Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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To Theaters / Artists in Chicago who are dipping their toes into Twitter

March 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere

Read this.

And no, it’s not at all like facebook, that’s a common misperception that I overheard about three times between the Merchandise Mart el and Dunkin Donuts this morning. Yes, that’s about 20 steps. That many conversations about one thing means: Use. Wisely.

Twitter is also, at least so far, *not* a way to tap into a new potential audience, though I know that’s what you’re hoping it is. I think it will be eventually, or suddenly by accident, but not yet. Right now it’s the most valuable tool one might have for solving your problems with lots of global, brilliant minds who have worked through similar problems.

h/t @shamelesshussy

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A Better Way to Paper the House

June 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

It’s no secret that early word of mouth is the key to a successful run. That’s why it’s a common business practice to fill the house with all your friends and industry folks that first cobwebby week of a run, so that the engine of buzz can get primed. Except there’s a pretty major caveat to papering – the practice often floods the tank, filling the books with reservations that never show up. It’s hard to shake the assumption that theater that you can see for free isn’t theater worth seeing, and so papered seats aren’t really taken as seriously as they should be.

That, surprisingly, all changes with $1 comps. I gotta hand it here to Ken Davenport – that unsettlingly bottom-line-oriented Off-Broadway producer from the iPhone commercials (I’m personally unsure about the idea of a producer using remote technology to conveniently monitor lurker comments and feedback on fan sites and twitter those comments back to his director– but to each his own process). However you feel about his perspective, Ken certainly knows how to work an audience, and that’s worth reading his thoughts.

$1 Comps is a freaking great idea – and it’s withstood the rigors of Ken’s real-world test. It subverts the psychological damage of perception that “free theater” has to overcome – 96% of the comps in his experiment were redeemed. Yeah, that’s right – he tested the idea, collected data on it, and executed it. Remember we were talking about that? He’s also identified ways of making the $1 comp practice better next time around – by reducing the workload on the box office, for instance. Worth a look!

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Better Nutrition for Healthy Living

January 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments, Tools

The recent Jerry Springer-esque throwdown on the TOC blog comments section this morning has, indeed, devolved into a lot of angry shouting and not a lot of listening. The good news is that it’s throwing some light on a major disconnect in our community that can be worked on. A lot of people are reading it (it’s certainly the topic at the tech table today with bloggers & non-bloggers alike) and I’m finding that most non-bloggers are both passionate about the discussion but are also choosing not to participate, as G said this morning, lest they “feed the bad energy monster”. It’s true, I feel positively gaunt after reading the discussion, like I binged last night on beverages infused with gwarinine or whatever they call it. The adrenaline is primed, and blood is in the water. Discussion is no longer possible, but lessons have been learned on both sides. Well, okay, maybe not their side.

Today is not the day, alas, due to looming deadlines, but I’m gearing up for an exploration of different models of online communication and their relative merits in feeding discussion and collaboration. There’s a structural reason why blog comments breed this kind of piranha-like debate: comment sections have a built-in lack of accountability and absolutely no incentive to build relationships or credibility. That’s why the culture of blogs is so different than say, Facebook: The people are the same, but the defined goals of the web application powering the conversation are different.

This is a(nother) hugely important question to an industry as resource-poor as Chicago Theater. With nothing but volunteer time and funding (including audience ticket sales) to fall back on, theaters need to be able to have extremely efficient and powerful discussions. Prominent blogs lend the power of wide public discourse, but they sacrifice efficiency – each commenter on the blog has different reading lists, for instance, so it’s a fairly common experience to have very indignant, but essentially separate, arguments. See also Scott Walter’s analogy of the frustration that gets generated when you tap out a rhythm of your favorite showtune and having your friends guess what the hell you’re tapping. That kind of shared experience and knowledge is critical to having meaningful debate and collaborative policy development. If the conversation is poor on information, the results become based on gut instinct, and if that’s your poison, try debating Stephen Colbert some time.

Luckily for this situation, the last few years have seen an absolute explosion in collaborative networking technology, and the results of that explosion have been carefully detailed in this Top 50 list of social networking sites that Jess was nice enough to forward to me. Not all are useful to promoting theaters (don’t try to find your next production manager on Monster.com) but a surprising number of them are.

Right, onward and upward. I’ll be back with that soon.

