Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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I love on Chicago Amplified

May 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, On the Theatrosphere, Tools

WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified program has beefed up its presence in the Chicago theater talkback circuit… quietly and diligently recording interesting conversations and performances that would otherwise be lost to the world forever.

One of these recordings actually captured a portfolio dream for a sound designer… a full recording of Remy Bumppo’s original commissioned work Think Tank: American Ethnic, with both performer dialog and sound design mixed in. If your exposure to theater on the radio is primarily through LA Theatre Works – or if you’re outside of Chicago and want to see me put my money where my mouth is as a designer – I hope you can check it out.

If you’re creating great programming in Chicago and don’t have a podcast infrastructure to capture it yourself, I’d also recommend contacting the good people at Chicago Amplified… It’s one of the few places that will lend its excellent web infrastructure and traffic to creative organizations of all stripes.

You can also donate to Chicago Amplified here… And catch WBEZ employee Don Hall (and friends of TFTF Schadenfreude) in this video, doing what they all do best: Crank.

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Conversion

February 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Do you ever have those moments where life imitates Art? Where you realize that your life is following the same path as the characters in your play? I think I finally internalized the meaning of the word “resonance” the third year I ran A Christmas Carol in a row and each December I found the story of Scrooge to be drawing my attention to my own avarice. Don’t get me started about that time I ran Massacre.

It took me a while to figure it out, but I’m experiencing the same kind of Art->Life effect while working on the Hypocrites’ version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape over the past week (which opens Wednesday).

Only the minorest of spoiler alerts, I’m not here to give anything about the play or the production away, but I will discuss some details about the world of the play.

When you’re running a show (opposed to watching it as a member of audience), you get a very different experience of the play as bits and pieces of the story as they accrue between cues, programming changes, quick changes, and preset checks. So the character of Yank, a stoker on a steamship liner, is one that I understand in my bones. The stage manager tells me to hit the sound cue, the sound cue whistles, and Yank hears his engineer call him to throw more coal on the boiler. The director tells the sound designer how many whistles there should be, and how often, and my job is to know and push the machinery, the cogs of technological storytelling.

Where force is converted to momentum, there is stress. The energy of burning matter creates steam which pushes the turbine, cranks the wheel, grinds the gears, lurches the steel forward and there it is: movement. As Yank says, “25 knots. Steel. That’s me every time.”

But humans are not steel, and the forces of the world bend us and provide resistance to our efforts. As the director – the theater itself, even – experiments and refines, there is a flurry of activity as the cogs of the theatrical machinery react and tack, shifting their course in collaborative tandem, and that flurry can look like chaos, can look like panic, can look like stress. As the winds fill the sails of my little theater company that could, we know that there will now come a time where we see if she is seaworthy. And that means sailing through a storm.

This week, like Yank, I’m trying hard to think. And it’s hard, it takes all of my body. I’m grappling with a big, underlying theory of everything, and my mind is just not big and agile enough to keep up with it. The forces that pushed me to Chicago, that pushed my theater company to develop its way of working, that pushed me to start blogging, to speak up, they are all pointing me to look at one problem: the problem of conversion. Converting energy into movement.

Is it happening for theater right now? I know so many people want it to be happening, and so many others believe that kind of change cannot happen, but under both wishes and prayers there are these fundamentals: force, direction of that force, and the natural resistance and momentum of the dead weight – our past and our future.

I’m still thinking about how to build a better machine. In the days of Yank, machines served a simple purpose, which is why they could proliferate: They burnt material, boiled water, pressurized the steam and turned giant wheels of progress. Progress was measured by how much you could move, how fast you could go. 25 knots. “That’s me every time.” Our very identities as Americans was tied with this idea of giant force, giant growth – but it dehumanized us, and made us cogs rolling towards an increasingly untenable dream of personal largesse. That’s why we gave that up and went towards a service economy, no?

Today we know the consequences of unchecked progress, and O’Neill certainly foresaw them in 1922. We know that machines designed to simply convert matter into force also create waste. We ignored that waste for decades, and now as it piles up in our air, in our water, in our land, we cannot ignore waste in our machinery anymore. We know that thinking of human beings as machines creates, well, just rampant unpleasantness in our daily lives. We must build purer machines, and we do that by:

– measuring their leverage (how much they amplify our own force)
– measuring their applied purpose (what is our goal by using the machine?)
– and by measuring their waste (what do we lose – on our planet and in ourselves – if we overuse this machine?)

