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August 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

So Patrick said this:

There has been much discussion about the right of playwrights to demand adherence to every word and stage direction in their script. Some have gone so far as to claim that no-one has right of copyright on any aspect of production of their work except for the playwright. This growing movement of animosity against directors and designers should give one pause.

And Tony said this:

One clause that I can’t abide in a lot of non-licensing houses contracts is the one that states the playwright has authority to approve pretty much everyone working on a show. Because they are creative artists, the Dramatists Guild would have you think, they are the focal point of the creation of theatre. Everything onstage is their vision and everything is subservient to the writer.

But how creative is a playwright writing about–dare I say interpreting–their lives, current events, stories they’ve heard or come across? And how is this different from directors, actors, designers?

And Isaac said this:

There’s a number of separate issues this raises, and I think it conflates a couple that should be kept separate. The first one is simply the idea of gratitude and humility amongst collaborators. Couldn’t agree more. We are lucky to do this, and lucky to work with people who are also lucky to do this, …

To me, changing the text (and here I mean the spoken words, not the stage directions which is a separate and very muddy issue) of a play without the playwright’s permission is pretty near inexcusable. When we decide to do a script, we are agreeing to do the whole thing, and giving ourselves permission to change the text when we want to would open a whole Pandora’s Box that gets us very quickly down a slippery slope to censorship.

Now, it should be said that I work with Patrick, and indeed have collaborated with him on a project or two, so I’m sympathetic to what he’s saying here – I was there listening to the Horton Foote interview that inspired his post with him, and we compare notes a lot. So I understand his largely design and technical viewpoint and vocabulary and I have shared some common non-blogging experiences – including many times where a playwright has behaved in a way that damaged their own show. Or a director made choices that damaged a show. Or a designer made choices… well, you get the idea. I think we can all see these things coming, and sometimes the train wreck caused by ego or dogma is the only thing worth the price of admission. But it’s important to acknowledge that we all have blind sides to the ways that we can also be a hindrance to the process, and it’s often our professional dogma that creates those blinders.

Certainly a lot of the overreactive conversation that was generated from these posts – and which somehow both Patrick and Isaac tried to avoid – can be chalked up to the divisive mechanism that is blogging and commenting – it’s a rich topic with many facets and thus there was quite a bit of subject shift on to Horton Foote said this (he didn’t) or Copyright law dictates that. Blogs have agendas, and a lot of the conversation didn’t really gain traction.

What I saw here was a dawning understanding of how theater will be transforming during our generation. Playwrights are dissatisfied with the industry-standard process. Directors are dissatisfied. Designers and Technicians are dissatisfied. And dissatisfaction, as we all know, is a good thing to have in rehearsal for the real performance.

Tony followed up with a question that, I’ll be honest, bothered me a lot:

In the rhetorical battle for supreme dominance of theatre there are writers in one corner, directors in another, institutions in another, indy companies trying to hold down the fourth.

Where does that leave actors? Ya know, the only ones that actually are needed for theatre to happen?

Actors certainly have good reasons to be silent on this issue, since they like to work. I think that may ultimately speak to their foresight on the issue, which I’ll get to later. What bothers me about Tony’s question is that it continues the flawed assumption that the way to sustain the meagre power structure of theater is to separate playwrights, directors, performers, designers, and administrators into opposing camps that must check and balance with each other for artistic control. The underlying assumption that Patrick, Tony, and Isaac all seem to make for the convenience of making a point is that one can assume that any person filling a role such as playwright, director, designer, or actor, will be the primary or legitimate shepherd of the work. These guys don’t believe that those rules are absolute, I’m sure, and yet we seem to be separating the relationship of the playwright or the actor to their work to be fundamentally different from other artistic roles.

The person who should be allowed to shepherd the work is the person, collaborator, or team who is best able to understand and articulate the story through their craft, whatever it is. It can’t be assumed that the playwright will be that person, even if they wrote the words down. How often are the words in the way of telling the story? I have been in rooms where, objectively, the playwright is the one person who isn’t working to tell the same story as the rest of the team. And I understand how deflating that is, because I’ve been that person in the room as well. But in those cases the team is right to move the collective story forward. At least the playwright can license their work on to another theater and eventually see their vision realized. When my designs are ruthlessly cut – yes, sometimes without my knowledge or agreement – no one ever sees them and they cease to be. The work is lost. And if the work didn’t serve to tell that elusive story, it deserves to be lost.

Sometimes the story is best articulated by the audience. Batman & Robin remains one of my favorite yet still awful movies of all time, and it’s not because of the script, direction, acting, or those god awful costumes with latex nipples: It’s despite all that crap. It’s because I saw the movie in an empty theater with friends and we felt empowered to scream at the screen while the movie went on, creating a rich MST3K / Rocky Horror-esque performance to go along with the film.

