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The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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How (and why) to write a Company Bible

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Ever seen one of these? It’s a big binder filled with knowledge. Procedures. Contacts. Lists. Accessible Information.

In his big comeback post, Scott Walters illustrates very clearly the reasons for an artist to be proactively collecting and sharing the knowledge of what it is they do and the tricks and insights that make the work itself easier and more effective: knowledge is power.

… Those who wield power in the theatre — the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff — do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action — and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think.

The lifespan of an artist within a theater company is often a lot like the lifespan of a fruit fly. Artists often want to do one thing – say, perform – and get signed on to do that, and run box office, and figure out how to market a play, and raise money for that play, and keep the bathrooms clean… It’s tiring, and the passion for your work either carries you through the balogna or it doesn’t, and after five to ten years you start dreaming of a normal adult life that doesn’t involve begging and scrubbing and poverty.

For me, there is a lot of wasted energy in reinventing the wheel here. Let’s say a company is formed in 1983, and goes through five leadership cycles in that time. There’s a big difference in quality between the company with leadership that captures the collected knowledge of the company and the company that starts from scratch every time a company member moves on. It’s the difference between accruing institutional knowledge and burn out.

But when you get your feet wet, you’ll start to notice big challenges involved in passing complex knowledge structures on to a complete noob. Awful example from my own experience: Teaching a non-technical person how to mix their first musical. Let’s say your regular technical guru is moving out of town, and you have to basicially xerox them or face the loss of quality that comes with losing talent. There are two ways to go about this, neither of them ideal: You could label everything in the booth with a mountain of post-its and basically say “never touch this – or this – or this,” thereby simplifying the job. This definitely reduces stress in the training period, but it isn’t really a long-term solution – it cripples the student’s ability to explore and learn from mistakes over the long term. It leaves them to build their own foundation of knowledge, and it assumes that the choices you make in those final stressful and despairing moments of your tenure were the right decisions for the long term health of the company – which is almost never the case.

There’s another approach, akin to the development of a curriculum for self-study: the guru creates a comprehensive list of all the pieces of knowledge that one would need to do the job.

A) Acoustic Physics – How Sound Works
1) How sound waves mix in the air
2) The controllable properties of sound – Volume, Direction, Frequency, Timbre, Duration/Envelope,

B) How the Equipment Works
1) Microphone Pickup Patterns (what microphones “hear”)
2) Speaker Dispersal Patterns (cabinet distortion, directionality, phasing problems.
3) How Theatrical Sound Equipment can distort and shape sound waves
4) Mixer routing – Inputs, Faders, EQ, Inserts, Trim, Bus/Group Outputs, Auxillary Outputs

C) Cue Operation and Programming procedures
1) Mixer Manual – for Mute Scenes / VCAs or Scene Presets
2) Sound Playback Manuals – QLab, SFX, CD Players, etc.
3) MIDI and automation – getting equipment to trigger other equipment for simple show operation

D) Common “Gotchas”
1) Everything plugged in?
2) Everything plugged in in the right place?
3) Best signal testing practices – start at one end of the signal path and move carefully to the other.
4) The psychology of monitors and mic placement – getting the performers and the producers on your team with the common goal of the best possible audience experience (or, “If I turn up your monitor there, we either won’t hear you in the house, or we’ll hear you and squealing feedback”)

To be sure, each one of these items could be a dissertation in themselves, and this is more overwhelming for a blank slate student. However, it creates an ongoing resource for the student to explore and research over time and as their experience expands. It also doesn’t set a time limit on the training period – it allows peer-to-peer learning to continue beyond the tenure of the burnt-out ex-company member.

The MOST important thing is of course to create this knowledge resource well in advance of those often gut-wrenching final two weeks of a company member’s tenure. Capturing this information while stress is a factor is a good way to get a crappy knowledgebase. If you’ve ever been trained as a temp, you know what I’m talking about – If you need to know A – Z to properly do your job, some folks will teach you A (“Turn on your computer”) and then B (“This is the Power Button”) and then when that goes off without a hitch, they’ll spring Q on you (“And so then we just need to you to file the 990 Form with Accounting”) without explaining, oh, H (“Accounting is near the elevator”), or M (“990 Forms are tax forms for non-profits.”) or even C (“We are a company that audits non-profits”). And some folks assume you know too much and will rifle through the instructions for X-Z (“Just tell the president your progress by the end of the day.”) and they’re out the door. There is never enough time for the trainer to go through A-Z. And yet real damage happens to companies in both of those moments when A-Z isn’t effectively communicated or learned by the trainee. The corporate world can easily absorb that damage, but theater companies can often die off or suffer direly in fundraising in those moments when leadership changes.