In this new definition of efficiency, we must create sustainability and we can demand an increase in social quality. Where in the industrial world we would design a machine to move a mountain, in the post-industrial world we are starting to understand that the efficient solution is sometimes to keep the mountain and find a way to use its weight, heft, eco-system, and drainage patterns to our long-term advantage. In the online world, we are starting to see how social media can leverage the social mechanisms of human flocking and the natural-resource friendly connectivity of the global internet to solve problems by the accrual of many small efforts. In theater, we are starting to see how we can reuse our artistic waste as promotional material, feeding our excess energy and work right back into the creative process, just like a triple-expansion marine engine.

Which leaves one last, nagging, itchy question yet to be really answered: to what end? What does the end of this effort look like? Like Yank, I thought I knew my purpose when setting out and stepping up to the mic in Chicago Theater. I was truly surprised to learn that blogging, like steam power, is an example of literally, magically, turning hot air into momentum. I am also learning that the conversion of excitement into movement requires great stress as the hot air pushes, pressurizes, and pulls at many bodies at rest – until suddenly, we have shared momentum. Velocity in the same direction. And I am learning that there will be days when that stress will be applied directly to my mind, my body, and they will not be strong enough.

What I don’t know yet, what I know I will need to find a way to answer: How do I accurately measure the effectiveness of my efforts to improve something as mushy as the quality of my own work? I feel them working, but I will soon need to show, to prove, to provide the underlying physics of this new machinery. There are many who looked at the first steam engine and said, “sure, you *could* push that cart with steam power, but it doesn’t seem very practical.” To answer this, I am grasping at straws looking for a new metric, watching the rate and type of contributions to the database, and even counting the number of times that someone who watches Touch calls their family at intermission. These are questions that help us gauge our speed. 25 knots?

We must feed our problems into our solutions. This is the thing I’ve learned from studying the past this week: Increasing efficiency means reusing waste, taking nothing for granted, and feeding it all into the right engine. Conversion is an art in itself.

How do you measure your own effectiveness at the things you set your mind to? Is it an accurate measure? How does your measurement affect your will to continue your effort… or change?

P.S. I also realized tonight after reading this that the answer probably means having a bit more fun in the shows I’m working on. It’s been a soul-shaking season thus far. Look for summa that kinda playfulness in this.

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The Point Between the Diminishing Returns

January 16, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

Arts organizations are increasingly finding themselves caught in this place between using unfamiliar technology in their work and rejecting technology outright to return to traditional roots. Which we’d never think of doing in say, health care. Take a look at arts marketer Adam Thurman’s recent explanation of why he doesn’t use Twitter:

All these things are just tools. They are all just Big Shinny Hammers. Don’t let tool selection distract you from the main job, which is create remarkable artistic content.

Only use social media tools that you think you could be the best in the world at using.

The immediate, quicksilver environment of rapid technological innovation forces a balancing act between overdoing it by investing in tons of equipment that is current, exorbitantly expensive, and difficult to master; or underdoing it by taking DIY to a level beyond one’s experience and risking the dreaded half-assed implementation of half-baked ideas. That’s when you wind up building a lightboard out of exposed parts from Home Depot.

I’ve given a lot of advice to people trying to avoid these twin fates, and there isn’t an easy solution, but I think this comes close to a couple good rules of thumb for any technology purchase:

1) In every situation, compare notes with a trusted advisor. Thse means asking several people and testing their answers against, well, reality, and then retaining the advice of one whose advice seems to most closely resemble informed common sense.

A trusted advisor should let you do the work so that you can work towards self-sufficiency.

A trusted advisor is a lot like a therapist in this way. They help you through your own blindspots.

2) Buy Used. eBay, craigslist and firesales: screw retail markup if you’re a non-profit. If you are or know a theater in trouble, keep the equipment in circulation by helping to broker liquidation sales with companies who aren’t in trouble. Use the advice you’ve collected to distinguish between cheap gold and cheap crap.

