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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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Fly on the wall opportunities

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

On the train, after my show, I overhear three women reading through their dirty dancing programs. They are cross referencing the asterixes in the program with members of the actors equity association. It seems to be their first introduction to the AEA.

One of them says, “I’m going to tell so and so: don’t get your hopes up.”

These are the moments where I get angry at broadway and cash-in productions. The audience comes to them with hopes. And the story is so often disappointment.

Few patrons have high hopes when they risk their evening slumming it in a storefront show. But that’s why we can blow our audience away when we display quality, immediacy and craft.

But we are linked – indeed dependant – on larger theaters. We are part of the same brand of “theater,” even though we have been consistently a different animal for over 30 years. This is something that I think is lost on arts marketing gurus when they tell me that the key step for me is to improve my product. It’s not entirely true… I have to improve my product, and then find a way to keep it good for four years while we find our audience – self-funded – on a largely word of mouth marketing campaign. It works… slowly.

I want to improve the brand of theater in total, because I find myself in an unfortunate position – shows like dirty dancing don’t benefit my theater with their show-specific splash of marketing. But when those shows disappoint, my theater DOES suffer.. These patrons think… Man, i hate theater. If a large budget show can’t deliver satisfaction, how could a tiny theater run by a couple dozen people with a $3,000 budget?

That’s the message I’d like to deliver to them: we can surprise you. we can create a memory that doesnt’ disappoint. But my marketing budget can’t yell over the noise… and my first step isn’t going to be bemoaning the capitalist system in the hopes that will make my efforts suddenly socially relevant again.

Our message is spread slowly, cheaply, inevitably, one person at a time. I do doubt I’ll ever reach these women on the train with this message: good theater doesn’t disappoint. It’s like treasure, you have to sift through a bit, and maybe you have to find a trusted reviewer or friend who can help you find the good stuff. And it’s not all live remakes of movies from our teenage years or the high school musical we remember being so cliquey and odd – that’s a good thing sometimes, no? But man it is worth making a part of your week.

Good thing I brought postcards.

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Plugging It.

November 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Shows

Let there be no mistake: If you are in or near the city of Chicago, you should see Six Years at New Leaf Theatre before it closes on November 22nd.

I’ll make it easy for you later in this post. But first let me make the case to you.

It’s not because the acting is superb. Though it is.

It’s not because Sharr White’s script is deeply resonant in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we started the rehearsal process. Though it is.

It’s not because we at New Leaf deeply care about fostering a dialogue with the entire theater community and theater-going public with our work. Though we do.

It’s not because New Leaf’s work is crafted and priced to be a high-value evening. Though it is, and this week Time Out Chicago has said as much with a big red star labeled “Cheap” next to our Critic’s Pick – a coveted prize that I can’t remember seeing on another show.

It’s not because bloggers are always Pay-What-You-Will at New Leaf. Though you are.

It’s not because this is your last chance. Though it is.

It is because Six Years begins a triptych season – an important season for a relatively small company – that asks the question “How do we build a future from a present that we didn’t expect?” It is a question that needs to be answered. Now. And we believe that our work offers an opportunity for our audiences to break open big questions like that in a new way – an entertaining way that engages and fosters conversations and thought for days after the show.

We ask that question three times this year, on three scales, in three shows: Once as a nation of families. Then as an individual, alone and without support. Then as a community, together. We ask it three times because when you ask a question like that, you need to feel the question out on several levels: The big picture, the local picture, and your own picture.

I hope you can make it. I want you to make it, and I’m eager to know what you think and what resonates with you. Because you are smart, and your opinion will inform my work.

This post was inspired by a great post that just popped up from my new second-favorite theater town in the world: Here’s looking at you, Vancouver.

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By Rote

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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A Strategy for Educational Initiatives

August 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects, Teachable Moments

I’m cross-posting my comment on a thrilling post from Laura at Trailing Spouse Blues – “What’s wrong with Educational Theater?” – which is itself a response to The Next Stage’s lament over the the perceived loss of opportunity as the next generation grows up without a broad exposure to theater.

I’m doing this cross-posting: Because it is apropos.

This is a freaking amazing thread, Laura.

Just got back from teaching 168 high schoolers in a summer program (Cherubs – Check it Out) , and let me tell you: the name of the game is immersion.

I’ve taught technical theater electives at a few high schools and middle schools, and I have to say the kids are always on your side to learn more. If there is a roadblock to learning coming from them, it’s that they don’t trust the motives of authority figures, which is a pretty simple roadblock to subvert. You work earn their trust – If a teacher demonstrates genuine excitement about a subject – which most of us are more than capable of – it NEVER fails that the kids pick up on that excitement. Do something jaw-dropping. We can all do it if we’re skilled at our craft. Reach into that little showstopper bag of tricks that you have – a directing exercise, a quick self-deprecating story, a design trick, or simple acrobatics. You’ll have ’em hooked and you can begin the lesson. Maintain that trust and you may lose them – but they’ll come back to you to learn more.

From what I’ve seen, the structure of primary and secondary Education with a capital E these days is challenging. Distractions are everywhere – classes are blazingly short, filled with cell phones, and many parents encourage a compression of their children’s lives with too many AP classes and extra-curriculars. You know. For a good college. You know. For a good job. You know. For happiness. Later. When it’s too late.

Now theater can be just another extra-curricular to stress kids out, to be sure. But while this schedule takes up their whole day, I’d argue that this structure isn’t really immersive – it’s full of stuff, but fails entirely when it comes to having the kids, you know, engage with the material.

Theaters are actually really well equipped to provide a rich learning environment, but not in the form that we first think of – performance and talkback. That’s simply asking kids to be polite, shut up for a while, and then reengage without really understanding the context of how theater gets made. The thing that kids need the most exposure to – if the goal is creating the next generation of theater appreciators – is the doing of theater – the choices that get made, and the excitement of text -> rehearsal room -> design -> stage. A small theater is a great place to learn the most basic of communication and teamwork skills.

When you immerse kids in a learning environment – with multiple teachers or even authority figures who are all committed to the idea of engaging, teaching, and pushing the student to explore the material on their own – amazing things happen. It’s actually a simple equation, but one that requires too many resources for most schools to provide. But theaters CAN provide those opportunities if they were to structure their educational initiatives with some care.

Just imagine the difference between a performance and talkback where the kids show up moments before curtain and when they show up two weeks before opening.

Let’s say you give a student or a small group of students an opportunity as say interns for a small theater. Don’t make them do your dirty work for you like bathroom cleaning – have them help you rehearse and make their own choices as the cast and crew make their choices. Have them watch your designers as they build sets, props, hang lights, program boards and set sound levels. Clue them in on WHY you’re making choices, and WHY other choices would change the show. Help them see how a big, unified production can be created by hundreds of small choices.

That is valuable training for any child. And if it makes them appreciate the work of the theater artisan, so be it.

I should add – my theater company New Leaf is really trying to make this kind of program happen right now – thanks in no small part to the lessons we’ve learned from teaching at the Cherub program, a program that as I’ve mentioned many times changed my life as a theater educator. New Leaf has already had our first successful high school-level internship (go Emma!), a student who assisted the sound department in designing two shows in our last season. We’re really looking forward to trying the format out in the directorial department and potentially formalizing the program after trying it out a bit more this season. Because we do want to teach, and it’s not about a revenue stream for us – unless you count a group of people who will be fans of theater forever a revenue stream.

So yeah, to The Next Stage: You’re right. College isn’t the time. It’s younger. But all is not lost on our hipster youth, and we definitely need to approach the problem with both seriousness and enthusiasm.

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Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All politics is local.

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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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