Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Getting Things Done on Twitter

February 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

It took me a while to get my sea legs, but the past few days has me settled on a response to Ian’s query on Praxis Theatre.

One of the most clear uses of the Twitter network is to solve problems. Unlike blogging, which is about thinking, exploring, deepening the discussion, my favorite uses of the Twitter format have been about getting quickly unstuck and taking collective action.

In the past 48 hours, the fast-growing and largely international theater Twittmob has been used to discover connections, shared interest, and get some very interesting things accomplished:

Selling / Reusing / Trading old props
Gathering momentum behind national political action
Comparing notes on how to take better headshots
Announcing newly available same-night discount tickets
Organizing and Spreading the word about various details of upcoming International Theater Events
Connecting with like-minded strangers
Making after-show plans quickly and efficiently
Notifying next of kin that you’re narrowly evading the path of a tornado

To someone who’s never used (and often refused to try) Twitter before, one of the most powerful and least understood features of the format is the way a Twitter tribe will use hashtag searches to quickly expand the network of people looking at or working on a Tweet.

Under normal circumstances, if you post:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone know how to fix?”

The only people you’ll be asking are those already following you… all your friends who also don’t know the first thing about plumbing. But make a simple change:

“Oh crap. Bathtub clogged. Anyone have any tips on #plumbing?”

Twitter automatically links your tweet to the #plumbing search page, which is watched by a wider group of interested users. I’ve found those users / power lurkers to be more engaged, more connected, and more able to communicate through social networks than the average blogger, which I suppose is not surprising.

It’s not all made of Awesome on the Twitter, though. You may have felt (as I did about rereading my own early blog posts) that new bloggers go through a phase of self-absorbed perspectives as they begin to immerse themselves in (or distance themselves from) a larger blogging community. Twitter being a much younger technology than blogs, there is sometimes a similar, tiring emergent behavior. New Twitterers (and their eager mentors) spend a great deal of time on Twitter talking about how great Twittering is. Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I type this. Think about the rush of excitement and simultaneous trepidation you felt when you first SMS texted a friend or family member. You’d get seventeen messages from your Aunt Suzy the next day saying “Im Txting U at the Grocry Stor!” Deep breath, and then we move on.

Just as there is a somewhat accepted online etiquette in play in emails, web authoring, blog commenting, and in texting, there will eventually be an accepted etiquette that emerges from the Twitter community. It’s not quite there yet, so it’s a bit like the wild west right now… everyone is looking to stake out a plot of land with their donkey, and everyone goes about it in kind of their own wonky, loud way.

What is different – and exciting – about the Twitter format is the disciplined structure and its ability to focus and discipline conversation. A 140 character limit means it’s harder for a single conversant to suck all the oxygen out of a conversation. That means Twitter offers opportunites that complement the opportunities of blogging or Facebook – but on Twitter it’s going to be easier to be heard, it’s easier to collaborate, it’s easier to filter content, and it’s quicker to get results – especially if you have clear questions and you know who you need to ask.

This post was made possible by a cup of diner joe that I enjoyed thanks to @TravisBedard. He’s an awesome blogger, so you should check out his stuff, and follow him on Twitter. That way you’ll be there to catch the brilliance.

Update: Check out @dramagirl‘s post on generating useful discussions on Twitter.

Update the Second: Steve Greer at read write play has created a great resource, especially for you non-twitterers out there: A blog that sifts through tweets and pulls out things to read in the #theatre feed!

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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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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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Multi-track Mixing with QLab and Audacity

January 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Tools

I was telling someone the other day that the goal of modern DIY design in theater is to get to the point where you can use design as agilely as an instrument. The flexibility, immediacy, and coordination one can throw at your work multiplies when you can reshape and work with your materials live in the space, reacting to other designers and performers who are playing with their instruments – whether it’s their voice, their bodies, their sets, their lighting, or their literal instruments.

