Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Wonder Twins Activate! Form of: 2008-2009 Season Launch!

August 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Uncategorized

Holy crap. August is inevitably a crazy month for a theater company, isn’t it? Time to get our acts together!

This two-week block marks the first real test of my retooling of the web presences of three storefront companies – not necessarily the graphics or layout of those sites, but the custom content management systems that makes the sites theoretically easy to update. Why bother? Well, my thinking goes: if a website is a mouthpiece for a company, you’d want to attach the mouth directly to the brain, not to some troll like me banging on his binary keyboard and mumbling something about “hexadecimal ftp bandwidth mumble grumble.” Blogs are a nice and easy way of making it easy for companies to speak about their work, but it’s the non-bloggable events in a theater company’s summer preproduction that really necessitate quick turnaround on the ol’ website: When a cast member has to leave a production because of a plum gig, when you confirm a space and production dates at the last possible minute, when you have to rearrange your season due to, oh, a rights granting service that isn’t communicating with another rights granting service.

All hypothetical examples, I assure you.

So I’m trying to delegate and train other folks in these companies a bit, because I’m beginning to realize that NOT everyone is comfortable with the webby language of things like FTP – and I’m seeing a need in theaters to have some training in this area. (I’m tossing around the idea of putting together some screencasts on this site for some of the basics, as I’ve been hugely indebted to the excellent Ruby on Rails Screencasts out there and want to share the love a bit. Post a comment if you’re interested in any topics in particular…)

Last week I met with Libby Ford and Rebecca LaDuke of Greasy Joan & Co., to train them to be able to update the company website as, well, the gods tend to laugh at our hubristic pre-season planning, and at some point they’re going to need to do it. And it’s been clear from the past year that you don’t want a lone webmaster in those moments, as they’re often unavailable.

The training session went really well, and it was like: Relief. On all sides. Libby and Rebecca are much more intuitive when it comes to the mission and the voice of the company, and hooking them up with direct access to change the language on the site was like blood returning to a limb that has fallen asleep: A little awkward, a little painful, but oh my god RELIEF.

Meanwhile, in Rogers Park: The Side Project has ALSO been running on all engines in preparation for the coming season. A major cleanup operation is underway thanks to our new production manager, Jeremy Wilson, including the furnishing of an improved green room in the upstairs space and a massive Yard Sale to clear out furniture from the storage space. (There is still some available, I’m sure, if you’re in need of chairs, tables, or artistically broken window casings) This past weekend has been about designing a big ‘ol brochure that highlights the FIVE resident companies doing work there this year: The Side Project, LiveWire, Idle Muse, Blackbird, and Rascal Children’s Theater, as well as Point of Contention, which is mounting one of my favorite social-responsibility-themed plays, Radium Girls. The brochure also highlights the emergence of a new approach to selling a season on a storefront level: A cross-company flex pass. Along the lines of the Looks Like Chicago season deal, it’s kind of a grab bag of theater. TSP will be offering two packages this season: A Side Project Flex Pass that gets you into one show each from Side Project, Live Wire, Idle Muse, and Black Bird, and a Rogers Park Flex Pass that gets you one show each from Side Project, Lifeline, Theo Ubique, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

The challenge with that amount of programming, obviously, is keeping the dates straight. The Side Project’s new space has always been scheduled to within an inch of its life, but this year it feels like: Let’s make a template for production. Let’s make a template for marketing. Let’s make a template for box office. Let’s make a template to get the word out. Let’s use technology as a lever. So that we reinvent ourselves in our work, not in how we present that work to the world.

This theory seems to be working well for New Leaf this year as well. We’re seven over-booked people and so historically those kind of last-minute surprises have always felt like real damage rather than simple conditions in which we must work. This year, it’s about efficiency and agility and this word… “Leap.”

So today was about making the final decision about performance venue and announcing our season to the press and to the world via our website. There is always that last minute flurry of proofreading and copy polishing, like something out of The Front Page. Here’s my philosophy on writing marketing copy: I ultimately don’t like doing it, I’m not the best at it on my own, but I consider it a skill that I must cultivate to be able to invite people to see my work. In fact, I don’t think of it as marketing, since that kind of bursts my bubble. I think of it as language that is a public extension of the performance. And there’s thankfully a simple test for when copy is good and when it is bad: Adjectives and Adverbs = bad, Verbs = good.

