Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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I Love You, Scott McMullin

June 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

What’s that you wanted? A facebook application that allows you to give lighting equipment?

Facebook Lighting Exchange Application

Aw damn. It’s just a facebook gift. It’s not REAL lighting equipment.
I hate you, Scott McMullin. My mom has ALWAYS hated you.

Though it is infinitely more sweet than getting a freaking e-teddy bear.

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Re-Alignment

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

The Side Project Annual Retreat
If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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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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Great Expectations

February 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Well, well, it’s a public brouhaha!

It’s not really in the purview of the adrenaline dose that is the TimeOut Chicago exposé to sort out the dust and mud that gets kicked up in the process, so I’m glad that Patrick over at BackstageJobs has already started to explain some more of the background of TOC’s article this week on the Bailiwick’s rosy picture of its own financial woes and those of us who cried foul. This was a conversation that Tony started in response to a a few weeks ago, and has been picking up steam as a story ever since. And don’t read me wrong here – I’m thankful also to Jake Malooley and TOC for doing what they do best – shining the light down in the ugly boiler room of Chicago theater we’d rather forget about and not being afraid to break down a few doors to get down there. I’m just saying now someone’s got to repair the hinges, is all.


What has happened since the initial volley of public venting is a general agreement among several of us mentioned in the article that this kind of issue doesn’t simply exist at the Bailiwick – it’s an industry-wide problem of theaters that are taking advantage of the semi-pro semi-volunteers that work for them. And it’s very rarely a case of the big malicious theater exploiting the unsuspecting artist. It’s more about the consequences of willful ignorance. Most theater managers, Zak included, have the absolute best of intentions and they truly believe they are providing artists with opportunities and reasonable access to the industry. This is a problem of miscommunication leading to unintentional exploitation.

From my own experience, the Bailiwick was one of the first theaters I worked at in town for a single reason: they post jobs constantly, and at the time they came up pretty high on a google search for “Chicago Theater Companies.” That makes them a very appealing theater to someone who doesn’t know the scene and is, as I was, green, green, green. I had a rough, confusing experience there, but I was paid what I was promised. A later production I remain unpaid for, but in the scheme of things I don’t really care about the money, and I won’t be knocking on Zak’s door to collect, ever, thus completing the skip-to-my-loo solution that Zak proposes:

“I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be angry,” he says. “If someone says to me, ‘I had a $100 check and I couldn’t cash it,’ I would say, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go get it cashed. Let’s solve it.’”

One of the reasons I never made a big deal about that particular fee is that I’m largely at fault for not being paid – I never insisted on a contract before performing the work. I was even hired on the Bailiwick’s behalf through another artist, and David and the business manager at the time weren’t even involved in the conversation, and that’s my fault for continuing to work without a written agreement. More experienced theater artists and vendors don’t make this mistake – most of the people I’ve talked with that do business with the Bailiwick and frankly, most theaters, are on a 100% – 50% COD policy with them before work is performed and goods are delivered.

There’s another big reason I’ve never gone collecting – I’ve made that lost dough back in indirect trade. In an industry as poor on cash flow as this, we cannot underestimate the power of trade to solve disputes. I’m no longer angry at Zak, which is one of the things I tried to communicate to TOC before the article came out. I’m glad the conversation happened, but I want to make it clear that this needs to turn into a conversation about best practices for every theater and freelance artist in town, not simply one theater company that has a bad reputation. As Patrick says, bad reputations will come and go. The ANGER came from a very specific and recent incident of not $100 but $3000 that he owed a close friend of mine, putting that friend in serious financial trouble for several months. Since the blog conversation but before the TOC article, David has made amends for that debt. I know that David’s capable of great and honest generosity… one of the things I mentioned to TOC is that David was directly generous to my own theater – the Bailiwick loaned us a dusty and unused lightboard free of charge for several of New Leaf’s productions, including our breakout show The Permanent Way. I don’t know what we would have done without that board for that show, and that was more than worth walking away from a couple productions unpaid.

I don’t relive all this to add fuel to this particular fire – I mention it because one of the ancillary skills that all theaters and freelancers need to get together and develop right away is the ability to write, read and live by contracts for all work done in any theater, before that work is done, and no matter how small the producing company. If we want Chicago Theater to be anything but a well-intentioned golem chewing up emerging artists and young companies in a cycle of missed reimbursements and shabby rental spaces, we all need to get really specific about what we expect from each other, and we need to have a fair and equitable mechanism to hold companies and individuals who don’t follow through on promises accountable. Too often the contract discussion becomes about money, and I think it’s unrealistic to limit agreements to that in theater – it needs to be about all our resources – time, equipment, in-kind donations, space, working conditions – everything we rely on.

