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Why I’m Not Worried by a Sleeping Theatrosphere

September 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’ve been talking with some folks who are making the leap to Chicago – there’s of course Brian over at Director Sector who I’m excited to be collaborating with on a number of theater/web hybrid projects, and I was on the phone this morning with an electrician who’s moving to town this fall. Two of my younger sisters are also moving off or preparing for college, and considering all their options in a very uncertain time. In talking with all of them about the resources, networks and strategies available to someone joining a new community, I was reminded (and I hope have suitably warned them) about that rough year I had when first moving to town, living with my high school friend John in Bridgeport, picking up the odd design and the odd temp job. Not everyone experiences it, but those months spent disconnected from the community you’re living in can be so poisonous – or they can be renewing. Like that feeling when your broken bones are mending, the solitude of living solo in a new community is itchy because you’re healing. But when our perspectives are disconnected from the reality of our social environment, we’re unable to act, we’re unable to engage, we’re unable to do the basic work of theater – connection.

I try not to push theater folk into coming to Chicago specifically, though I will lobby for it when the alternative is New York. For some, Chicago can be a familial network of artistic support, and for some, it’s a crowded game. I greatly admire folks breaking new theatrical ground like Cherubs Faculty Associate Paige Clark (who is starting a theater company in San Antonio) or Zachary Mannheimer’s continuing project with Subjective Theater Company, and their drive to build the Des Moines Social Club. My new ground to be broken has never been geographic, however – my life didn’t offer that option – and instead I’ve been interested and equipped to deal with structural changes and new ways of developing ideas, and that means testing those structures with as many contexts as possible. For me, Chicago is the lab in which I can play with structure, scale, and interconnectivity of how theater can work. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m ready to draw conclusions about those experiments yet.

Before I got connected with the theater community in Chicago, I had incredibly inaccurate and subjective opinions – both glowing and fearful – about how the theater community here operated. And like any flawed assumption that you use to cope with your situation, those opinions got reinforced as dogma and prejudice against/for this way of doing things or that way of doing things, and if you’re lucky, you get data later on that helps you break that prejudice down. No one is immune to the process of prejudice. It’s just how the human brain works. That’s the beauty of the scientific method, but of course there’s a problem – objectively analyzing social constructs like the impact of theater on a community is notoriously difficult.

As could be expected, I’m mulling over another spat of outlandish but perhaps fruitful argument generated by Scott Walters over at Theater Ideas. Given a context of pure theory, Scott is an inspiring academic guru of theatrical community organization, but in the time we face now – a time of political change that initiates a debate of social change, and a time where the arts face assault from a culture that wages unjust wars and lets entire cities drown – the practical needs of the theater community that I operate in are at odds with his divine fury in support of a “purer” theory-driven movement.

This feels instead like a time of realignment. The arts are about to lose their traditional government and grant funding left and right. We all know it, and I think it could even be seen as ultimately just – as long as the money goes to more worthy causes like education, alternative energy research, rebuilding and renewing the gulf coast cities, universal health care, and especially veteran’s medical and psychological care. Those are the things I’m willing to fight for funding for through whatever, not my own skin. I’ve been happy to see that most of us in the arts understand this and don’t make the mistake of clamoring to hang on to our existing models of funding. We instead say: Hey, let’s find a way to do our work – important work, dammit – that doesn’t burden the communities we are trying to serve. That to me is a simple and workable definition of this new model for theater that we’re seeking to articulate – a theater for every community, because of the community, but not draining that community.

Scott seems to get frustrated with realignment, because he feels he has done that work already. He makes regular, even daily calls of report, report, report our progress, and accuses the rest of the theater movement of generally lazy thinking. But if he is the overactive analytical left brain of the theater movement in this country, he’s in danger of letting the body of the movement get sleep deprived. The playwrights, designers, directors and technicians that blog along with him often act as the hands, eyes, and ears (and in the case of Don Hall, the asshole – kisses Don) of the theater movement – and we need our regular exercise and REM sleep.