Verbs leap off the page. Verbs distill meaning and pump your heart. Using descriptive adjectives in your copy is equivalent to using descriptive indication in your performance — audiences don’t believe TELLING, they believe DOING and LIVING.

So New Leaf tends to vet copy through the group, and as a group we’re starting to get excited about that part of the work: Finding the right language, the right verbs, the right articulation of this energy we feel as a company. No, it’s not the same kind of excitement that we have about the performance, but it’s a warm up to that performance… It’s like the trumpets blowing as we roll our pageant wagon into town, signaling that the players are on their way. We have to bring our energy and wits to that work as well. And since rolling the pageant wagon around is something we do all the time, often with moderate results, you sometimes get the urge to try a completely new tactic, to axe the wagon into little itty bitty toothpicks and buy something a little more snazzy. But you don’t, because this is the wagon you can afford. So it’s about finding the right crowd to roll the wagon through, the right thing to say as you walk through. And the only way to find that real and lasting connection with the crowd is to approach them with informed honesty. To be honest, to ask that one question you really want to ask, and hope that it is their question as well.

I felt this fear and excitement as we edited the website copy of New Leaf’s season announcement over Google Talk today, and we chose words that described how we felt about our final show of the season: An original work that we are developing as a company of performers and designers, The Long Count. It’s a leap of faith for us to trust our storytelling abilities and aesthetic to the extent that we promise to create a compelling story from our own framework. Since the voice of New Leaf at least for the moment is one of transparency, and honest self-analysis with our audience, we looked for words to communicate that fear but also our trust in our own abilities as artists. And we came up with:

“The Long Count will invite the company and our audiences to leap into the myriad possibilities revealed in the future we can’t foresee.”

There’s that word again. Leap. A Verb. A Verb that moves.

There are a billion choices like this that pop up every day in August. Where can we host our fundraiser? (“How about the Holiday Club?”) Who can we get to donate raffle prizes? (“Didn’t our pal DG just get an iMac and has an IPod touch he wants to give away?”) We need music. Where can we find music? (“My friend Mark Dvorak is a folk roots musician and he’s interested…”) And so we’re working this year on making those choices faster and with less trepidation: Trusting our instincts.

So good luck making your own choices as the season winds up… Like a spring with just a little too much tension.

Oh, and yeah, I was serious. Come to the New Leaf fundraiser FRESH! on August 27th for your chance to win an iPod Touch. It’s all the fun of an IPhone without a $90/month service plan.

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A Strategy for Educational Initiatives

August 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects, Teachable Moments

I’m cross-posting my comment on a thrilling post from Laura at Trailing Spouse Blues – “What’s wrong with Educational Theater?” – which is itself a response to The Next Stage’s lament over the the perceived loss of opportunity as the next generation grows up without a broad exposure to theater.

I’m doing this cross-posting: Because it is apropos.

This is a freaking amazing thread, Laura.

Just got back from teaching 168 high schoolers in a summer program (Cherubs – Check it Out) , and let me tell you: the name of the game is immersion.

I’ve taught technical theater electives at a few high schools and middle schools, and I have to say the kids are always on your side to learn more. If there is a roadblock to learning coming from them, it’s that they don’t trust the motives of authority figures, which is a pretty simple roadblock to subvert. You work earn their trust – If a teacher demonstrates genuine excitement about a subject – which most of us are more than capable of – it NEVER fails that the kids pick up on that excitement. Do something jaw-dropping. We can all do it if we’re skilled at our craft. Reach into that little showstopper bag of tricks that you have – a directing exercise, a quick self-deprecating story, a design trick, or simple acrobatics. You’ll have ’em hooked and you can begin the lesson. Maintain that trust and you may lose them – but they’ll come back to you to learn more.

From what I’ve seen, the structure of primary and secondary Education with a capital E these days is challenging. Distractions are everywhere – classes are blazingly short, filled with cell phones, and many parents encourage a compression of their children’s lives with too many AP classes and extra-curriculars. You know. For a good college. You know. For a good job. You know. For happiness. Later. When it’s too late.