We’re all about quickly converting lessons and theory to calls to action on the blogosphere these days, which I think is pretty sweet. Here’s what I’d say is a call to action that can is fair to new theater immigrants and the Bailiwicks of the world and will even the playing field a bit:

1) Insist on a contract for work that you do, even if unpaid. If a company doesn’t give you an agreement, write it for them. Don’t just bitch about your past grievances – write them down in a sample contract and map out things you’re willing to put up with for the art, and things you’re never willing to put up with. Some examples:

  1. I will not put up my own money for show materials and be reimbursed later – if I agree to procure goods to aid the production, I will be provided with funds from the company before the purchase is made.
  2. I will be paid half of my fee no later than a week before opening, and the remainder of the fee at strike
  3. I will be provided a safe place to store my valuables
  4. I will not be expected to go up on a ladder
  5. Tech week notes will be given to me in a timely fashion – no later than 12 hours before they are expected to be implemented in the production
  6. Company is responsible for equipment or property donated in-kind to the production run, and will be liable for $XXX replacement cost in the event of theft or damage.

You know, whatever it is you need to do your work safely and happily. It’s your contract. You decide what goes in.

Some clauses may not fly in any given agreement – but both parties will know what to expect from each other, and disputes will be more easily resolved, because they’ll be resolved calmly before the pressure is on. That’s the beauty of a friendly and simple legal document.

If a company or individual isn’t willing to draw up a simple one-page contract, or if they find it unnecessary – that’s your first sign right there that maybe they won’t be willing to follow through on other promises they make to you, like paying you – or paying you back.

normal_fgw_337.jpg2) Under no circumstances should you rent space from a company without first reviewing a contract, inventory of provided equipment and services. I actually think that boilerplate agreements for all rental spaces in Chicago should be transparent enough to go right on the public League of Chicago Theaters Wiki, allowing theater companies a clear comparison of what renting each space entails. Aside from the dough involved, these agreements should include clauses regarding:

  1. Hours of Operation, AND all hours available to a rental company
  2. Noise levels permitted
  3. Dressing Room square footage and conditions
  4. Box office services or space provided
  5. Lighting & Sound Inventory in working order
  6. Heating & Cooling regulations
  7. Trash removal

3) Both of these kinds of agreements taken together can accomplish something kind of extraordinary for a small theater – taken together, they quantify the costs, time, and human resources required to produce a show. As any grant writer will tell you, that’s a difficult number to pin down and it’s invaluable when justifying more funding for your theater. Letters of agreement provide a buffer of understanding and that can pay off in load in and tech week. Too many small companies will try to shoot the moon and go into a production without knowing exactly who will staff the box office or who will take out the trash. That’s the kind of oversight that will make your artistic team really cranky, and that’s not good for the art.

4) You’re not going to get it right the first time, that’s why contract negotiation is a skill and not something you cut and paste off the internet. Give yourself some time for a nice healthy post-mort after every show you do, and work the conflicts and the confusion into your next contract. I keep a word document on my computer, and I’ll just add a line when a behavior becomes unacceptable to me. I’m getting to the point where I’m going to add “Sound Designer will be provided with a simple and stable tech table in the space for load in and tech,” because I have an array of computers and hard drives that will get damaged if they’re sitting between the seats. Or, maybe I’ll just suck it up and get over it… and buy a table myself that I take with me (Tax write off, anyone?). Either way, I’m working happier, my equipment is less likely to be damaged and I’ve taken the responsibility I’m comfortable with taking for my own working conditions. I’ve made it easy on the theater that I’m working with, but that also means I’m more likely to get aggressive if they renege on paying me on time. Patrick’s example for being aggressive with a delinquent company is perfect:

3 different lighting designers tell me of the show they worked on where the paycheck never came. They continued to design and program the show with the promise that the check would be there at first preview, then at third preview, and then “definitely at opening.” These three designers, each designing at different theatres on different shows for different companies at different times, all arrived at their theatres early, saved the show(s) to disk, pulled the disk out, and ERASED THE SHOW FROM THE LIGHTING BOARD. They then waited until the SM or PM arrived to inform them that there would be no lighting for the show until they had a check in their hand. In at least 2 cases, they were the only ones to get a check that night (though others had been given the same promises runaround).