What does that sleep look like in the theatrosphere? It looks like doing theater, and not always blogging about it. It looks like taking the time to think about the political and social crisis in this country and how our art should reflect the choices that people in our country are making now about our future trajectory. It looks like training ourselves by testing new articulations of old ideas (what else is rehearsal for?) It looks like taking the theories of a new model of theater and testing them through a season selection, a rehearsal process, a design, a marketing plan, a critical review. It looks like retreating to the wilderness to reconnect with the real reasons to do this work. It looks like spreading the word out from our e-bubble and changing the cultural dialogue one artist at a time – which is 90% boring work and 10% hopeful inspiration.

Of course it’s working, since the theater community is so very small: I can see in the green room banter that there is a renewed consensus and commitment to finding a better way of connecting the community to the art that it wants and needs but doesn’t know how to ask for. No one, especially the regional theaters, think that the status quo is going to work for much longer – or that it’s working now. I hope that the work that Dan G. and I are doing with the CTDB – which is ultimately about collecting highly detailed information on a single community, albeit one Scott is sick of hearing about – show Scott that it’s not just his eyes that are open to the change that must happen if our work is to survive and matter and do some good for us and our neighbors. Scott regularly uses the contents of American Theatre Magazine as his canary in the coal mine for how successfully his model for truly regionalized theater is being implemented, and no wonder he’s frustrated. ATM is the public face of the TCG-flavored status quo, and he’s shown many times about how their skewed data analysis and commentary doesn’t typically do their data collection any justice. Policy formation always begins with an accurate census and assessment of community need, and if the little guy is to make the choice, they need the data in their hands, and they need to be empowered to analyze it themselves. If we seek to change our model, our way of working, we must apply a little bit of scientific process: we can work to collect empirical data, and use it to break down our prejudices and test our theories about art, artist, audience, and community. Because while we need dreams, theory and action to engage with our work, they all need to work in balance with each other and with the real world.

So don’t be ashamed to take a nap when you get tired. We’ll need you nice and rested and sharp for work tomorrow.

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More information than you can shake a stick at

September 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

This morning, we at the CTDB have gathered company data from the PerformInk/CTDB Season survey and imported it to the CTDB, including a robust new contact information feature. Each of the 180+ companies that completed the survey also provided information about how they prefer to be contacted with requests for headshot, script, and director proposal submissions. If you’re looking to connect with the companies and projects and people that you want to work with in Chicago, we hope this will be a useful cross-reference for you!

Also, if you haven’t caught it yet, Dan Granata’s Season Preview Intro, which contains some very eye-opening CTDB-powered analysis of the coming Chicago theater season: including some data that shows that teensy theater companies aren’t all that efficient at creating theater – nor are the gigantic regional houses. Who is efficient at creating theater? Local playwright Tanya Saracho, who joins folks like Shakespeare, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams at the most-produced table.

“Disfrute de la presentación” indeed, Tanya. Bravo.

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Retreat!

September 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Here’s three reasons why retreats should be an annual tradition for realigning a theater company:

Food,

focus,

and no one gets to sleep until the miscommunications and misunderstandings that a company accrues over time get put to bed first.

And our retreats have never left me short of inspired. New Leaf is retrofitting our company values this season. We’ll be talking more about why that’s an amazing thing over on that blog real soon, but until then…

Did you see our first round of imports from this upcoming season to the ctdb? HUNDREDS of productions, and artists and updted company information to follow…

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CTDB: The annual theater census does a 180

August 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

180 companies in Chicago have responded to the Performink / CTDB Season Survey. That’s at least 80% of the producing companies in Chicago. Dan and I are coordinating to launching much of the collected data in the next week so that you, dear reader, can peruse it, and we can all identify some different ways of looking at it.

This amount of data has been incredibly helpful to identify new features and research needs that we need to address. We’ve already rolled out 40 revisions to the database structure, and we’re planning many more. I’ve been sneaking some glances at the pre-analysis that Dan has done and I’ll give you a sneak peak at just one of the numbers that has already been eye-opening:

Saturday, October 25 is the most busy opening night of the year (or at the very least the fall), with 6 shows opening that day alone. Most alarming is that only ONE other show opens in the other days that week – Thursday and Friday are wide open.

And there’s MUCH more where that came from… Check out Dan’s work on the Performink Season Preview coming soon.