So when a technique comes around that increases my own responsiveness as a designer, I get pretty stoked.

It’s buried in the wiki, but this explanation of creating multi-track WAVEX files in Audacity 1.3 [which is free] unlocks an amazing feature of the sound playback program qLab [which is free, and poised to release a hotly-anticipated version 2.0]. Bookmark it, and then let’s play, shall we?

Let’s take a real world example, like my recent collaboration with composer Stephanie Sherline on Rivendell’s production of These Shining Lives. We composed and arranged a number of themes for the show, including this one, which we called Music Box:

 

So, a couple of instrumental ideas here, all built using Logic Pro:

A clock metronome
A plucked harp
A rolling harp baseline
A clock counterpoint
A low bass drum heartbeat
A ratchet crank
A reverbed string section

Now Logic can easily bounce all these ideas as a simple stereo file and I could play that music through the main speakers just fine. But I’m gonna do something a little more magical.

I bounced each instrument separately as mono files, and imported them into a single Audacity file:

From there, we set Audacity to export with the multi-track WAVEX format. You can choose, when exporting, to mix certain tracks together or keep them distinct:

This creates a multi-track interleaved audio file, so as the computer plays back the file, all instruments will stay in time with each other. In many audio playback systems, multi-track mixing is achieved by playing several stereo files over each other, but this method can result in a certain amount of tempo drift as one file plays faster than another over a period of several minutes. Annoyance: avoided.

Now we drag this multi-track file into our qLab project, and edit the cue’s volume settings. We see a grid of crosspoints (also known as an audio matrix). Each row is one of our multi-track instruments, and each column is a speaker in the space.

Can you see what’s going on here? Each individual instrument can now be routed to its own speaker or combination of speakers to create a different audio shape, or image. So while our metronome clock tick can come quietly from the radio, our reverbed string section can waft lightly through the window. Or our main harp melodies can play against each other right to left through the main speaker system. It’s like the orchestra playing this music is hidden in different spots in the space, but they are still playing the music together.

In addition, I have added an eighth track, which is a reverbed version of the counterpoint clock tick. By adding in a variable amount of reverbed or “wet” signal to the “dry,” unaffected sound, you can make the overall tone of the music feel more distant or more present, more dreamy or more real.

All this can be done on the fly, as the director restages a scene or you see how the music times out with stage action.

With qLab’s fades, I can have individual instruments fade in or rest over time, or even appear to move around the space. A large, momentous reverbed clock tick coming through the mains can fade to become an ambient naturalistic clock tick coming through the radio. Or, I can adjust the masters for each row to use just one or two instruments in combination, varying the motif a bit. Here’s a version with just the Harp and the Ratchet:

 
or a pensive, waiting underscore:

 

That’s a lot of in-the moment flexibility, all with the same file.

These Shining Lives is now running at the Raven Theatre in Chicago through January 31st. More information at rivendelltheatre.net.

This post was sponsored by my good pal Andrew Wilder of LuxiousLabs, who bought me a medium Dunkin Donuts hazelnut with cream only. My favorite. You should check out his iPhone app, HelloCards, which allow you to send personalized greeting cards – yes, with pictures – from your iPhone. Many of the designs for HelloCards were created by my wife, Marni. (who is to Andrew as awesome is to also awesome.)

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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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Theater Media Roundup: Theaterforte is Back

December 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

A quick and dirty Theater Media Roundup for you today: Because this one is simple, and good.

