Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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We Have Ignition

March 23, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, projects

The blogs of the theatrosphere weren’t the only things lighting up last week. This weekend alone I have been in touch with six movers and shakers who are all choosing now as the time to start cross-theater initiatives. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me, friends. They’re all in early stages, but they’re all incredibly exciting collaborative projects that you and your theater needs to get in on:

1) An IMDB for Chicago Theater. The CTDB? Dan Granata’s list-making of Chicago Theaters isn’t a vanity project. It’s about creating a tool to explore the network of connections that we have, and harvesting value from those connections. Since succeeding in theater often comes down to who you know and who knows you, such a tool can’t be underestimated. I’ve talked about this project before, but it’s starting to roll now… The relational database may now be jumping to the web, where it can team up with eager volunteers: That’s you, friend. Some possible benefits from such a site:

a) The ability to allow users to find and explore their own connections that lead them deeper into the detail of the industry. Did you like Kaitlin Byrd’s performance in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl? Well now you’ll be able to quickly and easily find out what else she’s been in and what she’ll be in next. This is a key feature that speaks to fostering local talent – it will be a way to provide the context of career to the specifics of a single performance.

b) Accountable user reviews. You can see the greatest challenge facing a theater simply by listening to the conversations in line: No one – NO ONE – sees a show unless it comes recommended by someone they trust. Some people trust certain critics, certain playwrights, directors, or theaters, and that’s been the answer so far. Well, let’s follow Amazon’s lead and allow user feedback to determine recommendations of other shows – shows maybe you’ve never heard of – but nonetheless are related to your interests. Step one: allow everyone to be a critic, and have “critic pages” where you can see EVERY user critic’s collected reviews – and determine for yourself whether you trust the glowing praise or the angry vitriol.

c) It’s built by the community, so it will serve the community. This is our challenge as web architects, and I think we’re up to it: It needs to be simple as sand to put up your own history and forge your own connections. It needs to be as fun and rewarding as friending people on facebook – with the added benefit of connecting you with local folk who are interested in seeing your work – and having their interests reflected in your work. And it’s worked before: as Bethany of Free and Cheap Theatre has told me, even after nearly two years of being offline, there is still a vibrant community of people who clamor for a service like they had before with Free and Cheap Theatre. It just needs to be built sustainably. To me, that means the community – not any single individual – needs to build it as it uses it.

d) Insert your idea here. The database we’re planning will be extensible, that is, able to incorporate future ideas and applications. If it relates to the information of theater in chicago, it can probably be stored, analyzed and capitalized upon. From an ethical standpoint, this means that needs to belong to the community, not a private enterprise. Many theaters in the past few weeks have discovered the joys of the Facebook Page to promote and analyze a core fan base, but have any of them considered where facebook’s ad revenue goes to? (hint: it’s this kid and his stock holders.) My personal feeling is that this project could not only “build the pie” of the theater going artist, but also feed a revenue stream to fund other projects that benefit the theater community in Chicago. This ain’t no money making venture, but if it takes off it could serve to help and benefit the people that use it.

2) Shared storage space and resource sharing for multiple theaters. This idea took off when two interested mid-sized theaters with a common problem (excess waste due to a lack of suitable storage, and high cost of props, furniture and costumes) decided to team up. I won’t name the theaters quite yet because the production managers initiating the project have boards they have to answer to, and this project is well in the “any-misstep-could-kill-it” phase. Also, it’s late and it’s Easter, and they’re not checking their email tonight… But our face-to-face is happening in a week or so, and already five other theaters have declared interest in the project.

Essentially, the proposal is: Pool our resources. As Joe, production manager for the largest theater involved, put it: “We have to throw out enough lumber every season to build 30 Side Project and New Leaf sets.” At the same time, Joe’s theater has very little access to props sharing arrangements like the one that the Side Project has with its visiting artist companies like LiveWire and DreamTheatre, so its prop budgets need to be pretty high. By creating a community storage facility with a unified organization and internal rental agreement, theaters can pool their money, throw out less, and find what they need with a minimum of headache.

Because it isn’t as free as data, this is the project that could be helped the most by the involvement of a community. This is a project that would need to be sustainable and financially solvent. It’s already clear that renting a space of the size required on our meagre budgets alone would be foolhardy, so the project needs eyes, ears and minds that can collectively work out some of the key details: Is there a donor who has a warehouse and is eager to take a mother of a tax break for the benefit of nearly every theater in town? What’s the best way to organize all these props and costumes? Where does the labor come from? How do we protect the rights of property for small theaters in such an organization? How would we resolve disputes if a valuable property is needed by multiple theaters at the same time? The answer may well be: Let every theater deal with their own storage solution, (UHaul here we come! Oy!) but we won’t know unless we really ask the question.

Here’s the best part about all three of these projects: You can start helping now, even in the “twinkle in our eye” stage. I’ve set up an online forum through this site (now with Sidebar action!) where you can help roadmap these projects, adding your input, suggestions, wishlists, feedback, resources, and reality checks every step of the way. After trying a number of formats, I’ve landed on the phpBB forum as the best existing method of getting a large community to collaborate on a project with a minimum of digression. I’ve also setup forums for other existing projects like Don Hall’s Off Loop Freedom Charter, because if you see someone pushing a rock up a hill… well, let’s help him out.

Also, this forum is meant as a practical and local companion to Theatre Ideas’ TribalTheatre Forum – which is a rich exploration of the theories behind the Theater Tribe ethos that is inspiring many of these projects. It’s not that theory, coordination, and action should be at all divorced from each other, but sometimes the conversation needs a little more focus.

