Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Learn Web Design for free by the Seat of your Pants: CSS 101

December 06, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

I just wrote this mini-manual for a client. And it occurred to me as I wrote this that for some time I’ve wanted to collect this info for a number of friends and, well, spouse of mine who are interested in enriching their knowledge of web design and share it with them.

So you know what? I’m going to post it for you too, in case you really want to trick out your WordPress/Typepad/whathaveyou Template or pick up a really useful side skill in your free time.

It’s step one to learning really great, simple web design in the modern era: Cascading Style Sheets.

CSS – Styles & Layout

Free Resources to help you Learn by Doing –
FIREFOX WEB DEVELOPER PLUGIN
Adds a toolbar menu to firefox that (with CMD-SHIFT-Y) will help you identify and locate specific CSS classes and styles to help troubleshoot layout issues and changes. It does some other really cool stuff too.

CASCADING STYLE SHEETS TUTORIAL
An excellent online guide. Especially useful – check out the cascading order so you can see which style rules overrule others.

CSS PLAYGROUND
You can only learn how something works by breaking it. So you can break someone else’s site, not your own.

CSS ZEN GARDEN
A truly inspirational – and open-code – collection of CSS skins that help you see both what is possible and how to achieve different design effects with CSS.

Books
My favorite guru for CSS is Eric Meyer, who wrote at least one indispensable book,
CSS: The Definitive Guide

and at least one inspirational book,
Eric Meyer on CSS: Mastering the Language of Web Design

TESTING
Especially with layout and justification, remember to test your work in at least:

IE 6 – Windows
IE 7 – Windows
Firefox – Windows
Firefox – Mac
Safari – Mac

Text styles and colors normally track safely, but things like padding, margins and floating get screwed up between browsers very easily. Be careful, and save a backup so you can revert if you make a mistake.
.

Be <b>.

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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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Auto-Podcasting for the Design Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.) IMPROVE YOUR WEBSITE’S PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Capture

May 28, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

When I first started designing, I took handwritten notes. Scribbles, really. Each note said something like “dloor up 7 after…” I have horrible handwriting under pressure in the dark. Also, I didn’t write very quickly, so I’d leave a lot of trailing sentences as the play progressed and new cue mishaps grabbed my attention.

Frankly, I didn’t yet have a process, and I was designing in a panic. I used notes as shorthand to trigger my memory of what happened particular run, and then doing the notes meant reconciling that memory with the director’s divergent memory and then taking an appropriate measure to correct that cue for the next run.

The problem with me and this method became clear the first time I designed my annual summer juggernaut – the ten repertory shows of Cherubs. Each show ran an hour, and teched in an hour and forty five minutes. After tech, I would have one dress run to make any last adjustments, and then performance. Each night you tech two shows, and then the next night you tech two more. At the end of my first week of Cherubs tech I had a pile of incomprehensile scribbles like “Fade out the drone when she does that thing upstage” with little memory of the play itself. I needed a better way.

And I didn’t just need it for Cherubs. I looked at the designers whose careers I wanted to emulate – Andre Pluess, Lindsay Jones, Ray Nardelli, Josh Horvath. These individuals are unbelievably prolific, if you haven’t noticed. I think Lindsay pulled off something like 30 shows in 10 states last year. They worked everywhere, all the time – in Chicago and regionally. In watching their processes, I noticed patterns in how they organized their notes, cues, and files into standard formats and structures no matter how different the show was.

I experimented with excel spreadsheets and text files. The disorganization and lack of clarity continued – though I did notice that I had a speed increase and a greater percentage of complete sentences because I’m a faster typer. So I was capturing more of the same bad information I worked on self-discipline in the moment and looked into some preliminary shorthand lessons. It didn’t click with me. New problems started emerging as I experimented with new methods – I would bring a level up one day only to bring it down again after sitting in a new seat only to bring it up again after sitting in the first seat again. I was pushing and pulling my hair out.

