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The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Organizational Development is like Flood Control

December 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, In a Perfect World

The events of our lives – and an organization’s life – flow like a river. A big, powerful, deep river. The river brings potential – maybe it’s transportation, resources, energy, trade. But it also brings a daily supply of erosion. Silt buildup chokes our harbors. Periodic floods overflow the banks and destroy existing homes while at the same time providing rich fertilizer. Organizational infrastructure – our skills and resources – are the tools we can use to harness the river.

Do we have-to-have-to harness the river? No, we can chose to let it go by like wise Buddhas, free from attachments. Do we need to consider other fair uses of the river downstream and upstream before initiating that giant dam-building project or sewage-disposal strategy? Absolutely, because we’re creative people, not dickheads.

Sustainable solutions only come from asking three basic questions

(on personal, local, and global or life-long scales:)

What do we want to accomplish? (Our Mission)

What do we want the world to look like when we’re done? (Our Vision – and our Values)

What is the best tool to achieve the short term goal AND the long term goal at the same time?

Dan asks this question on a human and personal scale today, and he reminds me of two three things:

1) I think that’s the closest my name has ever come to being used as a verb.

2) I owe several people a further exploration of the ideal company retreat process, myself included.

2) Dan’s geeking out about the iPhone app Things (and the similar and decidedly more geeky and sync-friendly OmniFocus, which I’ve been beta testing for nigh on two years now) reminds me that it’s once again time to plug the idea behind it. David Allen’s common-sense driven Getting Things Done approach to holistic project management, which inspired countless to-do applications and personal calls to creative action – this blog included – is the core reason I’m able to maintain a high rate of productivity in my work without wanting to set my hair on fire at the end of the day. In case you were wondering.

Not that I’m particularly good at doing things David’s way – but that’s not the point. It’s just that David’s Book
and his approach to problem solving through is smart, efficient, clarifying, and ultimately, liberating for an artist who wants to accomplish something and simply wants to get their act together. If you’re excited by the possibilities of Things, check out the source.

Seriously. Read it.

More to the immediate point. I just got this [web 2.0 generated form] email from Obama’s campaign. If you donated time or energy to the campaign, you’ve probably gotten one as well: “Change is Coming”, you know the one? Well, it got me thinking. I’ve setup a few informal meetings of Chicago storefront arts organizations in the past, and this seems like a particularly important time to discuss the social and political work that needs to be done – that can be done by us in our work – and it might just be useful to coordinate the way in which we want to do it. I think it wouldn’t be inappropriate to just use Obama’s format and infrastructure to set the thing up. Who’d be interested in that? If I get five takers on this blog post, I’m gonna make it happen.

Because we should meet like this more often.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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Fly on the wall opportunities

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

On the train, after my show, I overhear three women reading through their dirty dancing programs. They are cross referencing the asterixes in the program with members of the actors equity association. It seems to be their first introduction to the AEA.

One of them says, “I’m going to tell so and so: don’t get your hopes up.”

These are the moments where I get angry at broadway and cash-in productions. The audience comes to them with hopes. And the story is so often disappointment.

Few patrons have high hopes when they risk their evening slumming it in a storefront show. But that’s why we can blow our audience away when we display quality, immediacy and craft.

But we are linked – indeed dependant – on larger theaters. We are part of the same brand of “theater,” even though we have been consistently a different animal for over 30 years. This is something that I think is lost on arts marketing gurus when they tell me that the key step for me is to improve my product. It’s not entirely true… I have to improve my product, and then find a way to keep it good for four years while we find our audience – self-funded – on a largely word of mouth marketing campaign. It works… slowly.

I want to improve the brand of theater in total, because I find myself in an unfortunate position – shows like dirty dancing don’t benefit my theater with their show-specific splash of marketing. But when those shows disappoint, my theater DOES suffer.. These patrons think… Man, i hate theater. If a large budget show can’t deliver satisfaction, how could a tiny theater run by a couple dozen people with a $3,000 budget?

That’s the message I’d like to deliver to them: we can surprise you. we can create a memory that doesnt’ disappoint. But my marketing budget can’t yell over the noise… and my first step isn’t going to be bemoaning the capitalist system in the hopes that will make my efforts suddenly socially relevant again.

Our message is spread slowly, cheaply, inevitably, one person at a time. I do doubt I’ll ever reach these women on the train with this message: good theater doesn’t disappoint. It’s like treasure, you have to sift through a bit, and maybe you have to find a trusted reviewer or friend who can help you find the good stuff. And it’s not all live remakes of movies from our teenage years or the high school musical we remember being so cliquey and odd – that’s a good thing sometimes, no? But man it is worth making a part of your week.

Good thing I brought postcards.

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A Tip for Maintaining your Energy in the face of Adversity

November 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Never underestimate the capacity of human beings to be absolute shits to each other. And don’t let their behavior change yours.

I don’t invoke God very often in my life.

But MAY GOD BLESS Madelyn Dunham.

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1st Lesson of Driving and Socio-Political Action: Don’t put your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, Community Building, On the Theatrosphere

Scott Walters (I know you’re listening) has reminded me with his comment from the last few posts that we’re already in danger of forgetting or distracting ourselves on the theatrosphere from a real and immediate touchstone document of change – Obama’s Arts Plan.

I’ve also heard from several writers today wondering what’s next, and how to engage.

We have energy now. Seriously: read it. Remember my to do list from yesterday? Same stuff. It is our list now. How best to make it happen?

Call a theater educator. You already know one. Find out what programs they’re working on right now to unite professional theater and educational programs, and find a way to both participate and improve or enrich the experience for the students.

Follow up: A lively discussion is going on about this last bit over in the comments on an earlier post.

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Sounds from Grant Park

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Sound

Happiness and fearless optimism bouncing through the corridors of Chicago’s Grant Park last night is a very unique sonic environment. Delicious.

I recorded a montage of the reflections of those words off the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago – and the sound of thousands of people walking past the Congress Hotel – the site of the last time Chicago was this involved with national politics.

Beautiful, Beautiful sounds of renewal.


Oh, and I’m happy to eat crow on this one: Kudos to the CTA for handling last night really darn well. Yes, it was slow going, but everyone was clearly working together and happy to be doing the work of getting 125,000 or so people home at midnight.

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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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WOTFW, kids.

October 22, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere

OMG OMG OMG!

Chris Biddle, local improv gunslinger and Victory Gardens staff member, just shilled in a kind of amazingly personal way for Radio Lab, using his true-to-life story of how the mind-warpingly awesome podcast became a pivotal moment in a recent romance – as a riveting 15-minute pledge drive speech.

The story is one I share. Radio Lab will make you fall in love again with being human.

Also, TOC this week has picked up on the fact that Radio Lab is actually theater – or at least a very theatrical kind of storytelling – on the radio. New media crossover, anyone? Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are two folks to emulate in their mastery of taking complex issues in the sciences and humanities and breaking them apart like a juicy pomegranate, making their shows both digestible and rich. I’ve got my tickets for the Radio Lab appearance at Victory Gardens on Monday, where they will perform their documentary on the various guerrilla radio performances of War of the Worlds through the decades, right after my all-nighter changeover moving MDQ to the Apollo.

And holy cellists from heaven, Zoe Keating will be there to play live, tense, underscore.

I. AM. GOING. TO. DIE. FROM. HAPPY.

(seriously. do not miss this show.)

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