Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Geniuses whose reflection will help you

November 14, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Let me direct your attention, especially all you feed-readers out there, to the little green widget in my sidebar that I have labeled “Big Ideas”. This is, in my humble opinion, a feed of some of the most mind-blowing thoughts on infrastructure and analysis on the theatre web. It is culled from a hundred or so blogs that I read regularly, and “Big Idea” status is only conferred on most enriching content out there. And you can even subscribe and save yourself all that work if you so choose. So enjoy.

That said, two special mentions today for folks I don’t normally link to:

Scrappy “Jack” John Clancy reposts his essay on the rehearsal process, which reads as fresh as a lime soda. Though, as a designer, I have to take issue with the idea that it is “Best to forget about the play entirely during technical rehearsals and leave the poor actors alone.” But of course, he’s mainly talking about managing actor energy, not a director’s energy. Good stuff.

And if you haven’t read Dark Knight Dramaturgy yet, (the amazing Chicago expat Dan Rubin, who is now in the literary department at ACT), today’s the day to start. Dan’s posts are nothing short of illuminated in general, but he begins a series today on effective strategies and resources for playwrights to get their works included in some of the most high-profile festivals in the country. Knowing Dan’s approach to literary management (Dan was both dramaturg for New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl and assisted greatly during the Goodman’s Horton Foote Festival), I can say with trust: he’s your man on the inside.

This post in particular is a must-read for all you underproduced playwrights out there.

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Another Tease

June 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Tools

In Our Town, we like to know the facts about everybody.

There’s David Cromer, who I first knew as one of the directors of Cider House Rules (my first sound op gig in Chicago). Our affectionate nicknames for him and Marc Grapey, our other fearless leader on that show, were “Tigger and Eeyore.” Corrie Besse, that’s a name you don’t want to forget, she was the teensy powerhouse that wrangled the cast of 32,000 backstage in the upstairs Victory Gardens space. Look at that, she’s worked her way up from ASM to SM. Still wrangling a cast of thousands and a props setup to make the fearless quake.

Alison Siple is one of those mad genius types. My favorite work of hers remains these angel wings made of umbrellas (her specialty!) that she did for one of our plays at Cherubs. Then there’s Jonathan Mastro over there by the piano. You might have seen him before on the piano with the Monkeys, or perhaps you were lucky enough to see him tickling the ivories for the Chicago Children’s Theater premiere production of “A Year with Frog & Toad.” We still sing the grand finale of act 1, “Cookies” up in the Owen booth. No matter what the show.

Then there’s Tim Curtis. Last time I saw him was back on the Visions & Voices stage during Accidental Rapture. I still play my Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse sound cue from that show to demonstrate sonic storytelling (and you can get a great Lord-of-The-Rings horse breath effect using the snort of a walrus).

And good old Devin Brain. He’s one of the guys that helps make things work on all those Hypocrites shows you’ve been seeing – I remember sitting with him on the orange carpet during Porno at the Side Project with Grant Sabin trying to figure out how to best rig those damn TVs to the grid. He’s a pretty stellar director, too.

The structure is nearly at the beta testing stage. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go yet – it’s ugly as sin and there’s some duplicate data in there. And missing! Where the hell is John Wehrman? He’s a part of this show too, just off of New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. And to bring it full circle, there’s in the space itself the memory of the last event that took place here – the beautiful wedding and reception of Kaitlin Byrd and fellow Plagiarist Ian Miller a few weeks ago. She lead that cast of GGB and, if you look way back, you’ll notice that she was in that cast of thousands in Cider House as well.

I just love a wedding, don’t you? They’re just so beautiful. We are carving the gravestones of these memories here. To leave a mark where there was none. To draw connections. To remember.

And this is only one window into our history. We’re ready to start collecting your info if you have some to give.

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A Meme with a Pulse

May 02, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Uncategorized

I’ve been going over something like 2,000 blog posts that I missed while off on my honeymoon, and it looks like Don, dv, and Scott Walters got in another inevitable scrap in my absence over whether ’tis nobler in the mind to NY-LA-CHI or not to NY-LA-CHI. I’ve played peacebroker with all three gentlemen before (not that any of them want a peacebroker, because that doesn’t lead to the kind of interesting blog conversation that they want to have) and I’ve found it interesting that having that discussion flare up created more convoluted one-note shrillness than take-away insight that could end up helping new readers. On the other hand, argument it does help those readers generate their own opinions, which is a wonderful thing.

It’s the way blogging goes, but in the interest of experimentation and continuing the growth of dialogue, I’d like to propose a meme to play with the dynamics of this regional discussion.

The meme: enlist a new voice to join the theater blogging community – someone who brings a new perspective to the discussion of theater. Preferably one that is challenging to your own perspective. Some women, maybe, since they’re underrepresented? I’ve been working on a few of my friends who find themselves too busy but I think could represent the more practical side of producing theater. Someday, one of them will buckle and we’ll have some eye-opening thoughts from these geniuses. (yeah, I mean you, Tiff and Marcus…)

I tag Scott, Don, ecoTheater, and dv… natch. (and yes, Bob… I owe you a meme and I haven’t forgotten. These past few weeks have taught me new lessons I learned the hard way, so I thought I’d wait until the dust settled on them. Sumimasen.)

