Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Been Meaning to Ask…

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

All you arts legal policy wonks out there:

In the age of You Tube and Facebook pages, Is it time to reexamine Dramatists Play Service’s, and frankly, our own playwrights’ and artists’ intellectual property right claims on theatrical recordings? What are the compelling arguments for limiting theater’s marketing potential by not allowing theaters to promote their shows – and the theatrical experience in general – with clips of the show to a potential audience that is increasingly looking to the web for ALL their entertainment?

I guess the writer’s strike got me thinking… Is it time to reexamine our thinking here?

On this issue, I need to give mad, hand-clapping, foot-stomping props to the House Theater here. They have CREATED a theater built to get around and capitalize on this key marketing point. Just look at this:

Did you catch the point where the battle ran up OVER the audience in a 300-seat venue? Do you care that you’ll be seeing a world premiere of new, untested work when you can sample this work before you buy? Why would you rent – or more likely, download – a Jackie Chan movie when you could see THIS live and in person?

I get the Equity argument: Yes, there are probably a great deal of people who would forgo paying for a ticket and would instead download a performer’s work for free on the net. I think we can all agree that entire shows probably don’t need to be posted to best market theater – but entire scenes rather than the tight b-roll limitations may be necessary. At the same time, how many people would also download the video who weren’t planning on seeing the production at all? How many of those people might get hooked on some evocative theater netcasts instead of their incredibly expensive cable TV and perhaps be lured to try a live show on for the first time? And what’s the reason behind limiting a non-equity company’s ability to showcase their work to a younger market?

I’m just saying: In a world where 70 million people will follow the barely compelling theater of LonelyGirl15, and major companies are fighting over the spoils of an ultimately free media platform – isn’t making an exception to a contract rider devised for an older time a way to grow the whole theater industry a bit?

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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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Better Nutrition for Healthy Living

January 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments, Tools

The recent Jerry Springer-esque throwdown on the TOC blog comments section this morning has, indeed, devolved into a lot of angry shouting and not a lot of listening. The good news is that it’s throwing some light on a major disconnect in our community that can be worked on. A lot of people are reading it (it’s certainly the topic at the tech table today with bloggers & non-bloggers alike) and I’m finding that most non-bloggers are both passionate about the discussion but are also choosing not to participate, as G said this morning, lest they “feed the bad energy monster”. It’s true, I feel positively gaunt after reading the discussion, like I binged last night on beverages infused with gwarinine or whatever they call it. The adrenaline is primed, and blood is in the water. Discussion is no longer possible, but lessons have been learned on both sides. Well, okay, maybe not their side.

Today is not the day, alas, due to looming deadlines, but I’m gearing up for an exploration of different models of online communication and their relative merits in feeding discussion and collaboration. There’s a structural reason why blog comments breed this kind of piranha-like debate: comment sections have a built-in lack of accountability and absolutely no incentive to build relationships or credibility. That’s why the culture of blogs is so different than say, Facebook: The people are the same, but the defined goals of the web application powering the conversation are different.

This is a(nother) hugely important question to an industry as resource-poor as Chicago Theater. With nothing but volunteer time and funding (including audience ticket sales) to fall back on, theaters need to be able to have extremely efficient and powerful discussions. Prominent blogs lend the power of wide public discourse, but they sacrifice efficiency – each commenter on the blog has different reading lists, for instance, so it’s a fairly common experience to have very indignant, but essentially separate, arguments. See also Scott Walter’s analogy of the frustration that gets generated when you tap out a rhythm of your favorite showtune and having your friends guess what the hell you’re tapping. That kind of shared experience and knowledge is critical to having meaningful debate and collaborative policy development. If the conversation is poor on information, the results become based on gut instinct, and if that’s your poison, try debating Stephen Colbert some time.

Luckily for this situation, the last few years have seen an absolute explosion in collaborative networking technology, and the results of that explosion have been carefully detailed in this Top 50 list of social networking sites that Jess was nice enough to forward to me. Not all are useful to promoting theaters (don’t try to find your next production manager on Monster.com) but a surprising number of them are.

Right, onward and upward. I’ll be back with that soon.

Yummy Yummy YummyA final postscript for podcasters: The New Leaf Girl in the Goldfish Bowl Podcast Episode 2 is up today, and we’re about to go weekly. In it, director Greg Peters has a comment that really resonated with the whole TOC subargument about the moment he knew his childhood was over: It was the same moment he realized his adult teachers were idiots, and that they were more focused on disciplining him than teaching. My initial reaction to the anti-non-equity contingent on the comments was similar: I felt like I had just been slapped in the face by a total stranger and told that I better eat my brussels sprouts and like ’em or I wouldn’t grow up to be a big boy.

