Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
Subscribe

Follow Up: The Tribe vs. the Macroeconomy

February 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I’m pumped for tonight.

This evening, New Leaf is embarking on something very different for us – we’re going to begin developing a play from scratch, using our lives, fears, and individual perspectives as source material.

The project originally began from a difficult point in New Leaf’s history, a night after a particularly difficult run through of The Permanent Way where we sat around a table at Ranalli’s and wrote our greatest fears as human beings down on the paper tablecloth in crayon. We’re kind of like kids when we get together, and crayon drawing is one of the most powerful ways we’re able to express ourselves.

Expressing our fears to each other gave them weight, and enabled us to gain insight into each other’s actions and the undertow of insecurity that led to those actions. It allowed us to become mentors for each other, and know when to push each other forward and provide encouragement or challenge. Expressing the fears also gave us some foothold against those fears, and plenty of raw material for our work. Knowing what was going on in each others’ inner lives allowed us to navigate each other more effectively and reduce the amount of confusion and unnecessary conflict in our company. It focused and sharpened the ensemble.

Personal lives often complicate a professional relationship, and that’s the reason creative tribes are difficult to put together. They only function on a foundation of profound trust and mutual respect. The way we are taught to operate is to hide our weaknesses, while the strong artistic choice often is to offer your throat to the world and dare the world to cut it. It’s surprising and exhilarating to display your identity and your perspective bare – the one you hide even from yourself – and it’s the core function of art. The tribe provides a collaborative environment that enables artists to do this and still maintain just enough safety net to keep pushing forward through the crushing insecurity that is generated by that level of honesty.

The support provided by a tribe is incredibly reassuring, because it has to be – it’s based on a family-type relationship that allows room for healthy and honest criticism based on years of shared experience. It also creates a people-centric co-prosperity that’s better than any pension plan you could ever hope for — Recessions come and go, but human beings, if they stay connected to each other, can maintain a stable existence of growth, pain, loss and happiness through harsh economic times. The tribe finds each other work and opportunities through lean times, and feeds resources, hopes, dreams and energy back to each other during those times when the manna rains from heaven. A tribe culture appreciates and understands your work from many perspectives, and they act as ambassadors of your work to find new clients and even new applications for your work. They find the doors that you haven’t been able to look for and they open them for you. It’s a culture that works for people more than the corporate model, because it places value on people rather than assets. It doesn’t have to convert human value into a monetary value first.

Scott over at Theatre Ideas has been plugging for a new model for a theater organization that will function more effectively to create exciting work than the regional theater model, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around on the micro and the macro level. As excited as I am about the bottom-up approach of the tribe, there’s potential pitfalls for a tribalistic mindset in a globalistic environment. The potential price to pay is in the danger of groupthink and the difficulties involved in establishing a tribe of diverse backgrounds. It’s true that global environments like the American economic indicators like GDP haven’t been historically good at calculating the value of humanity because science and statistics haven’t really been able to develop solid objective calculation for subjective experiences like “happiness.” This flaw results in some pretty nasty side effects, like the artificial propping up of industries like Oil and Gas production or diamond mining which don’t accurately weigh in the costs of the human suffering involved in procuring them.


But a humanistic tribal mindset doesn’t completely solve the problem either: In 1972, Bhutan’s king decided to address the flaws of the GDP model by introducing his own Buddhist-influenced economic indicator: Gross National Happiness. For a country with few resources, a miniscule GDP, and no desire to modernize, this was kind of a no-brainer. GNH purported to measure and therefore encourage national wealth based on four indicators:

Promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Sound familiar?

The problem with this model (and the tribal model) is that it doesn’t have an built-in incentive to include everybody. Wikipedia continues the story of a dark underbelly that can accompany these utopian visions of freedom:

Critics allege that because GNH depends on a series of subjective judgements about well-being, governments may be able to define GNH in a way that suits their interests. In the case of Bhutan, for instance, they say that the government expelled about one hundred thousand people and stripped them of their Bhutanese citizenship on the grounds that the deportees were ethnic Nepalese who had settled in the country illegally. While this would reduce Bhutan’s wealth by most traditional measures such as GDP, the Bhutan government claims it has not reduced Bhutan’s GNH.

On a personal level, I can see the potential for New Leaf to revel in its own ideas and backgrounds and not seek out those diverse opinions into the tribe because they don’t resonate in the “right” way. I’m happy that we have a pretty progressive male / female mix and a long history of producing plays by lesser-known female playwrights without making a big brou-ha-ha about it, but at the same time I’ve been ashamed that as an organization committed to renewal we deal very little with the issues of poverty, segregation and gentrification that face Chicago. Part of that is that the neighborhood we serve is right in the center of high-income and overwhelmingly-white Lincoln Park, but that of course has historically been how tribes have protected themselves – by not interacting with the people that do not fit the mold of the tribe.