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Conversations Abuzz, and Brainstorming Value for Theater

January 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

A couple conversations on various blogs are hot hot hot in the last 48 hours (and taking up all my time in posting responses). They are posts that have generated a lot of community thought, and underscored both the value and the pitfalls of developing ideas and solutions as a group. I’m summarizing them for the benefit of those of you that don’t read a lot of other theater blogs yet but are interested in the collaborative aspects of blog problem solving.

If this doesn’t interest you, skip down to the picture of my proposal for a marketing campaign so bad it just might work.

1) The aforementioned exploration on the TOC blog of who the hell are these people anyway? Recent additions include pleas for reason and pizza. Insightful follow ups on Kris’, Patrick’s, and Rob’s sites.

2) Rob asked about whether previews should be sold as regular performances. This sparked a more general conversation about the value of previews on Creative Control, Grey Zelda and once again Storefront Rebellion.

3) Don Hall wants to lower ticket prices and/or increase the perceived value of theater. (And it turns out that Roche Shulfer wants the same thing.) Awesome. Finally something we can agree upon.

We’ve Got Your Writers Right Here

Before you complain about the link: I know, I know. It’s a placeholder.

I hinted in the last post about a Theater Dish event that changed the landscape for me. That specific Theater Dish was a talk about marketing innovations prepared for the League by Larry Keeley of Doblin Marketing, one of the architects behind the WBEZ programming renaissance. I still have his Powerpoint presentation which he generously posted for League download, and it’s one of the most inspiring and genius documents I’ve ever read. Check it out yourself. Unfortunately, while that particular talk was dead brilliant it was overshadowed by what happened next: the announcement of the resignation of Marj Halperin. (She went to become campaign manager for Forrest Claypool’s bid for Cook County Commissioner, so that was worth it). All told, it was a pretty eventful night for my first League event. I just wish more of Larry’s suggestions had been implemented by now. Frankly, this is where the League could use the help of the vast volunteer resources of storefront theaters to accomplish some of the big-picture goals on the table.

That’s where I’m coming from. I want to get this stuff done, and speed us along to the part where we see if it works. The solutions are out there, you just need to know where to find them and get started on implementing them, one step at a time.

I mentioned a few off-the-cuff possibilities to easily add value to your own theater productions on Don’s blog, in many ways inspired by Larry’s extremely leveragable and collaborative suggestions. Post your own.

Then we roadmap, people. It’s project management time.

Five minutes of Brain Storm

Blogs. Check. But every theater should have one, and there should be blogs that cross over into other disciplines and draw connections back to theater, and for every question we ask on a blog we should have four bad answers like this one.

Podcasts and Videocasts. Otherwise known as: make your own TV show and wave it in front of your ADD friends and say “Ah, it’s great to have good writing on this screen again. You seen that last Grey Zelda show? AWESOME script. That dude can write.”

Site-Specific stagings of issue plays or locally-inspired plays that matter to the community. Ask the Chicago History Museum to sponsor showings of a time-traveling play about the current CTA debacle in that old rail car they have. Who wants to write that? I’ll production manage it. Seriously.

Get excited about other people’s work, and talk it up. Talk about your fellow Chicago Theater artists like they were superstars, and see through their financial and temporal limitations to see their genius and value their efforts. Be ambassadors to the general public and make talking about your theater habit at your day job as easy as discussing what happened on The Office last night. Theaters should not have to waste their time marketing to the industry, that’s a horrible losing game. Help them out by proactively seeing, discussing and encouraging the best of their work.

Don’t overextend. You get a lot done if the work excites you, but despair will shut you down. Don’t get mired trying to add false value in your actual work. Use just enough design, not too much. I say this as a sound designer, knowing full well my entire role in theater depends on you thinking you need sound in theater. You don’t. You don’t need projections. You don’t need a set, you don’t need programmable lights. You need what the show needs. If you can’t hire or bribe a designer for a theatrical element, don’t use that element at all, and think of some other way of getting by without it. That’s honesty and truth, and that is valuable, and creates a vital final product. Remove any need to pick up the hammer during rehearsal time, and use the time to coax better performances from your cast and build stronger trust within your ensemble.

Food. Drink. If not in the theater, as a part of an easy-bake planned evening. Make friends with the owners and/or staff at your local restaurants and cafes, and get them excited about your work. Wear them down, and kill them with kindness and excitement. When they get excited, they’ll talk about you all day long to every customer.

Train yourself to use talking points about your work. Use those talking points to convince your friends to be an ambassador for your work, and for the work being done in town in general. You don’t have to be a crazy automaton about it, but if you’re legitimately excited about something, let it show.

Audience Participation Events. Let the audience see the guts of how you make your show. Get the ensemble to invite friends to sit next to the stage manager and designers during tech and show them how freaking hard they work, and make THAT the show. Invite them to talk with the cast and the director about what everyone is thinking about in the room, and walk them through the process. It will make your theater focus as an ensemble, and every person that gets to do that will see the show in a totally different light. To a non-theater person, it’s like they’ve been invited on a film set with the stars. Seriously. It blows them away.

Keep it Smart. People want smart right now. Don’t fall into the double trap of dumbing down your work or thinking your work is smarter than it really is. Theater is just smart enough that it’s refreshing.

Bring theater to the people, and people will come to the theater. The most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth buzz, and with the number of people in our industry, there’s no reason we can’t make theater an activity that 40 – 50% of this town participates in on a regular basis.

Of course, that means that we’ll need to coordinate our efforts a little bit. Think we can do it?

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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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