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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

April 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I was thrilled to be asked by The New Colony contributor and blogger Benno Nelson to engage in an online debate that took the temperature of theater blogs in this our internet age. That’s why I totally didn’t join in until a couple minutes ago. What can I say, it’s tech.

At any rate, here’s the discussion so far, and you can join in yourself. You’ll hear from Benno first and then you’ll hear from me.

The internet will be for maybe only a few more years the Wild West, the Manifest Destiny of our age. Not everyone understands what it is or how to use it, but most everyone knows they cannot be left out of it. This applies, of course, to Theater Companies. There have been some attempts to codify, or at least examine the components and goals of websites, and particularly blogs operated by Theater Companies. The consistently excellent Kris Vire has, for example, offered a few ruminations on this topic, but I think it is worth our attention here as well. The justification for including it as a Cliché, I feel it necessary to point out, is that the possession of a “blog” seems to have grown into an unconsidered necessity for theater companies and I want to draw attention to this thoughtlessness and worry about it.

First of all, it is so self-evident that it is almost absurd to point out that the primary activity of Theater Company websites is marketing/advertising: making it easy for a potential audience to get telegraphic information – who, what, where, when, why – about the company and their productions. But what is a Theater Company blog, and what is it for?

Well, it’s actually not very simple. A clichéd response would be that a blog allows a theater company to maintain an online presence. What the hell is that? In the case of The New Colony, for instance, what do they gain by having these columns up once a week? Ideally, I suppose, they get increased traffic by becoming a place people can count on for new content: in the internet, updates are the equivalent of a neon sign. The more updates, the more content, the more people are likely to check your site and keep checking it. Does this sell tickets? I really don’t know, but when I saw FRAT it was full almost to capacity.

The Steppenwolf also relies on content generation, but they are much more streamlined. That is, their posts are all about the Steppenwolf, their shows, their season, their collaborators. It is essentially like an ever-expanding playbill. Interestingly though, for a company like Steppenwolf or The Neo-Futurists where much of the draw of the company is in the company members, the blog offers a great way to deepen audiences’ familiarity with and knowledge of these members. By including a post by Joe Dempsey on joining the cast of Art, for instance, we get a better idea of who he is. Perhaps we’ll want to see him more, and return to the theater when he returns.

What is a bad theater company blog? One that is hard to read or navigate (with regard to design), or contains meaningless information, or is updated infrequently. The insistence on web 2.0 interaction is a little tiresome for me, because I don’t believe that the companies really care what I think; these seem to me rather more an extension of the farce of post-performance talk-backs, but I hope I’m wrong.

The interesting thing about the internet is that it is in some ways a great equalizer. It is essentially as easy for a tiny company without even a reliable performance space to operate an excellent website as it is for the Goodman– to make a home online and offer consistent and engaging programming there as on stage. It is not a requirement to offer this, but it is really not particularly difficult and if it exhibits that Theaters are engaged in the world as we come upon it today, not desperately keeping up and not hopelessly aloof, then they are certainly worth the trouble. But the panicked desperation to have a blog because it is the thing to do leads to a lot of bad blogs and a haziness about what they can and should be.

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

While I’m late to contribute to this online debate, it’s certainly not for lack of interest. A number of the concepts of content generation that Benno explores here (capturing more traffic, deepening interest of the work already being done by theaters, cultivating an ability to communicate clearly and interestingly about one’s own work) are things we tried to throw into relief with World Theatre Day – an event a number of Chicago theater companies threw in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chopin Theatre.

For me, the Chicago WTD celebration was about putting some of these theories into practice and, hopefully, feeding that growing energy of theater’s online presence back offline into a live spectacle. Before the event, theaters from all over the world were asked to contribute video, audio and images of work and play – content they were already generating in the normal course of producing theater – to an open blog. That video and content was then projected and shared in the event on a big screen. During the party, a team of volunteers captured quick video snippets and interviews, and uploaded it within minutes to the open blog using the dirt-simple video capturing tool that is the Flip Camera. International theater artists live-tweeted their responses to the fun was being had in real time, and I posted those tweets back up on the projector screen. It was like internet connection feedback.

So yes: there’s many different ways to generate content as a theater, and there’s many ways to streamline the process of generating new content. But there’s a couple points here where Benno and I seem to have completely different perspectives. One is on the preeminence of new content over easy content. We agree, before you get too excited, that this content has always got to be good. This difference of opinion makes sense, as I’m a production manager of a small company who knows that when you make time for creating new content during a production process, you inevitably rob time from another project … like opening your show. Since marketing is a contract of trust with a potential customer, the model of “you must create new content on your online presence every week or you will lose your online audience” just isn’t sustainable in my experience. What I think is sustainable is something similar… a model of “capturing” your

While Benno is suspect, I’m a total believer and convert to the value and, yes, necessity of social networking as a conscious and intelligently-utilized component to a company’s online presence. World Theatre Day in America simply would not have happened this year without the presence of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate and fuel it. We quite literally organized every aspect of that party – from putting together the talent and equipment to getting the hundreds of partygoers to show up – all through a Facebook meme that allowed individual theaters to add their own branding sauce to the event. That said, Benno’s point about the way he feels about the way especially very large and very small theaters have been using social media – that “they don’t really care what he thinks” – well hell, attention must be paid here. If you are a theater that wants to take advantage of the huge currently-erupting geyser that is social media, part of the bargain is that you must demonstrate care about what your readership thinks. When they feel it’s not a two-way relationship, they bolt.