Yummy Yummy YummyA final postscript for podcasters: The New Leaf Girl in the Goldfish Bowl Podcast Episode 2 is up today, and we’re about to go weekly. In it, director Greg Peters has a comment that really resonated with the whole TOC subargument about the moment he knew his childhood was over: It was the same moment he realized his adult teachers were idiots, and that they were more focused on disciplining him than teaching. My initial reaction to the anti-non-equity contingent on the comments was similar: I felt like I had just been slapped in the face by a total stranger and told that I better eat my brussels sprouts and like ’em or I wouldn’t grow up to be a big boy.

Luckily, I adore Brussels Sprouts. I also know how to cook them better than those people.

In any case, I’m proud of what the New Leaf podcast is becoming, and I’m excited about the possibilities of opening up a rehearsal process to the public (or even a potentially national audience) for feedback. It’s hard to criticize someone’s work blindly when you’re sitting there in the bar with them, listening to their thoughts and how they’re approaching the work. Podcasting is a format that breeds excitement and participation.

And there’s more! If your theater doesn’t yet have a podcast (unless you’re The House or New Leaf or (shudder) Broadway in Chicago, I think this means you), be sure to attend the FREE League Theater Dish event on Podcasts on February 11 (Update from Ben Thiem at the League: The event is public, and is at ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont on 2/11 at 5:30. RSVP to Ben at ben@chicagoplays.com

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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Empathy

January 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Tool BoxIn what I’m hoping will become a regular series on this blog, I’d like to showcase one of the tactics and tools that is always available to the storefront theater or artist to accomplish their self-development goals.

The recent hot topic of conversation in the Chicago Theater blogosphere has been the “regional theater disease” of hiring actors from NYC when we could be using our local pool of talent more. It’s an issue that riles great passion in many folks, and there’s a great deal of blame that gets thrown around on both sides of the equation. It’s also a problem that needs a lot of heads thinking about a viable solution and a roadmap to achieving that solution.

However you feel about the issue, if your goal is to really end the problem as quickly and permanently as possible, I find it’s often best to not start with a complete declaration of war and revolution against those making decisions. As much as I love to cheerlead on this site, I believe that real change happens faster and more completely when you use tactics of understanding and dialogue with the people that have the power to influence the situation. Speak Truth To Power, and have them Speak it Right Back. I believe these people are trying to serve the interests of the community, but the interests of the community are so complex that it is inevitable that they both succeed and fail somewhat depending on the perceived priorities of their organizations.

To put it simply: There isn’t currently a switch you can throw and make it a no-brainer to hire local talent over NYC talent. There’s crap in the road towards that beautiful shining city on the hill. We need to first identify what the roadblocks are. We need to realize that since we’re in the same car with the folks driving us there, we’re better served by pulling a better map out of the glove compartment than telling them to pull over in dangerous territory. This isn’t a father-knows-best argument – I’ll wager that everyone’s flying just as blind as we are. It’s just that theater itself is in trouble here, and the more we foster cooperation between individuals, small organizations, and large organizations, the more we can improve conditions for all of us.

So how to pick the brains of the folks currently in charge and figure out what they’re paying attention to? How do you convince them that your idea is something that is worth doing, something worth prioritizing? Empathy is hugely powerful in problem solving challenges of this scale. Start by reading what they’re saying, and understand what their focus is through their own words.

(The image here is of course from the hilariously dead-on regional-theater-spoof Slings and Arrows, which delves into these issues in a far more entertaining way that I’m doing here. See. It.)

Everyone involved in any complex problem is still a human, and most folks act from largely self-perpetuating motives (usually still with a bit of the faded youthful idealism of wanting to make the world a better place and correct injustice – so that’s an in with almost everyone). Researching, understanding, and redirecting those motives often can benefit all parties. Empathy gets two people butting heads to put down the rattling sabers and discuss contracts, concessions, grants and real action. Empathy helps win over groups of people at once – a positive message is almost always more effective than a negative one. Empathy helps you understand when someone could be receptive to an idea, and when they just need to grab a bite to eat and please get out of the way.

A Little More Coffee For You?Empathy is a tool learned by every good intern on the first day. You’re new, you’re green, you can see that your entire career depends on just a few people noticing you and valuing you enough to give you recommendations and jobs. There are interns who rightly call this bullshit, and refuse to play the game. Then there are interns who watch everyone on staff like a hawk. They get to know the personalities of the staff, not just their roles and responsibilities. They see when an artistic director forgets her script everywhere she goes, and they know to be there to pick it up and hand it to her. They see where they can be useful and make the process easier. They see that the director of development is insecure about their interaction with the artistic staff, so they engage the director with conversation about their thoughts on the last play and help pump up their ego, self-confidence, and trust. They do all this so that they will earn the trust of those who have the power to make change. It’s a mutual exchange… the intern here isn’t lying to get ahead, they’re learning how the folks in powerful staff positions think, and engaging with that thought process for the time when they will be in power. They can learn simply by keeping the flow of creative energy in the room open.

