Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Refueling

April 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

One thing I’m positively awful at as an artist is managing my creative intake in relation to creative output. The fact that the only way I seem to be able to describe the need for a holiday is to couch it in terms like “refuel,” “intake,” and “output” should clue you in to why this may be. I think most artists are actually pretty good at this: taking time for themselves and making sure that they get enough ‘soaking’ time to feed their art with life experience. I’m crap at it.

This is one reason I’m really thankful to work with music, because it inevitably flips that switch in my head to a more sustainable rhythm of life. (I keep thinking I need sound design this blog using some kind of internet radio, but that’s another story…) With my iPod on shuffle, the connections seem to draw themselves more clearly, and the work begins to flow again.

Yesterday, as I returned the gear on loan for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl – one of two shows I struck in preparation for my imminent departure to Scotland this evening – the song “One Down” by Ben Folds came on, and all the errands I was running that day were brought into perspective, suddenly and cogently – a song that he wrote to fulfill a quota of songwriting for his studio.

People tell me Ben, just make up junk and turn it in
But I never was alright with turning in a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time on music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out

One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here
One down, and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here

I’m really not complaining: I realize it’s just a job
And I hate hearing belly-aching rockstars whine and sob
‘Cause I could be bussing tables
I could well be pumpin’ gas
but I get paid much finer
For playin’ piano and kissing ass

this is one i wrote just an hour ago and three-point-six at last

Theater for the Future is on vacation for two weeks while Nick enjoys his long-deferred honeymoon.

P.S. – Finally got caught up with Writers and Victory Gardens on the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project, which means I’m just waiting on Goodman and Halcyon (ahem, Tony! – Just kidding) to announce firm dates and most of the largest theaters will be on there, for all your season planning needs. Also, I have discovered that this exists, which means that among other things the calendar will eventually be updated simply by updating the Chicago Theater Database, saving time and heartache for all. Keep sending those dates!

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Re-Alignment

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

The Side Project Annual Retreat
If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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We Have Ignition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What was that Geena Davis Movie again?

February 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

About six months ago, I had enough. I was a company member at three theaters and serving as the web master for all three. What was astounding to me was the sheer repetition of the tasks and conversations all three companies were having:

“What kind of mailing list management software can we use to e-blast our patron list?”

“What ticketing service should we use, or should we build our own?”

“What should our process be for recruiting board members?”

“How can we more effectively distribute postcards?”

“Are posters worth the price?”

“Is being a member of the League of Chicago Theaters worth the annual membership fee?”

Deja vu became a way of life.

And I thought: There’s a reason why this is happening. Our theater companies aren’t communicating and sharing best practices with each other. Why not? The League question especially really bothered me. I looked up their mission – have you read their mission? It goes:

The League of Chicago Theatres (LCT) is an alliance of theaters which leverages its collective strength to promote, support and advocate for Chicago’s theater industry locally, nationally and internationally. The League of Chicago Theatres Foundation (LCTF) is dedicated to enhancing the art of theater in the Chicago area through audience development and support services for theaters and theater professionals.

Hot Damn! That’s what I was looking for. But why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t the League providing leadership – or the right kind of leadership – for storefront theaters?

I really tried to figure it out. I got it in my head that structurally they just couldn’t do it, because inevitably in a mix of LORT-sized theaters right down to itinerant theaters, representing the interests of individual small theaters just becomes overwhelming and frustrating. Storefront theaters are strapped for cash, self-centered and often very, very green in terms of how they administer themselves. They also can turn their organizations around on a dime and what they need one day is very different from what they need the next. That’s a recipe for Chaos Soup. It’s hard to get a small theater to even ask for help in a clear way, let alone ask for help in a way that can be provided.

So what would work? I got some friends – trusted colleagues with mutual respect – together over some take out thai and we brainstormed up some structures that would actually work to help storefronts learn faster and incorporate infrastructure more completely and lastingly. We talked about the possibility of splitting storefronts off from the league, and starting something new that simply represented and worked for storefronts and the specific infrastructural needs that storefronts represented. It would need to be built as more of a grassroots organization that could listen to the stated needs of companies and use experienced individuals to interpret solutions that could fix multiple problems with a minimum of effort.

It was at this meeting that the fatal flaw of such an organization became clear. There were five of us in the room, and we couldn’t agree on a flipping thing. New ideas were proposed, and then shot down emotionally. Babies were thrown out with bathwater because we had a room full of passion for change, but we didn’t have a clear survey and picture of the entire theater landscape. We had different priorities, and only enough time to deal with our own agendas.