Remember to remember the obvious: rich two-way dialogue is what theater is all about. The fact that there seems to be a prevalent idea that post-performance talkbacks – or indeed any structured dialogue between theater and audience – is a “farce” is a sign of trouble in my book. That’s a signal to me that we need to reengage and re-conceive how this dialogue could really take place in the future. There have been many moments in the past year that actually indicate to me that theaters take the nurturing of this dialogue very seriously. I was witness to some electric moments of audience engagement in the talkbacks and performances of the O’Neill fest at the Goodman.

Speaking of the internet being an equalizer, it’s a little sad to note that this is because NO theaters, and really no industries on the planet right now, have the infrastructure currently to incorporate Social Networking and web content into their day to day operations. I’ve seen big, small, and medium theaters miss or delay big opportunities to engage in online dialogue, because they’re all still getting the hang of it. The wonderful talkbacks I mentioned above were captured – as the sound engineer I actually did the recording – but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t been rereleased as podcasts yet after over a month. The reason everyone is buzzing about these services and their effect on society right now is because those effects are potentially revolutionary. The effects of blogs on print journalism have shown exactly how revolutionary they can be. I’m not one of those (anymore?) that think that theater is in trouble, since theater ultimately thrives wherever people can talk with each other. New Leaf has been very lucky, as a very very small company, to be one of the beneficiaries of that equalizing force. Getting involved in bringing World Theatre Day to Chicago has put us, a tiny storefront theatre company, in contact with the strategic planners of TCG and in direct collaboration with the League of Chicago Theaters. Sharing our ideas has the added benefit of making us thought leaders. Before I get too excited about that, remember that our theories are only as strong as our data. Companies like Steppenwolf and the Goodman may prove to be the adopters that really matter, since they can accurately test how effective this new form of communication really works.

This is an unprecedented moment in theater’s history in the internet age. Finally, technology is not simply working on producing more widgets or harvesting more resources, we’re focusing our innovative energies on the fundamental challenges of human communication. And I think theater has a lot to teach technology in that department. But we, as a theater community, have to re-learn to have a dialogue in new formats first. And we’re doing it! Gold star.

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Tag, I’m Strange

November 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Tagged like a theater-lovin’ virus by Laura, I now give you: 7 Strange things about me.

1.) After learning a whole bunch of French in Junior High, then living in northern Japan for three months when I was fifteen, then majoring in Japanese in college, then visiting nearby Montreal and Nova Scotia periodically, every time I try to speak French I end up using French nouns and Japanese verb conjugation and noun-first verb-last sentence structure. “Ma francais wa totemo hen neeeeee…..”

2.) As a child and young teen I would explore the ditches and basement holes of my father’s construction business, talking to myself. During those afternoons, I created a complex sci-fi narrative of a world called Lycinthia, a desolate desert world run by a corrupt military-industrial complex, in which elite pilots harbored fugitives in robot ships called “walkers” dozens of stories tall – kind of like walking skyscrapers. This would later turn into a couple short stories, and has led to my inability to keep a pair of jeans clean for longer than a few weeks.

3.) I lived next door – literally, next door – to the only private Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian-style residence in New England – and worked as an intern in the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed theater in the country – and worked on a prominent play about Frank Lloyd Wright in the past few years. This is what I have to say: As a person of above average height, I have nearly killed myself on that guy’s stairs more times than I can count. I hate that diminutive bastard.

4.) My pets have historically been named after Wizards: Merlin, Gandalph, Archimedes (you know, the “Eureka!” dude and also the owl from Sword in the Stone), and Nimbus (which was actually accidental. He looks like a puffy, fat, grey cloud. I read the Harry Potter books later.)

5.) I get profound episodes of deja vu, which freak me out. I enjoy a little mystery in my day.

6.) I am a geography nut. After getting obsessed with the Galapogos Islands as a kid, I got a big old atlas and proceeded to memorize every capital of every country that existed at the time. My favorite places on earth are the exposed granite peak of the Perpendicular Trail in Acadia National Park, the onsens of Hanamaki, Japan, and Armadale, Isle of Skye, Scotland.

7.) I once got so annoyed when I was 12 or so that I couldn’t find spices in my mother’s kitchen that I alphebetized the entire kitchen. As in: Spatula, then Spoons, then Sugar. In order. She was concerned.

Tag you’re it (it’s hard to find untagged folks now that Rob K. has tagged everybody): Dan, Marsha, The Chainsaw, and Mr. B.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I think I need to get around to calling that therapist already.

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A Meme with a Pulse

May 02, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Uncategorized

I’ve been going over something like 2,000 blog posts that I missed while off on my honeymoon, and it looks like Don, dv, and Scott Walters got in another inevitable scrap in my absence over whether ’tis nobler in the mind to NY-LA-CHI or not to NY-LA-CHI. I’ve played peacebroker with all three gentlemen before (not that any of them want a peacebroker, because that doesn’t lead to the kind of interesting blog conversation that they want to have) and I’ve found it interesting that having that discussion flare up created more convoluted one-note shrillness than take-away insight that could end up helping new readers. On the other hand, argument it does help those readers generate their own opinions, which is a wonderful thing.

It’s the way blogging goes, but in the interest of experimentation and continuing the growth of dialogue, I’d like to propose a meme to play with the dynamics of this regional discussion.

The meme: enlist a new voice to join the theater blogging community – someone who brings a new perspective to the discussion of theater. Preferably one that is challenging to your own perspective. Some women, maybe, since they’re underrepresented? I’ve been working on a few of my friends who find themselves too busy but I think could represent the more practical side of producing theater. Someday, one of them will buckle and we’ll have some eye-opening thoughts from these geniuses. (yeah, I mean you, Tiff and Marcus…)

I tag Scott, Don, ecoTheater, and dv… natch. (and yes, Bob… I owe you a meme and I haven’t forgotten. These past few weeks have taught me new lessons I learned the hard way, so I thought I’d wait until the dust settled on them. Sumimasen.)

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