You can’t just pull this kind of behavior off and expect to keep your reputation for being a team player. You need to be crystal clear with those that you work with from the moment you begin a job: This is how you can work with me to develop a happy and mutually beneficial relationship, and this is what you can do that will make me go nuclear and take away your ability to produce the show you want. If you don’t have that legal foundation when you want and/or need to go nuclear, you’re up a creek. If you have the legal foundation, however… well, when the TOC exposé is written about it later you can pull out your contract and your notes of exactly how the producing company acted in bad faith.

I know reading and writing contracts makes most of our eyes cross, or even worse, saddens us because it injects a certain amount of litigious behavior into the art. But I don’t think that sadness gets us off the hook – if we throw up our hands and refuse to do it in the name of simplicity or faith in humanity we get only what we deserve – unaccountable rental houses and theater companies that have an unforgivable habit of running us over in defense of their own survival. I think we’d all rather take the time to write a one-page contract and update it from time to time than risk trusting someone we shouldn’t that they’ll pay us back for all that lumber and winding up $3000 in debt with no freaking recourse. And, if more of us who do act in good faith work to protect that good faith, we can all breathe a little easier in the future.

And the streets will be made of cheese.

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Laughing Back

February 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Action Figure SaysScott Walters has an interesting call-to-action post today which is an offshoot of one of the most promising sustainable and growth-ready models for a theater of the future: The Tribe.

The basic ideas at work here are similar to that of the ensemble, but with an added commitment to interpersonal development.

Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre’s members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers…

… I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group…

… But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn’t take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!”

Here’s what my friends feel about working in corporate America: it’s empty. Another place to go where you try to avoid the people next to you. I think there’s a growing consensus not only in the arts or in the progressive movement that the corporate model is really only good at generating more income, it does very little else to raise the quality of life. To some individuals, the choice to join corporate america is to skewer one’s raw creativity and risk and exchange them for security. This is a choice that we are expected to make by our society, by our families, for our own good, and to become a professional artist isn’t necessarily frowned upon – it’s just odd behavior, like going off the grid. Just as damaging is the knee-jerk and insecure response from eternal bohemians – that joining that rat race equates to selling out.

I think Scott is opening a door here that leads to a third possibility, a possibility of building relationships that reaffirm the artists value to society. For the record, this is a value system held by Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls. When corporations run artistic organizations, the result has typically been homogenization and nationalization of product. Broadway is only a small reflection of that… take a look at the dregs on TV after the WGA strike to see what a mess the profit model has done to that industry. Or music sales. The incentive is to create the next big thing for the whole country, and the models to create work that is successful in those terms, certainly

The fact is, Corporate America needs artists to help them feel/seem/be human again, and the country is ready to believe that message. The time has come for us to empower ourselves and become artistic consultants. It’s not selling out when you call the shots.

One such artistic entrepreneur is Sandy Marshall of the highly successful comedy troupe Schadenfreude. Sandy has really effectively retooled his comedy writing skills to an equally challenging purpose: tongue-in-cheek brand identity, copywriting, and web design. And I’m happy to disclose, I’m working with Sandy on some of his projects for some of the best pay I’ve ever experienced (more on that – and why I’m doing it – later. But all these relationship disclosures are becoming increasingly comical in a community so teensy that one can’t trip over a flying monkey without first disclosing a professional relationship).

To get a sense of Sandy’s approach to his corporate work, check out his video spot for camera-shy mortgage broker Dean Vlamis:

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No one in corporate america would think to sell themselves like this without artistic input. And yet, I think we can agree – it’s probably the most effective spot for a mortgage broker that you’ll ever see. That’s what we can sell to them – the strange and unintuitive ways that one can work an audience to build honesty and trust. We can sell them subtext. And we can also be proud of that profitable work, and bring the skills we learn in that endeavor back to our primary artistic endeavors… the ones that challenge us as artists. While we’re there, I’m sure we can pick up a couple donors and some young eager temps to boot. Go to the people, and bring the theater to them.