I refocused. The passion that I discovered in the group was good, firey stuff, but the lack of traction was killing the momentum. We needed a better road map, and the initial idea to build momentum slowly by adding trusted colleagues and building a critical mass coalition was the root of a flawed concept. We didn’t need secrecy and safety, we needed a big, public call to action, and pretty much total transparency every step of the way. People don’t trust people or organizations that carry hidden agendas – no matter how benevolent those agendas may be – and that lack of trust will kill any traction that a movement has before it even begins.

So I started a blog. And others have already been blogging. That’s the clarion call right there. And having an open public dialogue has worked as a strategy – long-time bloggers are noticing a change in the tone of dialogue, increased readership and coverage.

One of the most regular readers has been Ben Thiem of the League. Last week he and I sat down to compare notes and see how we – and you – can pool our efforts to build something better for the community.

What became clear immediately to me in our meeting is that the League is willing and even eager to improve and streamline the resources they offer, but the financial and human resources are not there to back it up. The last few years of the League has seen its staff shrink considerably, and marketing budget dry up to almost nil. The initiatives keep trickling, but without time or the money to buy time, they falter before they have time to build up steam. Making that worse (and Ben’s the first to say so) is a closed and bottlenecked system for providing the most valuable resource that the League supplies – information. What Ben does all day now is answer individual emails from theater companies and manually copy their information over to a website database, or look up the answer and get back to someone. In the era of dynamic web services and collaborative content management, that crap has got to end.

That was the second thing that Ben made very clear to me – the League wants and welcomes help and input, but doesn’t currently have a mechanism other than email blasts and their website to spread and build information. That’s why the information coming from the League can seem weak – because it’s bottlenecked coming up, and bottlenecked going out.

That’s where we all can help. The biggest idea that came from my Storefront League pals is that Storefront theaters are rich with a single resource – volunteer time. As projects like Dan Granata’s uber-list of Chicago Theaters and Missions has demonstrated, a lot of us have a reasonable amount of free time on our hands that can be used to create or compile useful knowledgebases and information that can help a lot of people. What we are lacking is coordination. In the last week I’ve been invited to three different (and all well-intentioned) Ning groups and facebook pages and blog comments feeds that are all trying to do the same thing in a different back corner of the internet. We need a system to pool these individual initiatives and hours of volunteer time into a coordinated, accessible, and centralized resource. And we need that system of collaboration to not generate animosity and degrade our willingness to cooperate. It needs to be open, public, and built on a foundation of inclusion, and that will make it less likely to fall apart like previous initiatives that go back to the founding of Second City.

Blogs alone don’t succeed here, because they are not a collaborative tool. They are mouthpieces, or in orchestral terms, trumpets. They’re useful to get attention on a cause, but if we have any hope of getting this marching band rolling, we’re gonna need some other instruments and we’re going to need to use them for what they’re designed to do.

The League gets this, but isn’t currently built with grassroots momentum and coordination in mind. It has several major programs in the works, including a long-term plan to overhaul their website and create a “web 2.0″ site featuring user-updated content. This is where I kind of went all giddy, because to me the goal is to let the computers and the internet duplicate our work, not the league. I’m so sick of forms filled out in triplicate it’s making my eyes cross – it’s a waste of everybody’s time. What I’d eventually love to see is a single place where the community buzz can build up and people can share their news and coordinate with each other on their own terms. A Moveon.org / Facebook / IMDB / Wikipedia for Chicago Theater. A network of RSS news feeds that allow theaters to update their website and the league website in the same keystroke. A place where audience members can check out the collected works of artists and thereby become more involved and engaged in following their future career. A place where theaters can coordinate and enlist help from new-to-town volunteers who need inroads into the community. Something that generates excitement, knowledge, buzz, and community involvement in one place, for everyone in the community regardless of budget.

The first step is going back to the initial need – we need to build a place where theaters can discuss, develop, share and implement best practices. Right now. At the same time, I think we need to learn to dance the collaborative dance with each other again, in an environment that isn’t as combative as the blogosphere. We need an initiative that can prove to ourselves and to the League that storefront theaters and the artists that work in them are capable of creating incredibly valuable infrastructure for the whole organization, simply by talking and capturing our ideas in a centralized resource. Best of all, I think that resource already exists, and is only missing our involvement: The League of Chicago Theaters Wiki.

