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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

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

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

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

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

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

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

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

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

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

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We Have Ignition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some UpDates

March 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around my tumultuous last few weeks. Lots of rescheduling, working, and wrangling, and with some unexpected time on my hands in the coming months, my wife and I finally booked those honeymoon tickets we’ve been pining for. Update/Sidebar: Holy crap, I did it again. Periodically I’ll have these fits of fatigue where I am compelled to actually count back in my calendar and let myself have the slowly dawning realization… Today marks the 66th (and GASP! Final) day of work in a row for me – yes, that’s straight through since Jan. 2nd, and no, it doesn’t include my many half-days off. So forced time off is often an extremely healthy thing in my book. My worst stint was the 157 days of continuous work a couple years ago that culminated in that vacation where I proposed. To my wonderful wife. My extremely patient and loving wife. I’m certainly not complaining: Baseball been berry berry good to me, and I’m looking forward to some refocusing time. And since they’re in my tribe, if you’re in need of a good electrician, TD, Equity SM, or Non-Equity SM in the next couple months and can shell out a real fee to keep them working, I have some pretty stellar names for you.

So while that dust settles, I’d like to remind all you theater producers out there that now is the time to get in on the Chicago Theater Opening Night Calendar, as theaters begin to pick and announce their opening night dates for the coming season. Again, the point of the project is to first prevent unfortunate conflicts that prevent critics from seeing your opening night. The fortunate side effect is hopefully that your show will be promoted to the folks looking through the calendar.

A debt is owed (again) to Rob Kozlowski’s assiduous chronicling of every season announcement that’s crossed his inbox. His summaries are a great read, and for theaters they’re a great starting point to grapple with the all-important Context of What’s Going On In Other Theaters this coming year.

As far as the calendar goes: I’ve got some insight into when the Goodman opening night dates land in previews, but not even those dates are chosen yet; likewise with ATC, whose season announcement fired off a month ago like a starting pistol, but still has not announced the precise schedule. I’ve been able to deduce both Steppenwolf and (I think) House dates, but of course no information is as accurate as from the horses’ mouth. Also on there for next season are Theater Seven and Silk Road, who are on different semester schedules, and in Silk Road’s case is coming up on their halfway point.

Know something I don’t know? Let’s hear it. And happy Open Season Selection, y’all.

Update: Don Hall is right, even if his title is wrong. If you love your job(s), it (they) will keep you strong and energized and creative. I’m living proof. Though if I love my job anymore, I’ll just be posthumous proof.

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Follow Up: The Tribe vs. the Macroeconomy

February 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I’m pumped for tonight.

This evening, New Leaf is embarking on something very different for us – we’re going to begin developing a play from scratch, using our lives, fears, and individual perspectives as source material.

The project originally began from a difficult point in New Leaf’s history, a night after a particularly difficult run through of The Permanent Way where we sat around a table at Ranalli’s and wrote our greatest fears as human beings down on the paper tablecloth in crayon. We’re kind of like kids when we get together, and crayon drawing is one of the most powerful ways we’re able to express ourselves.

Expressing our fears to each other gave them weight, and enabled us to gain insight into each other’s actions and the undertow of insecurity that led to those actions. It allowed us to become mentors for each other, and know when to push each other forward and provide encouragement or challenge. Expressing the fears also gave us some foothold against those fears, and plenty of raw material for our work. Knowing what was going on in each others’ inner lives allowed us to navigate each other more effectively and reduce the amount of confusion and unnecessary conflict in our company. It focused and sharpened the ensemble.

Personal lives often complicate a professional relationship, and that’s the reason creative tribes are difficult to put together. They only function on a foundation of profound trust and mutual respect. The way we are taught to operate is to hide our weaknesses, while the strong artistic choice often is to offer your throat to the world and dare the world to cut it. It’s surprising and exhilarating to display your identity and your perspective bare – the one you hide even from yourself – and it’s the core function of art. The tribe provides a collaborative environment that enables artists to do this and still maintain just enough safety net to keep pushing forward through the crushing insecurity that is generated by that level of honesty.

The support provided by a tribe is incredibly reassuring, because it has to be – it’s based on a family-type relationship that allows room for healthy and honest criticism based on years of shared experience. It also creates a people-centric co-prosperity that’s better than any pension plan you could ever hope for — Recessions come and go, but human beings, if they stay connected to each other, can maintain a stable existence of growth, pain, loss and happiness through harsh economic times. The tribe finds each other work and opportunities through lean times, and feeds resources, hopes, dreams and energy back to each other during those times when the manna rains from heaven. A tribe culture appreciates and understands your work from many perspectives, and they act as ambassadors of your work to find new clients and even new applications for your work. They find the doors that you haven’t been able to look for and they open them for you. It’s a culture that works for people more than the corporate model, because it places value on people rather than assets. It doesn’t have to convert human value into a monetary value first.