The breakthrough came for me when I thought about the nature of the information I was trying to retain. Levels. Cues. Moments. Memories of the events of a run. Records of previous runs and notes. Whether I had taken care of a note or not. Notes from a director. Notes for a stage manager. Notes for myself.

I decided to create (ta da!) a relational database and see how that worked for me. I broke the information of my work into core models – cues, subcues (like fades and layered sounds in a cue), notes. Five years later, it looks like this:

Not the greatest interface, but it’s been built incrementally with only my brain, so it works great for me. Notes are in yellow there. As a show progresses, I scroll through my cue list. If I have a note, I just type in one of the yellow boxes and I have a quick pull down menu of basic types of notes to give me some quick context – “Director” means it’s something I need to ask the director. Its direct, and in practice, simple. I should note while the data structure is complex enough for me to use this system in every show, it’s also flexible enough that I can ignore great sections of it when time demands that of me. I really only use the subcue table, for instance, when I run using CD playback shows where overlapping sound files still need to be managed. Computerized playback often makes that paperwork more or less moot, so it just sits there.

By capturing the data I also noticed an immediate benefit – separating the data from the display of that data by taking it off a piece of paper or a spreadsheet freed myself to use the data in new and different visualizations. I could create a new layout that automatically created a cue list easy for a stage manager to read:

Or a quick pull list of notes to do in a hurry:

With six or seven shows and some troubleshooting, it became a system that I trust more than my handwritten notes and my swiss cheese memory. It became a way to freeze those pure, immediate reactions that I have in the space and in the moment and use those to inform my notes. And since I began analyzing the way that I captured information and the structure of the information that needed to be captured, my handwritten notes have become decidedly more disciplined and focused.

But that’s what works for me. What’s important is the way that you structure your own capture. You need a way to capture all the relevant data that you can fit into your bucket, and a way to intuitively and simply filter that information later. We are flawed creatures, and it’s not only possible but likely that at some point you’ll try to fool yourself into thinking you took one action when you took another.

There was another important capture that took place in recent months – the company members of the side project sat down and captured through a brainstorm all the roles and responsibilities of the company so that we could better enlist and provide support to Artistic Director and theater operations superhero Adam Webster. By capturing and filtering the things we did as individuals over the course of a season, we began compiling a bible of simple manuals for tasks and procedures that were involved with running a theater – everything from filing taxes to taking out the trash to repatching the lightboard. We took this information out of our cluttered minds and put it in a repository where anyone can come in and take over, and in doing so the problem of “running a theater” became smaller and more manageable. When you look at the life cycle of company membership, that kind of capturing and filtering process creates institutional knowledge that is the difference between the life of a theater company and its demise.

This is one of the reasons that I think creating a database of Chicago Theater is a worthwhile project and not simply navel-gazing. It is made up of collected and searchable and therefore endlessly useful data. If it is successful, it creates a model for other public resources of data in the theater community that by necessity would be more accessible than say, TCG’s data that Scott Walters used to such great effect. It captures hard facts that can be organized to suit your purpose that day. It allows us to check things that we believe are true (“You know what Chicago needs? A production of Our Town in April 2009!” They’ll never know what hit them!) against the captured data of collected memory that inarguably is true.

On a side note: Speaking of manuals, I’ve been exploring the utterly hilarious Poignant Guide to Ruby in my learning process of the Ruby on Rails programming environment for the CTDB. I think the devilvet in particular will appreciate the use of off-the-cuff cartoon foxes and elves to spice up the process of (yawn) learning a programming language.

When you’re reading and writing a manual, I cannot stress enough the importance of retaining your sense of humor. This is the thing that I often forget.

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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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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Infrastructure

January 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Squirrel PopsicleWinters are a bitch.

It’s cold as hell, and we have it easy. Try walking outside sometime and looking up into the dead, empty treetops on your street – you’ll probably notice clumps of leaves and twigs, high up near the top.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s your neighborhood squirrel’s home. They’re sqwunched up in that little ball of insulation, shivering through wind, snow, sleet and freezing rain.