Long-time foundation of the American theatrosphere (with one of the most prolific sidebars I’ve ever seen) Matt Slaybaugh of Theaterforte took some time off of blogging this year and recently returned with this video:

This is an ideal shoot-from-the-hip use of media to communicate an idea, and here’s why:

1) It’s edited. Do not. Ever. Say. The Word. Ummmmmmmmmmm. On Camera. You’d edit your blog post or play, right? Edit your video / podcast / smellcast. What’s bizarre to me is that many people fall into a habit of thinking of video & media editing as a way of *over-complicating* the content of the video. Editing a video is functionally no different from editing an essay, play, book, what have you. It’s just the art of focusing your delivery mechanism to your communication. I cannot stress this enough: The choice we have when we tap technology to serve our message or story isn’t as simple as “Ornamentation or Nothing at all. If you’d like a great example of how effective low-budget and low-time-investment simple spliced transitions can be, see also Ze Frank. I do like how Slay doesn’t overedit here – he lets us in on the energy and humility of generating honest and personal thought, without letting us get completely mired in his moments of unrehearsed distraction.

2) I know what Slay sounds like now. I cannot stress how important this is to an online collaborative culture. The big difference between the page and the stage is that you have to make choices about your voice, the words (and therefore ideas) that you stress, the intention of the words that you’re saying. Same is true of blogs versus online video. The web strips our emotions and irony out of our words, unless we’re consciously adding them back in, like this: Bam! Not so with video. Slay communicates his sincerity and excitement for the new direction of his theater company without fear of misinterpretation.

3) Slay stays honest in video. A little bit like staying crispy in milk. When you’re able to communicate honestly in one media, that’s no indication that you’ll be able to communicate in another media. This was the big leap I had to make when I started this blog: I felt like I could communicate honestly through sound, but I still struggle every post with keeping my writer’s voice honest, because it’s not a muscle I exercise as much.

The answer is often: simplify, and return to doing what you do, even if you do it in a new format.

4) Form follows function. The idea: The internet is an important tool for generating discussion and collaboration. The form: let’s remove the normal misinterpretation of tone and intention that comes with most blog posts and put a human face to things. That’s why this is a better video post than a blog post.

I think this struggle with honesty where most theaters are at right now with their New Media experiments – in both attempts at marketing and attempts at incorporating video projections into shows – it’s about learning to be honest through a new method of communication. Clearly, I still need to learn that blog posts should be short. It’s frustrating, and there are failures. It’s very surprising to me that there is so little patience in the theater community for this process, that there’s this idea out there that adding video to a theater’s website or incorporating technology into a play’s design is either universally pointless or necessarily detrimental to the work itself. Of course, we have to concede that theaters hurt themselves when they use new media in ways that are inappropriate to their identities as artisans, and that happens when they don’t take the time to develop and incorporate the technology all the way. But when a theater’s use of new media does match their aesthetic closely, sparks fly. It’s like what happens when a performer learns to really project for the first time. The voice begins to soar around the space, jettisoned from their diaphragm, and suddenly, a simple technique has amplified the performer’s power and presence. Do you need it? No. Does it help? If appropriate, hells yes.

As promised, I’ve written a little something on the process for Touch that will be showing up on the New Leaf Theatre blog today. It includes a little narrative peak into my sound design process for this show. Hope you like it – and thanks for all the words of excitement for the show, you local gang you. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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Curb Your Hysteria

November 26, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments


It’s amazing how fast the vibrating glow of hopefulness that was the post-election Chicago Theater scene chilled to a blind panic once the first shows started to shutter their doors. I miss that hopefulness. Miss it desperately, actually, because it seems that it wasn’t given a chance to unpack. I miss the stiff-upper-lipped approach that Barack proposed in his acceptance speech – “we have a lot of hard work to do, and we’re gonna get this done.”

In the last week, I have received about four e-blasts from medium-sized, and highly respected theater companies in town asking for emergency donations – in which they either explicitly or implicitly imply that they’re about to shutter their doors. Things are certainly bad, but as the communications of impending disaster started piling up, I couldn’t help but wonder… With people losing their jobs (including theater jobs), houses, ability to feed themselves, and get through one of the leanest holiday seasons of our lifetimes, is funding theater in the same ways a priority for the communities that we are part of this month?

So that’s why I think the Zeitgeist today belongs to the clear-headed Dan Granata.

