Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Scrooge and the Baby Jesus Let Me Rest This Year

December 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Theater for the Future is going on vacation, y’all.

For the first time in… um… seven years? six years? I have the holiday week off – especially those coveted days before and after christmas.

So my mom and Marni and I are meeting up at my brother’s new pad – in Oahu. If you think I’m nuts, you should see Zack – who is learning to navigate by the stars on a traditional voyaging canoe and is contemplating a sea voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. Crazy bastard. We like to say to the in-laws that ours is a family of pirates. (I’m just a music pirate. Arrrr.)

The funny thing about this is I’m one of the few people that is loving the weather in Chicago these days – you know, the cold, stormy, snow-dumping weather. I guess I like a little variety, but I’m actually gonna miss being locked up for the winter with my blanket and hot cocoa. I’m not going to complain, but…

In any case, I’m excited to put my computer down for a while, and will certainly be picking it up with verve before the new year – Two designs opening and a big old O’Neill Festival to load in and tech in the first week of January. Until then, as much Zen as I can swim in.

For those of you braving your way through a busy holiday run schedule, my wish is that it will be your turn next. I got your back next year.

Mele Kalikimaka.

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Theater Media Roundup: Theaterforte is Back

December 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

A quick and dirty Theater Media Roundup for you today: Because this one is simple, and good.

Long-time foundation of the American theatrosphere (with one of the most prolific sidebars I’ve ever seen) Matt Slaybaugh of Theaterforte took some time off of blogging this year and recently returned with this video:

This is an ideal shoot-from-the-hip use of media to communicate an idea, and here’s why:

1) It’s edited. Do not. Ever. Say. The Word. Ummmmmmmmmmm. On Camera. You’d edit your blog post or play, right? Edit your video / podcast / smellcast. What’s bizarre to me is that many people fall into a habit of thinking of video & media editing as a way of *over-complicating* the content of the video. Editing a video is functionally no different from editing an essay, play, book, what have you. It’s just the art of focusing your delivery mechanism to your communication. I cannot stress this enough: The choice we have when we tap technology to serve our message or story isn’t as simple as “Ornamentation or Nothing at all. If you’d like a great example of how effective low-budget and low-time-investment simple spliced transitions can be, see also Ze Frank. I do like how Slay doesn’t overedit here – he lets us in on the energy and humility of generating honest and personal thought, without letting us get completely mired in his moments of unrehearsed distraction.

2) I know what Slay sounds like now. I cannot stress how important this is to an online collaborative culture. The big difference between the page and the stage is that you have to make choices about your voice, the words (and therefore ideas) that you stress, the intention of the words that you’re saying. Same is true of blogs versus online video. The web strips our emotions and irony out of our words, unless we’re consciously adding them back in, like this: Bam! Not so with video. Slay communicates his sincerity and excitement for the new direction of his theater company without fear of misinterpretation.

3) Slay stays honest in video. A little bit like staying crispy in milk. When you’re able to communicate honestly in one media, that’s no indication that you’ll be able to communicate in another media. This was the big leap I had to make when I started this blog: I felt like I could communicate honestly through sound, but I still struggle every post with keeping my writer’s voice honest, because it’s not a muscle I exercise as much.

The answer is often: simplify, and return to doing what you do, even if you do it in a new format.

4) Form follows function. The idea: The internet is an important tool for generating discussion and collaboration. The form: let’s remove the normal misinterpretation of tone and intention that comes with most blog posts and put a human face to things. That’s why this is a better video post than a blog post.

I think this struggle with honesty where most theaters are at right now with their New Media experiments – in both attempts at marketing and attempts at incorporating video projections into shows – it’s about learning to be honest through a new method of communication. Clearly, I still need to learn that blog posts should be short. It’s frustrating, and there are failures. It’s very surprising to me that there is so little patience in the theater community for this process, that there’s this idea out there that adding video to a theater’s website or incorporating technology into a play’s design is either universally pointless or necessarily detrimental to the work itself. Of course, we have to concede that theaters hurt themselves when they use new media in ways that are inappropriate to their identities as artisans, and that happens when they don’t take the time to develop and incorporate the technology all the way. But when a theater’s use of new media does match their aesthetic closely, sparks fly. It’s like what happens when a performer learns to really project for the first time. The voice begins to soar around the space, jettisoned from their diaphragm, and suddenly, a simple technique has amplified the performer’s power and presence. Do you need it? No. Does it help? If appropriate, hells yes.