And didn’t Brecht say something about that once?

I understand Isaac’s point that, well, free interpretation without notification is not how copyright works now. And that’s certainly a fair and accurate “best practices” point to make. But this was always a conversation about what should be, not what is today, so I feel like defying his impulse to quash this particular thread. This is a question of: What should be the policy that we fight for as we all journey together into uncharted waters of arts management in this nation’s history? When is the law or our personal dogma in the way of our work? I’d say: most of the time. I would like to work to make the law safe for artists to benefit from their work without being dogmatic about how a process is supposed to look or behave. One really promising area of exploration here is the emerging Creative Commons options for artistic licensing – a system that both protects the artistic intentions of artists while also allowing for financial protection and various levels of artistic freedom.

And so it’s ultimately it’s that gratefulness that Horton Foote has felt – the gratefulness that any of us get to collaborate with others who check our assumptions and push our work forward – that provides the richest environment for working. Gratefulness doesn’t mean complicity, and it doesn’t mean obedience, but it does mean respect. And when we are grateful for the presence of our collaborators, we drop the poisonous, clutching kinds of ownership and battle of ideas and the process gains a flow and a respect that serves the story. The process becomes less of a zero sum game and more like horticulture. Ideas grow in well-fertilized soil, and when shoots go off in the wrong direction, we don’t burn the plant with pesticide… we bend them back or trim them gently and let the damn thing continue to grow in a revised direction.

What I think Patrick was reacting to was that there are these emerging notions – or in some cases, entire schools – of self-righteousness in theater that make these odd claims along the lines of “where I stand is the center of the theatroverse.” There is this desire to create new paradigms for the theater, and those desires have begun spouting a whole bunch of inspiring but also scary-looking dogma. What I heard from Patrick was actually a call to reason – the fundamental idea that trust in collaboration – the most simple act of sharing ideas and impulses – and appreciation of that collaborative process will feed the work better than strict adherence to any given text, directorial theory, or design principle.

A while ago Isaac made the claim that the value of theater comes from collective imagination, and I have come to hold that as the fundamental principle behind effective theater – which I’ll define (poorly) as theater capable of changing a perspective. So: theater’s effectiveness isn’t generated by the words that the playwright selects for the play, or the way the actor says them, or the blocking and emotional beats that the director has arranged, or the music, scenery, lighting, costumes, puppets, projections or smells, or whether an audience member can sit without fidgeting for two hours. It is whether any of these people can for a moment create or spark an image in each others’ minds that makes the theater worth doing. And we should all find a way – and be permitted by a fair licensing scheme – to try to make those moments happen together.

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Great Expectations

February 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Well, well, it’s a public brouhaha!

It’s not really in the purview of the adrenaline dose that is the TimeOut Chicago exposé to sort out the dust and mud that gets kicked up in the process, so I’m glad that Patrick over at BackstageJobs has already started to explain some more of the background of TOC’s article this week on the Bailiwick’s rosy picture of its own financial woes and those of us who cried foul. This was a conversation that Tony started in response to a a few weeks ago, and has been picking up steam as a story ever since. And don’t read me wrong here – I’m thankful also to Jake Malooley and TOC for doing what they do best – shining the light down in the ugly boiler room of Chicago theater we’d rather forget about and not being afraid to break down a few doors to get down there. I’m just saying now someone’s got to repair the hinges, is all.


What has happened since the initial volley of public venting is a general agreement among several of us mentioned in the article that this kind of issue doesn’t simply exist at the Bailiwick – it’s an industry-wide problem of theaters that are taking advantage of the semi-pro semi-volunteers that work for them. And it’s very rarely a case of the big malicious theater exploiting the unsuspecting artist. It’s more about the consequences of willful ignorance. Most theater managers, Zak included, have the absolute best of intentions and they truly believe they are providing artists with opportunities and reasonable access to the industry. This is a problem of miscommunication leading to unintentional exploitation.

From my own experience, the Bailiwick was one of the first theaters I worked at in town for a single reason: they post jobs constantly, and at the time they came up pretty high on a google search for “Chicago Theater Companies.” That makes them a very appealing theater to someone who doesn’t know the scene and is, as I was, green, green, green. I had a rough, confusing experience there, but I was paid what I was promised. A later production I remain unpaid for, but in the scheme of things I don’t really care about the money, and I won’t be knocking on Zak’s door to collect, ever, thus completing the skip-to-my-loo solution that Zak proposes:

“I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be angry,” he says. “If someone says to me, ‘I had a $100 check and I couldn’t cash it,’ I would say, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go get it cashed. Let’s solve it.’”