Scott over at Theatre Ideas has been plugging for a new model for a theater organization that will function more effectively to create exciting work than the regional theater model, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around on the micro and the macro level. As excited as I am about the bottom-up approach of the tribe, there’s potential pitfalls for a tribalistic mindset in a globalistic environment. The potential price to pay is in the danger of groupthink and the difficulties involved in establishing a tribe of diverse backgrounds. It’s true that global environments like the American economic indicators like GDP haven’t been historically good at calculating the value of humanity because science and statistics haven’t really been able to develop solid objective calculation for subjective experiences like “happiness.” This flaw results in some pretty nasty side effects, like the artificial propping up of industries like Oil and Gas production or diamond mining which don’t accurately weigh in the costs of the human suffering involved in procuring them.


But a humanistic tribal mindset doesn’t completely solve the problem either: In 1972, Bhutan’s king decided to address the flaws of the GDP model by introducing his own Buddhist-influenced economic indicator: Gross National Happiness. For a country with few resources, a miniscule GDP, and no desire to modernize, this was kind of a no-brainer. GNH purported to measure and therefore encourage national wealth based on four indicators:

Promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Sound familiar?

The problem with this model (and the tribal model) is that it doesn’t have an built-in incentive to include everybody. Wikipedia continues the story of a dark underbelly that can accompany these utopian visions of freedom:

Critics allege that because GNH depends on a series of subjective judgements about well-being, governments may be able to define GNH in a way that suits their interests. In the case of Bhutan, for instance, they say that the government expelled about one hundred thousand people and stripped them of their Bhutanese citizenship on the grounds that the deportees were ethnic Nepalese who had settled in the country illegally. While this would reduce Bhutan’s wealth by most traditional measures such as GDP, the Bhutan government claims it has not reduced Bhutan’s GNH.

On a personal level, I can see the potential for New Leaf to revel in its own ideas and backgrounds and not seek out those diverse opinions into the tribe because they don’t resonate in the “right” way. I’m happy that we have a pretty progressive male / female mix and a long history of producing plays by lesser-known female playwrights without making a big brou-ha-ha about it, but at the same time I’ve been ashamed that as an organization committed to renewal we deal very little with the issues of poverty, segregation and gentrification that face Chicago. Part of that is that the neighborhood we serve is right in the center of high-income and overwhelmingly-white Lincoln Park, but that of course has historically been how tribes have protected themselves – by not interacting with the people that do not fit the mold of the tribe.

I think there’s a middle ground here that I desperately want to find. The tribe brings with it an innovative energy and the old “many hands make light work” approach to problem solving. But the top-down, GDP-lovin’, LORT approach knows exactly how difficult and draining it is to really represent an entire community. They get the angry letters, they pay the salaries, and they see the trend of a drying-out subscriber base. I think their history and their heavy infrastructure makes it difficult to redirect the sinking ship, even if they desire to do so.

But word-of-mouth movements can have an impact on these top-heavy systems that don’t quite work. What I think is possible is a way to focus bottom-up grassroots energy and access with high-level thinking and coordination that promotes cross-pollination of ideas and culture and transparency all around. A way to unite the tribes into coordinated strategy and continue to value their independence. I’d like to see a double-decker strategy for change that gets it done with a minimum of burn out. If that thought makes you tired, you need to get yourself a tribe to help you keep moving through the fatigue.

The first step for me is tonight… To lose all my marbles and lay it all out on the table and see where our hearts are, where our brains vibrate, and to see what images, music and text we can layer and mold to tell this story with all our being. The framework is as ugly as a blog post that compares storefront theater to the economics of Bhutan, but the final product… The final product has got my heart beating faster.

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Transparency

December 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I finally got around to catching up with Chris Piatt’s PerformInk analysis of the year in Blogs, Blogs, Blogs!, which is highly recommended reading for both theater community watchers and theater community builders. One paragraph struck me in particular:

Yet, despite its (at least for now) comparatively small readership, everyone in power fears the blogosphere for a different reason. Journalists can be scrutinized without sanction and—their source of real terror—their social station could eventually be taken by unpaid, untrained writers. Meanwhile, theatres and artists fear bloggers their P.R. machines can’t control. In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the fear that most people have (and I share, to some extent) of engaging in public dialogue. Especially my theater friends who look at me funny when I say I’d like to show audiences the crazy argumentative design conversations we have. It feels like that fear is a part of a more general trend in America these days. The increasingly engaged blogging community has developed during a period of weaker-than-normal debate in the political sector and a good eight years of journalism that could-have-been-but-wasn’t. We’ve lost the habit of sorting through our values in public debate. Now, minds are made up before the conversation begins.

