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You have no control over your life.

May 27, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

No answers here, just questions.

Big events have been drawing this fact of life into sharp relief over the past week/month/year, on a huge scale and many spin-off, convoluted, personal scales.

The manufacturer of my car, who happens to be one of the leading employers of a nearby state, will likely be bankrupt soon. I’ll probably be getting rid of it anyway, likely for well below the market value. Because honestly? Even if it is valueless, it makes no financial or environmental sense for me to keep it. In another year, that would have been a decision that mattered, and it’s almost an afterthought.

I’m getting to the age when mortality is an internalized fact of life for pretty much everyone I know. This Memorial Day, we lost Will. And we had another health scare the next day that was almost made worse by that ugly, gaping maw in the social safety net that most professional artists find themselves slipping through at one point or another: Uninsurance. Don’t get me wrong, I think children and the elderly deserve universal health care first as we as a society can afford it. But I also believe that we should freaking find a way so that everyone can have access to it. Even the simple fear of losing access to health care has its own cost in missed opportunities for screenings and preventative medicine. I don’t care how Social Darwinist you’re feeling today, I’m done with losing and almost losing friends, and I think we need to find a way to prevent basic health care and especially preventative medicine from being an even slightly financial decision.

Prop 8 woes in California also demonstrate the government’s and more importantly the Body Politic’s ability to remove our rights to well-being and a level social playing field, but there are encouraging signs that at least there’s a winnable battle yet to be had there. It’s not going to play out in the judicial oligarchy, because that wouldn’t really have a sense of finality – the decision lies in hashing out the problem once again in the court of public debate and ballot. There are ways and means to win back that control, and build lasting justice in reaction to a particularly clear injustice.

And there’s one more thing, probably the smallest of all these things, but the one that seemed the most like the universe coming right out and bitch slapping the people I live and work with, declaring: “You. Yeah, you. The technical theater artists and independent theater producers. That’s right: You. Fuck You.”

The Texas Senate, in an apparent fit of pique, proposed and approved a measure to make Lighting Design functionally illegal. The really bafflingly scary thing about this is just how often this happens. In the face of some other social ill, DIY creative enterprise in general can and will at any time be just plain eviscerated and made illegitimate with the sweep of a legislative pen. The tax code does this, the health care system does this, we do it to each other and we do it to ourselves by leaving ourselves vulnerable and unprepared. The society itself does not see this work – by which I mean the work of independent, non-profit theater whose goal is revelation over capitalization – as legitimate. Part of us doesn’t think it’s legitimate either, as measured by our actions and our real impact and influence on our communities.

But that vague sense of laziness is really hard for me to jibe with Will, who lived this life all the way through, without the equity card, without the health insurance, all the while supporting the small companies that he cared about as a grant writer and advisor, touring schools and being a crucial part of bringing developing plays to life for the developing playwrights that he believed in. Ultimately, we give all of ourselves over, and request a modicum of empowerment from society and government just to do our work – to explore troubling and mundane subjects and what it means to be a community and what it is like to share an imaginative spark – without quite this much fear of being left out to hang for spending time on this way of life. One of those subjects could be, certainly, how it’s only been (some) Americans in this last half-century that have lived under the delusion that we do in fact have control over our lives – and what does that mean?

If you don’t have control over your life, then it follows that sickness and health isn’t something you get to choose or earn based on market performance. I don’t know when that idea started to make sense to us. If the licensed electricians legitimized as theatrical lighting designers by the Texas legislature can work and get enough money or support to get health care – a safety net for when not if we eventually fall ill – we should be able to achieve at least that for each other.

Precariousness, large and small. I am thankful for what I am granted the chance to hang on to.

Not everything falls apart. Give a hand to @travisbedard and @jimonlight, who fought and organized intelligently over the past two days for their right to light. If the bill gets changed tomorrow, I’m giving them the credit. And see the steps they took to get there on Twitter – it’s a compelling call to action.

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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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Chicago Theater Database: User Updates A-Plenty

January 28, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

It’s been a crazily delightful week over at the CTDB.