Empathy is also a tool that can help a theater drastically improve its relationship with the audience. How does the audience feel when they walk into your space? What does your space tell them? How do your plays make them feel, and how do those feelings mesh with the artistic goals of your play? Empathy is an essential ingredient in fostering the trust that a subscriber feels for your theater.

So, back to the problem of actors: if you follow the chicken and the egg around, the real problem seems to be that there is a perception in the public that they should buy a ticket if a show is from New York or if the actors are from New York. The perception is that New York shows are good, and Chicago shows and the talent that creates them are hit and miss. This is certainly a false perception, but that perception is not being systematically repositioned to the Chicago public. In order to solve the problem, we have to understand why it exists and adjust the perception, slowly and patiently and with a minimum of blood and rolling heads.

This perception that Chicago needs star power in its plays is perpetuated by the immediate and constant need to provide high-risk and high-value arts programming in regional theaters that sells out or carries a minimum financial risk. If a regional theater casts an LA or NYC star in a gutsy show, the play will still sell out, and the financial reward will satisfy the board and create financial stability which means they have served the community by getting their public institution closer to self-sufficiency. Yes, it’s arguable that they haven’t served the long term needs of the community or the organization by failing to build a cult of stardom around the more sustainable local pool of actors. But long term needs and short term needs for any organization are almost ALWAYS at odds and need to be carefully balanced. There is no “suck” knob on a mixing board, and there’s no “local only” button in a regional theater’s speed dial.

So how do we change situations like this, with multiple motives that create systematic injustice over time? I take my lesson (yet again) from David Hare’s The Permanent Way, where Hare picks apart the various motives and personalities involved in British Rail’s disastrous and systematic string of train wrecks from ’94 – ’02. From the bereaved to the rail managers to the investment bankers who funded a failed privatization that resulted in reduced maintenance, track failure and lots of fatalities, Hare approaches the disastrous system simply by listening, and paints a path through empathy with each player towards systematic health. As it turns out, everyone wanted the same thing – a safer, efficient, and well-used rail system. Everyone in our community wants the same thing for our community – opportunities for all, artistic growth, and audience development.

The simplest technique to shepherding everyone’s competing interests turns out to be the reverse of a standard dramatic technique. If you seek to understand the motivations of the people and groups of people that you see blocking you from your goal, you can quickly defuse the drama and find the quickest path to a mutually beneficial compromise.

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Transparency

December 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I finally got around to catching up with Chris Piatt’s PerformInk analysis of the year in Blogs, Blogs, Blogs!, which is highly recommended reading for both theater community watchers and theater community builders. One paragraph struck me in particular:

Yet, despite its (at least for now) comparatively small readership, everyone in power fears the blogosphere for a different reason. Journalists can be scrutinized without sanction and—their source of real terror—their social station could eventually be taken by unpaid, untrained writers. Meanwhile, theatres and artists fear bloggers their P.R. machines can’t control. In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the fear that most people have (and I share, to some extent) of engaging in public dialogue. Especially my theater friends who look at me funny when I say I’d like to show audiences the crazy argumentative design conversations we have. It feels like that fear is a part of a more general trend in America these days. The increasingly engaged blogging community has developed during a period of weaker-than-normal debate in the political sector and a good eight years of journalism that could-have-been-but-wasn’t. We’ve lost the habit of sorting through our values in public debate. Now, minds are made up before the conversation begins.

And as far as this blog goes, the impulse to write a blog that really analyzed the mechanism of theater seemed to awaken in me an overpowering and paranoid fear that my various employers and students and other theater companies would then know my thoughts and use them against me. Or lose faith in those ideas. Or find me in conflict of interest and blacklist me. There’s that fear that a transparent dialogue and open exchange of ideas will result in gossip, hurtful language and infighting. And it does, sometimes.

But that’s not the community that I moved across the country for – past New York, I might add. We’re capable of generating model theaters, and model theater organizations, and trend-setting work, so we should also be capable of vibrant blogging and reporting about that work. I agree with Chris here about the dubious character of anonymous posters – If a thought has value, it needs to be shared and tested with constructively critical thought, so that the idea can be strengthened and refined. Mutually beneficial conversations can be had when people take some ownership of their opinions and stand for something. With most critics’ wordcount limit, I think that the blogapalooza might be the place where these more complex ideas can be discussed, so I’m glad that theater reporters are among the first to jump into the game and provide some detailed analysis. It’s their game too.