You can’t spend any amount of time starting into the heart of darkness that is our aggregated numbers [on the Chicago Theater Database] and not seriously rethink one’s personal ambitions for a life in Chicago theatre and our collective goals for the community as a whole. So if there’s a “secret agenda” to the CTDB, it’s this: to help us move into the Fourth Age of Chicago Theatre….

The storefront movement has thus far failed to become a bonafide transformational model because we have no concept of what defines us beyond “small” and “underfunded.” We have no idea what success looks like for Storefront Theatre that doesn’t involve becoming a Regional Theatre (or, much less likely, a Commercial Theatre). And if you don’t know who you are or what you are trying to achieve, you can’t make the decisions that will take you there.

Dan’s not the only one rethinking the trajectory of theater this week and best how to come together to offer something productive for our patrons. Ye Olde Hat Tippe to Butts in Seats for taking a comment of mine and running with it:

One observation I wanted to make that no one really preempted was that despite how broken (and increasingly going broke) the existing system of funding the arts is, it seems to me that since about the beginning of the 20th century the arts world has been given the breathing space to discuss these issues on a large scale.

This may be news to those actors, musicians and visual artists who are waiting tables, watching kids and working as customer service reps at insurance companies for as their first through third jobs in order to support their creative activities.

And offline, I got a wonderfully thoughtful email from someone who saw my disappointment (actually, some random patrons’ disappointment) with Dirty Dancing and other big-box spectaculars running in Chicago as a big old missed opportunity:

The theater has become an attraction for its own sake. What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step… But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners.

Update: Benedict Nelson, the commentor above, is an excellent blogger from Chicago who I was previously unaware of! For Shame, Nick of the past! Check out his blog, The@re and his thoughts on why to defend the revival and what classics offer for the content of theater today.

Given the level of panic in the American bloodstream right now, I don’t know if this is an effective time to forward a bill to your patrons – instead, it’s is a time to reconnect people with what they get from the theater. Let’s break it down: we’ve had hundreds of productive posts about what exactly that is on the theatrosphere in preparation for moments like this. If the human landscape of an economic meltdown is depression, loneliness, panic, hopelessness, and hysteria, Theater offers the power and agility of communal imagination that it wields is a powerful tool to fight those forces of societal atrophy, and we are people who know how to create moments that jolt people out of their normal thinking habits and see things from a new angle.

Let’s face it: Theater artists are the BEST at being poor and continuing to function.

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

We need make the theater a warm place to be again, rather than some additional source of guilt and financial drain. We need to support the efforts of each other, and identify and fill the needs of our patrons. We are people who know how to throw the best parties in dark times (post-Weimar Germany, anyone?), because we focus our energies and resources on the creativity of the party rather than the expensive trappings of the party.

And if you can’t afford to produce? Re-concept your show and relocate until you CAN afford to produce. You can do it. I believe in you.

My personal guru, Lynn Baber, says to our students at Cherubs every year: “You have to give focus to get focus.” So with that in mind, if you’re reading this and wondering, where do I donate my spare bucks before the holidays?: Don’t donate to my theater right now. We’ll survive, and we’ll still have another great show for you to enjoy in January, because we’ve been very careful with our money and our debt load, and we know how to make a pretty amazingly good soup out of leftovers.

But speaking of soup, please do put your money somewhere where it will do some good for people in your neighborhood this holiday season. More people than normal are hungry, and facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, and we can help them get back in touch. Invite your theater family over for thanksgiving dinner. Hunger makes people hysterical, and makes social problems much harder to solve. It’s time to take a breath, be thankful that we have enough, and help solve these problems with society through art in a lasting way.

While you ponder, let’s all stop being so serious already (I have a big problem with this). That’s why I hope to see something different this holiday season in between shows – WNEP’s SCHMUCK DIE HALLEN or the Neo-Futurists’ A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol.

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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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