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In Defense of Stage Managers

June 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Anne Nicholson Weber, in the podcast interview I posted a few weeks ago, asked the question: “What exactly does a stage manager do?” Josh, Ray and I kind of looked at each other in that moment, thinking: “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”

At the non-equity Jeffs last night (yeah, Jared), I got to thinking (again) about something I think is missing these theatrical award ceremonies – Jeff, Tony, the whole lot of ’em.

How in the WORLD can we structure an award for best stage management?

Because when they do their job right, they are the the glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context. With patrons, house emergencies, prop emergencies, scenic emergiencies, costume emergencies, skipped pages…

Sure, it’s a tricky award to evaluate – there are enough pitfalls in evaluating design (which still can be flashy, brash and loud enough to draw attention to itself), let alone a role that is quieter if not more central to the functioning of theatrical performance. The very definition of good stage management is when it just works, seamlessly, brilliantly, and without leaving any trace of emotional, procedural or intellectual tint on the designs, direction or performances. That is a no-mistake tough job.

You *can* tell when there’s a ninja SM calling a show back there in the booth – usually when a mind-bendingly complex sequence of events is timed so perfectly either very early (first time!) or very late in the run (ready for closing!) that it still leaves you breathless.
I’m talking about you, Ellen, Amanda, Joe, Tim, Kim, Jaime, Alden and so many, many more.

If awarding committees can see beyond the footlights enough to give awards to directors, musical directors, lighting designers, or musical sound designers (the mad science/art of seamless vocal amplification that again, ideally doesn’t draw attention to itself – a fact that led to it not being included in the Tony Awards until last year, 30 years after the beginnings of theatrical sound design), certainly there is some way to evaluate and recognize these foundational artists who through their creative management support the entire team.

So here’s the question: If you had to write the rules, how would you choose to evaluate a stage manager’s performance?

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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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Schedule C for the Theater Freelancer

April 13, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, productivity, Tools

If your income stream is anything like mine, you kind of feel a one-two punch at the end of the tax year for simply being an artist in America (though clearly Canadians also have issues). Most theaters don’t employ artists on a full-time basis, nor do they pay a lot. Assembling an artistic income means 1099 / Independent Contractor income and that means no matter how little money you make and how close to the real, scary poverty line you are: you’re in business for yourself now. You get to file a schedule C and pay self-employment tax. The punch that you feel is the realization: I already GAVE my financial stability to theater… now I have to give again because it actually paid me less money than it took for me to survive?

Ah, doesn’t whining make you feel better? I recommend a good whining / coffee / bite your pillow break every half hour or so while doing your taxes.

Before I get started: This is not meant as a catch-all tax guide, nor should you use it as one. I am not a CPA. I am also writing this in 2009, and the tax law changes every year, sometimes drastically. Think of this as a catalyst for your own personal investigation and deeper understanding of how the tax code applies to freelancing artists. If you’re looking for an artist-friendly CPA, I highly recommend getting one locally via word of mouth. I’m also a little “too little too late” for this year, so hopefully this will help serve as a guide to help you capture the information you’ll need for next year. Those of you in the Chicago still in need of help area could also file an extension ASAP (most CPAs are only taking extension clients right now) and look to @rockstarcpa, aka Martin Kamenski of Collaboraction Theatre.

So the trick to Schedule C is the claiming of deductions – expenses – that legitimately offset your as-yet untaxed income and prove to the IRS (in terms it understands) that no, I’m eating Top Ramen for crying out loud, I didn’t turn a $14k profit this year that you now need to tax me for. You’ve accrued more expenses than you may think in the pursuit of your artistic work, which is why it may feel so ridiculous that you’re being taxed on this income. After all, the money is gone now, right?

Hopefully not, actually. In preparation for your next year, make sure you find some way of imposing a rule on yourself that you squirrel away a certain amount of each check into savings over the course of the year or pay estimated taxes at the end of each quarter. The first way, you keep the interest, the second way, the government does. Either way, you’re talking about a couple packets of Starbucks VIA, so do what makes you happy. It makes the tax crunch a lot less stressful to deal with when you’re only worried about filing paperwork rather than hustling for scratch to pay the tax man.