There are two words that are still ringing in my head from the dozens of blog entries about the value of theater: “Communal Imagination.” Those two words formed a call to action that landed with me and many other artists interested in deepening their connection with this community, and this is the action: community-driven projects that are the result of community-driven imagination.

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TFTT Writer’s Strike Edition: The HTTP:// isn’t just for marketing

November 07, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

The web community spirit of You Tube hasn’t quite been working yet for theatrical marketing and promotions, but thankfully we’re in good company… TV Writers have also been given the shaft on the emerging market of “New Media” – web downloads, promotional content like webisodes, and viral entertainment, and that’s about to change. A number of theater companies are also experimenting and Chicago company stagechannel brings theater to video… But I was wondering today about the possibilities of bringing theater to the web and drawing in audience through the ever-growing internet viewing market…

First, check out this wonderful bit of social activism mixed with star power and street theater:

I often think the preshow, lobby area, and even the preshow announcement are ripe opportunities for extending the world of the play beyond the four corners of a theater space. But we’re also starting to see a number of experiments in extending a play’s walls into the internet to help promote a show, including our own at New Leaf for Vox Pandora, TheOnlyOneLeftWasHope.com. It’s rich territory, as the number of people trolling the internet for content instead of cable TV is growing exponentially by the day.

Another of these fifth-wall experiments crossed my inbox a few days ago, Jason Grote’s web world created for a production of his play 1001. Jason has created a fake news page with easter egg links to his box office, his reviews, even a world-of-the-play wiki for user-generated comments.

These web productions are often slapped together, but when you think about how many of our young audience members sit in day jobs surfing the net, how great would it be for someone to start to experience a rich theatrical experience for the entire day before they actually get to the theater? And then after they see the show, they could visit the world again from their office? Why is this kind of creative obsession reserved for TV serials like Lost, the Office, and Heroes, when theater artists also create multiple worlds of that scope a year? Even better, why can’t part of the play BE the web page, not just a links page?

Theater folk don’t quite know how this web audience works yet – we have the open source technology, but not enough to understand the user experience. Jason is throwing every web gadget that he can at this thing – wikis, phpBB forums, a list serve, but he doesn’t focus the site’s attention on the web technologies that his audience will actually want to use in their valuable free time and be entertained by. He hasn’t built a web audience yet, either, so he also has to resort to emailing folks to drive traffic to his site, which completely breaks the illusion that he has crafted so carefully.

But all is not lost for Jason, and I applaud his experiment. Theaters are by nature small and aggressively experimental, and require the least amount of resources from concept to execution than other entertainment media. We experiment like mad, and learn from that experimentation faster than larger entertainment organizations – though we also forget the things we learn faster. The question of how the web can be used to host and promote entertainment is a big one, and one I think film studios, TV networks, Internet Technology Companies, Theaters, and a nationwide audience will all be answering at the same time. I think on a more even playing field like the ‘net, it’s actually theaters who might know what their audiences really want, and have the most to gain from such a paradigm shift from at home content to online worlds that hold our attention hostage.

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Why For the Future is For Now

November 03, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

toothpaste for dinner
Lord knows I don’t need another project on the ol’ plate.

But I’m becoming obsessed with how I do the same research, make the same explanations, find the same solution, and begin the same projects with each of my theater companies. I’ve found conversations begun in one theater company being echoed in another. I wonder why theater companies don’t talk to each other more.

I’m beginning to see a great collective wealth of thought about storefront theater infrastructure, and great and achievable possibilities for inter-company collaboration and workload sharing. I am working on experimental collaboration techniques that both excite and scare the bejeezus out of me. These techniques and tools may help to legitimize and streamline an industry that is largely assumed to be inviable and unprofitable and a great waste of time. And in the same breath they may serve to homogenize the same industry, as diverse as each individual that works in it.

The main problem I deal with on a day to day basis is theater infrastructure – and lack thereof. Theaters are often crippled with a lack of money and a lack of time. This is a problem that I think can be solved.

For Example.

In this past week, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a busy theater company – real movers and shakers they – who manage their collective projects through email. Everything – Marketing strategies, Production Schedules, Casting Calls, Box Office Duties, all over email – often in the SAME emails. Epic, multi-page, carefully outlined emails.

Now some of you may have just squirmed, and there’s a reason – email is an ephemeral, inconstant, disorganized tidal wave of a web technology. It confuses and babelfies as it tries to spread information. Some people don’t read their email, some people reply to all when they should focus their stream of consciousness, and some people don’t realize that THEY’RE YELLING IF THEY WRITE IN ALL CAPS. I don’ t mean to harp on you if you’re one of those people, but the fact of the matter is, email and web technologies have changed the way that we work and communicate. As a country, very nearly as a species. That’s all happened in the last ten years, so like any evolutionary step, there’s a period of adjustment that gets pretty messy. Welcome to the era of messy.

Many alternatives to the email strategy of project management have popped up in the last few years – from online group forums like phpBB to wikis. These are tools that can organize projects a bit more logically, and they also save old information and posts. They’re not perfect, require a very little bit of adjustment, but they’re hand over fist better at managing multi-step projects than email is.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to talk about here… The systematic inefficiencies that just pop up and can end up squandering a theater company’s resources, what can be done differently, and what could be created to make everyone’s life a bit easier.

Because we’re in the business of changing people’s lives. That’s something worth working for.

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