3) Learn how to maintain your equipment so that it lasts longer. This goes double for equipment you rent out – a great way to diversify income and offset the capital investment. Use the summer lull to clean and blow the dust out of old gear, and regroup. Keep the place where the equipment is stored: clean, cool, and free of soda bottles.

This may all seem *really* obvious, but actually following through with all three of these principle is really rare in theaters. Only a handful of the dozens of storefront booths that I’ve been in have been laid out intelligently and cleaned in the last five years, let alone regularly. These kinds of environments breed broken equipment – and other organizations suddenly flush with cash can generate a lot of waste because money becomes the convenient solution rather than ingenuity.

When the economy tanks, ignorance of the specific properties of your inventory becomes increasingly hubristic.

There is in both directions – too cheap and too expensive – a point of diminished returns. The question that you can ask to chart your path through technology: What has the greatest long-term value that will also serve my short-term needs?

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Resource Sharing in Theatrical Communities

January 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Community Building, CTDB

The League of Chicago Theaters brings up the big issue itself today on their blog: Is Chicago Theater ready and willing to share resources for the overall health of the community?

As you could probably figure out from the comments, I’ve been thinking about this question and how to break down the natural resistance to the idea of sharing resources for about as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Here’s some of the misconceptions about theaters working together – some which I think I’ve actually perpetuated through my cheerleading – and the reality of what I’ve seen so far:

MISCONCEPTION 1 – Sharing Resources takes money.
Almost never (or if it does, we’re talking about minor administrative costs like the cost of web hosting.) One easy way to break up any relationship, whether it’s between two people or two organizations, is to get financially entangled before you’re ready for a permanent committment. Fundraising in particular is one place that I think will likely never be a shared resource between theaters, since it has the potential to make us so cagey as collaborators. Resource sharing is about recycling and reusing energies that are already being spent to help conserve future energy. Any project that requires money to conserve money – like say, a shared storage facility – should probably be set up as an independent and self-sufficient body with its own community-serving mission.

One area in particular with the money discussion worries me on a gut level – too often the discussion of collaborative projects turns to funding the project before the real needs and mission of the projects are fleshed out. Remember that both government and corporate forces tend to take action with money rather than the more non-profit actions of dialogue, initiatives, and begging for money from governments and corporate forces to be able to do the right thing. When we’re talking about funds on the community level for things like arts centers or programs, there is a great need to have the organizations doling out those funds to be overseen by the community and be accountable to public transparency. This is going to matter a lot when we start talking about Community Development Block Grants and how they are administered. I think we’ve all seen what an arts boondoggle looks like, and I think given the history of NEA funding in this country, it’s important to be more demonstrably responsible with all public and donated funds than the arts have been in the past. In my opinion, that means investing in growth infrastructure — rather than new buildings with people’s names on them, it means creating new ticketing systems, experimental programs that generate money over time, and new partnerships that connect new audiences to the art and connect the arts to the needs of those audiences.

MISCONCEPTION 2 – Theaters and individuals want to share resources.
In practice, theaters and the individuals that make them up are ready to participate in programs like this, but they tend to be resistant to actually setting them up. The fact is, collaboration is a lot of work and creating programs of the scale we’re talking about require first collecting a great deal of input, then processing that input into a proposed program, and then getting notes about that proposal and gently shaping and shepherding the program through its launch and early use. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s just like putting on a play, and just like plays, you can have a resource sharing program that responds to its audience and one that operates independantly in a bubble and goes nowhere. While theaters and individuals want to share resources, their primary goal – at least right now – is to fuel their own artistic agenda by asking for help.

I think this document may change that. Americans for the Arts and the Obama administration are already engaged in a very high-level dialogue about specific leveraged programs that they want to see implemented. These are all programs that could have a huge effect on the way the arts relates to the American people, and I highly encourage you to read and react to them.

MISCONCEPTION 3 – Theaters are too busy to share resources.
This one is so very close to true. Since theater tends to occupy that place in our lives reserved for obsessive hobbies, most people engaged in theater have literally five minutes of spare time that they often reserve for things like… sleep. Or combing one’s hair on a regular basis. Initiating a resource sharing program often means investing time in getting to know other theaters and how other theaters work, seeing if the two theaters are a good fit and where overlap occurs. I’d say we’re already talking about five hours of high-level discussions that get to the core of our theater operations before any benefit can even be proposed. I get that.