A couple days ago, we opened up usernames to 45 new users, and several folks have been really cooking. You may know them. With their help, we’ve identified and fixed about ten workflow bugs, and we’ve tried to do so proactively – often fixing the issue before the user reported a bug at all.

That’s largely thanks to one of the key new features of the CTDB: contribution tracking by user, which we invite you to participate in. One of the star updaters has been Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, company manager for Mary-Arrchie Theater Company, who has very nearly entered in the entire production history of Mary-Arrchie. Going back to 1986, that’s 58 productions, and a great many performers, playwrights, directors, and designers, which he’s still ticking away.

Included in those productions are the wildly inclusive and experimental Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festivals, which just celebrated their twentieth nearly-annual run. As most storefront theaters in Chicago know, each Abbie Hoffman Festival contains dozens of short-form plays and productions from dozens of theater companies. And the CTDB is ready to handle ALL that history.

So, today’s call to action: Has your company ever participated in the Abbie Hoffman Festival? Write us for a user account and enter your production into the Abbie Hoffman festival history. And, if you’re really feeling eager, maybe update a bit of your own company and personal history as well? We’d love to have you join the party.

Cross-Posted on the Chicago Theater Data Blog

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Chicago Theater Database Update: Tapping the Energy of the Group

December 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, CTDB

This post is cross-posted over at the CTDB Data Blog

Two important notches off the Chicago Theater Database road map this month.

On December 8, we tackled the problem of capturing the convoluted data of repertory festivals, using the models of The Side Project’s Cut to the Quick Short Works Festival and the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival. Both festivals basically act as a big melting pot for artists, combining directors, playwrights, performers and designers in dozens of teams that create unique one-act experiences and a more general community-driven whole.

We wanted to be able to look at each festival as both a whole and as the sum of its parts. That meant separating festivals into three kinds of production records:

1) The One Act, or “child” production. We’ve been wanting to capture one-acts for a while now, as they form an important part of a playwright’s development – just as one act festivals form an important part of a performer’s and directors development. Each one act acts exactly like a normal production record – there’s a play, there are artists, there’s a show.

2) The Evening / Program. Many festivals organize their shows into themed evenings or programs to provide patrons with a more curated form of choice and variety. In the case of Cut to the Quick, we have three evenings in the festival that each contain a number of child one-acts: Splinters and Shrapnel, which are war-themed works, Static/Cling which centers around the family, and Splayed Verbiage, which features a deeper grab bag of hyper-short works.

3) The Festival. This parent record can either consolidate a number of plays as a single artistic unit, as in the Eugene O’Neill Fest, or it can consolidate a series of programs.

Each “Parent” record consolidates ALL the director, performer and design production credits from its children, and provides a quick view of the plays contained within that festival or evening. So you can look at the whole picture, or look at each one act granularly.

Best of all, there’s a quick-edit link to add a new one-act or evening to a festival that pre-fills a copy of the data from the festival into the new record – that makes updating the information for each festival play a snap.

Dan and I have a bit of a soft spot for theater festivals… they’re powered by a bigger community and they require a unique blend of organization and organic chaos to create their unique kind of energy and excitement. So don’t miss Cut to the Quick which wraps up on Dec. 21st and be sure to catch the O’Neill Fest at the Goodman, opening Jan. 7th.

————–

Along those lines, we launched yesterday two important pieces of Web 2.0 technology that we hope will fuel our online community of CTDB contributors. Our contributions and users sections now give credit where credit is due – each edit to the database is now tracked in a permanent audit history. This allows us to provide some necessary protection against internet vandals by creating a e-paper trail of changes and linking those changes to a user account. In the (we hope) unlikely event that a disreputable party begins taking credit for founding Steppenwolf, the entire community of contributors will quickly be able to track down the culprits and restore the changes.

More important than user accountability however, record auditing allows us to draw attention to the contributions of some pretty dedicated volunteers – such as CTDB powerhouse Laura Ciresi of Trailing Spouse Blues. Since we began auditing database records at the beginning of December, Laura has been steadily updating the entire production history of several theater companies, including Steppenwolf, Naked Eye, and her home Infamous Commonwealth. She may have even helped you get listed for one of your credits.