Luckily, I adore Brussels Sprouts. I also know how to cook them better than those people.

In any case, I’m proud of what the New Leaf podcast is becoming, and I’m excited about the possibilities of opening up a rehearsal process to the public (or even a potentially national audience) for feedback. It’s hard to criticize someone’s work blindly when you’re sitting there in the bar with them, listening to their thoughts and how they’re approaching the work. Podcasting is a format that breeds excitement and participation.

And there’s more! If your theater doesn’t yet have a podcast (unless you’re The House or New Leaf or (shudder) Broadway in Chicago, I think this means you), be sure to attend the FREE League Theater Dish event on Podcasts on February 11 (Update from Ben Thiem at the League: The event is public, and is at ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont on 2/11 at 5:30. RSVP to Ben at ben@chicagoplays.com

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It’s All About the Story

November 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Tools

voyagercoverjpg_2big.gifWe’re gearing up at several of my theater companies for a couple marketing summits, using different strategies for that immense undertaking, but the research involved in the process into other examples of Chicago Theater marketing has got me wondering – why aren’t theaters the best marketers in town?

Marketing is essentially a storytelling excercise, as Lois Kelly describes in her book Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. You’re using the worldview and values that already exist in a potential audience member, and crafting a message that says “seeing this play is a way to express your values, share them, revel in them, and hell, change the world.” (for a concise summary of Lois’ 9 genres of marketing story, check out Guy Kawasaki’s blog. Or cross-reference Lois’ stories with Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. Ah, it’s great to compartmentalize everything you’ve ever heard into neat little categories.)

Theater is one of the most innovative, powerful, and cohesive storytelling formats out there. It creates shared experiences, unlike printed media; it’s cheaper to produce (and in general less ruled by profit) than film; it’s active and even athletic compared to the disembodied voices of Radio. In theater, you can tell stories with the whole human, for the whole human, and still engage the imagination of an audience.

On our good days, theater artists are some of the best storytellers out there. And Lois Kelly tells us that the only reason people buy anything these days is because they are convinced by a marketing story (she’s of course not the only one). If you get that Nintendo Wii, you will unite the generations and create a community and lasting friendships, complete with slow motion victory dances, and it’s all thanks to the ancient wisdom of polite Japanese businessman. So why can’t theater get a wider audience? Because while we are great at crafting innovative and complex visions in 50-seat black box theaters, we’re not always well equipped to tell a good marketing story – which by necessity needs to be dirt simple and loud.

I think there are three basic hurdles to successful storefront theater marketing. The first issue theaters tend to have is that the idealistic desire for detail and/or innovation in storytelling – which serves the work so well – often also leads self-marketing theaters off track. Let’s assume that you’re putting together a postcard for a show. With all the text and imagery fighting for our attention in any given day, you will be lucky to have 2 seconds to hook someone into hearing your message before their attention span shuts you out, so that 4 paragraph dramaturgical summary of your play on the front of the card probably isn’t going to cut it. Marketing messages can’t ever be complex. However, as with the example of the Wii and most television commercials, just because your message has to be simple doesn’t mean that the box it comes in can’t be detailed and exciting and be filled with all kinds of goodies and emotions. It’s just that the first thing everyone needs to get is a unified, simple message. Two Seconds. Bam.

The second hurdle is usefully segmenting the actual community and marketing to specific populations within that community. Storefront theaters are funny beasts in that despite a prevalent desire to speak to and for a community, they tend to become most successful (though anemically so) with the internal theater industry demographic. That’s often because the theater doesn’t have the time, resources, or statistical ability to understand the day-to-day needs of the community passing by their message. While they may connect with individuals in the community very deeply, they have a harder time understanding the various mindsets of the groups of people walking by their message on the way to work each day. I think theaters also tend to want to bring all people together, and in many ways they can be blind to people who don’t already appreciate theater. Over time, this has created a really unhealthy divide between theaters and general society that many other arts organizations don’t face. This problem is described a bit in Standing Room Only, another book on marketing specifically for performing arts organizations:

Most nonparticipants have consciously or unconsciously eliminated the arts as being of any possible interest or value in their lives. They have drawn a “cultural curtain” and have turned off to anything that is written or said about arts activities…

Nonparticipants harbor many inhibiting images of the arts as relatively austere and effete, effeminate, esoteric, inaccessible, too demanding of study and concentration, arrogant, etc. Coping with these attitudes is not easy, but progress is made when experience shows the contrary or reorients the negative value.

