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How to get the Right Website for Your Theater Company

April 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere

When we first got the proposed design for the Newleaftheatre.org site in 2004, the marketing team of the era was in absolute awe. We were sitting in the spacious, well-lit trendy “living room” of one of our company members’ friends design firm (won’t tell you which one – we’ve been lucky enough to have three such relationships in our eight-year history) and we were each handed this shiny binder with images of orange bevels, warm handwritten text, and black-and-white stills from our current production. It was SNAZZY. For a company that was tiny and had no money, this pro-bono design was the get of a lifetime. We still get comments, in a market five years older, about how great our site looks. That site has caught the attention of artists just landing in Chicago, and we get the privelage of working with them first… because we had a web presence that was simple and sleek and showed us off.

Cut back to 2004. I’m sitting there, trying to figure out the world of marketing as an artist, and I came to that meeting with a question. I was to be the webmaster once the site was rolling, and I wanted to be ready. I had been learning this neat new (to me) programming language called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.. The possibilities of CSS seemed to fit right in with such a sleek design – easy to read code meant that the site would be simple to update under many unforseen circumstances. For example, a vertical production photo instead of a horizontal one. I asked the question: “Would this site be coded in CSS?”

Sure, it may have been a rude and rube-ish question to ask a hot shot designer who just handed us the keys to a beautiful pro-bono design. And I felt that rush of guilt immediately, and I backed down.

And you know what? I’m STILL cleaning up and working around and limboing under that jerk’s code five years later. Look at it! Go to Newleaftheatre.org, click on “view source” and look at it! It’s a freaking mess! Table code every which way, embedded font tags that make the simplest updates cumbersome and confusing… The very definition of an unextensible site. Over the years – as I’ve learned more – I’ve slowly updated under-the-hood in little half-day bursts to allow for a database-driven site (which in turn compresses a half-day of updating the site everytime we put on a new show to about half an hour), and fancy things like photo montages, twitter integration. But the thing that prevents all these things from really gelling? Not enough time to massage and fix the shoddy programming that underpinned a beautiful site.

So, you know I love you. I don’t want you or your theater to have this fate. So here’s some tips and ‘gotchas’ to look for when your board and marketing department get a crackin’ for a new website.

1) Be very careful with conflating the identity of a graphic designer and a programmer / web developer. It is actually rare to get both in the same person, and boards tend to like designers but forget the programmer. (though now that’s starting to shift: Social media means there’s now a primary focus on web developers — but everyone still assumes that they also design, which many of them don’t) To really confuse the issue, designers also often think they can program (you know I love you guys), and programmers often think they can design (you’re my peeps). If someone says they are both, look at both sides of their portfolio. You need BOTH when you’re creating an online identity, but given the realities of long-term theater budgets, I’d argue you MUST have a good programmer or you will be fighting bad programming decisions for the life of the site, and that will cost you in time and missed opportunities. You also want to make sure that in addition to submitting a nice proposal (ooh! It’s velo-bound!) and coming in under budget and on time, your designer and programmer are hearing you and thinking creatively about how to translate the identity of your company into both a functionality (programming) and a look (design). It’s the same thing as theater, and board-types from the corporate world forget that when they put on arts marketing hats. (Don’t get me started with the corporate world and web presences – they know they need one and that theaters are bad at creating them but 90% of them don’t know how to achieve that on a granular level.) You know what designer/director trust feels like in your company, and you know what a designer who can’t execute their ideas looks like. And what do you do when they design beautifully but can’t execute? You hire them a technician – an ME, a sound engineer, a Technical Director. Same theory applies here.