So manuals can cushion the blow as the company grows – or even simply ages – and folks move on. Some of the manuals that I have written for New Leaf and The Side Project include:

  • How – and when – to update the website
  • Run Sheets – how to preset and run a particular show
  • Box Office procedures
  • How to share files over the internet so that group collaboration is less time-consuming
  • Brand manuals (use this font, use these colors, use this page layout, use this logo, and the branding rules that you can bend, break, and the ones you can never ignore)
  • Marketing distribution (a checklist of places to put posters and postcards)
  • Production Timeline & Checklist (what needs to get done, and when it needs to be done)

What I’ve learned about these documents is that they usually need periodic revision – so the best time to write them is as the processes are being put in place or being revised. By writing a manual as you perform the task, you can often do a better capture of clear step-by-step actions and have a better retention of all the dependent knowledge that is helpful in performing your role.

Treating manuals like a simple dumping ground of everything doesn’t work, though – they need to be more or less a complete overview of day-to-day operations, but not an exhaustive archive of everything that has ever happened ever. That’s too overwhelming to be useful. So some diligent and forward-thinking editing is always a useful habit to get into.

For these reasons, the ideal medium for a company knowledgebase is often a wiki – a living, interconnected document that allows certain basic knowledge resources to be outsourced to say, Wikipedia or other blogs & websites. Knowledge can also be organized into a structure to make critical data more clear and supporting data settle into nested structures.

At New Leaf, we’ve used a wiki and a company discussion forum in tandem for about three years, and it’s proven to work very well with our own human natures. Most day-to-day company discussion happens on the forum, filling the forum with a rich silt of acquired knowledge, planning, brainstorming, and chat. It’s almost a daily journal for most of us, a big net that captures all our ideas. We have also worked out a quick sorting and archiving process that we do as part of our production post-mortem process. When a particular nugget of knowledge from the forum discussion proves permanently useful, it finds a home somewhere in our company wiki – the repository of permanent knowledge for the company.

And on the wiki, the information is clearly organized for future company or board members. It kind of looks like this:

New Leaf Department Knowledgebase
Artistic
Play Readings
Marketing
Development, Fundraising & Grants
Production
Box Office

Agendas (these contain items that require discussion in our next face-to-face meetings so that everything gets captured)
Company Meetings
Production & Design Meetings
Marketing Meetings
Board Meetings

Meeting Minutes
Company Meeting Minutes
Post Mortem Minutes
Marketing Minutes
Committees Minutes

Timeline & To-Dos (Each of these is a calendar for each production with template dates, like “Opening -3 Weeks”. We just plug in the dates before each production, and voila, we have a list of everything we need to get done.)
Production Timeline
Box Office Timeline
Marketing Timeline

Knowledge Base
Knowledge Base – Web Tools, Important Contact Info, Stuff to Know in case of emergency
Company Bylaws
New Leaf Culture – The way we like to do things, and why
Production History
Who We Are – Mission, Vision, Values. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Over the past few years, we’ve had the typical internal turnover at both companies that happens as artists grow up and live their lives – and new artists with fresh ambition pursue their artistic lives as a part of the company. The forum / wiki / knowledgebase process has proven its worth through the shifting membership to our newest company members. As they have time, or when they’re confused about how something works, our old discussions and accrued knowledge resources can be skimmed through and learned as needed. This is often an exciting process for a new company member, like opening up an old tome filled with old words and old thoughts. It is a training period filled with knowledge and cloaked in mystery. Can you imagine that in a corporate environment? Our old show notes create a clear picture of our context and our history – and steeping in that knowledge has helped us avoid the dangers of repeated mistakes, without limiting us to a knowledgebase of post its that limit the agility of our current operations. Understanding and remembering the old risks we’ve taken inspire better risks to be taken next time. I’d wager that our effective capturing of knowledge has helped us stretch our annual budgets as well, because we have a memory and a process that allows us to allocate money towards our artistic growth and our newest risks rather than sinkholes of productions past. Best of all, creating the knowledgebase was a dirt-simple, efficient, low stress, and even fun part of the process.

Scott’s speaking the truth again: the key to better lives for you professional artists out there is taking responsibility for your own artistic goals, and empowering yourself with the tools and the knowledge you need to achieve and reach beyond those goals. For me, the thing I needed was a way of remembering where I’ve been. Breadcrumbs along the trail, so to speak.

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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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