Here’s where the time crunch is moot, though: The entire idea of sharing resources should lead to discussions and partnerships that almost immediately enrich the skill sets of each theater. Let’s say one theater has a great production department, and the other theater knows how to market shows like nobody’s business. By discussing operations, comparing notes, and making some resources available to other companies, you make your own company more equipped to make quick innovations.

I’ve seen this work on the ground: New Leaf and the Side Project have been engaging in various types of resource sharing for three years, often through me since I’m a company member with both theaters. This is at times hugely time consuming and draining for me, it’s true. However, look at the mutual benefits that these theaters have generated for each other in the past year:

New Leaf –
– Needed seating risers for Touch to achieve specific sightlines. Side Project runs two spaces, and loaned them.
– Needed cheap rehearsal space over the holiday season. The Side Project, which owns space in Rogers Park, didn’t have tenants during that time.

The Side Project –
– Needed talented designers and stage managers for the huge and all-consuming Cut to the Quick Festival – New Leaf is well-connected to the design and technical world in Chicago and recently worked with newcomer SM Amanda Frechette to hone her rehearsal and performance management skills in the context of storefront theater. Designers, technicians, and run crew hired.
– The Side Project doesn’t have a large production department, and technical projects often need to be postponed based on company energy. New Leaf restored, reinforced, and repainted the aging seating risers in exchange for their use, which both companies needed to do anyway.

Both companies –
Have participated in a program ad exchange for several years. That’s cake. On a more human level, we’re often committed to each other’s work… New Leaf’s artists talk about the side project a lot and vice versa. This is the most basic kind of visceral marketing: The two companies care enough about each others’ work to see it, evaluate it, and recommend audiences go see the good stuff elsewhere and we work to feed the other company more talent when we uncover a weak spot.

The individuals in both theaters –
– Get to work more closely together and increase the number of opportunities they have. New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski directed a show in the Cut to the Quick Festival after collaborating in the companies’ relationship, and the aforementioned Amanda Frechette got to network her way into her second Chicago theater relationship. You might not like the word ‘networking,’ but the action itself still can be exciting, challenging, and nourishing to the work.

– Learned new skills. To date, I have trained members in both companies how to use graphics programs, email blasting software, and even running a facebook page. I have learned so much about press relations, an area I’m particularly sketchy in, by watching Side Project Artistic Director Adam Webster, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post. That’s just me… I’d wager the simple act of collaborating on a granular level in both artistic and administrative duties has taught each individual in both companies dozens of valuable skills.

MISCONCEPTION 4 – Resource Sharing is a no-brainer. We’ve gotta do it.
There are a few potentially disastrous pitfalls to a relationship of resource sharing like this.

One is imbalance. When you’re talking about resources that aren’t as quantifiable as money, there can be disagreement and hurt feelings about the relative worth of what each party puts in. As I say on the League blog, I think the way to most effectively short circuit this natural human response to being screwed or used is to encourage a sense of ownership and participation in the community itself rather than individual companies.

The other is lack of traction. You can create the smartest resource sharing strategy in the world, but if you don’t get people to sign up and buy in, it ain’t worth nothing. I can say this with some level of certainty, as the Chicago Theater Database is absolutely in this teetering zone here, and I think most people with their eye on it are aware of that possibility. Either it takes off, or the time invested isn’t worth the results.

Early in the history of this blog, the incredible programmer Chris Ashworth (creator of qLab audio playback software) wrote in the comments:

I’m inclined to think that starting with the whiteboard (i.e. always doing the simplest thing first, and the next simplest thing second) is the sanest way to try to ease our way up to that line without turning people off from the whole thing.

Which I suppose is another way of saying that the problem should drive the solution rather than having a solution (”web 2.0″) in search of a problem.

Words to live by.

This post was sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee required to write this post. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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In Which I Drink My Own Kool Aid

January 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, projects, Teachable Moments

I don’t have a mug big enough.