2) The Good-Fast-Cheap-(Pick 2)” rule applies. As much as I just bitched the dude out, I do think that getting an experienced designer on a pro-bono basis absolutely pays dividends over the long term. Pro-bono means that the designer – for once in their career working for the man – is allowed to play and push their own creative limits, so you can really end up with staggering work if you cultivate the right relationship. To that end – If you’re getting Good and Cheap (gotta have cheap, right?) DO NOT THINK THAT YOU CAN PUSH FOR FAST. Budget plenty of time to get the results you want with little investment. The designer has to take you and your deadlines seriously, but for instance – don’t fall into the trap of the ‘partial launch so that we can hit this deadline.’ This is just asking for trouble, because your developer will usually need to develop two working sites within the time frame that they would normally be building one. Two mediocre sites do not equal one good one. When you sacrifice good, you will burn them out, and then they will drop you like a hot tamale. Check in with them. Find out what makes them excited. Continue to engage their interests, and they’ll keep working with you – just like any collaborative artist.

3) I swear to god, no one does this, but it’s so much more important than getting the right the visual look of a site. When a process neglects Content Management training, designers tend to push their Content-Management-of-choice on you, the client. This allows them to fake you out a bit and get you off their back – when they’re on home turf most designers have great agility and can *appear* to provide all three pieces of the magic triangle: Good, Fast & Cheap! You Win!

Not so fast, Sonic the Hedgehog. Allow enough time in your timeline to make sure that you understand under-the-hood programming choices. You should budget time to have a rep from your company research & discuss the relative merits of each Content Management System (CMS) with the preference but without the bias of the designer/programmer. Some CMS’s that might be proposed:

– Dreamweaver / Text editing. Run away, already. Dreamweaver is an HTML tool, not a CMS, and updating the page will require HTML skill. That means crazy maintenance time and/or costs and a greater likelihood that your updates will break the page.

– Designer maintenance. Not a viable option for the theaters these days, and if you went pro-bono, it’s a laughable thought. The goal here is that the CMS should be easy enough to use that any company member can update the site – because at some point, marketing will be a burden.

– XML or database-driven site interpreted by PHP / Ruby / Javascript. Now we’re talking. Requires some very basic coding knowledge in some cases, but data is separated from design so your updates will not mistakenly break the site. In this case, what goes into the database (the “schema’) and what gets hardcoded into the site should be a subject of some scrutiny, since your programmer will probably not get it right on the first guess. Extending your site later will require another visit from the programmer in most cases – and increasingly, as new technologies like Twitter pop up every long weekend, that could turn into a sustainability problem. Unless you REJECT change.

– Joomla or Drupal. Perfectly servicable CMSs with built-in databases, though it can be confusing to some – including me, and I know five web languages. Try it out first. Tony will recommend Joomla every time. Tony, you’re a crazy person for this reason.

– WordPress, again with a built-in database. My flavor of choice because of its ease, ubiquity, and extensibility, but it needs some tweaking to wipe away the wordpress “look” and would also need considerable modifications to power say, ongoing box office functionality. I’m biased, too, remember. Again, try before you buy. We did quite a bit of this sort of tweaking with Dan Granata’s new net-home, Theatre That Works.

This post was (once again!) sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me a nice late-night mug of Genmai-cha. The toasted rice tea reminds me of Iwate, Japan. Sigh. Thanks (oh so belatedly), Elizabeth!

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Saturday Night Shakedown

February 21, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

I am not writing a blog post. I am simply getting all the crap running through my life on e-paper. A lot of this stuff I’d love for you to drill down to if you’re interested, but for now short and sweet is all I can do.

– League of Chicago Theaters meeting about World Theatre Day ’09 was, in one word: Exhilarating. In three different words: Here we go. Look for the League announcement next week at some point. If you are a theater ANYWHERE, you can be involved and you should be involved, and it doesn’t have to be taxing to be a big deal. March 27. Look it up.

– We’re totally having a World Theatre Day conference call tomorrow. London, Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and Australia are talkin’ at the same time. This project is like an onion made of crazy fearlessness – an international game of “Yes, and…”

– I think one reason this doesn’t feel like blogging is that I haven’t been keeping up with my Google Reader very well, and having trouble processing other blogs these days. Understandable, but guess what: Being connected with a larger discussion is important for the health and relevance of one’s work.

– I’m back with my old friend Idris Goodwin and many new friends working on American Ethnic, this awesome collection of short-form hip hop theatre at Remy Bumppo. It’s gonna be *ha* exhilarating, and yes, Kelly Tsai might hold a pitchfork like that.