The kind of data analysis for the benefit of community organization that inspired the CTDB also made the news this week… Check out this wonderful NPR story on how mathematicians used data collection to make volunteer coordination at the DNC last week a thing of efficient beauty.

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‘Tis the Season

August 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

It’s time for some more CTDB’ing it up.

There’s been some really surprising (to me, anyway) buzz on the project in the last week, and most exciting to Dan and I, there’s been some ideas coming forward about how exactly the darn thing is going to be useful to people.

Of course, like any project this complex (like say, a production!) it needs be tackled one step at a time.

This week’s step involves you. As Dan has mentioned, we’re teaming up with Performink to create a cross-referenced survey of all the productions and the people and companies doing it for the upcoming season. Because the user interface is still in progress, we’ve decided to run the survey through another site that will allow us to compile the data and merge it with the existing information on the CTDB.

What does this mean for Chicago theater companies? This survey is your first shot at entering your own data into the CTDB and seeing what you can learn from that data.

What do I mean by “what can you learn?”

How busy is the venue that I’m renting at? What other shows are going on at the same time as mine? Are they LOUD shows?

How many people are doing the play that I’m doing, and how recently?

How busy are my performers and designers? What else are they doing this year? How can I support their work as they support mine?

What other shows open on the same day as my show?

These questions are running around in my head today because I just listened to a rather stellar interview that Anne Nicholson Weber conducted with Chris Jones, Tony Adler, and Kerry Reid on the question of what gets reviewed in this town and why. There’s a lot to be learned and culled here, and before now it required let’s say a decade of experience to really be able to predict if producing say the Cherry Orchard was a good move for a young storefront. Of course, adding in historical data into the mix may make that experience easier to come by for younger companies. In any case, Anne’s been really notching up the quality of the industry news on the Talk Theater in Chicago podcast, and if you haven’t heard it in a while, just grit your teeth through that theme song and give this episode another shot.

We’re going to be putting together some quick and dirty reporting tools in the next few weeks to help answer these questions in a single click – and as we all see what becomes useful and revelatory in the data, I encourage you to ask your own questions of us on the CTDB Forum. We are learning, as we collect this data, how to process the data as fast as possible into a granular form that is more and more useful – the $2 programmingspeak word is “extensible.” We are learning that when you have data like this captured in one community pool, there is a lot of quick and efficient coordination that can be done that just wasn’t possible before.

But it all starts with the data. So jump in and good luck in planning your season.

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It’s ALIVE!

June 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

This has been a crazy, crazy week. And as the faculty prepares for the Cherub program (10 fully-produced shows in rep through July! BOO YA! Tony knows what I’m talking about) which kicks off this week, I’m finding myself frantically tidying up projects and getting them into happy places.

For you see, I’ll be maintaining radio silence from now until August 5th or so. Because the kids and those shows deserve my undivided attention. And what shows they are. Where else do you get to do The Permanent Way, Pool (no water), a punked-out Marie Antoinette, and – get this – Night of the Living Dead – in repertory?. Ain’t no place like it.

So, before I leave you, intrepid reader, for undiscovered country:

I have an announcement to make.

Tonight. We Launch Phase 2 of: The Chicago Theater Database.

CTDB LaunchNow before I get all mission accomplished on you, we still have a long way to go yet. This is another “sneaky peek / prototype / call-it-what-you-will” in progress program. We have structured the project to be more or less open source and community-driven, which means that the version you see now is a) ugly and b) in progress and c) read-only during the beta test period. The view mechanism and the data we’re assembling, however, is pretty robust. Dan Granata and I have assembled a team of beta-testers/contributers who are AS WE SPEAK playing and testing with the input forms and getting all the kinks worked out while they upload new data. Watch Dan’s blog later this evening for more info on the beta test program and how you can contribute.

But play with it. See if you’re interested in getting involved. We have pretty much all of Chicago’s current season on there, and we’re aiming to load in next season ASAP so that the database can become immediately useful to you in planning your next season in Chicago – who you want to work with, what shows you want to get in on, where your scheduling problems lie. Dan will speak to this more, but this is, at its heart, a research tool.