Do you know about something that some people don’t know about? Write it in the wiki. Do you have a question that you can’t seem to find the answer to? Ask it as a stub article in the wiki. Have you fastidiously compiled a list of resources that could be valuable information for other people? Plop it in the Wiki. Want to help, but don’t know what you could contribute of value? Write a comment below, and I’ll tell you specifically what articles you can get on, or talk to your theater colleagues and come to an agreement about what your company could spend some time on that could benefit us all. Make it a habit to donate 15 minutes of your time a day or an hour a week updating and adding useful information during your boring day job. Go through pre-existing articles and add footnotes and support materials. If something is just plain wrong, give your own perspective, or learn from the other perspectives out there. Think about what things would make a knowledgebase useful to you and your theater, and make sure that the wiki has those things. Develop the information, and encourage anyone who is new to town and eager to start their own company to learn the context of their new enterprises by going to the wiki and doing some good ol’ one-stop-shopping research.

To get you started: Last night, I saved a list of League Member Theaters complete with [[wiki links]] to create summary pages for each of these organizations. I’m also reorganizing the Resource Guide page to match a more traditional theater administration structure – Marketing, Development, Production, etc. If you regularly work as say, a props designer, this gives you a logical place to create pages for Thrift Store links and a link to the props designer list serve. When in doubt, save yourself some time by linking to external sites that you know to have quality information. The idea of a wiki is that the information is alive, and the community powering it keeps the information current and honest – and therefore valuable. It shouldn’t burn you out – if it’s working it should actually generate excitement and possibility for you and your organization. Many hands make light work.

If we’re successful, our work will open the eyes of the League and bigger players in town. Connections will be cemented. If we succeed in creating a valuable resource and they still can’t value our collective time, we’ll still have that resource – the mechanism of collaborative action, not the wiki – and we can take it with us and build what we need. My suggestion to Ben, which he obviously can’t sell to the League until an alternate income source is generated, is a time trade for young theater companies – rather than paying a hefty membership fee, young theaters should be able to earn League membership through volunteer service. I think we can convince them that that’s a good idea if we can demonstrate that our volunteer time is valuable, and that the wealth of the community isn’t at all about cash flow. The wealth of the community is everyone in it, including the people who aren’t connected yet.

The wiki is also a logical next step to developing and exercising the dialogue that has been generated on theater blogs in the last few months. It’s where the rubber starts to meet the road, and there’s more on the way once we see what falters and what works. I think the current dialogue is getting bogged down in theoretical policy discussions, because blogs encourage theoretical policy discussions. Wikis and forums encourage other kinds of dialogue – A wiki is a knowledgebase, an online library with no due dates. A forum is a place where ideas stick, can be picked up and developed, but nothing gets forgotten in the ol’ RSS news cycle. If you’d find a forum to be useful, I’ll put one together tomorrow, but again, my goal is to unify the conversation rather than fracture it further.

To those of you reading this from outside Chicago – I don’t think I’m excluding you here. I think developing a lasting infrastructure works best from the bottom up, so I think it’s good practice to start local. The things we learn here in Chicago have the potential to quickly change the way theater is done in the entire country.

There’s so many other programs that are in the pipeline and several upcoming initiatives from the League that you’ll want to hear about. I think this post is long enough, but keep your ears to the ground, and stay involved.

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Laughing Back

February 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Action Figure SaysScott Walters has an interesting call-to-action post today which is an offshoot of one of the most promising sustainable and growth-ready models for a theater of the future: The Tribe.

The basic ideas at work here are similar to that of the ensemble, but with an added commitment to interpersonal development.

Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre’s members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers…

… I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group…

… But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn’t take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!”

Here’s what my friends feel about working in corporate America: it’s empty. Another place to go where you try to avoid the people next to you. I think there’s a growing consensus not only in the arts or in the progressive movement that the corporate model is really only good at generating more income, it does very little else to raise the quality of life. To some individuals, the choice to join corporate america is to skewer one’s raw creativity and risk and exchange them for security. This is a choice that we are expected to make by our society, by our families, for our own good, and to become a professional artist isn’t necessarily frowned upon – it’s just odd behavior, like going off the grid. Just as damaging is the knee-jerk and insecure response from eternal bohemians – that joining that rat race equates to selling out.