The third hurdle, as always, is resources – money and time. Successful corporate brands can flood the market and streets with tasteful, huge, attention grabbing posters and videos and websites on every street corner. They can hire marketers to do nothing but pound the pavement with their message and get ads, reviews, and blogs to feature their product or message. Storefront theaters, on the other hand, need to step up the creativity to find ways of getting a marketing story out to the world… anyone who’s ever distributed posters and postcards door-to-door knows how difficult this can be. I’m increasingly wondering how effective things like postcards are these days, given that there are much more leveragable outlets for promoting a message. Blogs, MySpace, and Facebook are all recent additions to the more creative ways of mass marketing, and of course assembling a powerful and dedicated board can eventually be a solution to the woes of marketing a show while you’re in preproduction.

There’s a fear that I get when I look at these hurdles in the context of my own theaters… I worry that creating a message that jumps these hurdles will also somehow cheapen the experience of theater at the same time that it makes it more accessible. I think that’s just stigma talking. Marketers, like all humans, sometimes cut corners in their work for less fulfulling clients. But a well crafted message NEVER waters down the product… it’s just a good, well-lit frame for the work itself. And thus, both framing and marketing are arts in themselves, with all the potential success and failure that goes with the territory.

In crafting a branding message, I like to think of the care Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan took in crafting the Voyager Golden Record, an audio compilation sent into space radio broadcasts a-blazing, in the hopes of contacting and sending a message of humankind to alien life. The message was, simply, “This is humanity. This is who we are. Hello.” But the container for that message was incredibly detailed and well thought out – based on the anticipated audience of alien life forms.

As described on the Voyager Spacecraft Website:

Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.

The spoken greetings begin with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and end with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Our audience is always alien to us. Theater folk are excited by that reality. The message we craft to reach them must be both simple and address what we know about them – their fundamental humanity and desire to connect with the people around them. This, I know: If we focus our efforts, theaters can be REALLY good at connecting with other human beings.

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I wish we had a League of Awesomeness

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

the LoAAbout a year ago, I started getting addicted to The Show by ZeFrank, a hilarious video podcast that served as the front end for a growing online community that built collaborative art projects such as the Earth Sandwich and Craft the Ugliest MySpace Page.

The Remixes for Ray struck me as a project that had big huge possibilities for theater. The story of Ray is pretty simple… Some guy recorded a short clip of a song (with the lyrics “I’m about to whip somebody’s ass”) and sent it to his daughter to cheer her up at work. He probably sent it to a few too many recipients, and suddenly the clip landed on YouTube. In this episode, Ze and his league of loyal viewers find this clip, and generate buzz to create not only musical remixes of the the little ditty, but a pretty kickass collaboratively-built video as well.

THEN… they find the original Ray, somehow, (don’t ask me… they only had his first name and that he was somewhere in North America) and PRESENT the remixes and video too him. Lives were changed forever, and there was much rejoicing.

All these projects are theater… they get the audience involved in the action, they have an arc of thought to build to the payoff of presentation. They often feel more like theater than sitting in a chair for two hours and listening to cell phone vibrations and crinkling cellophane.

Ze dubs his loyal followers “sports racers” and the secret community of really kickass creative and life-loving folk that he wants to be a part of “The League of Awesomeness.” It’s a little Colbert Report in its sheer playful audacity. I look at our community of storefront theaters, and its League… and I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for audacious cooperation and co-inspiration there. Hot Tix and Theater Thursdays are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t exactly get the groundlings jumping.

As much as I’m jealous of their catapult to success, this is where I feel the House deserves their media cred. Walking in to their theater, you feel like you’ve been invited into a secret society. High Jacobean Drama this is not – they’ve got a lot of the flash, and I wish they were more disciplined storytellers (and more conscientious community builders – though they certainly have enough on their plate), but I will never fault them for not knowing how to create a little buzz of excitement and anticipation about seeing some theater. Secret Order of the Magic Pearl indeed. (I feel manipulated, and (yes, I love Heroes.))

People roll their eyes when I say maybe there’s a way to create an online community or collaboration network for these kind of audience-energizing projects and works… when I say crap like that, I don’t mean more myspace, facebook, blogosphere self-promotion. The weariness generated by the theater community’s blind and desperate self-promotion is a real problem, and a topic for another time. I’m talking about the things that Ze did – for free – in his year of the show.

Take a look through his archives of the show, you won’t be disappointed. Dream More, Work Less, Whip Somebody’s Ass.

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