– Today was the first round of auditions for New Leaf’s next (and first ORIGINAL) work, The Long Count. I am so excited to bring this play into rehearsals I might just explode, which would be embarrassing. Both of these new plays, by the way, have been developed via Google Doc.

– Sat down with the other company members of The Side Project to talk about next season and following the next steps in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable, low-cost theater venue. Drafting the model and organizational structure in the coming weeks with the rest of the company… I think there might be some exciting stuff to share there, and I think if it works The Side Project is gonna be a significantly more kickass place to work. If we’ve had a conversation about this and you’re interested, shoot me an email.

– I have not forgotten about the Chicago Theater Database, and we are still inviting new folks to grab a username and update their stuff. However, that artists auto-fill problem is still there, taunting me, periodically causing mischief, and for the moment at least, it is still running around the countryside tormenting the peasants. In happier news, not working on this has allowed me to actually achieve some sleep.

– Last day of Hypocrites today, the Dutch arrive monday!

– Oh yeah, did I mention I’ll be designing this at the Goodman? It’s five hours long, and will be concluding the engaging and I-think-I-can-safely-say successful O’Neill fest. I think I might be in love with it. Note the pics of the Neos taken with hats and warm coats to metaphorically signify the lack of heat in the Neo-Futurarium. They’re going from there to here. Chicago: City of extremes.

– Don’t look now, but a certain big regional theater has a sweet new 26-channel QLab 2.0 sound playback rig. Hint: rhymes with “Qleppenwolf.”

– Been kicking up a bunch of educational work thanks largely to Cherubs students, including a big sound upgrade install at Whitney Young High School, wireless mic consulting for New Trier High School, and it looks like I’ll be helping out a pal with teaching a sound for science fiction course at Northwestern. [sound of light sabre]

– Twitter is seriously pulling the rug out of my impulse to blog. Mostly because I’m finding micro-blogging to be so compelling and useful to my typically action- and momentum-oriented projects. So if I seem to be going dark, check out the latest over here or in my sidebar.

– My sister is graduating from high school this year, and has landed a leading role in our high school’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. This is awesome. She is the third best singer I’ve ever heard. And I’m a sound engineer. This gal can belt something fierce. I am a proud brother.

– My brother is, at the end of the month, going to be setting sail from Oahu to Palmyra Atoll – 1,000 miles of empty Pacific Ocean, using traditional star-guided-and-tasting-the-sea navigation with this boat. Palmyra is a target 4.6 miles across. I have been asked several times how I do all this crap without collapsing, and the answer is: I will never be as bad-ass as this guy.

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Where do I know them from?

February 11, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Neat new trick you can do with the Chicago Theater Database. So neat, let’s do it on your snazzy mobile device.

Oh crap. You’re talking to your pals and you cant think of that show so and so was working on, or what company they work with. What was that show? DAMN IT!


Oh right. We know how to fix this. In our mobile web browser, let’s key in their full name as a URL with the path “artist”. As in: http://chicagotheaterdb.com/artist/so/andso

And now: Go there.


Oh right. There they are. No searching required.

Oh! Of course. He’s the sound designer for Touch. Doesn’t that close soon? Let’s click through.

Oh crap, that closes this week!

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Conversion

February 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Do you ever have those moments where life imitates Art? Where you realize that your life is following the same path as the characters in your play? I think I finally internalized the meaning of the word “resonance” the third year I ran A Christmas Carol in a row and each December I found the story of Scrooge to be drawing my attention to my own avarice. Don’t get me started about that time I ran Massacre.

It took me a while to figure it out, but I’m experiencing the same kind of Art->Life effect while working on the Hypocrites’ version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape over the past week (which opens Wednesday).

Only the minorest of spoiler alerts, I’m not here to give anything about the play or the production away, but I will discuss some details about the world of the play.