As promised, I’ve written a little something on the process for Touch that will be showing up on the New Leaf Theatre blog today. It includes a little narrative peak into my sound design process for this show. Hope you like it – and thanks for all the words of excitement for the show, you local gang you. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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Talking about Touch

December 16, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

A follow-up for you content-lovers out there:

I just got back home from my second design run of Touch. Something happened tonight.

Something Something Something.

Something Something Something Something I can’t tell you yet. That was EIGHT somethings, not one that got repeated. EIGHT. SEPARATE. SOMETHINGS.

I will say this: I have never had to take care not to spill tears onto my computer while I took notes for a cue list before. While gut laughing as if my life depended on it. That is a first for me now. I keep that with me from this point on.

The cast and crew have been exploring the specific and for me whole-body-shuddering content of Touch over at the New Leaf Blog for a couple weeks now, and I’ll be weighing in, oh… Thursday.

I think this play might have cured my insomnia for one night. I’m going to need to go hug my wife now.

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I can sleep when I’m dead

December 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Here’s how I know how important coffee is in my life:

I recently ditched Quicken (which was more of a clutching / heaving action that ‘ditch’ implies) in favor of the online tool Buxfer, which while very much in beta (who isn’t these days?) has a powerful tagging system that I can use to quickly assign each financial transaction in my life to various projects, which is a must when you freelance as much as I do. This helps me boil down the holiest of holies: A project-by-project summary of which projects reward me and which bleed me dry. It also keeps me on a very simple weekly or monthly budget for things like eating out.

Also, Buxfer has a really sweet iPhone interface, which has allowed me to balance my checkbook while on the train, saving me a ton of work time without appearing to be that guy. Is it good for theaters? I think if you’re small enough and aren’t doing fully audited financials yet and just need better organization, yes. Buxfer is primarily designed for just-post-college folks who tend to share a lot of bills and need to manage their finances with roommates. This has led to a host of features that are good for collaborative bookkeeping –

A) You can link multiple accounts relationally, which means you can pretty easily create an accessible abstraction of your current financial situation – one account per department, or personal accounts can track loaned money to the company account – however you need to organize it.

B) It’s online and syncable with multiple bank accounts, so it’s easy to get a quick snapshot of your cash flow.

C) You can keep show AND department AND company budgets organized on top of each other, and because of the tagging system, any single transaction can be deducted from any number of budgets. Each budget can also be tracked annually, monthly, weekly, or an a number of different schedules.

D) Buxfer was designed with purpose of tracking mini personal loans between people, so it’s “Money Owed” section allows you to very carefully track personal reimbursements that need to be repaid to any number of individuals or companies.

D) There is a bill scheduling system (and a day-to-day cash flow projection graph) which can help immensely with cash flow tracking if you’re waiting on renting those dimmers until your grant is coming in.

F) If you’ve got an iPhone, you can stand in your theater next to your set that clearly needs another coat of paint and quickly get an answer to: “Yes, we have room in the budget for $36.40 of additional paint expense. But don’t go over that.”

It’s not all roses and honey bees. Buxfer feels like a late beta web application – not quite all the way done yet – and while I’ve been able to successfully load in six years of complex freelancing financial data without too many hiccups, one of those hiccups has been periodic duplication of synced transactions, which has given me one or two heart attacks so far. The user interface sometimes does slightly wonky things, but even in playing with it for a couple months, they’ve developed new features at a rate that makes me confident that they’re heading in a really exciting direction.

Buxfer is free, with a very affordable upgrade (a couple bucks a month, paid annually) for unlimited budgets and bank accounts. That means it has to monetize a bit more somehow, and in their case, they have you by the crotch – they know where you spend your money, so they can serve you with cut-to-the-heart ads that they *know* you’ll fish out the wallet for.