One potential use for the database we’re excited about: a strike date calendar. If you need help getting rid of lumber, props and other items, you can just plop your strike date on the database and interested and frugal scavenger parties can then see which strikes are coming up and where to be, and they may just contact YOU to help you out. And that’s just ONE use for collected data like this. We want to implement your ideas.

So, enjoy. I’ll see you all on August 5th.

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Another Tease

June 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Tools

In Our Town, we like to know the facts about everybody.

There’s David Cromer, who I first knew as one of the directors of Cider House Rules (my first sound op gig in Chicago). Our affectionate nicknames for him and Marc Grapey, our other fearless leader on that show, were “Tigger and Eeyore.” Corrie Besse, that’s a name you don’t want to forget, she was the teensy powerhouse that wrangled the cast of 32,000 backstage in the upstairs Victory Gardens space. Look at that, she’s worked her way up from ASM to SM. Still wrangling a cast of thousands and a props setup to make the fearless quake.

Alison Siple is one of those mad genius types. My favorite work of hers remains these angel wings made of umbrellas (her specialty!) that she did for one of our plays at Cherubs. Then there’s Jonathan Mastro over there by the piano. You might have seen him before on the piano with the Monkeys, or perhaps you were lucky enough to see him tickling the ivories for the Chicago Children’s Theater premiere production of “A Year with Frog & Toad.” We still sing the grand finale of act 1, “Cookies” up in the Owen booth. No matter what the show.

Then there’s Tim Curtis. Last time I saw him was back on the Visions & Voices stage during Accidental Rapture. I still play my Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse sound cue from that show to demonstrate sonic storytelling (and you can get a great Lord-of-The-Rings horse breath effect using the snort of a walrus).

And good old Devin Brain. He’s one of the guys that helps make things work on all those Hypocrites shows you’ve been seeing – I remember sitting with him on the orange carpet during Porno at the Side Project with Grant Sabin trying to figure out how to best rig those damn TVs to the grid. He’s a pretty stellar director, too.

The structure is nearly at the beta testing stage. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go yet – it’s ugly as sin and there’s some duplicate data in there. And missing! Where the hell is John Wehrman? He’s a part of this show too, just off of New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. And to bring it full circle, there’s in the space itself the memory of the last event that took place here – the beautiful wedding and reception of Kaitlin Byrd and fellow Plagiarist Ian Miller a few weeks ago. She lead that cast of GGB and, if you look way back, you’ll notice that she was in that cast of thousands in Cider House as well.

I just love a wedding, don’t you? They’re just so beautiful. We are carving the gravestones of these memories here. To leave a mark where there was none. To draw connections. To remember.

And this is only one window into our history. We’re ready to start collecting your info if you have some to give.

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The Capture

May 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

When I first started designing, I took handwritten notes. Scribbles, really. Each note said something like “dloor up 7 after…” I have horrible handwriting under pressure in the dark. Also, I didn’t write very quickly, so I’d leave a lot of trailing sentences as the play progressed and new cue mishaps grabbed my attention.

Frankly, I didn’t yet have a process, and I was designing in a panic. I used notes as shorthand to trigger my memory of what happened particular run, and then doing the notes meant reconciling that memory with the director’s divergent memory and then taking an appropriate measure to correct that cue for the next run.

The problem with me and this method became clear the first time I designed my annual summer juggernaut – the ten repertory shows of Cherubs. Each show ran an hour, and teched in an hour and forty five minutes. After tech, I would have one dress run to make any last adjustments, and then performance. Each night you tech two shows, and then the next night you tech two more. At the end of my first week of Cherubs tech I had a pile of incomprehensile scribbles like “Fade out the drone when she does that thing upstage” with little memory of the play itself. I needed a better way.

And I didn’t just need it for Cherubs. I looked at the designers whose careers I wanted to emulate – Andre Pluess, Lindsay Jones, Ray Nardelli, Josh Horvath. These individuals are unbelievably prolific, if you haven’t noticed. I think Lindsay pulled off something like 30 shows in 10 states last year. They worked everywhere, all the time – in Chicago and regionally. In watching their processes, I noticed patterns in how they organized their notes, cues, and files into standard formats and structures no matter how different the show was.