Now theater can be just another extra-curricular to stress kids out, to be sure. But while this schedule takes up their whole day, I’d argue that this structure isn’t really immersive – it’s full of stuff, but fails entirely when it comes to having the kids, you know, engage with the material.

Theaters are actually really well equipped to provide a rich learning environment, but not in the form that we first think of – performance and talkback. That’s simply asking kids to be polite, shut up for a while, and then reengage without really understanding the context of how theater gets made. The thing that kids need the most exposure to – if the goal is creating the next generation of theater appreciators – is the doing of theater – the choices that get made, and the excitement of text -> rehearsal room -> design -> stage. A small theater is a great place to learn the most basic of communication and teamwork skills.

When you immerse kids in a learning environment – with multiple teachers or even authority figures who are all committed to the idea of engaging, teaching, and pushing the student to explore the material on their own – amazing things happen. It’s actually a simple equation, but one that requires too many resources for most schools to provide. But theaters CAN provide those opportunities if they were to structure their educational initiatives with some care.

Just imagine the difference between a performance and talkback where the kids show up moments before curtain and when they show up two weeks before opening.

Let’s say you give a student or a small group of students an opportunity as say interns for a small theater. Don’t make them do your dirty work for you like bathroom cleaning – have them help you rehearse and make their own choices as the cast and crew make their choices. Have them watch your designers as they build sets, props, hang lights, program boards and set sound levels. Clue them in on WHY you’re making choices, and WHY other choices would change the show. Help them see how a big, unified production can be created by hundreds of small choices.

That is valuable training for any child. And if it makes them appreciate the work of the theater artisan, so be it.

I should add – my theater company New Leaf is really trying to make this kind of program happen right now – thanks in no small part to the lessons we’ve learned from teaching at the Cherub program, a program that as I’ve mentioned many times changed my life as a theater educator. New Leaf has already had our first successful high school-level internship (go Emma!), a student who assisted the sound department in designing two shows in our last season. We’re really looking forward to trying the format out in the directorial department and potentially formalizing the program after trying it out a bit more this season. Because we do want to teach, and it’s not about a revenue stream for us – unless you count a group of people who will be fans of theater forever a revenue stream.

So yeah, to The Next Stage: You’re right. College isn’t the time. It’s younger. But all is not lost on our hipster youth, and we definitely need to approach the problem with both seriousness and enthusiasm.

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How (and why) to write a Company Bible

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Ever seen one of these? It’s a big binder filled with knowledge. Procedures. Contacts. Lists. Accessible Information.

In his big comeback post, Scott Walters illustrates very clearly the reasons for an artist to be proactively collecting and sharing the knowledge of what it is they do and the tricks and insights that make the work itself easier and more effective: knowledge is power.

… Those who wield power in the theatre — the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff — do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action — and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think.

The lifespan of an artist within a theater company is often a lot like the lifespan of a fruit fly. Artists often want to do one thing – say, perform – and get signed on to do that, and run box office, and figure out how to market a play, and raise money for that play, and keep the bathrooms clean… It’s tiring, and the passion for your work either carries you through the balogna or it doesn’t, and after five to ten years you start dreaming of a normal adult life that doesn’t involve begging and scrubbing and poverty.

For me, there is a lot of wasted energy in reinventing the wheel here. Let’s say a company is formed in 1983, and goes through five leadership cycles in that time. There’s a big difference in quality between the company with leadership that captures the collected knowledge of the company and the company that starts from scratch every time a company member moves on. It’s the difference between accruing institutional knowledge and burn out.

But when you get your feet wet, you’ll start to notice big challenges involved in passing complex knowledge structures on to a complete noob. Awful example from my own experience: Teaching a non-technical person how to mix their first musical. Let’s say your regular technical guru is moving out of town, and you have to basicially xerox them or face the loss of quality that comes with losing talent. There are two ways to go about this, neither of them ideal: You could label everything in the booth with a mountain of post-its and basically say “never touch this – or this – or this,” thereby simplifying the job. This definitely reduces stress in the training period, but it isn’t really a long-term solution – it cripples the student’s ability to explore and learn from mistakes over the long term. It leaves them to build their own foundation of knowledge, and it assumes that the choices you make in those final stressful and despairing moments of your tenure were the right decisions for the long term health of the company – which is almost never the case.