When you’re running a show (opposed to watching it as a member of audience), you get a very different experience of the play as bits and pieces of the story as they accrue between cues, programming changes, quick changes, and preset checks. So the character of Yank, a stoker on a steamship liner, is one that I understand in my bones. The stage manager tells me to hit the sound cue, the sound cue whistles, and Yank hears his engineer call him to throw more coal on the boiler. The director tells the sound designer how many whistles there should be, and how often, and my job is to know and push the machinery, the cogs of technological storytelling.

Where force is converted to momentum, there is stress. The energy of burning matter creates steam which pushes the turbine, cranks the wheel, grinds the gears, lurches the steel forward and there it is: movement. As Yank says, “25 knots. Steel. That’s me every time.”

But humans are not steel, and the forces of the world bend us and provide resistance to our efforts. As the director – the theater itself, even – experiments and refines, there is a flurry of activity as the cogs of the theatrical machinery react and tack, shifting their course in collaborative tandem, and that flurry can look like chaos, can look like panic, can look like stress. As the winds fill the sails of my little theater company that could, we know that there will now come a time where we see if she is seaworthy. And that means sailing through a storm.

This week, like Yank, I’m trying hard to think. And it’s hard, it takes all of my body. I’m grappling with a big, underlying theory of everything, and my mind is just not big and agile enough to keep up with it. The forces that pushed me to Chicago, that pushed my theater company to develop its way of working, that pushed me to start blogging, to speak up, they are all pointing me to look at one problem: the problem of conversion. Converting energy into movement.

Is it happening for theater right now? I know so many people want it to be happening, and so many others believe that kind of change cannot happen, but under both wishes and prayers there are these fundamentals: force, direction of that force, and the natural resistance and momentum of the dead weight – our past and our future.

I’m still thinking about how to build a better machine. In the days of Yank, machines served a simple purpose, which is why they could proliferate: They burnt material, boiled water, pressurized the steam and turned giant wheels of progress. Progress was measured by how much you could move, how fast you could go. 25 knots. “That’s me every time.” Our very identities as Americans was tied with this idea of giant force, giant growth – but it dehumanized us, and made us cogs rolling towards an increasingly untenable dream of personal largesse. That’s why we gave that up and went towards a service economy, no?

Today we know the consequences of unchecked progress, and O’Neill certainly foresaw them in 1922. We know that machines designed to simply convert matter into force also create waste. We ignored that waste for decades, and now as it piles up in our air, in our water, in our land, we cannot ignore waste in our machinery anymore. We know that thinking of human beings as machines creates, well, just rampant unpleasantness in our daily lives. We must build purer machines, and we do that by:

– measuring their leverage (how much they amplify our own force)
– measuring their applied purpose (what is our goal by using the machine?)
– and by measuring their waste (what do we lose – on our planet and in ourselves – if we overuse this machine?)

In this new definition of efficiency, we must create sustainability and we can demand an increase in social quality. Where in the industrial world we would design a machine to move a mountain, in the post-industrial world we are starting to understand that the efficient solution is sometimes to keep the mountain and find a way to use its weight, heft, eco-system, and drainage patterns to our long-term advantage. In the online world, we are starting to see how social media can leverage the social mechanisms of human flocking and the natural-resource friendly connectivity of the global internet to solve problems by the accrual of many small efforts. In theater, we are starting to see how we can reuse our artistic waste as promotional material, feeding our excess energy and work right back into the creative process, just like a triple-expansion marine engine.

Which leaves one last, nagging, itchy question yet to be really answered: to what end? What does the end of this effort look like? Like Yank, I thought I knew my purpose when setting out and stepping up to the mic in Chicago Theater. I was truly surprised to learn that blogging, like steam power, is an example of literally, magically, turning hot air into momentum. I am also learning that the conversion of excitement into movement requires great stress as the hot air pushes, pressurizes, and pulls at many bodies at rest – until suddenly, we have shared momentum. Velocity in the same direction. And I am learning that there will be days when that stress will be applied directly to my mind, my body, and they will not be strong enough.