It’s important to mention here that Sandy continues to have a primary commitment to his work and his name whether he’s working on Schadenfreude or with a corporate client. If a corporate client begins to sway him from his mission as an artist or as a consultant (or as a human being), he lets them go, or more likely doesn’t take them on in the first place. Did you know you can do that? You can Fire a Client. Money doesn’t have to dictate everything, your priorities do. Selling out is a choice that we make for ourselves – and it’s a choice we can take back.

As far as my own involvement with Sandy’s company as a freelance web programmer, that role developed out of a set of skills that I had accrued and developed slowly and naturally in my regular theater work. I started out as a young and eager-to-please sound programmer, which gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how to tell a computer what to do. When New Leaf launched a website for the first time five years ago, I learned Cascading Style Sheets to help maintain the site. When The Side Project needed a website capable of lighting-fast and often weekly updates, I needed a simple system to do this in order to save time, so I learned dynamic web programming using PHP and mySQL, which pulls data from a central database to display on multiple pages. When I found out that my co-worker Patrick ran the website that had gotten me dozens of jobs across the country off of an archaic and glorified word processor document (hint: rhymes with “BluntPage”) that caused him about 10 hours of stress a week, I learned a lot more about PHP in order to pay him back for the opportunities and automate the job listing process.

All this is to demonstrate: We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. In my theater company, we have a history of people with day jobs in the branding, marketing, positioning fields, and so for a theater of our age, we’re (surprise!) pretty sophisticated branding thinkers. We got there by literally bringing home the books from the office. If you’re bored at work, use that time to use your work to benefit the life you actually care about. Or identify skills you wish you had and hit the library. Challenge yourself in manageable steps and mini-projects to build your power moves. If you’re capable of producing a show, you’re capable of working wonders for a corporate client who will pay you handsomely for that effort and fund your next project. If we accrue and develop skills that we need in theater (or in the corporate world), they’re not just valuable for theater… they’re valuable everywhere, and we can use that value to get what we want: a society that understands that art makes our lives better. Or fame and fortune, if that’s your bag.

Oh, and don’t forget: If you’re a non-profit, you’re still a non-profit. Start a personal LLC and become a donor to your company.

Doing corporate work can mean doing corporate work on your own terms. That’s how we keep ourselves from losing ourselves. It’s a new world out there, and it needs leaders who understand the human value that the arts generate, and they ain’t gonna come from the old leadership pools.

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Flow, or “Be an Opener of Doors…”

January 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments

A big thanks to TOC, Kris Vire and Chris Piatt for the shoutout in today’s Time Out Chicago. For those of you checking out this blog because of the article, welcome, and I hope you enjoy the discussion.

I’m writing from the tech table at the Goodman’s kickoff production for the Horton Foote Festival, Talking Pictures, with sound designer extraordinaire Richard Woodbury, sound guru Dave Naunton, and intern Dan Schrek, so I thought that it’d be appropriate given the bump to acknowledge the people that help me through my wack-ass schedule with their own work, input, and support —

My teachers and students.

In theater, everyone’s a jack of all trades. You’ve got to be in order to survive. There’s so very little money in theater that you sort of develop a habit of carrying lots of buckets (or spinning plates) to capture as much value as you can from each experience.

And then you give away those nuggets of wisdom like trading cards.

But it’s not always a happy garden of cooperative flower-bunnies. I recently had my young & angry side brought right out front and center by another blog post discussing a theater company in town particularly infamous to industry folks that is currently throwing my good friend into massive personal debt by refusing to reimburse him for expenses. I tiraded against this and related incidents, publicly, and I wasn’t the only one.

Now I know the consequences of tirades in an industry this small. I have been told once by someone in power, an artistic director of a LORT theater, actually, (no, not in Chicago) “If you do this, you’ll never work again.” And the type of person who would say that doesn’t deserve their power in that moment. There are just those folks out there that I think don’t get it, who end up scared and entrenched in a system they think will protect them, who tear down something because they don’t yet understand its potential value. And as far as my lapse goes, sometimes we tear something down because we feel powerless – we attack it to serve the almost crocodilian need to feel dominant again. When the young & angry side in me gets thinking about reconfiguring the world to serve social justice, I know it’s over – my brain has shut down and I’m in it for the kill. So after getting it out of my system, I’ve come to realize that in the case of theater, it’s pointless to simply tirade against the injustice that exists in the industry. Now I believe in justice, but I also know the value of practicality, and we’re talking about a tiny industry here. It’s pretty easy to single out a delinquent party and throw out some blame in their direction, but I don’t think that those kind of tirades ends up solving the problem for the next guy or gal. What could solve the problem is a sea change that flips the industry on its cute little bunny ear. Why would that work? Because both the delinquents and the bellicose are dinosaurs – they’re fighting each other to come out on top of an old system. Nothing we can do will save them, because the ecosystem that supported them is crumbling. But there are new ecosystems at work now. It’s the tiny bunnies that will survive the next evolutionary crisis. We are agile, responsive, and we reproduce early and often.