The fact is, some animals make it through the harsh winter, and some don’t. But the squirrels do what they can to make sure that they make it.

There’s been some pretty disheartening news from storefront theater this week both Live Bait and the Bailiwick are in danger of collapsing and closing their space’s doors. I wish I was surprised, and I wish this wasn’t an annual tradition, just as predictable the new crop of newly-budding storefront troupes pop up just after graduation.

I’m not a social darwinist, but there’s something that fixtures like Bailiwick and Live Bait could have used to protect their institutional assets to fend off the climate change of a rapidly shifting cultural demographic: An infrastructure that is closely fitted to their institution, lightweight, simple, and powerful.

What do I mean by saying something that impetuous? Let’s look at Live Bait. According to the article, and consistent with what I’ve seen there, the problem isn’t money, it’s time. For over twenty years, the Live Bait space has been run by a husband and wife duo and often a third or fourth management overhire. This is just not enough people to sustainably run a mini-rental house. Trash piles up, strikes aren’t completed, repairs need to be made, bills need to be collected. Sharon Evans and John Ragir have put in their time and they deserve a change of focus and time to focus on their personal creative endeavors. The problem for the institution has been finding like-minded folks that they could trust to delegate the work. Now there’s no one who can run the ENTIRE theater infrastructure for them – from the minutiae that I mentioned to maintaining board relationships, filing taxes, and making long-term planning decisions about the building itself – and that’s like having no theater infrastructure at all.

Mission Paradox outlines the importance of valuing your own time in his blog this week, and I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. But building your theater infrastructure doesn’t have to mean refashioning your organization in the image of the Goodman or Broadway in Chicago. It simply means using the resources you have at your disposal to build yourself a home that will last through the long dark winter that your organization will inevitably face.

Resource 1 – Your people. Build trust and a common vision with your company. Sustainable organizations don’t rely solely on the input from a single leader. Teach everyone in the company as many skills as possible. Encourage each others’ growth, value each others’ time, and only bring on folks into your company that are in it for the long haul. If you’re an individual thinking about joining a company, think about that long haul. Be honest with yourself, and each other, and you’ll find a lot more energy in that honesty. Earn each others’ trust and check in with each other to make sure you all stay happy. It’ll be okay if someone needs to leave someday – if what you’ve built together matters, it’ll keep going if someone needs to pursue other endeavors.

Resource 2 – Your stuff, your place, your home. These are the twigs that are around you. If you used a prop bucket in your first five productions, you’d save that bucket, wouldn’t you? Try not to rent something twice when you can own it once. Bigger ticket items in this category are things like your space. Don’t get a space unless you have deep pockets and a plan for using it, and the people power to keep that use going.

Resource 3 – Your audience. Build them up. Talk to them, a lot. Talk about your organization like you care about it. Build your organization so that you DO care about it, so when anybody walking on the street asks about your theater, you know what to say, and you know how to excite them and convince them in that moment to come to every show you do for the rest of time. Include your board in this category – share what you do with people, and they will want to help you grow it, because you’ve let them own a piece of your success. If you treat donors like audience and audience like donors, you have a simple relationship with everyone, and you’ll still be getting those donations. You’ll get those donations by caring about what you do, and letting the world know that you care.

Resource 4 – Your time. None of this stuff does anyone any good if you burn out. Burning Out on theater is a wasting disease killing our industry. Here’s the real secret to building infrastructure that will help you avoid that fate. You don’t need complex box office structures and subscription series and mailings and cold calls to your phone list unless the STRUCTURE of your audience and your organization demands those solutions. Remember, our world is changing pretty fast these days, and these are old solutions to old problems. You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by listening to your audience and recognizing what they’re actually responding to, not what you think they’ll respond to. You don’t have to search far and wide for effective innovations that save you time – Just build your strategies and procedures well, test them, measure them, and make sure they still make you happy after you’re done with them. Make those strategies and procedures as simple as you possibly can without sacrificing their effectiveness and quality. Put joy into your process. I’m serious – if you have a hard time enlisting your company members to run the box office or come to strike, make those tasks fun. Write funny box office manuals. Throw a strike party. Then, you’ll all have energy to keep it going and enlisting other folks that will help you keep it going.