I think Scott is opening a door here that leads to a third possibility, a possibility of building relationships that reaffirm the artists value to society. For the record, this is a value system held by Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls. When corporations run artistic organizations, the result has typically been homogenization and nationalization of product. Broadway is only a small reflection of that… take a look at the dregs on TV after the WGA strike to see what a mess the profit model has done to that industry. Or music sales. The incentive is to create the next big thing for the whole country, and the models to create work that is successful in those terms, certainly

The fact is, Corporate America needs artists to help them feel/seem/be human again, and the country is ready to believe that message. The time has come for us to empower ourselves and become artistic consultants. It’s not selling out when you call the shots.

One such artistic entrepreneur is Sandy Marshall of the highly successful comedy troupe Schadenfreude. Sandy has really effectively retooled his comedy writing skills to an equally challenging purpose: tongue-in-cheek brand identity, copywriting, and web design. And I’m happy to disclose, I’m working with Sandy on some of his projects for some of the best pay I’ve ever experienced (more on that – and why I’m doing it – later. But all these relationship disclosures are becoming increasingly comical in a community so teensy that one can’t trip over a flying monkey without first disclosing a professional relationship).

To get a sense of Sandy’s approach to his corporate work, check out his video spot for camera-shy mortgage broker Dean Vlamis:

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No one in corporate america would think to sell themselves like this without artistic input. And yet, I think we can agree – it’s probably the most effective spot for a mortgage broker that you’ll ever see. That’s what we can sell to them – the strange and unintuitive ways that one can work an audience to build honesty and trust. We can sell them subtext. And we can also be proud of that profitable work, and bring the skills we learn in that endeavor back to our primary artistic endeavors… the ones that challenge us as artists. While we’re there, I’m sure we can pick up a couple donors and some young eager temps to boot. Go to the people, and bring the theater to them.

It’s important to mention here that Sandy continues to have a primary commitment to his work and his name whether he’s working on Schadenfreude or with a corporate client. If a corporate client begins to sway him from his mission as an artist or as a consultant (or as a human being), he lets them go, or more likely doesn’t take them on in the first place. Did you know you can do that? You can Fire a Client. Money doesn’t have to dictate everything, your priorities do. Selling out is a choice that we make for ourselves – and it’s a choice we can take back.

As far as my own involvement with Sandy’s company as a freelance web programmer, that role developed out of a set of skills that I had accrued and developed slowly and naturally in my regular theater work. I started out as a young and eager-to-please sound programmer, which gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how to tell a computer what to do. When New Leaf launched a website for the first time five years ago, I learned Cascading Style Sheets to help maintain the site. When The Side Project needed a website capable of lighting-fast and often weekly updates, I needed a simple system to do this in order to save time, so I learned dynamic web programming using PHP and mySQL, which pulls data from a central database to display on multiple pages. When I found out that my co-worker Patrick ran the website that had gotten me dozens of jobs across the country off of an archaic and glorified word processor document (hint: rhymes with “BluntPage”) that caused him about 10 hours of stress a week, I learned a lot more about PHP in order to pay him back for the opportunities and automate the job listing process.

All this is to demonstrate: We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. In my theater company, we have a history of people with day jobs in the branding, marketing, positioning fields, and so for a theater of our age, we’re (surprise!) pretty sophisticated branding thinkers. We got there by literally bringing home the books from the office. If you’re bored at work, use that time to use your work to benefit the life you actually care about. Or identify skills you wish you had and hit the library. Challenge yourself in manageable steps and mini-projects to build your power moves. If you’re capable of producing a show, you’re capable of working wonders for a corporate client who will pay you handsomely for that effort and fund your next project. If we accrue and develop skills that we need in theater (or in the corporate world), they’re not just valuable for theater… they’re valuable everywhere, and we can use that value to get what we want: a society that understands that art makes our lives better. Or fame and fortune, if that’s your bag.

Oh, and don’t forget: If you’re a non-profit, you’re still a non-profit. Start a personal LLC and become a donor to your company.

Doing corporate work can mean doing corporate work on your own terms. That’s how we keep ourselves from losing ourselves. It’s a new world out there, and it needs leaders who understand the human value that the arts generate, and they ain’t gonna come from the old leadership pools.

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SELECT contributors FROM theaters WHERE name = you

February 01, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, projects

Relational Databases. Ha!

Dan Granata gets it. Let’s help him out.

Wanted: Web application developers on a pro bono basis to collaboratively develop industry-changing applications. CakePHP, MySQL and/or Ruby on Rails experience and an enduring love for Chicago theater a must.


Update: Well, it’s late, but thanks to Dan’s diligent list-making and some other contributions, the Wikipedia page on Theatre in Chicago is updated. I tried to both keep some easy-bake categories in place (after all, the purpose of the entry is both accuracy and ease of data retrieval for non-insiders) and represent for as many companies and venues as possible. That said, I’m sure there are some mistakes.

That’s the beauty of a wiki. Now you can go check out your own theater and make sure you’re in the right spot.

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All Meta and no Real Work make Nick a Dull Boy.

January 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, productivity, projects

Nick knows ProductivityWhile the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project is chugging away, adding a few shows each day, I’ve dove head first into the actual production work that I’ve been carefully procrastinating on this month. The ideas are still bouncing around, but the time to execute them using the glorious tubes of the interwebs is running dry for the moment. That’s cool, right? We’re cool. Baby steps.

Some thoughts bouncing around this week:

– Our new sound intern at the Goodman is from the realm of sound, but is brand spanking new to theater. It’s been really fun to see him open his eyes to the possibilities while watching the process behind Shining City. It looks like he’s really falling for it, which is really great to see. Yesterday, I put the Opening Night Calendar to the practicality test and used it to find four shows – all in previews or early in the run to help his wallet – that showcased the variety of Chicago theater to a newbie with an appetite. It’s been a great reminder for me personally just how much is out there, and we’re not even done yet. Thanks to new adds Point of Contention, Theater W!t, Speaking Ring, Stage Left and Live Bait for being early adopters and Kris Vire and Rob Kozlowski, who both drove some traffic to the project over the weekend.

– Read this totally kickass analysis of why, systematically, the music industry is slowly drowning itself, and what other industries can do to avoid a similar fate.

– A spectacular cross-blog conversation on the importation of actors to regional venues has popped up here and here and here. I am grossly under-informed on the topic, or I’d join in. From my vantage point in the storefronts and even a great deal of the larger theaters, I see a lot of great local working actors, which makes me happy, and the imports don’t often last. I know it’s a major issue, and as Marc Grapey and David Cromer would say, we designers don’t have to deal with the import issue as much while we chew our bon-bons from atop our great piles of cash. Again, though… cross-pollination is a good thing, so if we can encourage it to actually happen and maybe balance the trade deficit a bit, we might be able to pump out a little lemonade from the situation. It’s losing actors to LA and NYC and other regions that I dread, but getting them to visit every so often is good for all. So while I have little to add, I think it’s pretty neat that the arguments are being refined right where you can read them, add to them… and now you can do something about it.

– The discussion of international theater festivals in the last post led me to try out a few great online resources, including the Chicago History Database which is operated by a history-minded English professor from Valparaiso University and assisted by Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams. The site’s mission is to track the founding, disbanding, archival materials, and key membership of all theater companies in Chicago, big and small.

The process of finding information on a now defunct cultural institution, the Chicago International Theater Festival, which last convened in 1992, proved to be more difficult and speculative than I would have thought. And finding information like this, which is key to a developing artist’s career and theater’s development. I think in Chicago’s scene there are a number of theaters that travel the same path as long-gone theaters because of a lack of institutional knowledge and community memory.

After all, one who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it. (Institutional Memory is one of those things that I mention at almost every company meeting. I’m a die-hard supporter of saving and processing the past and present for the benefit of the future in any organization.) Difficult and history-changing tasks like opening a new space or organizing an international theater festival leave traces of extremely valuable information and lessons that can be passed on to other theaters, or used in the pursuit of city law reform or improving public support. Plus, why do something twice when you can do it once?

Can you tell that I’m justifying the need for another crazy group collaboration project? It’s so crazy it just might work. (I’m so crazy I need to get to work.)

So the scarcity of institutional knowledge in storefront theater got me thinking: Just as our system for managing our collective scheduling might be insufficient to maximize the potential of Storefront Theater in General, how successful are our current methods for knowing just what work is being done in town right now, and knowing what work has been done before we even got here? Armed with that kind of cohesive knowledge, could we more easily notice trends, and use the lesson of the past to benefit the entire storefront community?

Like any possible project, it was time for me to survey what’s currently out there and what exactly was dissatisfying about it. Institutional knowledge certainly exists, it’s a question of where is it being stored, and who is storing it. There are a number of Chicago listing sites that also provide some insight into the wide kaleidoscope of the Chicago Theater Scene. The lists I was able to find when I first moved to Chicago just happened to be the ones with the top Google results: Centerstage’s largely comprehensive list of theaters unfortunately is usually quite out of date; Illyria’s Chicago Theater Homepages lists most current companies’ websites, but hasn’t been updated since February 2007; and Chicago Traveler has a good hit count but is by necessity driven by commercial interests. Other more recent sites try to get the list right, including a formidable recent attempt (powered by php, of course) by Theater in Chicago’s attempt to dynamically map every theater in Chicago.

Why are there so many lists, none of which are comprehensive? There’s several divergent motivations at work here for taking on the task of creating a comprehensive picture of the entire Chicago scene and the network of artists that work together to create it. The first motivation is pure Metromix: The commercial value of providing a listing service to audience members, and these sites are positioned to get the web browsing public to spend top dollar on glossy entertainment. As such, they leave out some of the younger companies and often do not update the information on even the mid-sized companies on a regular basis. Why not? Well, because that’s an overwhelming amount of information that changes almost daily. It may be valuable information, but it’s not valuable enough to these organizations to justify a full-time employee to seek the information out.

Another possible motivation? Positioning your site as alternative media source. You can easily feed your site’s content by the press releases of small companies eager for attention. Both Theater in Chicago and Centerstage position themselves as alternatives to larger media outlets that provide a different kind of coverage. It’s debatable how effective and sustainable those strategies are given the recent collapse of the Chicago Reader, and there’s a key problem with the information contained in almost all of these listing sites: Accessibility. These are all listing sites managed by lone gunman webmasters, who you need to email and rely on to have your information go public. The biggest problem with this strategy (and the working strategy of my Calendar project, for that matter) is the editor-in-charge off in a room somewhere that you need to know about and have access to in order to get your data published. It’s a lot of work to create a completely standalone site, and when you’re done, you need to work out how to cut out a chunk of the market share of the people looking for this information. When you’re talking about theaters who are so young they don’t really understand the context of the theater scene they’re operating in, how can anyone expect one of these listing services to ever be definitive repositories of our history and our progress?

So I realized that what I was really longing for was an improvement to the current Theater in Chicago Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia already has that kind of market share, and it’s going to be one of the obvious sources of information for the forseeable future. The entry is duly based on the definitive Richard Christiansen book, A Theatre of Our Own, but the list of theater spaces and companies is woefully incomplete. Some of the highlights of the ghosts of theaters past (Organic, but no Wisdom Bridge?) Anyone can add both their theater’s entry containing historical information like founders, artistic staff, production history, and mission, and they can also make their presence known in the greater context of the community in the main article. And anyone can edit (and hopefully not vandalize) to provide some measured balance to the whole picture, and create something worthwhile for history and public context. Most importantly, talent that is young, new to town, and wanting to see where they might flourish could easily see a more complete picture of the pieces that make up the world’s most vibrant theater scene.

Community projects move mountains. Many hands make light work, and by making the projects simple (post your theater and the theaters you remember on Wikipedia, everyone!), you can create big, intricate knowledge and labor bases that can help a lot of people with challenges we may not be able to imagine. This principle can be applied to any number of tasks, goals and dreams that seem unreachable now. If everyone in the neighborhood builds a park, everyone in that neighborhood will be able to enjoy that park.

So I’m gonna get on that… and you theater managers and activists should be proud enough of your young history to record the important points in the Wikipedia article yourself. Some savvy theaters have already done this – the history page shows updates from Boho and Sansculottes, for instance.

I’ll be getting on that right after I get these seven shows open. Because, well,… meta, real work, I’m in trouble.

Back to work!

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Using all the Parts of the Pig

December 24, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Pig CutsApologies to all you vegetarians out there, but this pork-cutlets-as-art metaphor is gonna get ugly quick.

As the past few weeks have taught me, even though I devote nearly all my time to theater, I still have very little time to devote to theater. In the many conversations I’ve had with other theater professionals about their attempts to develop their careers and strike a balance between love of art and need to eat, I find that’s really true for theater professionals at all points in their career. It doesn’t end. Everyone still does their work, the show goes up, and maybe someone came to see it in the process.

If OnlyThen it all gets chucked in the dumpster. You may be paid more in the bigger theaters, but unless you get lucky and picked up for a remount, it doesn’t change. There’s no DVD extras or webisodes in store for your storefront show. Just the trashheap. Downer.