So about those deductions. I use my debit card almost all year long rather than cash. It’s really annoying for splitting the bill, but I find that getting a receipt for everything is both a good budget reminder and takes care of my paperwork for me. I sort and file these receipts all year long into deductible and non-deductible expenses in a little coupon file like this one, one for each year. Best part about the folder? It’s a deductible office expense. I also keep track of my budgets, expenses, and anticipated freelancing income using the cheap and pretty useful online software Buxfer. It’s easy to tag transactions into pre-sorted deduction categories, and balance my checkbook from my iPhone. The upshot of all of this: You’re going for a stress-free tax season. That’s much easier to achieve when you do all the sorting and filing work in little easy chunks all year long rather than in one chaotic panicked mess on April 14th.

These are the deductions I track:

Business Meals. Not every meal, but every meal that I took because I was discussing work related to my 1099 income: Production meetings, design meetings, interviews, planning sessions, all that jazz. It always ends up being a bigger percentage of my meals than I expect. You only get to deduct 50% of these expenses, but the collaborative art of theater often makes us go out together to chat when we could be bringing a sandwich from home, so it’s a cost of doing business. I always write who I was meeting with and what we discussed on the receipt or in a Buxfer note, because you can be sure I won’t remember later.

Office Supplies
For a designer, this can be a pretty big expense. For me, it’s CD-Rs and play binders, for some it’s model building or drafting supplies. In the paperless age, however, it’s nothing compared to the allure of…

Resume and Job-seeking expenses
Oh yeah. Headshots. Portfolio expenses. Kinkos. Anything you spent looking for work, and especially for you performers, that’s a lot a lot a lot of potential deductions.

Section 179 Depreciation
This one is cleverly titled to be as confusing as possible, but it roughly translates as a deduction for the full cost of medium-term assets (Computers, hard drives, PDAs, Software) that you bought this year. Since these assets often die after 3-5 years, Section 179 allows you to depreciate and thereby deduct the entire portion of these assets that you use for business in a single year. Needless to say, if you own a computer or hard drive or seven that you use exclusively for business, as I do, this is the golden child of deductions.

Business Travel
If you’re lucky enough to get regional or even national work, you probably don’t need my advice. However, this can be a useful deduction. Taxis, Hotels, Travel Meals, Parking Fees and Plane Fare are all deductible in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Track ’em.

Business Mileage & Use of a Personal Car
No, you can’t deduct your regular commute, so get that out of your head. But if you’re freelancing and go to a different location to work, that is deductible, as are Taxi fares and Parking costs that you incur for freelance business purposes. (For instance, my “day job” source of W-2 income is downtown, so when I park there as part of my regular commute, I do NOT get to deduct those expenses, but if I travel to Wisconsin to design a show, I DO.) What the IRS would like here in your records is odometer readings all year long, which I find to be an unsustainable practice when you use your car for both personal and business use. The key here is specific written records. I find myself keeping a really good calendar record of everywhere I go day-to-day, so I cross reference round-trip mileages for a number of theaters in the suburbs where I work with my calendar. A simple spreadsheet later, I have a table of about a dozen places I drove for business over the year and the number of times I drove there, and voila: a pretty close estimate of my business mileage. Also, if you really want to make the IRS happy, make writing your odometer reading into a dashboard notebook an annual New Years tradition. How they want you to do this and while also not drinking and driving is something they leave up to you.

Professional Research & Subscriptions – This is something you should definitely talk over with a professional, but I encourage you to track your expenses here, whether or not you can deduct them. Artists spend a lot on research in the course of the year. We see other shows and buy tickets, we go to awards ceremonies and trade shows because we it’s good for our career. We rent movies and purchase books and music and all kinds of art to investigate dramaturgical history or artistic technique. Actors and dancers need to maintain themselves physically, so a gym membership is a reasonable business expense. If you spend money on it because you’re using it as research or material for your work, it is deductible. Be reasonable now. Your Nintendo Wii is probably not helping you with your flexibility all that much.

IRA Contributions – Why pay taxes when you can be saving for poverty-in-retirement? You ain’t gonna be a ballerina forever. Another benefit I’ve found about squirreling away some of my 1099 income is that it means I have a glut of savings that I can throw into a traditional IRA at the end of the year… some of which will actually increase my refund at the end of the year. Stocks are also in the toilet this year, which means that unless the economy really falls off a cliff your donations will go farther when the economy rebounds. Check with an accountant about the pros and cons of traditional vs. Roth IRAs… They are DIRT simple to set up online. I was surprised.