I think there’s a middle ground here that I desperately want to find. The tribe brings with it an innovative energy and the old “many hands make light work” approach to problem solving. But the top-down, GDP-lovin’, LORT approach knows exactly how difficult and draining it is to really represent an entire community. They get the angry letters, they pay the salaries, and they see the trend of a drying-out subscriber base. I think their history and their heavy infrastructure makes it difficult to redirect the sinking ship, even if they desire to do so.

But word-of-mouth movements can have an impact on these top-heavy systems that don’t quite work. What I think is possible is a way to focus bottom-up grassroots energy and access with high-level thinking and coordination that promotes cross-pollination of ideas and culture and transparency all around. A way to unite the tribes into coordinated strategy and continue to value their independence. I’d like to see a double-decker strategy for change that gets it done with a minimum of burn out. If that thought makes you tired, you need to get yourself a tribe to help you keep moving through the fatigue.

The first step for me is tonight… To lose all my marbles and lay it all out on the table and see where our hearts are, where our brains vibrate, and to see what images, music and text we can layer and mold to tell this story with all our being. The framework is as ugly as a blog post that compares storefront theater to the economics of Bhutan, but the final product… The final product has got my heart beating faster.

Buy Me a Coffee?

Flow, or “Be an Opener of Doors…”

January 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments

A big thanks to TOC, Kris Vire and Chris Piatt for the shoutout in today’s Time Out Chicago. For those of you checking out this blog because of the article, welcome, and I hope you enjoy the discussion.

I’m writing from the tech table at the Goodman’s kickoff production for the Horton Foote Festival, Talking Pictures, with sound designer extraordinaire Richard Woodbury, sound guru Dave Naunton, and intern Dan Schrek, so I thought that it’d be appropriate given the bump to acknowledge the people that help me through my wack-ass schedule with their own work, input, and support —

My teachers and students.

In theater, everyone’s a jack of all trades. You’ve got to be in order to survive. There’s so very little money in theater that you sort of develop a habit of carrying lots of buckets (or spinning plates) to capture as much value as you can from each experience.

And then you give away those nuggets of wisdom like trading cards.

But it’s not always a happy garden of cooperative flower-bunnies. I recently had my young & angry side brought right out front and center by another blog post discussing a theater company in town particularly infamous to industry folks that is currently throwing my good friend into massive personal debt by refusing to reimburse him for expenses. I tiraded against this and related incidents, publicly, and I wasn’t the only one.

Now I know the consequences of tirades in an industry this small. I have been told once by someone in power, an artistic director of a LORT theater, actually, (no, not in Chicago) “If you do this, you’ll never work again.” And the type of person who would say that doesn’t deserve their power in that moment. There are just those folks out there that I think don’t get it, who end up scared and entrenched in a system they think will protect them, who tear down something because they don’t yet understand its potential value. And as far as my lapse goes, sometimes we tear something down because we feel powerless – we attack it to serve the almost crocodilian need to feel dominant again. When the young & angry side in me gets thinking about reconfiguring the world to serve social justice, I know it’s over – my brain has shut down and I’m in it for the kill. So after getting it out of my system, I’ve come to realize that in the case of theater, it’s pointless to simply tirade against the injustice that exists in the industry. Now I believe in justice, but I also know the value of practicality, and we’re talking about a tiny industry here. It’s pretty easy to single out a delinquent party and throw out some blame in their direction, but I don’t think that those kind of tirades ends up solving the problem for the next guy or gal. What could solve the problem is a sea change that flips the industry on its cute little bunny ear. Why would that work? Because both the delinquents and the bellicose are dinosaurs – they’re fighting each other to come out on top of an old system. Nothing we can do will save them, because the ecosystem that supported them is crumbling. But there are new ecosystems at work now. It’s the tiny bunnies that will survive the next evolutionary crisis. We are agile, responsive, and we reproduce early and often.

Teaching is what stopped this cycle of envy and despair in me. In my first class, I felt a new fear – the fear that if I indulged my own adolescent railings and beliefs in class, I would shut out my students’ ability to explore material for themselves. It forced me to do nothing but open doors. And that’s when I realized that helping other people open their doors generated a ton of creative energy in myself.

And here, back at the tech table, is when Dave whips out his iPhone to show us the latest features in 1.1.3, including the new (ooooooh / ahhhhh) geo-positioning feature. Richard and I are in a debate over the relative merits of two MIDI sequencers, Apple’s Logic and MOTU’s Digital Performer. