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

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

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

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

So what do you think?

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

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Theater Media Roundup: Theaterforte is Back

December 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

A quick and dirty Theater Media Roundup for you today: Because this one is simple, and good.

Long-time foundation of the American theatrosphere (with one of the most prolific sidebars I’ve ever seen) Matt Slaybaugh of Theaterforte took some time off of blogging this year and recently returned with this video:

This is an ideal shoot-from-the-hip use of media to communicate an idea, and here’s why:

1) It’s edited. Do not. Ever. Say. The Word. Ummmmmmmmmmm. On Camera. You’d edit your blog post or play, right? Edit your video / podcast / smellcast. What’s bizarre to me is that many people fall into a habit of thinking of video & media editing as a way of *over-complicating* the content of the video. Editing a video is functionally no different from editing an essay, play, book, what have you. It’s just the art of focusing your delivery mechanism to your communication. I cannot stress this enough: The choice we have when we tap technology to serve our message or story isn’t as simple as “Ornamentation or Nothing at all. If you’d like a great example of how effective low-budget and low-time-investment simple spliced transitions can be, see also Ze Frank. I do like how Slay doesn’t overedit here – he lets us in on the energy and humility of generating honest and personal thought, without letting us get completely mired in his moments of unrehearsed distraction.

2) I know what Slay sounds like now. I cannot stress how important this is to an online collaborative culture. The big difference between the page and the stage is that you have to make choices about your voice, the words (and therefore ideas) that you stress, the intention of the words that you’re saying. Same is true of blogs versus online video. The web strips our emotions and irony out of our words, unless we’re consciously adding them back in, like this: Bam! Not so with video. Slay communicates his sincerity and excitement for the new direction of his theater company without fear of misinterpretation.

3) Slay stays honest in video. A little bit like staying crispy in milk. When you’re able to communicate honestly in one media, that’s no indication that you’ll be able to communicate in another media. This was the big leap I had to make when I started this blog: I felt like I could communicate honestly through sound, but I still struggle every post with keeping my writer’s voice honest, because it’s not a muscle I exercise as much.

The answer is often: simplify, and return to doing what you do, even if you do it in a new format.

4) Form follows function. The idea: The internet is an important tool for generating discussion and collaboration. The form: let’s remove the normal misinterpretation of tone and intention that comes with most blog posts and put a human face to things. That’s why this is a better video post than a blog post.

I think this struggle with honesty where most theaters are at right now with their New Media experiments – in both attempts at marketing and attempts at incorporating video projections into shows – it’s about learning to be honest through a new method of communication. Clearly, I still need to learn that blog posts should be short. It’s frustrating, and there are failures. It’s very surprising to me that there is so little patience in the theater community for this process, that there’s this idea out there that adding video to a theater’s website or incorporating technology into a play’s design is either universally pointless or necessarily detrimental to the work itself. Of course, we have to concede that theaters hurt themselves when they use new media in ways that are inappropriate to their identities as artisans, and that happens when they don’t take the time to develop and incorporate the technology all the way. But when a theater’s use of new media does match their aesthetic closely, sparks fly. It’s like what happens when a performer learns to really project for the first time. The voice begins to soar around the space, jettisoned from their diaphragm, and suddenly, a simple technique has amplified the performer’s power and presence. Do you need it? No. Does it help? If appropriate, hells yes.

As promised, I’ve written a little something on the process for Touch that will be showing up on the New Leaf Theatre blog today. It includes a little narrative peak into my sound design process for this show. Hope you like it – and thanks for all the words of excitement for the show, you local gang you. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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Civic / Arts Partnerships in a time of Economic & Political Upheaval

November 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

My posts are what happens in the tight spaces between gigantic comments on other blogs.

We’re over at Don’s place today, as he sets off a first volley of discussion about real, working city & theater partnership models that should be proposed and refined and shopped to new and changing political administrations: right now.

Basically, the argument goes: the government will get more bang for its art-supporting community-organizing buck by supporting lots of small, local programs rather than a few massive ones. Here in Chicago, we have examples of several arts support programs in a microcosm that quickly pokes holes in arts admin ideology with healthy doses of arts reality. So the programs that have survived are often quite instructive, and we lay them out on the table for you.