It has just been awe-tastic to see the reactions coming from the audiences and the theatrosphere in particular about the three shows I’ve been working on for the past two weeks – Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones, Rivendell’s These Shining Lives, and of course, New Leaf’s production of Touch, all three of which opened to oversold performances this weekend (which of course was helped by the unusually limited seating in all three venues).

All three load-ins came abruptly following that wonderful and restful vacation to Hawaii I mentioned where I reconnected with family, especially my brother Zack, who I haven’t really seen since my wedding. The mix of long plane flights, time change, immersion in family, rest and then sudden lack of sleep and being witness to some earth shattering moments of theater (as well as several pieces of scary and sad health news from too many friends) that has been has kind of left me in a kind of lucid unbloggable dream state.

So now that the first real all-month theater bender of the year is in a lull, it’s time to get back on the blogging horse for what’s sure to be an exciting year. So, in no particular order, here are some updates in brief:

– I’m getting over as many hangups as I can this year. I feel like I’ve already got two down: working with the Wooster Group this week has helped me work through my irrational sense of competition with the NYC theater scene (I’m sure more on that later), and thanks to an internet innovation FROM New Leaf TO Me (that’s a new direction I’m happy to get used to!) I can now be found on Twitter. I’ve been reeeeeally hesitant to explore another web service that is that addictive (I have some co-dependancy problems in my relationship with my computer). But I was convinced, thanks especially to the examples of @travisbedard and what seems like the entire theatrical community of Vancouver, BC, to try to use Twitter as a lightweight fuel to throw on the fire of fast and furious community building. Tweets are now in the sidebar, and I’ve already got some dreams in the oven about how a Twitter Mob of theater lovers in Chicago might be used to amplify that hard-to-find word of mouth early in a show’s run.

– New Leaf has had a freaking killer week. The goal of any low-budget company that desires growth and a successful mission is to be good enough that your audience tells you why they like your work rather than you having to tell the audience why they should like you. Check out what everyone else is saying over at New Leaf, notably Kris Vire‘s Time Out feature on the company itself, and a Don Hall reaction that I will treasure forever. With this weekend’s reviews and audience input, and a run that chugs along through Valentine’s Day (can you imagine that date, Don?), we are armed with the feedback we need to go to some heavy hitters and get them to help keep our little theater chugging for years to come. The good news is: it won’t take much.

– Yeah, that was playwright Toni Press-Coffman commenting on the promo video for Touch in the comments of the last post.

– All that good news aside, my friends are sick, some more than others. I don’t feel right talking about their specific stories of struggle and hospital boredom in this venue, but theater folk are particularly vulnerable to the costs of health care and there’s one in particular that could use your help. Will Schutz, a brilliant but uninsured actor, side project company member and long-time member of the immortal Defiant Theatre, is having a benefit thrown in his honor – organized by playwright and friend Philip Dawkins – as he fights an illness at St. Francis Hospital. I leave you with Philip’s words:

Our friend Will is currently fighting an illness and, per usual, his hospital bills are pilling up way, way, way beyond his means. Chicago bar HYDRATE has very kindly donated their space to the friends of Will (and friends of friends, and strangers!) on Friday, January 23rd between 9 PM and 11 PM in order that we might come together to support our friend and offer up what we can to assist him financially. It’s PAY WHAT YOU CAN, with a suggested donation of $20, though any amount will get you an open bar (well drinks, domestic beer, wine, juice and soda), appetizers and some pretty terrific live entertainment, not to mention new friends. Every penny goes to Will.

If you’re not able to help out financially, no one understands that better than theatre folks and their friends. But we hope you’ll at least consider coming out to show your emotional support in person. And whether you’re able to make it or not, please keep him in your minds and hearts each and every day. He has requested ALL of your prayers and thoughts and well-wishes. God knows, Will is worth every penny you’re able to give, and every ounce of your energy and efforts. And if you don’t know him personally, trust us.

***If you want to donate but can’t come on the 23rd, shoot an e-mail to philipdawkins@gmail.com and we’ll send you information, as soon as we have it, on a forthcoming online payment option.***

Hydrate is at 3458 N Halsted St, directions can be found here. Pass it on.

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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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