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Chicago Theater Database: User Updates A-Plenty

January 28, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

It’s been a crazily delightful week over at the CTDB.

A couple days ago, we opened up usernames to 45 new users, and several folks have been really cooking. You may know them. With their help, we’ve identified and fixed about ten workflow bugs, and we’ve tried to do so proactively – often fixing the issue before the user reported a bug at all.

That’s largely thanks to one of the key new features of the CTDB: contribution tracking by user, which we invite you to participate in. One of the star updaters has been Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, company manager for Mary-Arrchie Theater Company, who has very nearly entered in the entire production history of Mary-Arrchie. Going back to 1986, that’s 58 productions, and a great many performers, playwrights, directors, and designers, which he’s still ticking away.

Included in those productions are the wildly inclusive and experimental Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festivals, which just celebrated their twentieth nearly-annual run. As most storefront theaters in Chicago know, each Abbie Hoffman Festival contains dozens of short-form plays and productions from dozens of theater companies. And the CTDB is ready to handle ALL that history.

So, today’s call to action: Has your company ever participated in the Abbie Hoffman Festival? Write us for a user account and enter your production into the Abbie Hoffman festival history. And, if you’re really feeling eager, maybe update a bit of your own company and personal history as well? We’d love to have you join the party.

Cross-Posted on the Chicago Theater Data Blog

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Three Can’t Miss Retrospectives

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, Uncategorized

Ever notice how it takes most of January to really process the previous twelve months?

Exhibit A – Ian and Simon from Praxis Theater and the Next Stage collaborate to give us a quick rundown of the events of the international theatrosphere (with a focus on Canada) of the past year – the year this little baby started to gurgle, crawl and periodically lose control of its bowels towards understanding, collaborating, and promoting theater in the context of our generation.

Exhibit B – New City Chicago posts today a list of the top 50 performers [in the theater-building sense] on the Chicago Theater scene. While it could also be titled “50 people I hope will hire or give me money” it can’t be argued that this is a list of people who have substantively built this city’s theatrical environment from the ground up, and their stories are all worth knowing about. While I’m kind of disappointed that Roche Schulfer only gets a footnote in Bob Falls’ mention (Roche has been the long-time architect of several key parts of the Goodman’s clearly successful financial strategy, programs within LORT, and the League of Chicago Theaters), it’s nice to see folks like side project artistic director Adam Webster get their due.

Exhibit C – Time Out Chicago’s Ten Most Wanted productions of Chicago Theater 2008. By the CTDB’s admittedly incomplete estimate, that’s out of at least 1,000 productions. What can I say? I think Chris and Kris care about where theater is going and even if you disagree with their specific preferences, it’s easy to see that they care about this community and its work – and the organizational health of both – even when they feel the need to skewer them.

My own lessons from 2008 –

1) Do fewer shows. Do them better.

2) Spend that extra time with friends and family. It’s also gotta be face to face, not simply facebook status updates, though those updates can be warm and fuzzy. These two things feed my work in ways I can’t always understand, but I know I need them.

3) Give focus to get focus. Or: This year, I’m hoping to continue smarter and increasingly better projects to promote other people’s work and by doing so I will get that feedback I need to make my own work sharper. We’ve got a fleet of new plays to get off the ground and that takes an all-in type of community to do the hardest work there is: connecting new audiences with the parts of the scene that they want to see but didn’t know where to find it.

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Theater Media (Not Quite A) Roundup: New Leaf Theatre’s Touch

January 06, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Uncategorized

Okay, so I’m recusing myself from this one. But I’d love to know what you think of Very Clever Productions’ work for New Leaf’s production of Touch – opening tomorrow. What does it tell you? Does it grab you? Does it seem true to the play and the theatrical experience?

I think it’s nice to put your money where your mouth is from time to time, and see what comes out – and see what comes back. We were able to learn a little bit from the video / theater crossovers that we’ve seen so far, and I think as far as process we could also use the practice in collaborating with a cinematographer to achieve something that represents theatricality honestly in a cinematic format.

So what do you think?

And yes – as The Examiner noted today, that’s the face and voice of Dan Granata, my cohort in creating the CTDB. Break a leg, Dan.

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Chicago Theater Database Update: Tapping the Energy of the Group

December 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

This post is cross-posted over at the CTDB Data Blog

Two important notches off the Chicago Theater Database road map this month.

On December 8, we tackled the problem of capturing the convoluted data of repertory festivals, using the models of The Side Project’s Cut to the Quick Short Works Festival and the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival. Both festivals basically act as a big melting pot for artists, combining directors, playwrights, performers and designers in dozens of teams that create unique one-act experiences and a more general community-driven whole.

We wanted to be able to look at each festival as both a whole and as the sum of its parts. That meant separating festivals into three kinds of production records:

1) The One Act, or “child” production. We’ve been wanting to capture one-acts for a while now, as they form an important part of a playwright’s development – just as one act festivals form an important part of a performer’s and directors development. Each one act acts exactly like a normal production record – there’s a play, there are artists, there’s a show.

2) The Evening / Program. Many festivals organize their shows into themed evenings or programs to provide patrons with a more curated form of choice and variety. In the case of Cut to the Quick, we have three evenings in the festival that each contain a number of child one-acts: Splinters and Shrapnel, which are war-themed works, Static/Cling which centers around the family, and Splayed Verbiage, which features a deeper grab bag of hyper-short works.

3) The Festival. This parent record can either consolidate a number of plays as a single artistic unit, as in the Eugene O’Neill Fest, or it can consolidate a series of programs.

Each “Parent” record consolidates ALL the director, performer and design production credits from its children, and provides a quick view of the plays contained within that festival or evening. So you can look at the whole picture, or look at each one act granularly.

Best of all, there’s a quick-edit link to add a new one-act or evening to a festival that pre-fills a copy of the data from the festival into the new record – that makes updating the information for each festival play a snap.

Dan and I have a bit of a soft spot for theater festivals… they’re powered by a bigger community and they require a unique blend of organization and organic chaos to create their unique kind of energy and excitement. So don’t miss Cut to the Quick which wraps up on Dec. 21st and be sure to catch the O’Neill Fest at the Goodman, opening Jan. 7th.

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Along those lines, we launched yesterday two important pieces of Web 2.0 technology that we hope will fuel our online community of CTDB contributors. Our contributions and users sections now give credit where credit is due – each edit to the database is now tracked in a permanent audit history. This allows us to provide some necessary protection against internet vandals by creating a e-paper trail of changes and linking those changes to a user account. In the (we hope) unlikely event that a disreputable party begins taking credit for founding Steppenwolf, the entire community of contributors will quickly be able to track down the culprits and restore the changes.

More important than user accountability however, record auditing allows us to draw attention to the contributions of some pretty dedicated volunteers – such as CTDB powerhouse Laura Ciresi of Trailing Spouse Blues. Since we began auditing database records at the beginning of December, Laura has been steadily updating the entire production history of several theater companies, including Steppenwolf, Naked Eye, and her home Infamous Commonwealth. She may have even helped you get listed for one of your credits.

But you don’t have to take our word for it any more. You can see Laura’s work – and others – as it happens, and thank our users yourself!

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Curb Your Hysteria

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chicago Theater Database Update: The Count

November 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

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

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

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

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Want some Work?

November 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB, In a Perfect World

Hey.

Are you a Director in Chicago?

Are you a Playwright in Chicago?

Are you a Performer in Chicago?

The CTDB happily announces a new feature this morning: a list of companies that accept your submissions, how to contact them, and, as always, links to more detail about each company’s history and mission.

This is cross-posted over at the CTDB Blog.
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Good luck today, everyone.

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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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