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Context

June 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

First of all, thanks to Jacob Coakley at Stage Directions magazine for the editor’s note that mentioned my Chicken of the VNC post – and more importantly the idea that sharing our skills and acquired knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor for us all. For any of you just joining me now from Stage Directions, check out more of my sound design goodie bag, and feel free to ask questions.

So Context. As in: the context that we operate from when we create artistic work or artistic commentary. And the context of others, and the context of others and the context of others. Thank you, THANK you, gentlemen, for sharing your context.

It is so helpful and enlightening to understand the background of an artist. Half the show for me is leafing through the program and remembering the last show or conversation I had with an artist and understanding the work that I see in the terms of what they’re working on and exploring now. Because of this habit, I’m a true fan in the Long Tail sense of the word of many actors and designers in Chicago, and I’ve caught some moments that I’ve carried as utterly magical that I think most audience members don’t normally appreciate – because they’re moments of improvised learning. By understanding the background of an artist, you can catch the moments when the artist suddenly “gets it,” and pushes past their previous limits. I don’t really enjoy divorcing the work from the artist. That feels like amputation to me.

I had a great first face-to-face conversation with Paul Rekk at the Jeffs last night, which I hope was helpful for both of us. His post a few days ago helped clarify for me the reasons for our divergence of perspective – we come from radically different backgrounds.

I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. The status quo there – the one I felt compelled to rebel against as a teenager – was one of alternating impotent liberal wishful thinking and cutting 90’s progressive cynicism. Amherst, in case you’ve never heard of it, is famous for its five colleges in close proximity that you may have sensed recently in the shadows of Scooby Doo reruns, its horribly authentic yet utterly disconnected Belle, and the unfortunate human rights record of its namesake, the Honorable Lord Jeffrey. Most alarming to my adolescent brain was that most of the folks in this extremely politically active town ignored the basic precept of fellow Masshole Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

In Amherst, all politics is International. The town is overrun by politically astute 18 – 24 year olds all running away from the demands of their families for the first time in their lives – and the professors and administrators that make a comfortable living off them. The local community might as well not exist as far as the colleges are concerned. I grew up a townie in a school filled with the sons and daughters of professors – which means I was on the empty pockets side of intellectual gentrification. I wrote my early plays about the old men in greasy spoon diners, trading the real wisdom of the world as the world sped up around them. The encroaching property taxes that made retirees leave their hometown after decades even went to prop up that old museum piece of New England democracy – our “functioning” public town meeting that ‘led’ our town through a process that resembled permanent filibuster, while the real power was held by a permanently appointed Town Manager. Imagine a City Mayor appointed for life! Oh wait… And most folks my age were too busy making a show of rejecting the idea of establishment and re-rejecting the disestablishment. So they’re all far too busy to engage with the actual establishment – they wanted nothing to do with local reform or local community. They would rather buy the Che Guevara t-shirts if you know what I mean.

And so of course I ran from my community in the end. I moved to Dallas and saw the most well-SUV’d part of Texas mobilize for the War on Terror by purchasing ever larger and more reckless tanks of gasoline while embracing a skin-deep caricature of patriotism. I watched my family with my electric binoculars fight to stay united, grow up, and not lose their homes to the social will of my hometown. And I found another family, an urban family, and a place where I felt useful. And that’s when I stopped my adolescent self-pity in the face of my own terror and self-recognition, and saw the poison I drank in each lost connection.

This is my context: I sense a deep hypocrisy in the cynicsm of willful disconnection and disassociation with those connections that exist between us. I deeply value progress, but the advocates of progress became in the nineties an incredulous kind of lazy and entitled. And then we saw the consequences of that half-assed progressivism – as part of the country claimed we never had any values at all and took over, running our values into the mud.

I think that’s turning around now, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our generation isn’t going to face an onslaught of responsibility now that we’re taking over the wheel, institution by institution. I feel a call to service these days – to not repeat the mistakes of the village that raised me and taught me – how they forgot their roots and their neighbors in their push for progress – while also upholding the values of that village in the face of eroding American values and eroding American justice that we all feel. When I first moved to Chicago, I think I wanted to escape from the erosion of the places of my past – but even here, I don’t feel safe from eroding values and eroding justice. I don’t feel safe from complicity in the many injustices of this country and this world simply because I’m in a place where people share my values.