One of the reasons I never made a big deal about that particular fee is that I’m largely at fault for not being paid – I never insisted on a contract before performing the work. I was even hired on the Bailiwick’s behalf through another artist, and David and the business manager at the time weren’t even involved in the conversation, and that’s my fault for continuing to work without a written agreement. More experienced theater artists and vendors don’t make this mistake – most of the people I’ve talked with that do business with the Bailiwick and frankly, most theaters, are on a 100% – 50% COD policy with them before work is performed and goods are delivered.

There’s another big reason I’ve never gone collecting – I’ve made that lost dough back in indirect trade. In an industry as poor on cash flow as this, we cannot underestimate the power of trade to solve disputes. I’m no longer angry at Zak, which is one of the things I tried to communicate to TOC before the article came out. I’m glad the conversation happened, but I want to make it clear that this needs to turn into a conversation about best practices for every theater and freelance artist in town, not simply one theater company that has a bad reputation. As Patrick says, bad reputations will come and go. The ANGER came from a very specific and recent incident of not $100 but $3000 that he owed a close friend of mine, putting that friend in serious financial trouble for several months. Since the blog conversation but before the TOC article, David has made amends for that debt. I know that David’s capable of great and honest generosity… one of the things I mentioned to TOC is that David was directly generous to my own theater – the Bailiwick loaned us a dusty and unused lightboard free of charge for several of New Leaf’s productions, including our breakout show The Permanent Way. I don’t know what we would have done without that board for that show, and that was more than worth walking away from a couple productions unpaid.

I don’t relive all this to add fuel to this particular fire – I mention it because one of the ancillary skills that all theaters and freelancers need to get together and develop right away is the ability to write, read and live by contracts for all work done in any theater, before that work is done, and no matter how small the producing company. If we want Chicago Theater to be anything but a well-intentioned golem chewing up emerging artists and young companies in a cycle of missed reimbursements and shabby rental spaces, we all need to get really specific about what we expect from each other, and we need to have a fair and equitable mechanism to hold companies and individuals who don’t follow through on promises accountable. Too often the contract discussion becomes about money, and I think it’s unrealistic to limit agreements to that in theater – it needs to be about all our resources – time, equipment, in-kind donations, space, working conditions – everything we rely on.

We’re all about quickly converting lessons and theory to calls to action on the blogosphere these days, which I think is pretty sweet. Here’s what I’d say is a call to action that can is fair to new theater immigrants and the Bailiwicks of the world and will even the playing field a bit:

1) Insist on a contract for work that you do, even if unpaid. If a company doesn’t give you an agreement, write it for them. Don’t just bitch about your past grievances – write them down in a sample contract and map out things you’re willing to put up with for the art, and things you’re never willing to put up with. Some examples:

  1. I will not put up my own money for show materials and be reimbursed later – if I agree to procure goods to aid the production, I will be provided with funds from the company before the purchase is made.
  2. I will be paid half of my fee no later than a week before opening, and the remainder of the fee at strike
  3. I will be provided a safe place to store my valuables
  4. I will not be expected to go up on a ladder
  5. Tech week notes will be given to me in a timely fashion – no later than 12 hours before they are expected to be implemented in the production
  6. Company is responsible for equipment or property donated in-kind to the production run, and will be liable for $XXX replacement cost in the event of theft or damage.

You know, whatever it is you need to do your work safely and happily. It’s your contract. You decide what goes in.

Some clauses may not fly in any given agreement – but both parties will know what to expect from each other, and disputes will be more easily resolved, because they’ll be resolved calmly before the pressure is on. That’s the beauty of a friendly and simple legal document.

If a company or individual isn’t willing to draw up a simple one-page contract, or if they find it unnecessary – that’s your first sign right there that maybe they won’t be willing to follow through on other promises they make to you, like paying you – or paying you back.

normal_fgw_337.jpg2) Under no circumstances should you rent space from a company without first reviewing a contract, inventory of provided equipment and services. I actually think that boilerplate agreements for all rental spaces in Chicago should be transparent enough to go right on the public League of Chicago Theaters Wiki, allowing theater companies a clear comparison of what renting each space entails. Aside from the dough involved, these agreements should include clauses regarding:

  1. Hours of Operation, AND all hours available to a rental company
  2. Noise levels permitted
  3. Dressing Room square footage and conditions
  4. Box office services or space provided
  5. Lighting & Sound Inventory in working order
  6. Heating & Cooling regulations
  7. Trash removal

3) Both of these kinds of agreements taken together can accomplish something kind of extraordinary for a small theater – taken together, they quantify the costs, time, and human resources required to produce a show. As any grant writer will tell you, that’s a difficult number to pin down and it’s invaluable when justifying more funding for your theater. Letters of agreement provide a buffer of understanding and that can pay off in load in and tech week. Too many small companies will try to shoot the moon and go into a production without knowing exactly who will staff the box office or who will take out the trash. That’s the kind of oversight that will make your artistic team really cranky, and that’s not good for the art.