What I don’t know yet, what I know I will need to find a way to answer: How do I accurately measure the effectiveness of my efforts to improve something as mushy as the quality of my own work? I feel them working, but I will soon need to show, to prove, to provide the underlying physics of this new machinery. There are many who looked at the first steam engine and said, “sure, you *could* push that cart with steam power, but it doesn’t seem very practical.” To answer this, I am grasping at straws looking for a new metric, watching the rate and type of contributions to the database, and even counting the number of times that someone who watches Touch calls their family at intermission. These are questions that help us gauge our speed. 25 knots?

We must feed our problems into our solutions. This is the thing I’ve learned from studying the past this week: Increasing efficiency means reusing waste, taking nothing for granted, and feeding it all into the right engine. Conversion is an art in itself.

How do you measure your own effectiveness at the things you set your mind to? Is it an accurate measure? How does your measurement affect your will to continue your effort… or change?

P.S. I also realized tonight after reading this that the answer probably means having a bit more fun in the shows I’m working on. It’s been a soul-shaking season thus far. Look for summa that kinda playfulness in this.

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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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Resource Sharing in Theatrical Communities

January 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Community Building, CTDB

The League of Chicago Theaters brings up the big issue itself today on their blog: Is Chicago Theater ready and willing to share resources for the overall health of the community?

As you could probably figure out from the comments, I’ve been thinking about this question and how to break down the natural resistance to the idea of sharing resources for about as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Here’s some of the misconceptions about theaters working together – some which I think I’ve actually perpetuated through my cheerleading – and the reality of what I’ve seen so far:

MISCONCEPTION 1 – Sharing Resources takes money.
Almost never (or if it does, we’re talking about minor administrative costs like the cost of web hosting.) One easy way to break up any relationship, whether it’s between two people or two organizations, is to get financially entangled before you’re ready for a permanent committment. Fundraising in particular is one place that I think will likely never be a shared resource between theaters, since it has the potential to make us so cagey as collaborators. Resource sharing is about recycling and reusing energies that are already being spent to help conserve future energy. Any project that requires money to conserve money – like say, a shared storage facility – should probably be set up as an independent and self-sufficient body with its own community-serving mission.

One area in particular with the money discussion worries me on a gut level – too often the discussion of collaborative projects turns to funding the project before the real needs and mission of the projects are fleshed out. Remember that both government and corporate forces tend to take action with money rather than the more non-profit actions of dialogue, initiatives, and begging for money from governments and corporate forces to be able to do the right thing. When we’re talking about funds on the community level for things like arts centers or programs, there is a great need to have the organizations doling out those funds to be overseen by the community and be accountable to public transparency. This is going to matter a lot when we start talking about Community Development Block Grants and how they are administered. I think we’ve all seen what an arts boondoggle looks like, and I think given the history of NEA funding in this country, it’s important to be more demonstrably responsible with all public and donated funds than the arts have been in the past. In my opinion, that means investing in growth infrastructure — rather than new buildings with people’s names on them, it means creating new ticketing systems, experimental programs that generate money over time, and new partnerships that connect new audiences to the art and connect the arts to the needs of those audiences.

MISCONCEPTION 2 – Theaters and individuals want to share resources.
In practice, theaters and the individuals that make them up are ready to participate in programs like this, but they tend to be resistant to actually setting them up. The fact is, collaboration is a lot of work and creating programs of the scale we’re talking about require first collecting a great deal of input, then processing that input into a proposed program, and then getting notes about that proposal and gently shaping and shepherding the program through its launch and early use. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s just like putting on a play, and just like plays, you can have a resource sharing program that responds to its audience and one that operates independantly in a bubble and goes nowhere. While theaters and individuals want to share resources, their primary goal – at least right now – is to fuel their own artistic agenda by asking for help.

I think this document may change that. Americans for the Arts and the Obama administration are already engaged in a very high-level dialogue about specific leveraged programs that they want to see implemented. These are all programs that could have a huge effect on the way the arts relates to the American people, and I highly encourage you to read and react to them.

MISCONCEPTION 3 – Theaters are too busy to share resources.
This one is so very close to true. Since theater tends to occupy that place in our lives reserved for obsessive hobbies, most people engaged in theater have literally five minutes of spare time that they often reserve for things like… sleep. Or combing one’s hair on a regular basis. Initiating a resource sharing program often means investing time in getting to know other theaters and how other theaters work, seeing if the two theaters are a good fit and where overlap occurs. I’d say we’re already talking about five hours of high-level discussions that get to the core of our theater operations before any benefit can even be proposed. I get that.