Here’s what greeted me in my Buxfer sidebar this morning:

What do you think? A coffee franchise might just be the thing somedays, that last thin mint of life management that will help reduce my cost of living to a couple pennies while providing great benefit.

I want an Intelligentsia in my theater.

Not really. But kinda.

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Yaaaaay Words.

November 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

H/T to Mirror up to Nature for drawing attention to Isaac Butler and Rob Kendt‘s latest project – The Critic-O-Meter, which Isaac at least has been hinting at for a couple months now. Using as much data collection as allowed by nature with subjective reviews, their project seeks to derive a letter grade from the collected reviews of every Broadway and Off-Broadway show in Le Grande Pomme. Stamp. of. Approval.

New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski also pointed me in the direction of this handy tool which demonstrates how beautiful data analysis can be. I’ve been thinking for a while now about collecting some word clouds from theater company and blog sites and displaying them to help provide some biofeedback about the words coming out of our mouths. These Wordles are only made from the most recent 6 posts from the following blogs, So as always, the more data you feed in, the more illuminating the analysis.

Theater for the Future:

Don Hall:

Steppenwolf Blog:

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones:

All images created by Wordle under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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Curb Your Hysteria

November 26, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments


It’s amazing how fast the vibrating glow of hopefulness that was the post-election Chicago Theater scene chilled to a blind panic once the first shows started to shutter their doors. I miss that hopefulness. Miss it desperately, actually, because it seems that it wasn’t given a chance to unpack. I miss the stiff-upper-lipped approach that Barack proposed in his acceptance speech – “we have a lot of hard work to do, and we’re gonna get this done.”

In the last week, I have received about four e-blasts from medium-sized, and highly respected theater companies in town asking for emergency donations – in which they either explicitly or implicitly imply that they’re about to shutter their doors. Things are certainly bad, but as the communications of impending disaster started piling up, I couldn’t help but wonder… With people losing their jobs (including theater jobs), houses, ability to feed themselves, and get through one of the leanest holiday seasons of our lifetimes, is funding theater in the same ways a priority for the communities that we are part of this month?

So that’s why I think the Zeitgeist today belongs to the clear-headed Dan Granata.

You can’t spend any amount of time starting into the heart of darkness that is our aggregated numbers [on the Chicago Theater Database] and not seriously rethink one’s personal ambitions for a life in Chicago theatre and our collective goals for the community as a whole. So if there’s a “secret agenda” to the CTDB, it’s this: to help us move into the Fourth Age of Chicago Theatre….

The storefront movement has thus far failed to become a bonafide transformational model because we have no concept of what defines us beyond “small” and “underfunded.” We have no idea what success looks like for Storefront Theatre that doesn’t involve becoming a Regional Theatre (or, much less likely, a Commercial Theatre). And if you don’t know who you are or what you are trying to achieve, you can’t make the decisions that will take you there.

Dan’s not the only one rethinking the trajectory of theater this week and best how to come together to offer something productive for our patrons. Ye Olde Hat Tippe to Butts in Seats for taking a comment of mine and running with it:

One observation I wanted to make that no one really preempted was that despite how broken (and increasingly going broke) the existing system of funding the arts is, it seems to me that since about the beginning of the 20th century the arts world has been given the breathing space to discuss these issues on a large scale.

This may be news to those actors, musicians and visual artists who are waiting tables, watching kids and working as customer service reps at insurance companies for as their first through third jobs in order to support their creative activities.

And offline, I got a wonderfully thoughtful email from someone who saw my disappointment (actually, some random patrons’ disappointment) with Dirty Dancing and other big-box spectaculars running in Chicago as a big old missed opportunity:

The theater has become an attraction for its own sake. What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step… But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners.

Update: Benedict Nelson, the commentor above, is an excellent blogger from Chicago who I was previously unaware of! For Shame, Nick of the past! Check out his blog, The@re and his thoughts on why to defend the revival and what classics offer for the content of theater today.