There’s another approach, akin to the development of a curriculum for self-study: the guru creates a comprehensive list of all the pieces of knowledge that one would need to do the job.

A) Acoustic Physics – How Sound Works
1) How sound waves mix in the air
2) The controllable properties of sound – Volume, Direction, Frequency, Timbre, Duration/Envelope,

B) How the Equipment Works
1) Microphone Pickup Patterns (what microphones “hear”)
2) Speaker Dispersal Patterns (cabinet distortion, directionality, phasing problems.
3) How Theatrical Sound Equipment can distort and shape sound waves
4) Mixer routing – Inputs, Faders, EQ, Inserts, Trim, Bus/Group Outputs, Auxillary Outputs

C) Cue Operation and Programming procedures
1) Mixer Manual – for Mute Scenes / VCAs or Scene Presets
2) Sound Playback Manuals – QLab, SFX, CD Players, etc.
3) MIDI and automation – getting equipment to trigger other equipment for simple show operation

D) Common “Gotchas”
1) Everything plugged in?
2) Everything plugged in in the right place?
3) Best signal testing practices – start at one end of the signal path and move carefully to the other.
4) The psychology of monitors and mic placement – getting the performers and the producers on your team with the common goal of the best possible audience experience (or, “If I turn up your monitor there, we either won’t hear you in the house, or we’ll hear you and squealing feedback”)

To be sure, each one of these items could be a dissertation in themselves, and this is more overwhelming for a blank slate student. However, it creates an ongoing resource for the student to explore and research over time and as their experience expands. It also doesn’t set a time limit on the training period – it allows peer-to-peer learning to continue beyond the tenure of the burnt-out ex-company member.

The MOST important thing is of course to create this knowledge resource well in advance of those often gut-wrenching final two weeks of a company member’s tenure. Capturing this information while stress is a factor is a good way to get a crappy knowledgebase. If you’ve ever been trained as a temp, you know what I’m talking about – If you need to know A – Z to properly do your job, some folks will teach you A (“Turn on your computer”) and then B (“This is the Power Button”) and then when that goes off without a hitch, they’ll spring Q on you (“And so then we just need to you to file the 990 Form with Accounting”) without explaining, oh, H (“Accounting is near the elevator”), or M (“990 Forms are tax forms for non-profits.”) or even C (“We are a company that audits non-profits”). And some folks assume you know too much and will rifle through the instructions for X-Z (“Just tell the president your progress by the end of the day.”) and they’re out the door. There is never enough time for the trainer to go through A-Z. And yet real damage happens to companies in both of those moments when A-Z isn’t effectively communicated or learned by the trainee. The corporate world can easily absorb that damage, but theater companies can often die off or suffer direly in fundraising in those moments when leadership changes.

So manuals can cushion the blow as the company grows – or even simply ages – and folks move on. Some of the manuals that I have written for New Leaf and The Side Project include:

  • How – and when – to update the website
  • Run Sheets – how to preset and run a particular show
  • Box Office procedures
  • How to share files over the internet so that group collaboration is less time-consuming
  • Brand manuals (use this font, use these colors, use this page layout, use this logo, and the branding rules that you can bend, break, and the ones you can never ignore)
  • Marketing distribution (a checklist of places to put posters and postcards)
  • Production Timeline & Checklist (what needs to get done, and when it needs to be done)

What I’ve learned about these documents is that they usually need periodic revision – so the best time to write them is as the processes are being put in place or being revised. By writing a manual as you perform the task, you can often do a better capture of clear step-by-step actions and have a better retention of all the dependent knowledge that is helpful in performing your role.

Treating manuals like a simple dumping ground of everything doesn’t work, though – they need to be more or less a complete overview of day-to-day operations, but not an exhaustive archive of everything that has ever happened ever. That’s too overwhelming to be useful. So some diligent and forward-thinking editing is always a useful habit to get into.