We’ve all felt that kind of powerlessness in our lives – the question of “why do this at all? I’m not arguing a legal case that will affect a life. I’m not fighting hunger or disease or poverty. I’m not relieving disaster victims.” Well, to disengage from that responsibility simply because we are powerless to fix large social problems as individuals is not a valid solution to me. In my context, the way to make an impact on the world is to practice connection. It is to practice and value detail in craft, to create quality in all our lives. This practice fights that sensation of powerlessness in a human-sized way, to create a real, vital community through our collective creative work and our ability to listen to each other. Communities are built individual by individual, and piece by piece – and it’s communities that have the ability to create change.

Death, decay, and destruction take care of themselves. Growth requires food, water, and a big bright light shining on it. In my context, if you’re not re-building, you’re damaging.

In my context, you can choose to create and support the craft of your peers and neighbors on a sustainable scale, or you can tear down and destroy – models, ideas, and work – and leave an empty shell of a wasteland. That’s not a clean slate as far as I’m concerned… It’s a world where positive energy was stopped and paved over by negative energy into a place where it couldn’t grow anymore.

And is the crux of some of our online arguments, no? In other contexts, harsh criticism is valued as pure truth. It’s valued that way because the folks who have that perspective have been witness to comfortable lies for too long. They see how cooperative initiatives can be co-opted by self-promotion, the PR game, and profit. In their context, the ultimate sin is self-censorship and watered-down art in the name of decorum.

I know that this hope for community and mutual support – not dishonesty, support – comes off as wishful thinking in our context-less world of the internet. Here in Chicago, where my Yankee roots don’t share a lot of the same background as the midwesterners who have had to tear down some actual injustice and external ignorant destructive forces to get to play in this White City, my all-for-one-and-one-for-all message comes up against some legitimately divergent viewpoints. Which is fair, and I’m eager to learn to be at better peace with it.

My context informs my work: The theater I have chosen to call my home has a very clear mission that speaks to these beliefs: we “create intimate, animate theatrical experiences which renew both artist and audience.” I also consider teaching and opening doors for younger artists or artists without my experience to be a cornerstone of my life’s work. Teaching for me isn’t about giving the right answer, it’s about asking the right question. It is about testing ideas, but also understanding them, supporting them and letting them thrive on their own terms.

So deliberation in the theatrosphere is not about finding the penultimate truth for me, because I don’t believe in those lofty ideas on a hill. I believe in perspective. I believe in seeing each other’s work, and seeing each other work. I believe in growing within and embracing our own context.

All politics is local.

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Promoters Ordinance Tabled: Chicago Theater Safe from Bureaucracy Forever

May 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

An update comes in from Ben at the League regarding the Promoters Ordinance, essentially, call off the attack dogs:

The vote is off tomorrow. Thanks largely to a public outcry, the committee that released the legislation decided to table the vote. To, you know, free up the phone lines again.

The League wants to clear the air a bit, since they did some preliminary work to prevent damage to theaters – apparently most theaters are meant to be exempt from the legislation even though the language itself is confusing. That’s information that certainly got lost in the uproar.

It’s true, most theaters are not affected – many fewer than I previously had thought. But some folks operating on the far fringes of theater may still potentially be affected if the legislation comes up for vote again – if not by the legislation itself than by the vaguaries involved in enforcing the law.

First, some facts from the League:

Who is not required to obtain a Promoters License?

  • Print and broadcast media advertising an event.
  • Off-premise ticket sellers dealing in advance admission to an event.
  • Performers or agents of performers at an event.
  • PPA licensees and employees promoting their own event.
  • Employees of a licensed event promoter acting within the scope of employment.
  • Not-for-profit corporations promoting their own event.
  • Persons who exclusively promote events at PPA-venues or performing arts venues with (i) fixed seating only, if all patrons are seated in such fixed seats; or (ii) a fixed seating capacity of 500 or more persons.
  • What is an Event Promoter?