But you don’t have to take our word for it any more. You can see Laura’s work – and others – as it happens, and thank our users yourself!

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Chicago Theater Database Update: The Count

November 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: CTDB

Cross-mentioned at the Chicago Theater Data Blog, natch…

New Features in the Chicago Theater Database Today! I’ve turned on a number of aggregating counters that will be used in future sorting functionality, but for the moment I’m having fun seeing who exactly are the busiest artists (weighted to benefit the most prolific playwrights), companies, venues and most-produced plays in the existing and evolving online census of Chicago Theater.

Lots more analysis to check out about the Chicago Theater scene – and thanks to a number of our contributors who have been knocking off a TON of history and program input projects in the past few weeks.

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Geniuses whose reflection will help you

November 14, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Let me direct your attention, especially all you feed-readers out there, to the little green widget in my sidebar that I have labeled “Big Ideas”. This is, in my humble opinion, a feed of some of the most mind-blowing thoughts on infrastructure and analysis on the theatre web. It is culled from a hundred or so blogs that I read regularly, and “Big Idea” status is only conferred on most enriching content out there. And you can even subscribe and save yourself all that work if you so choose. So enjoy.

That said, two special mentions today for folks I don’t normally link to:

Scrappy “Jack” John Clancy reposts his essay on the rehearsal process, which reads as fresh as a lime soda. Though, as a designer, I have to take issue with the idea that it is “Best to forget about the play entirely during technical rehearsals and leave the poor actors alone.” But of course, he’s mainly talking about managing actor energy, not a director’s energy. Good stuff.

And if you haven’t read Dark Knight Dramaturgy yet, (the amazing Chicago expat Dan Rubin, who is now in the literary department at ACT), today’s the day to start. Dan’s posts are nothing short of illuminated in general, but he begins a series today on effective strategies and resources for playwrights to get their works included in some of the most high-profile festivals in the country. Knowing Dan’s approach to literary management (Dan was both dramaturg for New Leaf’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl and assisted greatly during the Goodman’s Horton Foote Festival), I can say with trust: he’s your man on the inside.

This post in particular is a must-read for all you underproduced playwrights out there.

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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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Why I’m Not Worried by a Sleeping Theatrosphere

September 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’ve been talking with some folks who are making the leap to Chicago – there’s of course Brian over at Director Sector who I’m excited to be collaborating with on a number of theater/web hybrid projects, and I was on the phone this morning with an electrician who’s moving to town this fall. Two of my younger sisters are also moving off or preparing for college, and considering all their options in a very uncertain time. In talking with all of them about the resources, networks and strategies available to someone joining a new community, I was reminded (and I hope have suitably warned them) about that rough year I had when first moving to town, living with my high school friend John in Bridgeport, picking up the odd design and the odd temp job. Not everyone experiences it, but those months spent disconnected from the community you’re living in can be so poisonous – or they can be renewing. Like that feeling when your broken bones are mending, the solitude of living solo in a new community is itchy because you’re healing. But when our perspectives are disconnected from the reality of our social environment, we’re unable to act, we’re unable to engage, we’re unable to do the basic work of theater – connection.

I try not to push theater folk into coming to Chicago specifically, though I will lobby for it when the alternative is New York. For some, Chicago can be a familial network of artistic support, and for some, it’s a crowded game. I greatly admire folks breaking new theatrical ground like Cherubs Faculty Associate Paige Clark (who is starting a theater company in San Antonio) or Zachary Mannheimer’s continuing project with Subjective Theater Company, and their drive to build the Des Moines Social Club. My new ground to be broken has never been geographic, however – my life didn’t offer that option – and instead I’ve been interested and equipped to deal with structural changes and new ways of developing ideas, and that means testing those structures with as many contexts as possible. For me, Chicago is the lab in which I can play with structure, scale, and interconnectivity of how theater can work. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m ready to draw conclusions about those experiments yet.