Notice how money isn’t even on this list? Money is water. You don’t just need water, you need a big bucket so when it doesn’t rain for a while, you still have something to drink.

And even if they’re cold, don’t pet the squirrels. They’ll make it.

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For Free, part I: (In it For the Money Mix)

November 12, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

The first check I got from Google AdWords was more than a little intoxicating.

It had been a hard financial month. I had just gotten married and settled down in our six month old condo (with its six month old mortgage), and I was off from my regular gig for two months. It was our first really lean month in a while, our savings were being tested, and while my life was leading me to dream about the future and children and picket fences, my numerous “volunteer” theater projects were starting to look like the biggest hurdle on that road.

One of those volunteer projects was backstagejobs.com, which Patrick Hudson had been doing out of the goodness of his heart for nigh on ten years. And when I say “doing,” I mean manually entering every contact, job, and spelling error on the site – and the site was powering human resources for a national storefront theater movement. It all funnelled through his poor Pentium II laptop, and his full-to-overflowing inbox. Like many others, I got I think my first three jobs out of college from the site, basically launching my career, and the opportunity to relieve this Atlas of the theatrical world though an automated redesign was reward enough.

But then, after the redesign was working and Patrick started blinking his eyes, wondering what to do with his time, he did what he could to compensate me – he handed me over two months of his google AdWords revenue.

And in that moment, I believed money really could grow on trees. It wasn’t an outrageous amount of money, but it made the difference in that month’s mortgage payment. And all this from a completely free site, that doesn’t charge either the poor starving artists looking for jobs or often the equally starving theater companies looking to hire them. Where the hell was all this money coming from? Who was advertising to this market that almost by definition didn’t have disposable income?

It turns out, the economy really can evolve. The market is rewarding companies with innovative revenue streams like Google. The model is basically: Provide a free service, and then get a large chunk of a potentially national or international market share with that free service, and then make your living through selling ad revenue for the sheer number of people just LOOKING at your site. In Patrick’s case, it’s a small compensation for the number of hours he’s already logged building and maintaining the site, but at the same time it’s a useful way to fund his child’s education.

Before we proceed, do me a favor: I don’t have the readership to justify the effort to make this blog a podcast, but I don’t want to deprive you, the reader, of the full storytelling experience here. So head on over to Amazon and order Joni Mitchell’s For Free or just play it if you’ve got it. Thanks. Life’s too short to not enjoy it.

getimageexe.jpgThe first time the economy shifted in such a basic way for American theater was the advent of film. (and I should warn, now that you have this great dramatic underscore rolling: what I am about to say probably has a great deal of ‘truthiness’ to it, but it’s all theory and not so much fact) At the time, there was a premium on the most skilled (read=famous) talent, and people would come far and wide and lavish extravagances on such a talent, and that talent would also tour around to ease the burden a bit, so you’d go to Des Moines instead of having to hoof it to New York. You could make such a name for yourself if you were a big personality, had a clear voice, and could fill the stage with your presence. That economic reality nurtured a style of acting that we now refer to as “Overacting.”

charlie_chaplin.jpgThen, suddenly, performances could be recorded, and seen in every city in the nation. Better yet, you could get up close and personal to the talent. Suddenly, the money changed directions – actors still needed presence, but they needed to be sympathetic and human-sized as opposed to larger and life. And, with expanding markets, projects that were populist and frankly lowest common denominator would suddenly have a great priority to the new studios – if you could bring a film to every market in the country, it better well APPEAL to every market in the country. Over time, the old ways get stigmatized and financially anemic, and the new ways get all that intoxicating money, fame, and – given enough market share – power. Meaning we have a lot of populist entertainment these days, and media conglomerates running way more of the country than they should, because they can literally control access to what people hear, see and read.

