Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Who Do you Trust?

January 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Theater Media Roundup

I do wish I didn’t ever sound like this when explaining how to use technology to achieve an aesthetic goal.

Now watch the master.


How To Choose A Vocal Microphone for Your Recording Studio

h/t Ray.

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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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I can sleep when I’m dead

December 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Here’s how I know how important coffee is in my life:

I recently ditched Quicken (which was more of a clutching / heaving action that ‘ditch’ implies) in favor of the online tool Buxfer, which while very much in beta (who isn’t these days?) has a powerful tagging system that I can use to quickly assign each financial transaction in my life to various projects, which is a must when you freelance as much as I do. This helps me boil down the holiest of holies: A project-by-project summary of which projects reward me and which bleed me dry. It also keeps me on a very simple weekly or monthly budget for things like eating out.

Also, Buxfer has a really sweet iPhone interface, which has allowed me to balance my checkbook while on the train, saving me a ton of work time without appearing to be that guy. Is it good for theaters? I think if you’re small enough and aren’t doing fully audited financials yet and just need better organization, yes. Buxfer is primarily designed for just-post-college folks who tend to share a lot of bills and need to manage their finances with roommates. This has led to a host of features that are good for collaborative bookkeeping –

A) You can link multiple accounts relationally, which means you can pretty easily create an accessible abstraction of your current financial situation – one account per department, or personal accounts can track loaned money to the company account – however you need to organize it.

B) It’s online and syncable with multiple bank accounts, so it’s easy to get a quick snapshot of your cash flow.

C) You can keep show AND department AND company budgets organized on top of each other, and because of the tagging system, any single transaction can be deducted from any number of budgets. Each budget can also be tracked annually, monthly, weekly, or an a number of different schedules.

D) Buxfer was designed with purpose of tracking mini personal loans between people, so it’s “Money Owed” section allows you to very carefully track personal reimbursements that need to be repaid to any number of individuals or companies.

D) There is a bill scheduling system (and a day-to-day cash flow projection graph) which can help immensely with cash flow tracking if you’re waiting on renting those dimmers until your grant is coming in.

F) If you’ve got an iPhone, you can stand in your theater next to your set that clearly needs another coat of paint and quickly get an answer to: “Yes, we have room in the budget for $36.40 of additional paint expense. But don’t go over that.”

It’s not all roses and honey bees. Buxfer feels like a late beta web application – not quite all the way done yet – and while I’ve been able to successfully load in six years of complex freelancing financial data without too many hiccups, one of those hiccups has been periodic duplication of synced transactions, which has given me one or two heart attacks so far. The user interface sometimes does slightly wonky things, but even in playing with it for a couple months, they’ve developed new features at a rate that makes me confident that they’re heading in a really exciting direction.

Buxfer is free, with a very affordable upgrade (a couple bucks a month, paid annually) for unlimited budgets and bank accounts. That means it has to monetize a bit more somehow, and in their case, they have you by the crotch – they know where you spend your money, so they can serve you with cut-to-the-heart ads that they *know* you’ll fish out the wallet for.

Here’s what greeted me in my Buxfer sidebar this morning:

What do you think? A coffee franchise might just be the thing somedays, that last thin mint of life management that will help reduce my cost of living to a couple pennies while providing great benefit.

I want an Intelligentsia in my theater.

Not really. But kinda.

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Yaaaaay Words.

November 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

H/T to Mirror up to Nature for drawing attention to Isaac Butler and Rob Kendt‘s latest project – The Critic-O-Meter, which Isaac at least has been hinting at for a couple months now. Using as much data collection as allowed by nature with subjective reviews, their project seeks to derive a letter grade from the collected reviews of every Broadway and Off-Broadway show in Le Grande Pomme. Stamp. of. Approval.

New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski also pointed me in the direction of this handy tool which demonstrates how beautiful data analysis can be. I’ve been thinking for a while now about collecting some word clouds from theater company and blog sites and displaying them to help provide some biofeedback about the words coming out of our mouths. These Wordles are only made from the most recent 6 posts from the following blogs, So as always, the more data you feed in, the more illuminating the analysis.

Theater for the Future:

Don Hall:

Steppenwolf Blog:

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones:

All images created by Wordle under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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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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One Year, One Day & One Hundred Posts

November 06, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere

Wow. Thank goodness WordPress counts all this for me.

This is the 100th post from Theater for the Future, just a scant few hours over one year since I started this blog in earnest, and in celebration, I’m throwing a best-of party.

I wish we had a league of awesomeness – On the joys of giving away performances for free.

An International Renaissance – Theater artist exchanges and festivals breed a delightful cross-pollination that makes everyone’s work better.

I wanted to live but I couldn’t – A tribute to injured director Bev Longo (who is now well on the long and complicated road to recovery), and a questioning of theater’s ability to really engage and generate growth in our daily lives.

Laughing Back – Tribes, Ancillary Skills, and why Theater and Web Design make a great combo. Mmmm… combos.

Great Expectations – The woes of storefront theater infrastructure. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We Have Ignition – A single crazed week marks the beginning of two long-term initiatives for the Chicago Theater community

The Business of Changing People’s Lives – The theatrical narrative is valuable to the artist and the audience, and that value is often hidden behind a lukewarm review.

Where to Find the Good Stuff – Teaching tech to middle schoolers is a fast way to answer the question – what makes an audience connect with our work?

Chicken of the VNC – A funny name for sound design by remote control

How (and why) to write a Company Bible – A creative use of forums and wikis can help capture all that stuff you always seem to forget in tech

A strategy for educational initiatives – More hands-on, less talk-back.

More information than you can shake a stick at – The fruits of labor of 180 theater companies becomes a living report that leads to a few eye-opening conclusions. If you build the data, the knowledge will come.

Here’s a To Do List For Us – Where do we go from after the election? Thoughts on strategies for social change, reducing burnout, and using the arts to achieve both.

Thanks for reading, and your comments!

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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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