And as far as this blog goes, the impulse to write a blog that really analyzed the mechanism of theater seemed to awaken in me an overpowering and paranoid fear that my various employers and students and other theater companies would then know my thoughts and use them against me. Or lose faith in those ideas. Or find me in conflict of interest and blacklist me. There’s that fear that a transparent dialogue and open exchange of ideas will result in gossip, hurtful language and infighting. And it does, sometimes.

But that’s not the community that I moved across the country for – past New York, I might add. We’re capable of generating model theaters, and model theater organizations, and trend-setting work, so we should also be capable of vibrant blogging and reporting about that work. I agree with Chris here about the dubious character of anonymous posters – If a thought has value, it needs to be shared and tested with constructively critical thought, so that the idea can be strengthened and refined. Mutually beneficial conversations can be had when people take some ownership of their opinions and stand for something. With most critics’ wordcount limit, I think that the blogapalooza might be the place where these more complex ideas can be discussed, so I’m glad that theater reporters are among the first to jump into the game and provide some detailed analysis. It’s their game too.

That’s of course why none of us should be worried about this new public forum ripping our livelihoods away – there’s a difference between transparency and unfiltered opinionating, and that difference has value. Drawing connections and providing analysis that others are not equipped or unwilling to do has value. No matter what form we work in, or what our readership level is, if we are committed to creating the best work that we are capable of, we will always be rewarded by that work. If fear is allowed to get in the way of the work, the work will always suffer, and maybe that tells us something. Gapingvoid sums up the fear of transparency nicely:

Transparency’s a tricky one. Transparency relies on human beings, and human beings are generally a frickin’ nightmare.

But forget the hardcore mechanics of running a company for a minute. Let me ask you another question instead:

At the company you work for, how afraid is the average person of making a mistake? Of not being right? Of backing the wrong horse and being found out later?

And then there’s your answer. The less afraid he or she is, the more transparent your company can be, with itself and with the outside world. The more afraid he or she is, the more opaque you’ll have to remain.

The primary requirement for a transparent public discussion (or transparent management of the cultural institutions we get to play with) is disclosure of motives. We need to disclose not just what we want from the community and what we want to create in the community, but it’s also important for us to speak openly about the framework with which we see that community. For example, it’s interesting to see from Chris’ writing (especially his stellar TOC piece on McTheatre a few months back, duly reviewed by blogger Don Hall) an emerging framework of Big Producer Money vs. the interests of the underdog Storefront community. He’s right, of course – especially where City money is concerned, god help us. On the other hand, I think that framework makes the story about mortal combat between Wicked vs. Straw Dog, and that’s not always where I want to be thinking from, because that sure does look like a hopeless fight.

I’ll offer an alternative framework to the storefront woes these days that I’ve found to be more inspiring. My creative life has been in flux these days, and in the interest of full transparency, I’ve needed a more inspiring way to look at the situation to prevent the ever-lurking theater burnout from knocking on my door. I see Chicago theater as a unique community where at the end of the day, finances matter less than the artistic development of the work and the artists creating that work. The difficult pill for me to swallow is that great artists come here when they first start out, and they do five to ten years of work before they have the chops to make a living in another industry or in another city. Either that, or they keep developing forever, and here, that’s another form of success. It’s a public lab, where half-finished ideas get equal airtime and sometimes those ideas actually get developed and turned into really compelling stories. New ideas can be tried on a tiny budget. In Hollywood, half these ideas don’t get greenlit because failure means bankruptcy – what does get pushed forward are the sure crowd pleasers, but not necessarily the ideas that our society NEEDS. In New York, well god help me I don’t really understand New York, but it the work I’ve seen exported from New York and in New York is either the same sure thing McTheater or razor-sharp nihilism – hateful, despairing, and bitter art from people who have become disconnected from their homeland. Which, sure, these days… I’d like to become disconnected from my homeland.