Before I got connected with the theater community in Chicago, I had incredibly inaccurate and subjective opinions – both glowing and fearful – about how the theater community here operated. And like any flawed assumption that you use to cope with your situation, those opinions got reinforced as dogma and prejudice against/for this way of doing things or that way of doing things, and if you’re lucky, you get data later on that helps you break that prejudice down. No one is immune to the process of prejudice. It’s just how the human brain works. That’s the beauty of the scientific method, but of course there’s a problem – objectively analyzing social constructs like the impact of theater on a community is notoriously difficult.

As could be expected, I’m mulling over another spat of outlandish but perhaps fruitful argument generated by Scott Walters over at Theater Ideas. Given a context of pure theory, Scott is an inspiring academic guru of theatrical community organization, but in the time we face now – a time of political change that initiates a debate of social change, and a time where the arts face assault from a culture that wages unjust wars and lets entire cities drown – the practical needs of the theater community that I operate in are at odds with his divine fury in support of a “purer” theory-driven movement.

This feels instead like a time of realignment. The arts are about to lose their traditional government and grant funding left and right. We all know it, and I think it could even be seen as ultimately just – as long as the money goes to more worthy causes like education, alternative energy research, rebuilding and renewing the gulf coast cities, universal health care, and especially veteran’s medical and psychological care. Those are the things I’m willing to fight for funding for through whatever, not my own skin. I’ve been happy to see that most of us in the arts understand this and don’t make the mistake of clamoring to hang on to our existing models of funding. We instead say: Hey, let’s find a way to do our work – important work, dammit – that doesn’t burden the communities we are trying to serve. That to me is a simple and workable definition of this new model for theater that we’re seeking to articulate – a theater for every community, because of the community, but not draining that community.

Scott seems to get frustrated with realignment, because he feels he has done that work already. He makes regular, even daily calls of report, report, report our progress, and accuses the rest of the theater movement of generally lazy thinking. But if he is the overactive analytical left brain of the theater movement in this country, he’s in danger of letting the body of the movement get sleep deprived. The playwrights, designers, directors and technicians that blog along with him often act as the hands, eyes, and ears (and in the case of Don Hall, the asshole – kisses Don) of the theater movement – and we need our regular exercise and REM sleep.

What does that sleep look like in the theatrosphere? It looks like doing theater, and not always blogging about it. It looks like taking the time to think about the political and social crisis in this country and how our art should reflect the choices that people in our country are making now about our future trajectory. It looks like training ourselves by testing new articulations of old ideas (what else is rehearsal for?) It looks like taking the theories of a new model of theater and testing them through a season selection, a rehearsal process, a design, a marketing plan, a critical review. It looks like retreating to the wilderness to reconnect with the real reasons to do this work. It looks like spreading the word out from our e-bubble and changing the cultural dialogue one artist at a time – which is 90% boring work and 10% hopeful inspiration.

Of course it’s working, since the theater community is so very small: I can see in the green room banter that there is a renewed consensus and commitment to finding a better way of connecting the community to the art that it wants and needs but doesn’t know how to ask for. No one, especially the regional theaters, think that the status quo is going to work for much longer – or that it’s working now. I hope that the work that Dan G. and I are doing with the CTDB – which is ultimately about collecting highly detailed information on a single community, albeit one Scott is sick of hearing about – show Scott that it’s not just his eyes that are open to the change that must happen if our work is to survive and matter and do some good for us and our neighbors. Scott regularly uses the contents of American Theatre Magazine as his canary in the coal mine for how successfully his model for truly regionalized theater is being implemented, and no wonder he’s frustrated. ATM is the public face of the TCG-flavored status quo, and he’s shown many times about how their skewed data analysis and commentary doesn’t typically do their data collection any justice. Policy formation always begins with an accurate census and assessment of community need, and if the little guy is to make the choice, they need the data in their hands, and they need to be empowered to analyze it themselves. If we seek to change our model, our way of working, we must apply a little bit of scientific process: we can work to collect empirical data, and use it to break down our prejudices and test our theories about art, artist, audience, and community. Because while we need dreams, theory and action to engage with our work, they all need to work in balance with each other and with the real world.

So don’t be ashamed to take a nap when you get tired. We’ll need you nice and rested and sharp for work tomorrow.

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