Given the level of panic in the American bloodstream right now, I don’t know if this is an effective time to forward a bill to your patrons – instead, it’s is a time to reconnect people with what they get from the theater. Let’s break it down: we’ve had hundreds of productive posts about what exactly that is on the theatrosphere in preparation for moments like this. If the human landscape of an economic meltdown is depression, loneliness, panic, hopelessness, and hysteria, Theater offers the power and agility of communal imagination that it wields is a powerful tool to fight those forces of societal atrophy, and we are people who know how to create moments that jolt people out of their normal thinking habits and see things from a new angle.

Let’s face it: Theater artists are the BEST at being poor and continuing to function.

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

We need make the theater a warm place to be again, rather than some additional source of guilt and financial drain. We need to support the efforts of each other, and identify and fill the needs of our patrons. We are people who know how to throw the best parties in dark times (post-Weimar Germany, anyone?), because we focus our energies and resources on the creativity of the party rather than the expensive trappings of the party.

And if you can’t afford to produce? Re-concept your show and relocate until you CAN afford to produce. You can do it. I believe in you.

My personal guru, Lynn Baber, says to our students at Cherubs every year: “You have to give focus to get focus.” So with that in mind, if you’re reading this and wondering, where do I donate my spare bucks before the holidays?: Don’t donate to my theater right now. We’ll survive, and we’ll still have another great show for you to enjoy in January, because we’ve been very careful with our money and our debt load, and we know how to make a pretty amazingly good soup out of leftovers.

But speaking of soup, please do put your money somewhere where it will do some good for people in your neighborhood this holiday season. More people than normal are hungry, and facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, and we can help them get back in touch. Invite your theater family over for thanksgiving dinner. Hunger makes people hysterical, and makes social problems much harder to solve. It’s time to take a breath, be thankful that we have enough, and help solve these problems with society through art in a lasting way.

While you ponder, let’s all stop being so serious already (I have a big problem with this). That’s why I hope to see something different this holiday season in between shows – WNEP’s SCHMUCK DIE HALLEN or the Neo-Futurists’ A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol.

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Chicago Theater Database Update: The Count

November 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Cross-mentioned at the Chicago Theater Data Blog, natch…

New Features in the Chicago Theater Database Today! I’ve turned on a number of aggregating counters that will be used in future sorting functionality, but for the moment I’m having fun seeing who exactly are the busiest artists (weighted to benefit the most prolific playwrights), companies, venues and most-produced plays in the existing and evolving online census of Chicago Theater.

Lots more analysis to check out about the Chicago Theater scene – and thanks to a number of our contributors who have been knocking off a TON of history and program input projects in the past few weeks.

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Geniuses whose reflection will help you

November 14, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Let me direct your attention, especially all you feed-readers out there, to the little green widget in my sidebar that I have labeled “Big Ideas”. This is, in my humble opinion, a feed of some of the most mind-blowing thoughts on infrastructure and analysis on the theatre web. It is culled from a hundred or so blogs that I read regularly, and “Big Idea” status is only conferred on most enriching content out there. And you can even subscribe and save yourself all that work if you so choose. So enjoy.

That said, two special mentions today for folks I don’t normally link to:

Scrappy “Jack” John Clancy reposts his essay on the rehearsal process, which reads as fresh as a lime soda. Though, as a designer, I have to take issue with the idea that it is “Best to forget about the play entirely during technical rehearsals and leave the poor actors alone.” But of course, he’s mainly talking about managing actor energy, not a director’s energy. Good stuff.

And if you haven’t read Dark Knight Dramaturgy yet, (the amazing Chicago expat Dan Rubin, who is now in the literary department at ACT), today’s the day to start. Dan’s posts are nothing short of illuminated in general, but he begins a series today on effective strategies and resources for playwrights to get their works included in some of the most high-profile festivals in the country. Knowing Dan’s approach to literary management (Dan was both dramaturg for New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl and assisted greatly during the Goodman’s Horton Foote Festival), I can say with trust: he’s your man on the inside.

This post in particular is a must-read for all you underproduced playwrights out there.

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