Other deductions you should track closely:

Tax Filing Expenses including software, filing costs, and CPA professional fees. I guess this is how the government absolves themselves of the guilt of making the tax code so complex that you need a professional to file if you have a non-traditional relationship with your employer.

Credit Card Interest on Business Expenses ONLY sometimes.

Cellphone Usage for business purposes – as with all personal / private usage, deduct business usage only.

Professional Dues & Fees – I got my IATSE Union Card this year. It was espensive, but it’s quite the deduction.

Charitable expenses – Track all your donations of materials to 501(c)(3) organizations, and make sure you get a donation letter for the agreed-upon value of your donated goods. Update: thanks to @rockstarcpafor this catch: You cannot take a tempting, tempting deduction for donated time to an organization. Donated goods and materials only. Also, do not deduct political contributions or anything that you received a benefit in kind for, like that CD I got with my NPR donation this year.

State, Local Taxes and Registration Fees – Different states allow you to deduct different taxes, so this is definitely one you’ll want to investigate more. For instance, Illinois does NOT allow you to deduct annual car registration fees, other states do.

Home Office
This is one that every CPA and tax software warns you that it’s like playing with Audit fire, and I tend to agree with them. However, it’s a huge potential deduction IF you have a dedicated space of your home that you use exclusively for business. The concept here is: figure out the percentage of square footage in your home that you use for your home office, and then deduct that percentage of your home expenses: Rent, Utilities, Mortgage Interest, Association Fees. This is an oft-abused deduction, so handle with care and seek specific advice to your situation. Remember too that you can deduct 100% of any office-related expenses like furniture that you use entirely for business purposes. Getting the trend here? Do not deduct your personal stuff, DO deduct your business stuff, the rest is just capturing and estimating the relative value of each. If you own your home, there are also some long-term ramifications to using the home office deduction.

One thing that’s really important than can be confusing when using tax software like TaxCut or TurboTax: Most business deductions can EITHER be deducted on schedule C as business deductions OR you can deduct them as part of your itemized deductions offsetting your W-2 tax-withheld income. Obviously the advantage is to apply deductions as much as is appropriate off your Schedule C income, since the standard income deduction is pretty healthy on your W-2 “day job” income. And be careful when moving column A to column B that you don’t accidentally deduct expenses in both places, because that of course is a no-no.

See? This is SIMPLE. Taxes are EASY for EVERYONE to do, especially artists whose livelihoods neatly fit into predescribed non-corporate deductible behavior like BOTTLED WATER DELIVERY. I am being SARCASTIC.

I’m gonna wrap up with a little bit of social commentary about an often-overlooked, but significant deduction that I think artists would be more vocal about if they had ever heard of it. It’s called the “Qualified Performing Artist Deduction” and it’s a doozy. It’s so obscure and mostly useless that most CPAs I consulted in my early theater years had never heard about it. If you are “Qualified” for the deduction, you are allowed to deduct all your job-related expenses IN ADDITION to the standard deduction, even on your non-schedule-C income. However, to qualify you need to jump through some gut-wrenching hoops that I wouldn’t wish on anyone:

– You need to have made a minimum of 2 $200+ performer-related W-2s during the year
– Your performing-related deductions must have been 10% or more of your income
– Your adjusted GROSS total income cannot be more than $16,000 for the year – and married couples taking the deduction must not have a COMBINED income of $16k in a year.

Here’s where I get incensed… that $16,000 limit is awfully close to the poverty line, and don’t get me started about not doubling the limit for married couples. I’m glad truly starving artists can actually take this deduction, the problem is all those folks who are still starving and make more than $16k in a year. The limit on this deduction – as far as I can gather – has not been amended to adjust for inflation since the Tax Code was overhauled in 1986, as similar deductions are on a regular basis, although Sens. Schumer and Feinstein attempted to in 2006. So bully to them. It’s such a weird tax code exception – an exception literally made for only one kind of worder – and so on the one hand it’s one of the only tangible examples I can think of where the government has actually tried to treat performing artists differently and give them a leg up. On the other hand that assistance is so half-hearted and I’m sure politically unstable that a prerequisite for that leg up is that you chop the leg off first.

This article was sponsored by @marebiddle, who not only bought me a cup of home-made Kona coffee that fed the adrenaline drive required to write a post on tax code, but also specifically requested that I follow through on it with a simple “Please…”. Thanks, Mare, and good luck!

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World Theatre Day: Coming to Chicago?