For these reasons, the ideal medium for a company knowledgebase is often a wiki – a living, interconnected document that allows certain basic knowledge resources to be outsourced to say, Wikipedia or other blogs & websites. Knowledge can also be organized into a structure to make critical data more clear and supporting data settle into nested structures.

At New Leaf, we’ve used a wiki and a company discussion forum in tandem for about three years, and it’s proven to work very well with our own human natures. Most day-to-day company discussion happens on the forum, filling the forum with a rich silt of acquired knowledge, planning, brainstorming, and chat. It’s almost a daily journal for most of us, a big net that captures all our ideas. We have also worked out a quick sorting and archiving process that we do as part of our production post-mortem process. When a particular nugget of knowledge from the forum discussion proves permanently useful, it finds a home somewhere in our company wiki – the repository of permanent knowledge for the company.

And on the wiki, the information is clearly organized for future company or board members. It kind of looks like this:

New Leaf Department Knowledgebase
Artistic
Play Readings
Marketing
Development, Fundraising & Grants
Production
Box Office

Agendas (these contain items that require discussion in our next face-to-face meetings so that everything gets captured)
Company Meetings
Production & Design Meetings
Marketing Meetings
Board Meetings

Meeting Minutes
Company Meeting Minutes
Post Mortem Minutes
Marketing Minutes
Committees Minutes

Timeline & To-Dos (Each of these is a calendar for each production with template dates, like “Opening -3 Weeks”. We just plug in the dates before each production, and voila, we have a list of everything we need to get done.)
Production Timeline
Box Office Timeline
Marketing Timeline

Knowledge Base
Knowledge Base – Web Tools, Important Contact Info, Stuff to Know in case of emergency
Company Bylaws
New Leaf Culture – The way we like to do things, and why
Production History
Who We Are – Mission, Vision, Values. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Over the past few years, we’ve had the typical internal turnover at both companies that happens as artists grow up and live their lives – and new artists with fresh ambition pursue their artistic lives as a part of the company. The forum / wiki / knowledgebase process has proven its worth through the shifting membership to our newest company members. As they have time, or when they’re confused about how something works, our old discussions and accrued knowledge resources can be skimmed through and learned as needed. This is often an exciting process for a new company member, like opening up an old tome filled with old words and old thoughts. It is a training period filled with knowledge and cloaked in mystery. Can you imagine that in a corporate environment? Our old show notes create a clear picture of our context and our history – and steeping in that knowledge has helped us avoid the dangers of repeated mistakes, without limiting us to a knowledgebase of post its that limit the agility of our current operations. Understanding and remembering the old risks we’ve taken inspire better risks to be taken next time. I’d wager that our effective capturing of knowledge has helped us stretch our annual budgets as well, because we have a memory and a process that allows us to allocate money towards our artistic growth and our newest risks rather than sinkholes of productions past. Best of all, creating the knowledgebase was a dirt-simple, efficient, low stress, and even fun part of the process.

Scott’s speaking the truth again: the key to better lives for you professional artists out there is taking responsibility for your own artistic goals, and empowering yourself with the tools and the knowledge you need to achieve and reach beyond those goals. For me, the thing I needed was a way of remembering where I’ve been. Breadcrumbs along the trail, so to speak.

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Another Tease

June 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Tools

In Our Town, we like to know the facts about everybody.

There’s David Cromer, who I first knew as one of the directors of Cider House Rules (my first sound op gig in Chicago). Our affectionate nicknames for him and Marc Grapey, our other fearless leader on that show, were “Tigger and Eeyore.” Corrie Besse, that’s a name you don’t want to forget, she was the teensy powerhouse that wrangled the cast of 32,000 backstage in the upstairs Victory Gardens space. Look at that, she’s worked her way up from ASM to SM. Still wrangling a cast of thousands and a props setup to make the fearless quake.

Alison Siple is one of those mad genius types. My favorite work of hers remains these angel wings made of umbrellas (her specialty!) that she did for one of our plays at Cherubs. Then there’s Jonathan Mastro over there by the piano. You might have seen him before on the piano with the Monkeys, or perhaps you were lucky enough to see him tickling the ivories for the Chicago Children’s Theater premiere production of “A Year with Frog & Toad.” We still sing the grand finale of act 1, “Cookies” up in the Owen booth. No matter what the show.