That’s of course why none of us should be worried about this new public forum ripping our livelihoods away – there’s a difference between transparency and unfiltered opinionating, and that difference has value. Drawing connections and providing analysis that others are not equipped or unwilling to do has value. No matter what form we work in, or what our readership level is, if we are committed to creating the best work that we are capable of, we will always be rewarded by that work. If fear is allowed to get in the way of the work, the work will always suffer, and maybe that tells us something. Gapingvoid sums up the fear of transparency nicely:

Transparency’s a tricky one. Transparency relies on human beings, and human beings are generally a frickin’ nightmare.

But forget the hardcore mechanics of running a company for a minute. Let me ask you another question instead:

At the company you work for, how afraid is the average person of making a mistake? Of not being right? Of backing the wrong horse and being found out later?

And then there’s your answer. The less afraid he or she is, the more transparent your company can be, with itself and with the outside world. The more afraid he or she is, the more opaque you’ll have to remain.

The primary requirement for a transparent public discussion (or transparent management of the cultural institutions we get to play with) is disclosure of motives. We need to disclose not just what we want from the community and what we want to create in the community, but it’s also important for us to speak openly about the framework with which we see that community. For example, it’s interesting to see from Chris’ writing (especially his stellar TOC piece on McTheatre a few months back, duly reviewed by blogger Don Hall) an emerging framework of Big Producer Money vs. the interests of the underdog Storefront community. He’s right, of course – especially where City money is concerned, god help us. On the other hand, I think that framework makes the story about mortal combat between Wicked vs. Straw Dog, and that’s not always where I want to be thinking from, because that sure does look like a hopeless fight.

I’ll offer an alternative framework to the storefront woes these days that I’ve found to be more inspiring. My creative life has been in flux these days, and in the interest of full transparency, I’ve needed a more inspiring way to look at the situation to prevent the ever-lurking theater burnout from knocking on my door. I see Chicago theater as a unique community where at the end of the day, finances matter less than the artistic development of the work and the artists creating that work. The difficult pill for me to swallow is that great artists come here when they first start out, and they do five to ten years of work before they have the chops to make a living in another industry or in another city. Either that, or they keep developing forever, and here, that’s another form of success. It’s a public lab, where half-finished ideas get equal airtime and sometimes those ideas actually get developed and turned into really compelling stories. New ideas can be tried on a tiny budget. In Hollywood, half these ideas don’t get greenlit because failure means bankruptcy – what does get pushed forward are the sure crowd pleasers, but not necessarily the ideas that our society NEEDS. In New York, well god help me I don’t really understand New York, but it the work I’ve seen exported from New York and in New York is either the same sure thing McTheater or razor-sharp nihilism – hateful, despairing, and bitter art from people who have become disconnected from their homeland. Which, sure, these days… I’d like to become disconnected from my homeland.

In Chicago, we’ve got both of those types of shows, but we’ve also always had a third type – something that makes more wholly American than New York and Hollywood ever could. It’s a deep connection with ‘realness’, and it’s the same desire that drives us to retain our historic buildings but also renovate them and rebuild them. It’s the same vision that makes us want to both drive out the Bush administration at the same time we want to clean up the Chicago political machine. It’s the same awareness of our world that makes us want to desegregate our hometown and create theater that Looks like Chicago. It’s a kind of theater that wants to reclaim the word ‘homeland’ and make us feel proud of our Americanness again, and how we can make that pride up to the world. That connection with ourselves, our realness makes us capable of wonderfully and wholly American theater – Theater that deserves to be seen on an international level and draw international attention, and interact with other international theaters.

This is a framework where Chicago is not, and never will be, a second city. It is an Ambassador City. Why even bother with spinning the framework of the Chicago Theater landscape this way? It’s not to gloss over real problems. But it is to create a public idea that allows for growth. If you look at the sum total of theater PR in this city, and if you consider Chris’ McTheatre piece to be the most comprehensive appeal to the market to take action, I think the one-sentence perception that the public picks up is: “Good, local theater is never going to have a greater general value than Big Box Theater, so it needs to beg for City support or risk death.” That’s a distortion of Chris’ finer points, but it is what the headline tells you, and how the story spins. The PR spin I wish we were putting out there as a community is: “Theater has rich societal value, and this theater community, like other arts communities in town that have more public support, is garnering international praise without that funding. Chicago’s theater community is a key way Chicago can generate stronger international partnerships if it is treated as an export commodity.” Since PR is all about saturating a market with a unified message, if we want to really use PR to grow the entire community, we will need a common framework or vision that demonstrates rather than declares our value. We need a framework that allows us to grow, and recognize our own value.