  • An Event Promoter is a person inside or outside the City of Chicago who engages in the business of promoting amusements or events within the City of Chicago and is directly or indirectly compensated for providing that service. The ordinance requires Event Promoters to obtain a license and provides guidelines to operate responsibly in the City to ensure the health, safety and welfare of people attending these events.
  • I think this information is enough to relax the tension a bit. It means that venues with convoluted situations are exempt because they are performing the work themselves – I’m thinking of Gorilla Tango and the Side Project, who are PPA licenced themselves but they host for-meagre-profit and unincorporated artists. This really wasn’t all that clear from the legislation itself, and I think the council didn’t help the situation by fast tracking the legislation without educating the public effectively. Not surprising, I suppose, but also not acceptable.

    It’s critical for a young or brand new company to be able to use the venue’s promotion mechanism or even name recognition, or the culture at these institutions will stifle. Without the ability to put on a show with a minimum of marketing and liability infrastructure, Chicago’s annual crop of new theaters would dry up, and the scene itself would eventually be consolidated into larger and mid-sized theaters. That might be fine for some who tire of yet another new company who doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it means that the scene would run out of the fuel that comes from new artists, new perspectives, and experimentation by fire.

    So while I think the fear is gone, it’s not enough to keep me from a suspicious lookout for the next time this ordinance hits the floor. I’m certainly glad the League is looking out for us, but this is not the first time that the memory of the E2 disaster has generated half-baked political policy that threatened to depth charge some of the most important breeding grounds of theatrical and cultural work in the city. It’s not the law itself I’m worried about – it’s the fact that the venue licensing process is already so convoluted and subject to interpretation that adding another variable is all that is required to damage work that doesn’t deserve to be damaged by the municipal government.

    When this kind of situation goes down, I’m reminded of how important it is to understand the licensing laws of Chicago – including how to navigate the on-the ground woodginess that occurs as the law is interpreted by enforcers and community leaders who have different understandings of laws that aren’t written clearly. And maybe this should tell us that it’s in our best interest to be proactive in setting a political agenda for ourselves. We can write – and propose to the City Council – better legislation ourselves that achieves the city’s fear-of-liability-driven goals of safety and accountability without sacrificing the frugality and creative flexibility that makes our community tick. An ounce of prevention prevents a pound of cure – and our surgeon just tried to use a battleaxe to remove the unsightly mole of irresponsible promoters and unsafe venues.

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    Connecting with the Audience

    April 27, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

    Two experiments that can help us understand how big this task really is:

    1.) Internationally reknowned playboy and violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played a trick on commuters with the Washington Post. He dressed in clothes that might be described as Wrigleyville chic and played six challenging and downright magical classical pieces “like a God” on a multi-million dollar Stradivari – all this across from an Au Bon Pain.

    Only a few brave souls so much as slowed to listen, and there was uncomfortable shuffling in lieu of applause. (natch)

    2.) Building Stage is developing their next production, Master Builder, publicly on their blog. The goal:

    We really wanted to use the blog as part of our process, something that was integral to the creation of the work, as well as a tool for opening up our process to our growing family (company members, collaborators, audience) to witness, comment on, and influence.

    After starting two weeks ago, the production team has 10 posts on a broad range of production topics, including Sound Design, Props shopping, costumes, themes and directorial concept, and of course, marketing. Comments so far from folks uninvolved with the project: 1 – an interior decorator. (that’s a good start for two weeks on a blog, no?)

    We’ve been chatting at New Leaf about audience experience for a while and what we’d ideally like an audience member to take away from each experience with us and our work. Over the years we’ve cooked up a number of different methods for teasing those experiences out of them. In marketing speak, this has been about changing the positioning for our theater – getting our audience to shake up their expectations of a storefront theater by experiencing us in different and unexpected contexts – at work on our blog, on their iPods – and also about integrating each world of play into a greater “world of the company” via our mission.

    Theaters actually experiment with the audience/artist relationship a lot in the hopes of drumming up new interest – but the audience is uncomfortable with unexpected contexts for our work, and often gets confused, scared off, or dismissive of innovative tactics. Audiences are smart, and they are universally agile when it comes to protecting their time and interest from the possibility of public performance by disengaging from a pitch, request, or an uninvited interaction in under 15 seconds. That’s the amount of time you have to close the deal, so if you spend it trying to close the deal, you’ve already lost.