Then there’s Tim Curtis. Last time I saw him was back on the Visions & Voices stage during Accidental Rapture. I still play my Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse sound cue from that show to demonstrate sonic storytelling (and you can get a great Lord-of-The-Rings horse breath effect using the snort of a walrus).

And good old Devin Brain. He’s one of the guys that helps make things work on all those Hypocrites shows you’ve been seeing – I remember sitting with him on the orange carpet during Porno at the Side Project with Grant Sabin trying to figure out how to best rig those damn TVs to the grid. He’s a pretty stellar director, too.

The structure is nearly at the beta testing stage. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go yet – it’s ugly as sin and there’s some duplicate data in there. And missing! Where the hell is John Wehrman? He’s a part of this show too, just off of New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. And to bring it full circle, there’s in the space itself the memory of the last event that took place here – the beautiful wedding and reception of Kaitlin Byrd and fellow Plagiarist Ian Miller a few weeks ago. She lead that cast of GGB and, if you look way back, you’ll notice that she was in that cast of thousands in Cider House as well.

I just love a wedding, don’t you? They’re just so beautiful. We are carving the gravestones of these memories here. To leave a mark where there was none. To draw connections. To remember.

And this is only one window into our history. We’re ready to start collecting your info if you have some to give.

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The Designed Reading

May 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

I’m digging the concept of the designed reading right now. Just ran one, and New Leaf and Side Project both have something along those lines in the works. It’s like not baking the whole cake, but instead taking the batter you have and making cute little cupcakes with just a dollop of frosting. And they fly off the shelves.

There’s something about that forcibly abbreviated process of rehearsing and doing a quick and dirty design for a one-off reading that creates the right kind of energy. Design choices get spare, slim. Performers and Designers both improvise in the moment, and the audience can sense that palpable uncertainty… and they rally behind any brazen fearlessness that the performers adopt to get through that uncertainty.

They make a great low-cost fundraiser, and they make a good atmosphere for an appreciative audience – the party or cabaret atmosphere can be molded into some pretty entertaining formats that really make for a good time that perhaps means a little more.

I think the audience is willing to go a little further when they know it’s a crazy one-time only event – like a reading of experimental material with just a bit of design to give the piece some weight, or a 24 hour play festival. That willingness opens them up when they’d normally close down. Just check out these faces, standing and kneeling and curled up on the lobby floor:

Oh, and seriously: Thanks and thanks (and thanks). I am freaking humbled by comments like these, when people are moved to speak up for me. I’m enough of a loudmouth as it is. It’s no secret among my friends that I was gunning for a “They Wuz Robbed” nod from TOC this year – as far as I’m concerned, if Grant Sabin won it, it’s the best award in town. It’s also incredibly exciting to me that Jess H., Jared M. and The Dining Room WERE recognized this year, and Steve P. is up for a Soundy Jeffy for Faster. These are people who I believe in, because I’ve seen what they can do with that support.

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A Podcast with its Very Own Style

April 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

I’m listening right now to one of the best Chicago Theater podcasts that I’ve come across so far – the Serendipity Theater Collective’s 2nd Story podcast.

It’s a great example of how to take the work you’re already doing and translating it with a minimum of effort to a new, distributable medium. Second Story is a regular cabaret-style storytelling event, and because it’s essentially a sound-designed staged reading, it’s a perfect format to just plop right down as a podcast. They’ve also been very wise to keep a sustainable episode schedule – they’ve been monthly since the beginning of the year. In contrast, our poor “weekly” New Leaf podcast has been on hiatus for about a month despite having material for two more episodes ready to go. That’ll teach me to take up blogging.

The Second Story podcast also works as a carrot here – the reading sounds like a fun evening, and you know clearly what to expect from that evening from the podcast – including the fact that you can expect some eye-opening honesty. You can hear the small audience laughing along, you can hear the clink of glasses at the bar in the background, in “The Girls,” you’re even given a taste of the wine selections for the evening that you WOULD be sipping if you had come to the actual event.