Maybe this is all my personal PR machine talking, but I’m pretty confident that my ability to control public opinion about my own work is going on nil. More transparency: I clearly haven’t written in a while, and this blog was an opportunity to flex some pretty atrophied muscles. (I’m using the whole pig, but I’ll keep working on those run-on sentences). What I do know is that if you build a compelling idea, people will be compelled to build on that idea and generate real results, and a blog is a good place to test out those ideas that compel you.

One such idea that compels me: Maybe one opportunity we have with this blog-a-go-go is the ability to have a more transparent discussion about how to build Chicago theater’s reputation outside of the industry. Like with the Mayor. He has flunkies that read blogs. And he knows that there’s more to Chicago theater than New York exports, but he doesn’t yet know what Storefront theater can do for him. Yes, Broadway in Chicago has got his funding now. But if he gets his Olympics, someone should tell him that all those visitors ain’t gonna be all that compelled by Wicked.

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The Generation Gap

November 09, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

0.jpegThere’s nothing like Radio Lab to make you delighted to change the way you look at the world.

The few times I’ve worked with folks of a different generation in theater (why doesn’t this happen more?) I’ve noticed a peculiar gap in perception, especially when it comes to sound. You’ve perhaps witnessed the great ongoing debate over vocal reinforcement on stage, but something new seems to be cropping up since the rock age took over: our audiences have collective hearing loss. As the Mickey Mouse Club cranks the compression and other sound-wave science in on the airwaves and in musicals (creating a dynamic blast of boy band bravado to give it that CD sound), audiences are literally becoming dependant on reinforcement to hear performances, and get angry when they don’t hear those mics being cranked.

Which unfortunately, leaves the “pristine” reinforcement that sound designers love and producers spend big bucks on – the kind you can’t detect – fighting for its life. Literally. I’ve seen perfectly transparent reinforcement designs – the kind that just sound like super-human projection and if you couldn’t see the speakers moving you wouldn’t know that they were turned on, but every word is crystal clear from every seat in the house. And I’ve seen those designs scrapped because audience members started complaining… not because they couldn’t hear the words, but because they couldn’t hear the sound of amplification – the distortion, the pops, the clicks, the heavy breathing. The things that the sound designer and engineer has worked for at least three weeks to remove. Crazy! What’s going on?

What I’ve noticed about the older generation of theater artists (and audiences) is that they don’t warm up as quickly to things like sonic underscore or more than a sprinkle of sound effects in a show – while on the other side of the coin, younger artists spread it on thick, often using it just for the sake of using it, and younger audiences lose focus if words are not spoken over an underscore.

When you get into a conceptual discussion with both parties present about what’s going on and what it all means is when you really start seeing the disconnect… it’s really like two people are just plain hearing different things. That is to say, we agree on what we’re hearing, but the emotions evoked in us by sounds as basic as silence and non-silence are profoundly different. It creates an ethical question that I’m trying to grapple with in my work – is it better for the future of theater audiences to remove sound underscores that can emotionally manipulate and cue the audience in to an arbitrary interpretation of the text, or to include that underscore and connect with a younger audience on their terms?

I think the answer may be to remove the more overt and hammering underscores in film and TV, which most audiences experience on a daily basis, and see how those mediums deal with that.

Did they really put that much MTV in our baby formula? Is our brain chemistry just plain different from our elders?

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich say yes and here’s why.

I think there’s a way back from this, and it feels like Radio Lab is beginning to find it. We need to explore what is really going on here, and by understanding what is happening as we watch 14 hours of TV a day and score our commute with our iPods, we will also find ways to rehumanize what is happening through art. Art will always reconnect humankind with a kind of foggy truth – that’s art’s job. What is happening to our collective brain chemistry with the increasing velocity of technological development is uncertain, and there’s a lot of fear and rejection of technology that comes as a result.

But sound and video projection technology is just a new kind of fire that our species wields. We will both fear it and respect it from a distance until it becomes a part of us – and some people will experiment with it and get closer to integrating it into our culture. Respect, care and moderation with these tools is good, because if we had let fire get out of control, it would’ve burnt our house down.

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