Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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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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Buzzwords of Doom

November 10, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, productivity

picture-1.png“Community Culture, Online Collaboration, Web 2.0, oh my!”

I think a lot of theater artists hear enough of this crap in our day jobs, and by the time they get to places at 8:00 pm and when they take the spotlight or hit that go button, they embody that force in the world that wants to smash corporate culture and servers back into the stone age. We scream, “feel something HUMAN, dammit!”

And alas, in that moment we miss the boat.

I just read an interesting summary of the current corporate-sector debate about Web 2.0 technologies and how exactly to implement them from Regina Miller at Future Tense. (Are they the dawning of the age of the aquarius? Are they another stock market crash in the making?) I think of this standoff between IT professionals and the corporate culture marketers (yeah, I know you’ve got it at work too) as similar to the self-supporting tension between theater technicians and artistic management.

We need each other, and we need to work together, but boy is there some unnecessary disrespect that gets flung around between us.

Here’s what’s going on, as far as I can see: Technical folk live with this technology, they eat and breathe and sleep it, and get REALLY flustered when they come in contact with folk who see it as external – even unessential – to a collaborative environment. (“For crying out loud we could work from HOME in our UNDERWEAR while we play XBOX!”) So flustered that they often become seriously unhelpful and uncollaborative, thus negating the value of whatever easy snazzy collaboration tool they were developing.

Want an example of such an impenetrable world-changing tool? Sure, I can dig one up.

This one comes from the workdesk of one of my Chicago Sound Design forefathers, Mr. Ben Sussman, long time engineer and arranger to composer Andre Pluess (and who I think got snatched up by Google recently). In between Jeff-award winning designs, He quite literally wrote the book on a new programming collaboration tool called subversion. Go ahead, try and read it. Even with pretty graphical explanations featuring little fluffy white clouds labeled “Ye Olde Internet,” you maybe understand 35% of what the hell is going on.

This is the language and collaborative world that the technical folk live and breathe in. They take for granted – in this case – that you know that CVS is a ubiquitous if flawed online collaboration framework for programmers, not that place where you can get your prescriptions filled. Like any speakers of a language, they take for granted that you’re fairly fluent. In my own work, I throw more acronyms around than a can of alphabet soup.

For technicians, this new language and vocabulary we build is useful and efficient. If we don’t share knowledge of how technologies can be used, we can’t say things like “Hey, can you register the globals on that php class and update the version control so that I can freaking FTP my localization preferences already?” and getting things done takes a LOT more time.

Marketers and Management in the corporate sector have a similar acronymble language developed for the feel-good world of institutional culture and branding. The language is sky-high with hope and inclusiveness and leveragable words that can mean anything and everything to anyone and everyone. (“Let’s get Actualized!”) It has to be in that inspirational world for so many hours out of the day that the technical folk on the ground can look at it be tempted to call it all BS. They look at the dreams and audacious goals and immediately start thinking about all the long hours they’re going to have to pull to get that pile of crap DONE.

These two groups need to train each other a bit, which gets painful, because they are both masters of a different art. When a technician’s dreams take into account the dreams of his colleagues, wonderful things happen. When a manager’s gameplan for success includes practical input on implementation, the path to success gets cleared faster.

I think Regina’s recipe for a “Change Management” team has many applications for theater. I’ve always thought that creating a unified online dynamic document – accessible and editable by all – is the fastest route to coordinating the huge challenges of scheduling and volunteer labor that is involved in mounting a storefront show. Nearest and dearest to my heart is a well-rehearsed and accessible production timeline. If a company can create – and regularly update – a cohesive and centralized to do list (say on a wiki or online forum, or even on a dry erase board at the space), tasks can be shared and people who are getting burnt out can get relief. Knowledge becomes shared – and remembered.

This only works, however, when the entire company can come together and learn to work as a collective. For some reason, arts management becomes a top-down structure again with a couple really overworked individuals serving as Managing Director or Artistic Director, or holy crap, both. We relearn to collaborate on every show that we do, it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for theater artists to learn to collaborate in our project management styles, and implement a single collaboration strategy within a company that works for everyone.

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Why For the Future is For Now

November 03, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

toothpaste for dinner
Lord knows I don’t need another project on the ol’ plate.

But I’m becoming obsessed with how I do the same research, make the same explanations, find the same solution, and begin the same projects with each of my theater companies. I’ve found conversations begun in one theater company being echoed in another. I wonder why theater companies don’t talk to each other more.

I’m beginning to see a great collective wealth of thought about storefront theater infrastructure, and great and achievable possibilities for inter-company collaboration and workload sharing. I am working on experimental collaboration techniques that both excite and scare the bejeezus out of me. These techniques and tools may help to legitimize and streamline an industry that is largely assumed to be inviable and unprofitable and a great waste of time. And in the same breath they may serve to homogenize the same industry, as diverse as each individual that works in it.

The main problem I deal with on a day to day basis is theater infrastructure – and lack thereof. Theaters are often crippled with a lack of money and a lack of time. This is a problem that I think can be solved.

For Example.

In this past week, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a busy theater company – real movers and shakers they – who manage their collective projects through email. Everything – Marketing strategies, Production Schedules, Casting Calls, Box Office Duties, all over email – often in the SAME emails. Epic, multi-page, carefully outlined emails.

Now some of you may have just squirmed, and there’s a reason – email is an ephemeral, inconstant, disorganized tidal wave of a web technology. It confuses and babelfies as it tries to spread information. Some people don’t read their email, some people reply to all when they should focus their stream of consciousness, and some people don’t realize that THEY’RE YELLING IF THEY WRITE IN ALL CAPS. I don’ t mean to harp on you if you’re one of those people, but the fact of the matter is, email and web technologies have changed the way that we work and communicate. As a country, very nearly as a species. That’s all happened in the last ten years, so like any evolutionary step, there’s a period of adjustment that gets pretty messy. Welcome to the era of messy.

Many alternatives to the email strategy of project management have popped up in the last few years – from online group forums like phpBB to wikis. These are tools that can organize projects a bit more logically, and they also save old information and posts. They’re not perfect, require a very little bit of adjustment, but they’re hand over fist better at managing multi-step projects than email is.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to talk about here… The systematic inefficiencies that just pop up and can end up squandering a theater company’s resources, what can be done differently, and what could be created to make everyone’s life a bit easier.

Because we’re in the business of changing people’s lives. That’s something worth working for.

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