In Chicago, we’ve got both of those types of shows, but we’ve also always had a third type – something that makes more wholly American than New York and Hollywood ever could. It’s a deep connection with ‘realness’, and it’s the same desire that drives us to retain our historic buildings but also renovate them and rebuild them. It’s the same vision that makes us want to both drive out the Bush administration at the same time we want to clean up the Chicago political machine. It’s the same awareness of our world that makes us want to desegregate our hometown and create theater that Looks like Chicago. It’s a kind of theater that wants to reclaim the word ‘homeland’ and make us feel proud of our Americanness again, and how we can make that pride up to the world. That connection with ourselves, our realness makes us capable of wonderfully and wholly American theater – Theater that deserves to be seen on an international level and draw international attention, and interact with other international theaters.

This is a framework where Chicago is not, and never will be, a second city. It is an Ambassador City. Why even bother with spinning the framework of the Chicago Theater landscape this way? It’s not to gloss over real problems. But it is to create a public idea that allows for growth. If you look at the sum total of theater PR in this city, and if you consider Chris’ McTheatre piece to be the most comprehensive appeal to the market to take action, I think the one-sentence perception that the public picks up is: “Good, local theater is never going to have a greater general value than Big Box Theater, so it needs to beg for City support or risk death.” That’s a distortion of Chris’ finer points, but it is what the headline tells you, and how the story spins. The PR spin I wish we were putting out there as a community is: “Theater has rich societal value, and this theater community, like other arts communities in town that have more public support, is garnering international praise without that funding. Chicago’s theater community is a key way Chicago can generate stronger international partnerships if it is treated as an export commodity.” Since PR is all about saturating a market with a unified message, if we want to really use PR to grow the entire community, we will need a common framework or vision that demonstrates rather than declares our value. We need a framework that allows us to grow, and recognize our own value.

Maybe this is all my personal PR machine talking, but I’m pretty confident that my ability to control public opinion about my own work is going on nil. More transparency: I clearly haven’t written in a while, and this blog was an opportunity to flex some pretty atrophied muscles. (I’m using the whole pig, but I’ll keep working on those run-on sentences). What I do know is that if you build a compelling idea, people will be compelled to build on that idea and generate real results, and a blog is a good place to test out those ideas that compel you.

One such idea that compels me: Maybe one opportunity we have with this blog-a-go-go is the ability to have a more transparent discussion about how to build Chicago theater’s reputation outside of the industry. Like with the Mayor. He has flunkies that read blogs. And he knows that there’s more to Chicago theater than New York exports, but he doesn’t yet know what Storefront theater can do for him. Yes, Broadway in Chicago has got his funding now. But if he gets his Olympics, someone should tell him that all those visitors ain’t gonna be all that compelled by Wicked.

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Yes, Rob Kozlowski, There IS a Santa Claus

December 26, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I was reading through Rob Kozlowski’s Christmas Wishlist for Chicago Theater and I was struck by Item#5:

Make every Chicago theatre company work with each other to make sure they don’t share opening nights. Critics want to see your shows. They really do.

Everyone – EVERYONE – I’ve talked to on every side of the theater community about how Chicago Theater works, Opening Night conflicts and the lack of cross-theater company coordination is always on the complaint list… it’s usually one of the first things mentioned, since it seems so easy to accomplish.

Well, no time like the present, right? Let’s get this DONE as part of our collective New Year’s resolutions. I’ve created a public Google Calendar for this purpose (see below to subscribe and post your own theater’s information!), but in the spirit of collaborative transparency and getting the ball rolling, I’m going to include the thought process behind the strategy.

Getting even a quorum – let alone a majority – of theaters to use any sort of half-baked system is difficult. There’s a number of possible strategies to make something like this work and get past the hurdles inherent in how the community does and doesn’t talk to each other. The best example of how difficult getting theaters onboard with a common system is the fact that the League of Chicago theaters already has such a calendar that not enough people know about, let alone use. In fact, the first I’d heard of the calendar was in doing the obligatory google search during the writing of this post. Apparently Rob and several other friends who work all the time in LOCT member theaters had never heard of the calendar, so that tells us something about how well it is utilized. I think this is because there are a couple of downfalls of the the League’s solution to the problem, which I’m hoping a Google Calendar-based system will alleviate.

1) This needs to be dirt-simple, and something that everyone has access to (or even something they ALREADY have access to)

Google calendar isn’t exactly dirt-simple, but it is something that a large section of the theater community either knows how to use or can learn easily with benefits beyond just being able to read this calendar. Edited to add some additional how-to info to help theaters add their dates quickly and easily, see bottom of post

Also making this simple? This calendar is just for this one thing – You tell me your dates, and I’ll tell you mine. However, it can also be used for several ends – feel free to include your venue’s address and your show web page since this is public and Google-searchable. We may eventually be able to find hard-core theater goers subscribing to this calendar to see nothing but opening nights (or opening weekends), which could be a huge boon in the ongoing effort to get people to see a show early in the run and generate word of mouth. No promises, of course, but like any web tool: the more people use it, the more results.