Podcasts and YouTube clips are a great tool to convince your non-theater going friends to take a chance on seeing a show. With a wide variety of podcasts out there – from Second Story, to New Leaf, to the Neo-Futurists, to the House, there’s a style of performance that will appeal to a wide variety of entertainment-seeker. It’s worth putting some thought into how best to “capture” your performance – which is easier than recreating it – into some kind of distributable form. And it’s not always a technological solution – I’m excited to see devilvet’s upcoming photoshopped graphic novel version of Clay Continent – it’s the perfect medium to distribute a version of that show to folks who will find it appealing, and I’d wager that it’d make them more likely to see the live version next time it comes around.

Don’t know if there are theater purists out there, but I often also have doubts about dipping our feet in other media waters – it’s a plain fact of life when there are fewer and fewer delineations between artistic media these days. The breaking down of these delineations means increased blood flow of creativity to all the organs – and yes, there’s this nagging doubt that there may be some cancer cells somewhere in there that also get fed, in the same way that fundamentalist cells have greatly benefited from having the affordable distribution system for their ideas. (I stumbled the other day, in my search for information on a Mediawiki timeline plugin, onto a white supremacist society that had created an alternative to Wikipedia that reflected their values without all that accountability to the community that kept getting in their way. I’m not linking there because – well, blood flow feeds a cancer – but yikes.)

Irrational doubt and fear of change aside, it’s happening, and it’s more important than we might think to remind people that live performance – being there in the audience – actually does matter. Remember that children raised on the internet will not have the same exciting relationship with live performance that we did growing up, unless we expose them to it. The idea that live performance is valuable is going to be increasingly underrepresented in the newer forms of media – most artistic expression other than concerts, installations and theater, really. I think it’s important, given all the larger issues with new media, for those of us who are starting to fish in other media to remember the mystery and immediacy of live performance and infuse our new media projects with that energy.

I’m also jazzed about Second Story for another reason this week – I’ll be running sound for their event in the Goodman Lobby all Looptopia night this Friday. Drop by the sound cart, stick around for the event and say hi! For those of you who don’t know what Looptopia is, look here, and for god’s sake get your plane tickets soon. There are moments where Chicago lives up to its artistic mecca reputation, and Friday’s gonna be one of them.

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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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Where to find the Good Stuff

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

Way to go, Chris, Kris, and Tony. For those of you that haven’t read the web-only companion article to this week’s “side of Lance Baker” on the cover of TimeOut Chicago this week on making it as an actor, it’s a nice little piece on the central question on what seems like everyone’s mind as the NEA is flushed and the government gets out out of the philanthropy business – Do we deserve to get paid for this work? And even if so, who should make it a priority to do the paying – the audience, the society, or ourselves? As much as I’d love to lament the alarming reduction in local, state and federal funding for the arts, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s time to solve the problem of funding our work on our own. Grants are drying up due to some pretty hostile mismanagement – social sabotage, really – on the state and federal levels of government. When the tide turns back for government funding of social projects (and it will), I think we can all agree that poverty, funding for health care, relief work, and education – all of which are equally being shafted now – should be bigger social priorities than the arts. The arts need to thrive just the same, though – and that means a certain level of inventive thriftiness with our time and money.

It all gets demoralizing, though. I’m teaching some middle schoolers this week and we’re doing – of all things – a play called “30 reasons not to be in a play.” It’s unfortunately not all that ironic a title. Being in the play means rehearsal, and focus from the cast of 30 and tech crew of 8 while in a dark cafeteria watching other kids play outside in gorgeous weather. It means convincing often incredibly inflexible parents to cancel any number of poorly-scheduled piano lessons and dance lessons and baseball and soccer and errands. How can a seventh grader ask their parents to prioritize a school play when the parents don’t value the experience? It means remembering lines and overcoming awkwardness and shame to find… more awkwardness and shame and the very occasional moment of inspiration. It means being in the wrong place and not knowing what you’re doing… and doing that with absolute confidence. It means not texting your friends or checking your facebook account for nearly two hours most afternoons.