But there’s hope yet. Have you noticed how the content peddled by the movie industry has started to suckrepetitively – lately? Have you noticed how recent FCC changes show that cable companies are beginning to scramble for your attention?

Hear about that Writer’s strike?

Well lo and behold – web-based media is changing the rules again, in a big way. Just one tiny reflection of this is how DVD sales and free web access to TV shows has created a a richer and more focused viewing experience than cable and may have actually improved TV serials content as compared with film content. (TV allows for more character development than film due to running time limitations, so it follows that TV can nurture more complete, human characters than film – if the producers get the hell out of the way of the desires of the audience and writers.)

Equally promising – You Tube has created an outlet for user-targeted content which has created some really exciting projects that would never have gotten past the producers in the old days. And those projects are now being funded piecemeal directly by the users who want to see them. The audience’s energy and money is actually fueling the performer’s ability to perform their content.

Sound familiar? Audience Interacting with Performer… hmmm… The secret to this new model is volume, which is the big hurdle for theaters, since each show has a finite number of physical seats and in most cases a single physical location. But let’s take another look at this web theater idea. Throughout this admittedly biased little diorama of history, one thing has remained constant: The public will congregate towards what they want to see and hear. Since most of that pesky attention and money was removed from the equation of theater business back at the turn of the century, Theater has always been a haven for artists and audience looking to drive at deeper human truth and experiment/experience a bit more with the craft of entertainment than mass-market profit-driven companies would ever tolerate. They played their clarinets for free on the sidewalks, and if you happened to catch them, you experienced some breath-halting live-changing moments, that were then gone forever.

People love to have those cathartic moments. I could argue that cathartic experiences are what we want to buy when we see a movie or even when we get that double latte instead of the simple cup of joe. Especially in bubble-gum terror-scared times like these, we trust those moments and use them to recenter our priorities. Theatrical truth and human connection are finally valuable again. It’s what people want, but finding it is difficult, because we’ve become more compartmentalized. People literally are addicted to their iPods and computers, trolling the internet for a blog post or a video that will give them that sensation of human connection. To not create performances for them simply because they’re not looking in the place you’re going to be performing just seems silly.

I also think people are fundamentally smart. They don’t trust the content that is created simply for profit’s sake. They don’t really believe that they can make $20,000 in a month without doing something fundamentally immoral and/or dangerous. They want to interact and create, and theater and the web are far better at allowing that interactivity than film and TV can be on their own. Reality TV? Come on. That’s a silly substitute, but it was the best TV could come up with. How sad is that? People trust people who do things out of love, and they can smell if you’re doing something just for the money. If you see a street musician who’s damn good, you’ll stay and maybe take his card, and download his mp3s from his website, because you know he’ll keep playing even if you were to just walk by.

This new web-based financial model rewards the hard-working and clever street performers of the world. You can now travel the world, dance like a fool, and get paid for it, as long as you do it all the way. In the final analysis, this system is harder for big conglomerates to control arbitrarily for profit and allows for individual tastes and aesthetics to flourish in ways that weren’t possible before. Markets aren’t limited by physical location anymore, they’re delimited by personal interests, so they tend to reward individual and local flavors over nation-wide flavors-of-the-month. Web attention and traffic are also ephemeral, and they reward interconnectedness, which according to the Google Page Rank Documentation is ultimately a factor of trust, volume, and quality.

There’s been a few first gasps of theaters and theater organizations trying to tap new media market business plans, and in part II I’ll outline a little bit of the strategy behind them, and how they may be able to succeed – or crash and burn. Till then, thanks for funding my pipe dream by purchasing wonderful music from my site. Tee hee!

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