2) The system needs to be both totally accessible and reasonably free of abuse. If every theater company in town can’t update their information, it won’t work. If a single theater company or user floods the calendar with off-topic or useless information, the system will cease to be trusted, and user enlistment will dry up, making the information stale and unworthy.

This is a little harder to achieve with Google Calendar, and will probably have to work itself out with time and more users. Adding an event to a public calendar is fairly easy. The simplest method is to send your opening night info to an editor, like me (any other volunteers?), and we’ll post your event on the calendar. Since overlapping fundraisers have also been a problem for most theater companies, I’ve made the calendar for one-night-only opening nights and special events. But keeping the calendar well-edited is a further challenge. The basic principle that I believe in is: the more honest users who are able to edit the information, the more trustable the information. With that in mind, I can give editing privileges to any member of the theater community who wants to help keep track of this information. Ideally, we’d have a representative from every theater company able to edit their opening nights.

But this opens up some difficulties with editors not playing nice with each other. Wikipedia’s travails with both commercial spam entries and entry vandalism in recent years with web research have greatly publicized both the need for group editorial guidance and simple self-restraint. I figure, when a problem child theater decides to post every single night of their run, we can come down with some gentle and then more firm editorial guidance. Or, we start with fewer editors and encourage individual theater companies to post their opening nights by sending invites to those theater editors… a little more complicated, but the goal here is rock solid, trustable data at all times.

3) The system needs to offer a subscription service.

Subscriptions? Check. Google Cal is designed on group collaboration principles, and also can send updates to your local Outlook or iCal applications. As information changes, you know those changes, and it’s always online so all it takes is a quick web lookup while you’re planning your season schedule. Also, if you use an online calendar on a regular basis, a subscribable calendar will tend to remind you of its existence on a regular basis, and will avoid the fate of the dusty League calendar.

4) Everyone needs to know about it. Even if the information is complete because I’ve done some research and posted some other theater companies’ opening nights just to have some good info there, this calendar will really only do any good in the spring to summer when theater companies really start nailing down firm dates for their season.

That’s up to you, dear reader. I’ve got my people, and I’ll be letting them know. But let’s make the information good, the system trustable, and tell our friends who can use this info.

This is also the perfect first step towards strengthening this cross-company dialogue I mentioned earlier – and that Kris Vire celebrates in his Performink Year-End Wrap up (thanks for the shout out, Kris!) I don’t mean to harp on the League in this blog post, by the way – they offer a lot of underutilized services to small theaters, and I applaud their efforts a lot of the time. But sometimes I think they don’t get the concept of leveraging the resources they have to achieve bigger results, and this is definitely one of those cases. And frankly, I don’t have the personal resources yet to make Chicago known as an international hub of the Theatrical Art, and I’d rather they focus on solving that problem rather than this kind of ephemera.

My big New Years resolution this year is to explore more behind-the-scenes work that I can do to strengthen the community as a whole, so I think monitoring how we can use web tools like blogs and google calendar in increasingly collaborative ways will be a big part of making that dialogue happen. I hope you’ll join me.

New how-to information: After troubleshooting the way Google Calendar works the adding of events to a public calendar, I have a pretty simple solution worked out for most folks. Follow the following steps:

1) If you deal with multiple theater companies and would like a hand in editing this data long term (yeah, super users!) I can share the calendar with you and you’ll be able to make changes to ANY event on the calendar. We’ll call you folks administrators. Or ambassadors. Maybe I can come up with some kind of commemorative pin and hat combo.

2) For most theaters, especially those already using Google Calendar or a compatible calendaring service, simply create your event (including your show’s webpage URL, the address of the venue, and the date and time of the performance or event, and invite calendar@nikku.net as a guest. I’ll get that invite, and copy that event into the master calendar. Any administrator can do the same, so if/when that happens, I’ll give you a couple options.

3) If none of the above work for you, we still need your info. Just send calendar@nikku.net an email with the same information – Show Name, Date & Time, URL, and Address – and I’ll get it up there as soon as possible.

Finally, and most importantly: set your favorite calendaring application to subscribe to the calendar to keep updated on the latest opening night dates:

Through Google:

Or Subscribe in iCal with this link

or Subscribe to the XML feed

Happy New Year, and happy calendaring.

Thanks for the link fix, Michael

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