4) You’re not going to get it right the first time, that’s why contract negotiation is a skill and not something you cut and paste off the internet. Give yourself some time for a nice healthy post-mort after every show you do, and work the conflicts and the confusion into your next contract. I keep a word document on my computer, and I’ll just add a line when a behavior becomes unacceptable to me. I’m getting to the point where I’m going to add “Sound Designer will be provided with a simple and stable tech table in the space for load in and tech,” because I have an array of computers and hard drives that will get damaged if they’re sitting between the seats. Or, maybe I’ll just suck it up and get over it… and buy a table myself that I take with me (Tax write off, anyone?). Either way, I’m working happier, my equipment is less likely to be damaged and I’ve taken the responsibility I’m comfortable with taking for my own working conditions. I’ve made it easy on the theater that I’m working with, but that also means I’m more likely to get aggressive if they renege on paying me on time. Patrick’s example for being aggressive with a delinquent company is perfect:

3 different lighting designers tell me of the show they worked on where the paycheck never came. They continued to design and program the show with the promise that the check would be there at first preview, then at third preview, and then “definitely at opening.” These three designers, each designing at different theatres on different shows for different companies at different times, all arrived at their theatres early, saved the show(s) to disk, pulled the disk out, and ERASED THE SHOW FROM THE LIGHTING BOARD. They then waited until the SM or PM arrived to inform them that there would be no lighting for the show until they had a check in their hand. In at least 2 cases, they were the only ones to get a check that night (though others had been given the same promises runaround).

You can’t just pull this kind of behavior off and expect to keep your reputation for being a team player. You need to be crystal clear with those that you work with from the moment you begin a job: This is how you can work with me to develop a happy and mutually beneficial relationship, and this is what you can do that will make me go nuclear and take away your ability to produce the show you want. If you don’t have that legal foundation when you want and/or need to go nuclear, you’re up a creek. If you have the legal foundation, however… well, when the TOC exposé is written about it later you can pull out your contract and your notes of exactly how the producing company acted in bad faith.

I know reading and writing contracts makes most of our eyes cross, or even worse, saddens us because it injects a certain amount of litigious behavior into the art. But I don’t think that sadness gets us off the hook – if we throw up our hands and refuse to do it in the name of simplicity or faith in humanity we get only what we deserve – unaccountable rental houses and theater companies that have an unforgivable habit of running us over in defense of their own survival. I think we’d all rather take the time to write a one-page contract and update it from time to time than risk trusting someone we shouldn’t that they’ll pay us back for all that lumber and winding up $3000 in debt with no freaking recourse. And, if more of us who do act in good faith work to protect that good faith, we can all breathe a little easier in the future.

And the streets will be made of cheese.

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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Empathy

January 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Tool BoxIn what I’m hoping will become a regular series on this blog, I’d like to showcase one of the tactics and tools that is always available to the storefront theater or artist to accomplish their self-development goals.

The recent hot topic of conversation in the Chicago Theater blogosphere has been the “regional theater disease” of hiring actors from NYC when we could be using our local pool of talent more. It’s an issue that riles great passion in many folks, and there’s a great deal of blame that gets thrown around on both sides of the equation. It’s also a problem that needs a lot of heads thinking about a viable solution and a roadmap to achieving that solution.

However you feel about the issue, if your goal is to really end the problem as quickly and permanently as possible, I find it’s often best to not start with a complete declaration of war and revolution against those making decisions. As much as I love to cheerlead on this site, I believe that real change happens faster and more completely when you use tactics of understanding and dialogue with the people that have the power to influence the situation. Speak Truth To Power, and have them Speak it Right Back. I believe these people are trying to serve the interests of the community, but the interests of the community are so complex that it is inevitable that they both succeed and fail somewhat depending on the perceived priorities of their organizations.

To put it simply: There isn’t currently a switch you can throw and make it a no-brainer to hire local talent over NYC talent. There’s crap in the road towards that beautiful shining city on the hill. We need to first identify what the roadblocks are. We need to realize that since we’re in the same car with the folks driving us there, we’re better served by pulling a better map out of the glove compartment than telling them to pull over in dangerous territory. This isn’t a father-knows-best argument – I’ll wager that everyone’s flying just as blind as we are. It’s just that theater itself is in trouble here, and the more we foster cooperation between individuals, small organizations, and large organizations, the more we can improve conditions for all of us.