Brilliant stuff, and I can’t think of a more apropos subject for the arts in an economic crisis. How do we serve the community, stay alive and vital, without being a burden?

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Let’s Get together and Talk, Alright?

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

Why no bloggy bloggy? Because everyone in the THEATER-LOVIN’ WORLD has been over at Tony’s Joint, sittin’ on the sofa, talking about good work, bad work, content vs. form, and To MFA, Not To MFA, that is the Quandry.

It’s some very interesting food for thought, and if you’re a habitual theatrosphere lurker, it might be a nice and reasonably safe place to test out that $0.02 you’ve been dying to spend. The whole conversation is illuminating some new approaches to a theater-and-blogsophere disconnection problem – perhaps what our world needs now is more face-to-face and in-depth discussions of theater and why we love it and why we need it and how to make it better.

Along the same lines, thanks Tom and Dennis for your insightful and useful comments on my “Here’s a To Do List for Us” post. For those of you reading outside of Chicago, I don’t think anything truly bad (maybe just periodically disappointing) can happen from a locally-driven organization that connects the idealism of the TCG Mission (or any national-scale vision) with an on-the-ground grassroots infrastructure. It gets people talking and doing, and reconnected to other people that can help. The League of Chicago Theaters is a fairly established version of idea here in Chicago, but it’s so both ubiquitous and awkwardly-funded here that its grassroots aren’t always showing anymore. When it does connect theaters to programs that help them, it has proven incredibly successful, and you bet I’m thankful they’re working on our side.

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“All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

November 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, On the Theatrosphere

Here’s a follow up on the impetus behind the conversation about new sound technology and how it is implicitly affecting the audience over at the Reader – and why discussions like that matter right now to theaters, to schools, to everyone with access to the internet.

Will Richardson at Web-logged busts it all open for you with advice about integrating digital technology with education from George Lucas, of all people.

“We need to get kids asking ‘why does that happen?’ as opposed to ‘why am I learning this?’”…

“The system falls apart around innovation. This is going to happen because there is a disease out there called digital technology. It is going to change education. All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

When George Lucas calls digital technology a disease, well now, that makes me sit up and ask “Why does that happen?”

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Sonic Boom

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound

Man this has been a good day for blogging. I feel so delightfully inconsistent.

I just got my first email from a reader of the Chicago Reader – which just published this article from Deanna Isaacs on our recent discussion about wireless mics and sound volume trends in theater over the past decade or so.

And here I am, up in my booth again, unable to cross the street to pull my own copy to skip home with. Ah well.

So, welcome, Reader readers! Your questions are welcome about sound, art, what you prefer and why you prefer it, and how sound generally affects your experience in entertainment.

A quick note, though, if the article scares you or reminds you of how deaf you have become. If you’ve been into that shake-me-up rock ‘n roll experience, and you’re also into keeping your hearing, check out these babies:

Attenuating Ear Plugs.

They’re not for everyone, but they can be affordable and have a “flat frequency response,” meaning they don’t color or distort the sound coming into your ears – like regular ear plugs would. They just make that sound that you’re hearing about 15 – 25 decibels quieter, and protect your hearing in the process.

I personally use something like this when listening to my iPod on the train – Isolating ear buds (Not to be confused with noise-canceling headphones that actually add to the ambient noise attacking your eardrums). Reduce the noise coming in, and I can enjoy my podcasts at a nice, safe, low volume.

Delicious.

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1st Lesson of Driving and Socio-Political Action: Don’t put your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, Community Building, On the Theatrosphere

Scott Walters (I know you’re listening) has reminded me with his comment from the last few posts that we’re already in danger of forgetting or distracting ourselves on the theatrosphere from a real and immediate touchstone document of change – Obama’s Arts Plan.

I’ve also heard from several writers today wondering what’s next, and how to engage.

We have energy now. Seriously: read it. Remember my to do list from yesterday? Same stuff. It is our list now. How best to make it happen?

Call a theater educator. You already know one. Find out what programs they’re working on right now to unite professional theater and educational programs, and find a way to both participate and improve or enrich the experience for the students.

Follow up: A lively discussion is going on about this last bit over in the comments on an earlier post.

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