So say I’m a managing director and I’m producing this show. We have these designers, performers, dramaturgs and directors working on it. I love them – they’re all hard workers and smart, clever, articulate people. We’ve come up with a clever tagline – a nugget of text that we’re going to be putting on the postcard that makes the show sound amazingly compelling in 15 words or less. If we’re lucky, we’ve got an in with someone who knows a little graphic design and as a favor we pull them in to make a pretty picture and boom, that’s our poster. But it’s gonna take us another two weeks to get ahold of our web designer to upload the graphics and get them to talk with each other, upload the show data and code the HTML. We open in six, so hopefully that’ll be enough time to get the word out to our close base of regular patrons who know to check the website. In the mean time we’ll get our marketing typeset, proofread, and printed, and tell everyone in the cast and crew to start pounding the pavement with postcards. That’s what we have time for.

SnoozefestWell, that’s not a growth model for audience development, and it’s the model that most 1-5 year old companies have unless they’ve got a marketing background and deeper pockets than they let on. It leads to an insular industry-centric audience which in this author’s opinion is strangling the dialogue between audience and artist that must happen in order to grow a more vibrant theatrical culture.

In our continuing saga of developing our production (make a show) and marketing (let people know about the show) process at New Leaf, we have a theory that we can achieve a lot more by being smarter with our resources than by generating more resources. Sure, on the one hand we have this finite amount of effort and dough that we can spend towards developing a production, and on the other hand we have these big goal/dreams of audience development numbers we want to hit and things that we want to accomplish as a company – whether those goal/dreams be writing more grants, reading more plays to consider for the next season, or marketing to a new audience (or even defining who our current audience is, exactly). Now, we don’t really have the time or the money to create more work for ourselves without sacrificing the quality of the work itself, and no one wants to sacrifice the detail in the work to create a bigger box office take. To me, that means finding different and multiple uses for the same kernels of artistic meat that we already have – the play, and the artistic components already being poured into the production.

This is where dynamic websites and other creative media can help a theater company use (wait for it) The Whole Theatrical Pig.

A little explanation, which may be unnecessary: Static webpages (like HTML pages) are pretty self-explanatory, and basically function as online word documents, where one person changes, formats, codes, and uploads each page. One page links to another. Updating a static website is like, well, almost all the laborious computer work you’ve ever done: Adding a new show is usually a major undertaking, with changes to be made of a baker’s dozen of eye-crossing pages of code; images to be uploaded, cropped, linked; and then there’s opening up a ticketing system for the new show.

Dynamic websites, on the other hand, have a mind of their own. Like theater, they are in motion, and they can be quite sensitive to specific audience input. Logic is built into the framework of the site to make repeatable tasks (like uploading content or displaying content in a unified style) much more automatic. Blogs have been a really popular dynamic framework of this type that makes uploading content and formatting it both pretty and super easy. And several Chicago theaters have capitalized on the blog as website platform – Collaboraction’s site is powered by Typepad, a popular blogging application, and features up-to-the-minute updates from the production team on the show currently in development. Silk Road’s recently re-launched site, designed by company member and designer Lee Keenan (no relation, we think), also features a lot of WordPress blog-powered content for each show, including review updates, self-generated news updates on company members and even their new comfy audience furniture.

This year, I joined Greasy Joan & Co., marking my third company along with New Leaf and the side project where one of my primary functions as a company member is updating a website with the latest and greatest news from the company. With the side project’s crazy visiting artist schedule alone, that’s close to 30 productions a year to update online, to say nothing of fundraisers and readings and new company members and company news. Updating static sites was looking to be apocalyptic in scope and a blog framework wasn’t going to cut it, since these companies were primarily concerned with the plays and not the process behind the plays (like say, Collaboraction’s clever use of their Blog).

So we built show logic. Now each of these thirty shows that you see online has some sort of simple data file – either a text file or a user-accessed database with basic show data, like the Opening Date, cast and crew lists (sometimes with links to their portfolio pages), that clever tagline I mentioned before, and reviews from the show. If I make any change to this master database, the site logic will use that new data to dynamically update the website as you download it. The most basic logic we use on all three sites is the closing night check – when a show closes on a given date, that show instantly jumps from the “current” page to the “past productions” page after that date, and I don’t have to open my laptop.

I just go to strike.