I experimented with excel spreadsheets and text files. The disorganization and lack of clarity continued – though I did notice that I had a speed increase and a greater percentage of complete sentences because I’m a faster typer. So I was capturing more of the same bad information I worked on self-discipline in the moment and looked into some preliminary shorthand lessons. It didn’t click with me. New problems started emerging as I experimented with new methods – I would bring a level up one day only to bring it down again after sitting in a new seat only to bring it up again after sitting in the first seat again. I was pushing and pulling my hair out.

The breakthrough came for me when I thought about the nature of the information I was trying to retain. Levels. Cues. Moments. Memories of the events of a run. Records of previous runs and notes. Whether I had taken care of a note or not. Notes from a director. Notes for a stage manager. Notes for myself.

I decided to create (ta da!) a relational database and see how that worked for me. I broke the information of my work into core models – cues, subcues (like fades and layered sounds in a cue), notes. Five years later, it looks like this:

Not the greatest interface, but it’s been built incrementally with only my brain, so it works great for me. Notes are in yellow there. As a show progresses, I scroll through my cue list. If I have a note, I just type in one of the yellow boxes and I have a quick pull down menu of basic types of notes to give me some quick context – “Director” means it’s something I need to ask the director. Its direct, and in practice, simple. I should note while the data structure is complex enough for me to use this system in every show, it’s also flexible enough that I can ignore great sections of it when time demands that of me. I really only use the subcue table, for instance, when I run using CD playback shows where overlapping sound files still need to be managed. Computerized playback often makes that paperwork more or less moot, so it just sits there.

By capturing the data I also noticed an immediate benefit – separating the data from the display of that data by taking it off a piece of paper or a spreadsheet freed myself to use the data in new and different visualizations. I could create a new layout that automatically created a cue list easy for a stage manager to read:

Or a quick pull list of notes to do in a hurry:

With six or seven shows and some troubleshooting, it became a system that I trust more than my handwritten notes and my swiss cheese memory. It became a way to freeze those pure, immediate reactions that I have in the space and in the moment and use those to inform my notes. And since I began analyzing the way that I captured information and the structure of the information that needed to be captured, my handwritten notes have become decidedly more disciplined and focused.

But that’s what works for me. What’s important is the way that you structure your own capture. You need a way to capture all the relevant data that you can fit into your bucket, and a way to intuitively and simply filter that information later. We are flawed creatures, and it’s not only possible but likely that at some point you’ll try to fool yourself into thinking you took one action when you took another.

There was another important capture that took place in recent months – the company members of the side project sat down and captured through a brainstorm all the roles and responsibilities of the company so that we could better enlist and provide support to Artistic Director and theater operations superhero Adam Webster. By capturing and filtering the things we did as individuals over the course of a season, we began compiling a bible of simple manuals for tasks and procedures that were involved with running a theater – everything from filing taxes to taking out the trash to repatching the lightboard. We took this information out of our cluttered minds and put it in a repository where anyone can come in and take over, and in doing so the problem of “running a theater” became smaller and more manageable. When you look at the life cycle of company membership, that kind of capturing and filtering process creates institutional knowledge that is the difference between the life of a theater company and its demise.

This is one of the reasons that I think creating a database of Chicago Theater is a worthwhile project and not simply navel-gazing. It is made up of collected and searchable and therefore endlessly useful data. If it is successful, it creates a model for other public resources of data in the theater community that by necessity would be more accessible than say, TCG’s data that Scott Walters used to such great effect. It captures hard facts that can be organized to suit your purpose that day. It allows us to check things that we believe are true (“You know what Chicago needs? A production of Our Town in April 2009!” They’ll never know what hit them!) against the captured data of collected memory that inarguably is true.

On a side note: Speaking of manuals, I’ve been exploring the utterly hilarious Poignant Guide to Ruby in my learning process of the Ruby on Rails programming environment for the CTDB. I think the devilvet in particular will appreciate the use of off-the-cuff cartoon foxes and elves to spice up the process of (yawn) learning a programming language.

When you’re reading and writing a manual, I cannot stress enough the importance of retaining your sense of humor. This is the thing that I often forget.

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