Here’s where the time crunch is moot, though: The entire idea of sharing resources should lead to discussions and partnerships that almost immediately enrich the skill sets of each theater. Let’s say one theater has a great production department, and the other theater knows how to market shows like nobody’s business. By discussing operations, comparing notes, and making some resources available to other companies, you make your own company more equipped to make quick innovations.

I’ve seen this work on the ground: New Leaf and the Side Project have been engaging in various types of resource sharing for three years, often through me since I’m a company member with both theaters. This is at times hugely time consuming and draining for me, it’s true. However, look at the mutual benefits that these theaters have generated for each other in the past year:

New Leaf –
– Needed seating risers for Touch to achieve specific sightlines. Side Project runs two spaces, and loaned them.
– Needed cheap rehearsal space over the holiday season. The Side Project, which owns space in Rogers Park, didn’t have tenants during that time.

The Side Project –
– Needed talented designers and stage managers for the huge and all-consuming Cut to the Quick Festival – New Leaf is well-connected to the design and technical world in Chicago and recently worked with newcomer SM Amanda Frechette to hone her rehearsal and performance management skills in the context of storefront theater. Designers, technicians, and run crew hired.
– The Side Project doesn’t have a large production department, and technical projects often need to be postponed based on company energy. New Leaf restored, reinforced, and repainted the aging seating risers in exchange for their use, which both companies needed to do anyway.

Both companies –
Have participated in a program ad exchange for several years. That’s cake. On a more human level, we’re often committed to each other’s work… New Leaf’s artists talk about the side project a lot and vice versa. This is the most basic kind of visceral marketing: The two companies care enough about each others’ work to see it, evaluate it, and recommend audiences go see the good stuff elsewhere and we work to feed the other company more talent when we uncover a weak spot.

The individuals in both theaters –
– Get to work more closely together and increase the number of opportunities they have. New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski directed a show in the Cut to the Quick Festival after collaborating in the companies’ relationship, and the aforementioned Amanda Frechette got to network her way into her second Chicago theater relationship. You might not like the word ‘networking,’ but the action itself still can be exciting, challenging, and nourishing to the work.

– Learned new skills. To date, I have trained members in both companies how to use graphics programs, email blasting software, and even running a facebook page. I have learned so much about press relations, an area I’m particularly sketchy in, by watching Side Project Artistic Director Adam Webster, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post. That’s just me… I’d wager the simple act of collaborating on a granular level in both artistic and administrative duties has taught each individual in both companies dozens of valuable skills.

MISCONCEPTION 4 – Resource Sharing is a no-brainer. We’ve gotta do it.
There are a few potentially disastrous pitfalls to a relationship of resource sharing like this.

One is imbalance. When you’re talking about resources that aren’t as quantifiable as money, there can be disagreement and hurt feelings about the relative worth of what each party puts in. As I say on the League blog, I think the way to most effectively short circuit this natural human response to being screwed or used is to encourage a sense of ownership and participation in the community itself rather than individual companies.

The other is lack of traction. You can create the smartest resource sharing strategy in the world, but if you don’t get people to sign up and buy in, it ain’t worth nothing. I can say this with some level of certainty, as the Chicago Theater Database is absolutely in this teetering zone here, and I think most people with their eye on it are aware of that possibility. Either it takes off, or the time invested isn’t worth the results.

Early in the history of this blog, the incredible programmer Chris Ashworth (creator of qLab audio playback software) wrote in the comments:

I’m inclined to think that starting with the whiteboard (i.e. always doing the simplest thing first, and the next simplest thing second) is the sanest way to try to ease our way up to that line without turning people off from the whole thing.

Which I suppose is another way of saying that the problem should drive the solution rather than having a solution (”web 2.0″) in search of a problem.

Words to live by.

This post was sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee required to write this post. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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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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