Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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The Uberplaylist: Come Back to Rock You

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

As a sound designer, I like to really geek out when it comes to the fully integrating iTunes and the iPod. A couple years ago, I got really miffed at the limited number of ways that one can sort music during say, a commute. It’s pretty much creating an awkward on-the-go playlist – which doesn’t play nice with my preferred shuffling through tunes when I’m exploring unfamiliar music, or giving a song of one to five stars. As any theater critic will tell you, an appreciator of art needs a star rating system like a fish needs a bicycle.

You’re humming U2 now too, aren’t you?

But the star rating system on each iPod is the most accessible sorting mechanism on the fly, and you know what I have about five of? Moods. So I’ve assiged each star a mood, and created smart playlists that match the star rating and, like my own personal Pandora, I can now accrue songs with similar tones and energy levels into big honking Uberplaylists that I can return to when I need some familiar energy.

What are these moods?

One star: theatrical songs that will eventually be the sonic clay to my audio pottery.

Two stars: Pep. Great for all nighters and parties.

Three stars: Nostalgia. When I want a road trip to immediately feel like it’s being filmed for a movie like Garden state because I’m just that melancholy, voilà.

Four stars: Velocity. It’s crunch time, and I need to bang out some kick ass on a deadline? Would you believe that it’s time for some Jesus Jones b-sides?

And for days like this morning, Five stars: Come Back to Rock You. I’m telling you, devilvet: ’95 was a great year for music.

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Auto-Podcasting for the Design Process

June 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Okay, so I’m an inventor, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The clutter that is a necessary part of invention has to be seen to be believed. I’ve got chunks of hardware strewn about my studio, ready for soldering, repair, and reconfiguration. My hard drive is filled with various impenetrable chunks of code – modules, platforms, and other eratta. All waiting to be configured. So when two of these chunks end up working together in any way, let alone an incredibly sexy way to support creative development, it’s cause for celebration. And maybe some cleanup.

Last night at, oh, three a.m., I made one of these connections that had been staring me in the face – a way to easily share sonic research with creative teams that I work with a minimum of effort on my part. Last night, I set up my first automatically generated research podcast. I just upload files, and my website creates a podcast that the whole production team can sync with.

Here’s how it works. First and foremost, a little background:

1.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOU.

A few years ago I configured my portfolio site to be a lot more easy to update. If you’ve ever played around with HTML and uploading files via FTP, you know that it’s a process that is fraught with time-consuming repetition and maintenance. When I started uploading 10-20 files for each of five shows I was working on at any given time, I knew I needed a more streamlined system.

At the time, I was learning more about PHP, a scripting language that enabled me to do handy things like set variable values, define helper functions, and repeat these helper functions. Best of all, I could grab open-source helper functions from friendly programmers and make them work for me.

For the portfolio site, I first set up a little loop that simply read the contents of a folder and displayed those contents as links. So now, instead of manually coding “a href=” tags for each linked file like a dutiful little hamster, I get an automatically generated page for each folder on my site, that looks like this page to the left here. I spent maybe 45 seconds of thought and time in creating this particular page – it’s simply the result of my site’s stylesheet rules and the file reader function of PHP. Pretty nice for under a minute plus upload time.

2.) SET UP YOUR WEBSITE TO WORK FOR YOUR USERS & CLIENTS

The big problem that eventually cropped up with this method was compatibility. Of course. With Internet Explorer. Of course. I made use of the quicktime “embed” player which is both really easy to set up from a coding stand point and the unfortunate victim in a lawsuit between Microsoft and ActiveX. Basically, Microsoft lost their ability to license the player in Internet Explorer, and for each embedded file, an IE user gets one of those really ugly “Enable ActiveX control on this page?” error messages that we all love so much. Gross.

So, I plugged in a new module: the configurable, flexible and totally free JW FLV Flash player. Combined with a MP3 Meta data reader, my research pages now look quite a bit sexier (and because it’s flash, it’s a lot more compatible). MP3’s have cover art, titles and artist authors embedded in them, and my website now reads that data and makes a lovely candy-coated interface.

Total thought put into this per show: Still 45 Seconds.

3.) IMPROVE YOUR WEBSITE’S PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY

So that’s all nice and fine and flashy. Still a few compatibility issues, and suddenly the site is doing a lot of server-side processing, which causes some slowness in page loading. Some logic fixes improve all that, but is it ultimately useful? Last night, the final connection of how to really milk this system suddenly became clear to me.

The JW Player reads most of its information from an RSS feed – a feed that I am automatically generating using PHP and that MP3 Meta data reader.

Now, what else is an RSS feed that contains embedded audio files? That’s right: Podcasts.

So now, simply by providing the link to the RSS feed under the hood, my collaborators can SUBSCRIBE to my audio research. As I post stuff, boom, the entire team gets the new audio synced to their ipods with their This American Life episodes. And, at the same time, my process remains: Select Sound, Mix Sound, Upload Sound. No further configuration needed.

Go ahead: Try it on. You can subscribe to my serialized audio performance piece, Lexicon, in a few simple steps (If you haven’t heard this yet, by the way, it’s pretty representative of my sound design work. And I’m told it’s fun to listen to – though it was written five years ago, so some of the writing is still… let’s say formative. It’s all about the sound anyway):

1) In iTunes, Select Advanced: Subscribe to Podcast.
2) Enter the url: http://nikku.net/lexicon/podcast/rss.php
3) Let me know what you think.

Finally, if you’d like to try something like this setup for your own process, but don’t need all the bells and whistles (and want some simplicity!) there’s another excellent resource out there for you: The PHP script Podcast Generator creates an entire Podcast Content Management System and backend that can help you create a feed in a few steps. And of course blogging software often has some wonderful plugins that allow you post audio right in your blog’s RSS feed.

Multi-media research is good for multi-media work. More on that as season announcements draw nearer…

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I’m being hypnotizzzzzzeed…

January 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

By listening to the Broadway in Chicago Podcast, otherwise known as the “Bi-monthly Have You Seen Wicked Yet? Podcast.” I don’t know why I torture myself.

But it does give me leave for my own moment of blatant self-promotion. You know, for balance.

We have just ramped out a new New Leaf Blog which we’re going to be using to open up our rehearsal and development process a bit to our audience.

Also, I challenged myself to my first same-day podcast for New Leaf’s first rehearsal of Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (which was a few hours ago). You can check out said podcast online here and of course subscribe through iTunes.

I’ll clean up the html tomorrow and make sure the dang RSS feed is pinging properly. For tonight, I rest contented.

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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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