What I’ve found that works for me is to create a logic structure and back-end interface to the site that uses the existing company production process in its own logic. For instance, if you have a bunch of non-technically-inclined company members, you need a dirt-simple and intuitive admin interface so that everyone can feel empowered to update the site and do their part to keep the content fresh and current. (Websites should be no exception to the collaborative environment of theater) If you have a full show schedule that is constantly in flux, you’ll want an easy way to have every calendar update track through to every page it needs to – from your website calendar to the show detail page, to the company-used calendar to schedule your space. It is possible to work every quirk and skill within your company to your advantage, it just takes a little bit of effort and a lot of self-knowledge.

The Dining RoomFor example, at New Leaf, we have a great photographer, Chris Ash, who takes close to 500 shots of each of our productions. What a gift, right? But when the site was static, we found that we really needed to whittle that glorious mound of visual gold down to just six killer shots for our production history page, and the rest went to waste away in our archives. Then, there was an hour or so of coding to get the images to center correctly on our page, and reformat the images to be the right resolution, blah blah blah. Now that the site is dynamic, we pick 25 or more images, and upload them along with an mp3 of music from the show. That’s it. No coding. The site does the rest of the heavy lifting, detects that the files have been uploaded, and the result is a comparatively immersive slideshow experience for our users. It takes us less time, uses more of the juicy creative meat that our artists have generated, and gives the audience a better experience.

And I should add that dynamic web technology and functions are being developed at a lightning fast rate by a thriving open source community. These people are DYING to have you use their code for FREE, to do ANYTHING you want with your artistic idea. The opportunities to get the guts of your art to a wider audience using new media are staggering. It is not outside the realm of possibility – right now – to say, record your production meeting, scan a couple set drawings and costume renderings, pick out some show music, have your director say a few words on the way to the bar into your laptop, upload it to your server and have your website dynamically mix a video podcast episode and seed it to iTunes, your homepage, and automatically send your subscribers an email about the new behind-the-scenes look at your latest show while you enjoy a nice pint and dart game with your design team. With just a bit more work, you’ve taken a meeting about color chips and made it a compelling sneak peak that will convince people listening to you on the bus the next morning to see your show.

This example may be a little bit too automated for its own good, sure. But I would also argue that any repetitive piece of business that a company performs – from bulk mailing to ticket sales – can be alleviated by some kind of collaborative automation. And I’d also argue that there’s a lot of fantastic artists that burnout because of those repetitive tasks that never seem to end. And there’s a lot of eager patrons that never make it to the theater because those repetitive tasks don’t really reach them. If considered with a little care and big-picture Zen, every bit of effort that we spend working on a show can be doubled by a clever use of technology, and no one needs to feel futile and lost.

That is Theater for the Future, my friends. Use the whole damn pig.

The main difficulty with implementing a dynamic website for most theaters is getting the programming resources in to work with the company and create a system that matches very closely how the company works. You’ll get better results from creating site logic that fits your company resources closely, but that requires a website programmer that intimately knows and cares about your company, and more importantly understands where it’s going.

Can I be Your Intern?Now that kind of talent may be hard to come by for most storefronts. To say that programming resources of that scale are out of the reach of any theater company is simply untrue, though. Setting up a blog is cake these days, and getting any of the pre-fab content management applications (that dirt-simple backend I was talking about) like Joomla or Drupal working with your site is a pretty cheap endeavor. The software and platform to use it comes with your current web hosting service for free (I promise), and if you can’t get your 15-year-old cousin in Des Moines to fashion a genius PHP or Ruby-on-Rails brain for your current site (she’d totally do it for extra credit) you can always spend a couple bucks on an anonymous helper. Even a craigslist search will return a few affordable and skillful recruits like this resourceful young gentleman.

One caveat to enlisting the support of any old web designer for a project like this: As I mentioned in my last post, making your site dynamic isn’t quite the same as a redesign – in newleaftheatre.org’s case, adding a fairly full-featured dynamic backend to the site didn’t really involve any visual changes to how the site looks to the end users. It’s not the same as asking someone to “redesign my site,” which more often than not involves changing your visual look, which can be damaging to any existing brand you may have. So if you’re a theater company and would like to explore the possibilities of a dynamically powered website but don’t know where to start, start trolling your already extensive network specifically for a web programmer or web application builder. Your buzzwords to listen for in the interview are any of the following: PHP, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Joomla, Drupal, CakePHP.

Extra credit if you can guess the acrostic formed from all the buzzwords I used in this post. Kidding.

Happy Holidays, and have an extra slice of whatever you’re eating.

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