So how to pick the brains of the folks currently in charge and figure out what they’re paying attention to? How do you convince them that your idea is something that is worth doing, something worth prioritizing? Empathy is hugely powerful in problem solving challenges of this scale. Start by reading what they’re saying, and understand what their focus is through their own words.

(The image here is of course from the hilariously dead-on regional-theater-spoof Slings and Arrows, which delves into these issues in a far more entertaining way that I’m doing here. See. It.)

Everyone involved in any complex problem is still a human, and most folks act from largely self-perpetuating motives (usually still with a bit of the faded youthful idealism of wanting to make the world a better place and correct injustice – so that’s an in with almost everyone). Researching, understanding, and redirecting those motives often can benefit all parties. Empathy gets two people butting heads to put down the rattling sabers and discuss contracts, concessions, grants and real action. Empathy helps win over groups of people at once – a positive message is almost always more effective than a negative one. Empathy helps you understand when someone could be receptive to an idea, and when they just need to grab a bite to eat and please get out of the way.

A Little More Coffee For You?Empathy is a tool learned by every good intern on the first day. You’re new, you’re green, you can see that your entire career depends on just a few people noticing you and valuing you enough to give you recommendations and jobs. There are interns who rightly call this bullshit, and refuse to play the game. Then there are interns who watch everyone on staff like a hawk. They get to know the personalities of the staff, not just their roles and responsibilities. They see when an artistic director forgets her script everywhere she goes, and they know to be there to pick it up and hand it to her. They see where they can be useful and make the process easier. They see that the director of development is insecure about their interaction with the artistic staff, so they engage the director with conversation about their thoughts on the last play and help pump up their ego, self-confidence, and trust. They do all this so that they will earn the trust of those who have the power to make change. It’s a mutual exchange… the intern here isn’t lying to get ahead, they’re learning how the folks in powerful staff positions think, and engaging with that thought process for the time when they will be in power. They can learn simply by keeping the flow of creative energy in the room open.

Empathy is also a tool that can help a theater drastically improve its relationship with the audience. How does the audience feel when they walk into your space? What does your space tell them? How do your plays make them feel, and how do those feelings mesh with the artistic goals of your play? Empathy is an essential ingredient in fostering the trust that a subscriber feels for your theater.

So, back to the problem of actors: if you follow the chicken and the egg around, the real problem seems to be that there is a perception in the public that they should buy a ticket if a show is from New York or if the actors are from New York. The perception is that New York shows are good, and Chicago shows and the talent that creates them are hit and miss. This is certainly a false perception, but that perception is not being systematically repositioned to the Chicago public. In order to solve the problem, we have to understand why it exists and adjust the perception, slowly and patiently and with a minimum of blood and rolling heads.

This perception that Chicago needs star power in its plays is perpetuated by the immediate and constant need to provide high-risk and high-value arts programming in regional theaters that sells out or carries a minimum financial risk. If a regional theater casts an LA or NYC star in a gutsy show, the play will still sell out, and the financial reward will satisfy the board and create financial stability which means they have served the community by getting their public institution closer to self-sufficiency. Yes, it’s arguable that they haven’t served the long term needs of the community or the organization by failing to build a cult of stardom around the more sustainable local pool of actors. But long term needs and short term needs for any organization are almost ALWAYS at odds and need to be carefully balanced. There is no “suck” knob on a mixing board, and there’s no “local only” button in a regional theater’s speed dial.

So how do we change situations like this, with multiple motives that create systematic injustice over time? I take my lesson (yet again) from David Hare’s The Permanent Way, where Hare picks apart the various motives and personalities involved in British Rail’s disastrous and systematic string of train wrecks from ’94 – ’02. From the bereaved to the rail managers to the investment bankers who funded a failed privatization that resulted in reduced maintenance, track failure and lots of fatalities, Hare approaches the disastrous system simply by listening, and paints a path through empathy with each player towards systematic health. As it turns out, everyone wanted the same thing – a safer, efficient, and well-used rail system. Everyone in our community wants the same thing for our community – opportunities for all, artistic growth, and audience development.

The simplest technique to shepherding everyone’s competing interests turns out to be the reverse of a standard dramatic technique. If you seek to understand the motivations of the people and groups of people that you see blocking you from your goal, you can quickly defuse the drama and find the quickest path to a mutually beneficial compromise.

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