February 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building, On the Theatrosphere, projects, Uncategorized

The last weekend of Companhia Triptal’s Cardiff found some small pockets of free time for the company to explore Chicago, and especially Chicago theater. I had been talking with Bries Vannon about how much he had been inspired by Triptal’s work, and I had been talking with Triptal director André Garolli about how much he wanted to witness as much Chicago theater as he could fit in. It was around 4 pm on a Saturday between the matinee and the evening performance, and there was a wide open slot and a desire for exploration. I told André that a small local theater company was doing a highly experimental production by Fernando Arrabal and his eyes lit up. I told Bries that if the company could arrange a 4 pm run, a few folks from Triptal could catch the dress rehearsal, and his eyes lit up.

This is the mechanism of international cultural exchange. Making this one connection made me hungry for more, and deeper connections.

Sometimes it just falls into your lap.

As I hinted in the last post, it hasn’t just been New Leaf that’s been all a-twitter in the past few days. After all, the regular contributors to the #theatre feed on twitter include local tribes from Vancouver, Australia, Texas, Toronto, London, and a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated localities, all hungry for a deeper cultural exchange.

As Jess Hutchinson lays down the gauntlet today on Violence of Articulation, March 27 is the day all these tribes and the communities they represent have an opportunity to connect. The world of theater could get a whole lot closer. Read her whole post. It made my heart race.

On March 27th, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate that choice, and build our global connection and sense of collaboration at the same time. What’s this World Theatre Day, you ask? I’ve never heard of World Theatre Day, you say? Neither had I. Luckily, Rebecca Coleman can explain it for us:

World Theatre Day takes place every year on March 27, and is the brainchild of the International Theatre Institute. It’s aim is to: “promote international exchange of knowledge and practice in theatre arts (drama, dance, music theatre) in order to consolidate peace and solidarity between peoples, to deepen mutual understanding and increase creative co-operation between all people in the theatre arts”

Little time and less (read:no) money might look like prohibtive factors to our successful participation on March 27, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my family of fellow artists here, when it comes to a challenge we prove that Yes We Can. In a town where our lighting grids are often held together with paper clips and hope, our rehearsal spaces also serve as our studio apartments, and our costumes are pulled from our own closets – we’re not going to let something like a lack of funding keep us from getting our voices in the mix.

Simplicity will be key.

Damn Right.

So I’ve been thinking… How do you have a *simple* World Theatre Day? It’s something we’ll certainly be comparing notes about (and talking about face to face at the League of Chicago Theater meeting on Feb. 20th – hope to see all you League members there)

Well, you take the advice of master Chicago architect Louis Sullivan: “Form follows Function”.

To me, the ITI’s “creative cooperation” language is the most energizing call to action. The primary function of having a World Theater Day is to connect the local community with a sense of global community through the medium and experience of theater. Simple, Creative, Cooperative, Connection are the key ideas there.

To kick off the brainstorming (and please, Blog on, ye travelers)-

1) CREATE A FLICKR PHOTO FEED TO SHARE IMAGES GLOBALLY
Connecting people can be done richly through online media exchange, though some online media can be too time-intensive and complex for an in-the-moment event. Video and Audio streaming becomes not necessarily expensive financially, but expensive in terms of making computers, video cameras and microphones available to the local public. Photos, on the other hand, and the ubiquitous Flickr, are both well supported and integrated with a range of software, operating systems, and smart phones. Plus Flickr has some simple features to feedback the content to each locality: Setting up an ongoing slideshow of captured moments is as easy as hooking a computer up to a big screen or a projector. Comment-enabled photos make a global conversation about a local moment possible. The twitter folks have started experimenting with this service to share production photos… check it out and see what it can do.

2) CREATE CENTRAL INTERNATIONAL & LOCAL HUBS TO DIRECT TRAFFIC TO ALL THE WORLD’S CONTENT
Global events can get a little chaotic, and without reinforcing newly-minted connections with established channels of communication, each local event may experience confusion and difficulty connecting to the global movement. It’s important to prebuild the event with central infrastructures that encourage the generation and funneling up of local content. I think Rebecca Coleman already has this tricky bit started with the group-authored World Theatre Day blog that can be expanded to feature all kinds of content, planning, and exposure in the coming weeks. The 2/20 meeting at the League will be a great way to establish this hub of participation between the interested theaters of Chicago.