Between the parents and the teachers’ scheduling conflicts and the priorities and the dwindling resources of the school, it’s not surprising that children of this age are in a constant state of freakout. The kids are in an ideological warzone – I guess I was too, back at that age – and they haven’t been equipped to navigate it. This is why real change takes generations, not years. These kids are developing in a time of radical and chaotic change, and that will have as many crazy effects on them as the sixties had on the baby boomers.

I thought I was going to have more to say about the Europe / America contrast, but the middle school experience has boiled all of that exploration and soul searching to a central zit-on-the-nose problem: I am an American, and like many Americans, I don’t regularly practice the enjoyment of life. You know, really savoring it. I think I have it, and I pursue that enjoyment, but then life becomes about the pursuit of a bigger happiness, not the happiness we already have available to us: Walking. Eating. Sleeping. Playing. American lives are built to limit, compartmentalize, and focus the time we spend doing these things – in the name of pursuing more time and resources to enjoy these things securely. We teach our children to constantly pursue a bigger better tomorrow and we pack their lives with enriching activities when it’s really the today that needs to be improved and enjoyed. It’s just a backwards logic, and I’ve noticed it in myself rather alarmingly. I always need to walk a bit faster, eat a bit faster, and experience more and more, to the point where I’m not really experiencing anything but panic, anxiety and adrenaline. In theater, I find that human pace again, the easy heartbeat.

Maybe all this aggressive model-building and value-hunting for the future of our theater just feeds the wrong beast, and the secret to creating a new, vital theatrical audience is to follow the lead of a group like the The Heart of Gold. I think I’ve mentioned the HoG here before, and I certainly have over on the New Leaf blog: it’s a Chicago arts commune with weekly performances and quite literally a HIVE of artists and fans that come back weekly for art of all shapes and sizes. Artist and audience mix here – one night you’ll put up your work in the gallery, the next night you’ll see what your friends are doing with that puppet show. Oh, and they throw a lot of potlucks. It’s not a crowd growing like wildfire – it’s more insular and low-profile, with a small audience that grows slowly, person by person. But the people that go become regulars, thus supporting the art over the long term.

What’s the message for this new audience? Kick the Hell back, and enjoy being IN the entertainment. Enjoy the interaction, and make it a vital part of your life – for the benefit of your life. The default response to viewing a show isn’t necessarily crossing your damn arms and sitting in judgement. And there, it’s understood that art doesn’t get finished, it just gets shown again. That means we can’t be satisfied when art feels lazy and doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – but we can enjoy the process getting there. “Theater isn’t a very reliable entertainment” – my eye. That’s the wrong approach – it’s the wrong framework to view how to build a new audience. Audience members who want “reliable” entertainment will go for prescription drugs. Television is only reliable because it is carefully checked and vetted for flavor consistency, you know, like Folgers. Film increasingly attacks all the senses like a carbonated seizure. Film doesn’t work at the pace and volume of life anymore – films told at a life-like pace become low-viewership art house and independent flicks. Storefront theater is locally grown, and sometimes that means you taste a little grit, but the real revelation is in how you feel when you’ve developed a taste for the freshest stuff. You feel connected to your life again.

Theater should be sold like good food: you savor it, you discover it, and then you reflect in appreciation and conversation when the plate is empty. It’s an active experience, and it doesn’t always taste the same. Sometimes a bitter or sour taste brings out the sweetness. It demands your intelligence and an open heart, and I’d say an appreciation if not acquaintance with your local farmer / artisan. The kids get this – they’ve started bringing their parents in, helping put up pieces of the set and putting work into the play. It’s a little Waiting for Guffman, sure, but the parents become instant converts when they can participate that fully in the hobby of their child, and the child starts leading them through what needs to be done. In many ways, theater as we move forward isn’t about the play at all – It’s about the ensemble. We remember specific meals, perhaps, but we keep coming back to experience the work of good cooks.

Best of all, when global food prices shoot through the roof and throw the third world into devastating food shortages, locally-grown food is becoming a worthwhile growth market again. Through locally-grown theater we teach ourselves to interact positively with emotions, subjects, and ideas we don’t understand that are right in our back yard – ideas that are held dear by others in our community. And as Americans moving towards a hazardous political and social future, we need to be much more sensitive and adept at just that.

Wow. Been talking with way too many 12 year olds. You guys know what I’m talking about.

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