter:

All these things are just tools. They are all just Big Shinny Hammers. Don’t let tool selection distract you from the main job, which is create remarkable artistic content.

Only use social media tools that you think you could be the best in the world at using.

The immediate, quicksilver environment of rapid technological innovation forces a balancing act between overdoing it by investing in tons of equipment that is current, exorbitantly expensive, and difficult to master; or underdoing it by taking DIY to a level beyond one’s experience and risking the dreaded half-assed implementation of half-baked ideas. That’s when you wind up building a lightboard out of exposed parts from Home Depot.

I’ve given a lot of advice to people trying to avoid these twin fates, and there isn’t an easy solution, but I think this comes close to a couple good rules of thumb for any technology purchase:

1) In every situation, compare notes with a trusted advisor. Thse means asking several people and testing their answers against, well, reality, and then retaining the advice of one whose advice seems to most closely resemble informed common sense.

A trusted advisor should let you do the work so that you can work towards self-sufficiency.

A trusted advisor is a lot like a therapist in this way. They help you through your own blindspots.

2) Buy Used. eBay, craigslist and firesales: screw retail markup if you’re a non-profit. If you are or know a theater in trouble, keep the equipment in circulation by helping to broker liquidation sales with companies who aren’t in trouble. Use the advice you’ve collected to distinguish between cheap gold and cheap crap.

3) Learn how to maintain your equipment so that it lasts longer. This goes double for equipment you rent out – a great way to diversify income and offset the capital investment. Use the summer lull to clean and blow the dust out of old gear, and regroup. Keep the place where the equipment is stored: clean, cool, and free of soda bottles.

This may all seem *really* obvious, but actually following through with all three of these principle is really rare in theaters. Only a handful of the dozens of storefront booths that I’ve been in have been laid out intelligently and cleaned in the last five years, let alone regularly. These kinds of environments breed broken equipment – and other organizations suddenly flush with cash can generate a lot of waste because money becomes the convenient solution rather than ingenuity.

When the economy tanks, ignorance of the specific properties of your inventory becomes increasingly hubristic.

There is in both directions – too cheap and too expensive – a point of diminished returns. The question that you can ask to chart your path through technology: What has the greatest long-term value that will also serve my short-term needs?

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In Which I Drink My Own Kool Aid

January 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, projects, Teachable Moments

I don’t have a mug big enough.

It has just been awe-tastic to see the reactions coming from the audiences and the theatrosphere in particular about the three shows I’ve been working on for the past two weeks – Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones, Rivendell’s These Shining Lives, and of course, New Leaf’s production of Touch, all three of which opened to oversold performances this weekend (which of course was helped by the unusually limited seating in all three venues).

All three load-ins came abruptly following that wonderful and restful vacation to Hawaii I mentioned where I reconnected with family, especially my brother Zack, who I haven’t really seen since my wedding. The mix of long plane flights, time change, immersion in family, rest and then sudden lack of sleep and being witness to some earth shattering moments of theater (as well as several pieces of scary and sad health news from too many friends) that has been has kind of left me in a kind of lucid unbloggable dream state.

So now that the first real all-month theater bender of the year is in a lull, it’s time to get back on the blogging horse for what’s sure to be an exciting year. So, in no particular order, here are some updates in brief:

– I’m getting over as many hangups as I can this year. I feel like I’ve already got two down: working with the Wooster Group this week has helped me work through my irrational sense of competition with the NYC theater scene (I’m sure more on that later), and thanks to an internet innovation FROM New Leaf TO Me (that’s a new direction I’m happy to get used to!) I can now be found on Twitter. I’ve been reeeeeally hesitant to explore another web service that is that addictive (I have some co-dependancy problems in my relationship with my computer). But I was convinced, thanks especially to the examples of @travisbedard and what seems like the entire theatrical community of Vancouver, BC, to try to use Twitter as a lightweight fuel to throw on the fire of fast and furious community building. Tweets are now in the sidebar, and I’ve already got some dreams in the oven about how a Twitter Mob of theater lovers in Chicago might be used to amplify that hard-to-find word of mouth early in a show’s run.

– New Leaf has had a freaking killer week. The goal of any low-budget company that desires growth and a successful mission is to be good enough that your audience tells you why they like your work rather than you having to tell the audience why they should like you. Check out what everyone else is saying over at New Leaf, notably Kris Vire‘s Time Out feature on the company itself, and a Don Hall reaction that I will treasure forever. With this weekend’s reviews and audience input, and a run that chugs along through Valentine’s Day (can you imagine that date, Don?), we are armed with the feedback we need to go to some heavy hitters and get them to help keep our little theater chugging for years to come. The good news is: it won’t take much.

– Yeah, that was playwright Toni Press-Coffman commenting on the promo video for Touch in the comments of the last post.

– All that good news aside, my friends are sick, some more than others. I don’t feel right talking about their specific stories of struggle and hospital boredom in this venue, but theater folk are particularly vulnerable to the costs of health care and there’s one in particular that could use your help. Will Schutz, a brilliant but uninsured actor, side project company member and long-time member of the immortal Defiant Theatre, is having a benefit thrown in his honor – organized by playwright and friend Philip Dawkins – as he fights an illness at St. Francis Hospital. I leave you with Philip’s words:

Our friend Will is currently fighting an illness and, per usual, his hospital bills are pilling up way, way, way beyond his means. Chicago bar HYDRATE has very kindly donated their space to the friends of Will (and friends of friends, and strangers!) on Friday, January 23rd between 9 PM and 11 PM in order that we might come together to support our friend and offer up what we can to assist him financially. It’s PAY WHAT YOU CAN, with a suggested donation of $20, though any amount will get you an open bar (well drinks, domestic beer, wine, juice and soda), appetizers and some pretty terrific live entertainment, not to mention new friends. Every penny goes to Will.

If you’re not able to help out financially, no one understands that better than theatre folks and their friends. But we hope you’ll at least consider coming out to show your emotional support in person. And whether you’re able to make it or not, please keep him in your minds and hearts each and every day. He has requested ALL of your prayers and thoughts and well-wishes. God knows, Will is worth every penny you’re able to give, and every ounce of your energy and efforts. And if you don’t know him personally, trust us.

***If you want to donate but can’t come on the 23rd, shoot an e-mail to philipdawkins@gmail.com and we’ll send you information, as soon as we have it, on a forthcoming online payment option.***

Hydrate is at 3458 N Halsted St, directions can be found here. Pass it on.

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