3) CONNECT, INVOLVE AND SUPPORT YOUR EXISTING INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATORS
In Performink, Kerry Reid lays out the incredible flowering panoply of Chicago’s current international collaborations. From the Goodman’s internationally-aimed O’Neill festival, the recently announced collaboration with Linz, Austria on the upcoming Joan Dark, Chicago Shakespeare’s World Stages presentation of the Rwandan production The Investigation, and the more homegrown DIY internationalism of Chopin Theatre’s I-Fest, Chicago demonstrates an existing adeptness at connecting the international dots. While creating new connections will be a huge potential value from WTD ’09, it will be easier to Simply Connect our existing international projects to the event, and reap the benefits of deeper dialogue and a higher international profile.
Establishing a blogging, twittering, or other content-sharing partnership with a single similarly-sized sister theater company may be a great way to draw attention to both theaters with a mitigated risk of local branding issues. You know, “Don’t forget your theater buddy!”

4) CONNECT YOUR LOCAL AUDIENCE WITH THE GLOBAL EVENT
Here’s where each theater’s approach can be anything goes. You have a relationship with your audience and you know what they want and respond to. The goal here is to create a global feedback loop of excitement and experience.

Maybe you arrange a backstage tour. You bring a photographer or videographer to capture images of your audience walking through, experiencing where the magic happens. Those images get uploaded during the show, and the global community responds to the images. After your show, as your audience leaves the theater, you invite them to see what the global community has said about your pictures, your show, your moments. Maybe some audience members from your sister company are ready to talk on Skype. Maybe your audience can spend some time browsing images of other global events, and making comments of their own. Maybe you present them with a website or the address of an after party where they can continue the experience.

This is just the beginning of what is possible… What is the fastest, simplest way for your theater to connect your audience’s experience and the experience of your work to other audiences across the globe?

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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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The Uberplaylist: Come Back to Rock You

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

As a sound designer, I like to really geek out when it comes to the fully integrating iTunes and the iPod. A couple years ago, I got really miffed at the limited number of ways that one can sort music during say, a commute. It’s pretty much creating an awkward on-the-go playlist – which doesn’t play nice with my preferred shuffling through tunes when I’m exploring unfamiliar music, or giving a song of one to five stars. As any theater critic will tell you, an appreciator of art needs a star rating system like a fish needs a bicycle.

You’re humming U2 now too, aren’t you?

But the star rating system on each iPod is the most accessible sorting mechanism on the fly, and you know what I have about five of? Moods. So I’ve assiged each star a mood, and created smart playlists that match the star rating and, like my own personal Pandora, I can now accrue songs with similar tones and energy levels into big honking Uberplaylists that I can return to when I need some familiar energy.

What are these moods?

One star: theatrical songs that will eventually be the sonic clay to my audio pottery.

Two stars: Pep. Great for all nighters and parties.

Three stars: Nostalgia. When I want a road trip to immediately feel like it’s being filmed for a movie like Garden state because I’m just that melancholy, voilà.

Four stars: Velocity. It’s crunch time, and I need to bang out some kick ass on a deadline? Would you believe that it’s time for some Jesus Jones b-sides?

And for days like this morning, Five stars: Come Back to Rock You. I’m telling you, devilvet: ’95 was a great year for music.

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Scrooge and the Baby Jesus Let Me Rest This Year

December 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Theater for the Future is going on vacation, y’all.

For the first time in… um… seven years? six years? I have the holiday week off – especially those coveted days before and after christmas.

So my mom and Marni and I are meeting up at my brother’s new pad – in Oahu. If you think I’m nuts, you should see Zack – who is learning to navigate by the stars on a traditional voyaging canoe and is contemplating a sea voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. Crazy bastard. We like to say to the in-laws that ours is a family of pirates. (I’m just a music pirate. Arrrr.)

The funny thing about this is I’m one of the few people that is loving the weather in Chicago these days – you know, the cold, stormy, snow-dumping weather. I guess I like a little variety, but I’m actually gonna miss being locked up for the winter with my blanket and hot cocoa. I’m not going to complain, but…

In any case, I’m excited to put my computer down for a while, and will certainly be picking it up with verve before the new year – Two designs opening and a big old O’Neill Festival to load in and tech in the first week of January. Until then, as much Zen as I can swim in.

For those of you braving your way through a busy holiday run schedule, my wish is that it will be your turn next. I got your back next year.

Mele Kalikimaka.

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