    The calculated smell of popcorn works wonders for movie theaters, for example…

    This all leads me to think that saying that we “experiment” with audience interaction isn’t really accurate – this ain’t no lab we’re running. We downright gamble with pet ideas that we think will work, and are usually less than scientific about using data and controls alongside with real innovation. If we somehow learned the discipline of statistics and combined it carefully with our street performer instincts that can reengage a wary patron, we might actually take away firm knowledge and show the world something it hasn’t seen before. That ultimately means change that is slower than theaters want, but faster than marketing professionals, boards, and other suits think is possible.

    I think we can all agree: it’s nice to have that great music shared on the way to work, isn’t it? Maybe that should be a more regular part of our lives.

    Oh, and to the Building Stage, who is creating a fairy tale world for the Master Builder out of elements found at IKEA, may I suggest this lamp to be used as a practical, it’s worked wonders for us in the past:

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    Re-Alignment

    April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

    It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

    Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

    The Side Project Annual Retreat
    If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

    Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

    It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

    In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

    The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

    Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

    We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

    For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

    Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

    There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

    And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

    I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

    And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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    The Business of Changing People’s Lives

    March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

    I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

    Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

    It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

    The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

    We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

    In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

    Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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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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    White Hot Grease Fires of Pure Entertainment

    February 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

    I learned something today. Definitively.

    It’s not about money. It’s about energy.

    Don’s right… we can’t succeed if we simply copy the corporate model. The corporate model is hideously inefficient, and it wears theaters out because corporations can solve problems with new hires. We will never have that luxury, and that means that corporate strategy can’t just be bandaided in place into an arts organization.

    Adam’s right … ignoring the lessons and practices of the corporate model is foolhardy. They’ve solved a lot of problems and generated nearly all of the infrastructure we rely upon to both do business and create art, and every time we look at the non-profit or corporate model we can cull something incredibly valuable from it, even if we’re creating an entirely new model.

    What we need to do is innovate with the current structure as a starting point, and commit to that innovation. We need to emulate, not copy, the successful practices of corporate America or the great LORT successes of the past, use our very very limited energy and action wisely and dare I say cooperatively, and where we can help America and Chicago rediscover itself is in the quality, honesty, and vitality of our product: Ideas, story, and humanity.

    It pays off. Quick.

    Tonight, Cindy Crescenzo (who I’ve never met or talked to before this evening’s Theater Dish event on podcasting sponsored by the League of Chicago Theaters) used New Leaf’s blog and podcast as an example of what to do and how to talk about yourself using new media when you have almost no resources.

    Marsha and I just about had a heart attack. I have the numbers to prove it: Cindy is one of ELEVEN people who have downloaded the podcast to date, and it’s made that big of an impact in two weeks. Because it is something new, and something different. And yet, it’s not – it’s simply having a more honest conversation in a forum where people aren’t yet comfortable having an honest conversation.

    Thanks for the shout out, Cindy, and for those of you just tuning in: Let’s get started.

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    Laughing Back

    February 08, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

    Action Figure SaysScott Walters has an interesting call-to-action post today which is an offshoot of one of the most promising sustainable and growth-ready models for a theater of the future: The Tribe.

    The basic ideas at work here are similar to that of the ensemble, but with an added commitment to interpersonal development.

    Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre’s members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers…

    … I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group…

    … But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn’t take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!”

    Here’s what my friends feel about working in corporate America: it’s empty. Another place to go where you try to avoid the people next to you. I think there’s a growing consensus not only in the arts or in the progressive movement that the corporate model is really only good at generating more income, it does very little else to raise the quality of life. To some individuals, the choice to join corporate america is to skewer one’s raw creativity and risk and exchange them for security. This is a choice that we are expected to make by our society, by our families, for our own good, and to become a professional artist isn’t necessarily frowned upon – it’s just odd behavior, like going off the grid. Just as damaging is the knee-jerk and insecure response from eternal bohemians – that joining that rat race equates to selling out.