Teaching is what stopped this cycle of envy and despair in me. In my first class, I felt a new fear – the fear that if I indulged my own adolescent railings and beliefs in class, I would shut out my students’ ability to explore material for themselves. It forced me to do nothing but open doors. And that’s when I realized that helping other people open their doors generated a ton of creative energy in myself.

And here, back at the tech table, is when Dave whips out his iPhone to show us the latest features in 1.1.3, including the new (ooooooh / ahhhhh) geo-positioning feature. Richard and I are in a debate over the relative merits of two MIDI sequencers, Apple’s Logic and MOTU’s Digital Performer. Richard shows me that DP can transpose the transition music into any key (he likes the sound of the Phrygian mode). I try to do this with Logic and discover about 17 new features I hadn’t dreamed of before today (but alas, no Phrygian transposition). I show this to Dan, and in the process of even telling him what I’m doing and what we’re doing, I learn and clarify four new bits of knowledge myself. And it turns out Dan knows Ableton Live, which I’m going to need to learn from him at some point. The student has become the teacher.

And it’s not just us hypergeeks in sound land. We swear that we can hear the actors while they hold, static on stage while the director and the lighting designer craft a look, and they are discussing podcasts and the relative merits of various popular sound technologies. More importantly, the constant feedback and sharing of knowledge and insight in the room is creating a new understanding of what’s actually happening in the room. This is the first Owen show performed entirely in the round, and the actors and director and designers and production team are all learning and sharing information about how that’s working. What’s remarkable about this room is that the feedback and information is flowing in almost completely positive and constructive ways. In telling each other what we see, we both redirect and continue the momentum we’ve built up. We learn the world better ourselves without shutting other possibilities down.

Talking Pictures has some oddly resonant themes that I can see leaking into (and from) our thoughts and conversations in the room – the public craves an advance in technology, entertainment delivers that advance in technology, and the advance in technology seems to both destroy lives and offer dangerously exciting opportunities. I think we’re seeing this combination of fear and opportunity a lot in a lot of fields today because of the leveling force of internet technologies. There’s a great deal of paradigm shift and fear in the air… Will the argument over new media kill television and film, are ipods making us all deaf, will digital downloads kill the music industry, is there a need for news in a world populated by bloggers, does user-driven content disable a common public dialogue and exacerbate philosophical divides between us, and will all of this shift lead to a big cataclysmic recession? These are all related questions, and the answers will prove that the questions didn’t even matter.

And yet, we can continue to teach and learn from each other. We can look out for each others’ flow and keep our mutual momentum going. This isn’t just frilly feel-good work, this is about opening connections. This process of checking in, of bouncing ideas off each other, of collaboration – that’s the process that the internet was built on, and the process that will yield the most rewards in the future. I couldn’t have completed my sound design for Bilal Dardai’s Contraption without the assistance and input of Stephanie Farina. As she learned my style of programming, it taught me to refine my style of programming and use her set of ears with mine to make something more compelling. Without that teaching process, it just wouldn’t be the same design. I wouldn’t have developed any sort of fearlessness in my work without a simple lesson from Smith College playwriting prof and Taoist master Len Berkman: “Always start with a bad idea. Then you won’t be afraid of that your ideas are bad. You’ll know they are.”

We need each others’ help to get big change in motion, and that means passing torches and being able to trust others to teach us and help us redirect our own adolescent prejudice. I wouldn’t know about half the things I know about how sound works in theater if my students hadn’t asked those questions that started with “How do you do….” I wouldn’t have become a confident artist capable of making strong choices if my teachers hadn’t turned to me and said, “Okay, what would you do here?” Do this for others, and you’ll see – feedback comes quicker, stronger, and more effectively.

Building a better community, a community that works better, begins with a very simple step:

“Hey, check this out! Look what I can do with this…”

So, What did you learn today?

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