    I think Scott is opening a door here that leads to a third possibility, a possibility of building relationships that reaffirm the artists value to society. For the record, this is a value system held by Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls. When corporations run artistic organizations, the result has typically been homogenization and nationalization of product. Broadway is only a small reflection of that… take a look at the dregs on TV after the WGA strike to see what a mess the profit model has done to that industry. Or music sales. The incentive is to create the next big thing for the whole country, and the models to create work that is successful in those terms, certainly

    The fact is, Corporate America needs artists to help them feel/seem/be human again, and the country is ready to believe that message. The time has come for us to empower ourselves and become artistic consultants. It’s not selling out when you call the shots.

    One such artistic entrepreneur is Sandy Marshall of the highly successful comedy troupe Schadenfreude. Sandy has really effectively retooled his comedy writing skills to an equally challenging purpose: tongue-in-cheek brand identity, copywriting, and web design. And I’m happy to disclose, I’m working with Sandy on some of his projects for some of the best pay I’ve ever experienced (more on that – and why I’m doing it – later. But all these relationship disclosures are becoming increasingly comical in a community so teensy that one can’t trip over a flying monkey without first disclosing a professional relationship).

    To get a sense of Sandy’s approach to his corporate work, check out his video spot for camera-shy mortgage broker Dean Vlamis:

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    No one in corporate america would think to sell themselves like this without artistic input. And yet, I think we can agree – it’s probably the most effective spot for a mortgage broker that you’ll ever see. That’s what we can sell to them – the strange and unintuitive ways that one can work an audience to build honesty and trust. We can sell them subtext. And we can also be proud of that profitable work, and bring the skills we learn in that endeavor back to our primary artistic endeavors… the ones that challenge us as artists. While we’re there, I’m sure we can pick up a couple donors and some young eager temps to boot. Go to the people, and bring the theater to them.

    It’s important to mention here that Sandy continues to have a primary commitment to his work and his name whether he’s working on Schadenfreude or with a corporate client. If a corporate client begins to sway him from his mission as an artist or as a consultant (or as a human being), he lets them go, or more likely doesn’t take them on in the first place. Did you know you can do that? You can Fire a Client. Money doesn’t have to dictate everything, your priorities do. Selling out is a choice that we make for ourselves – and it’s a choice we can take back.

    As far as my own involvement with Sandy’s company as a freelance web programmer, that role developed out of a set of skills that I had accrued and developed slowly and naturally in my regular theater work. I started out as a young and eager-to-please sound programmer, which gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how to tell a computer what to do. When New Leaf launched a website for the first time five years ago, I learned Cascading Style Sheets to help maintain the site. When The Side Project needed a website capable of lighting-fast and often weekly updates, I needed a simple system to do this in order to save time, so I learned dynamic web programming using PHP and mySQL, which pulls data from a central database to display on multiple pages. When I found out that my co-worker Patrick ran the website that had gotten me dozens of jobs across the country off of an archaic and glorified word processor document (hint: rhymes with “BluntPage”) that caused him about 10 hours of stress a week, I learned a lot more about PHP in order to pay him back for the opportunities and automate the job listing process.

    All this is to demonstrate: We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. In my theater company, we have a history of people with day jobs in the branding, marketing, positioning fields, and so for a theater of our age, we’re (surprise!) pretty sophisticated branding thinkers. We got there by literally bringing home the books from the office. If you’re bored at work, use that time to use your work to benefit the life you actually care about. Or identify skills you wish you had and hit the library. Challenge yourself in manageable steps and mini-projects to build your power moves. If you’re capable of producing a show, you’re capable of working wonders for a corporate client who will pay you handsomely for that effort and fund your next project. If we accrue and develop skills that we need in theater (or in the corporate world), they’re not just valuable for theater… they’re valuable everywhere, and we can use that value to get what we want: a society that understands that art makes our lives better. Or fame and fortune, if that’s your bag.

    Oh, and don’t forget: If you’re a non-profit, you’re still a non-profit. Start a personal LLC and become a donor to your company.

    Doing corporate work can mean doing corporate work on your own terms. That’s how we keep ourselves from losing ourselves. It’s a new world out there, and it needs leaders who understand the human value that the arts generate, and they ain’t gonna come from the old leadership pools.

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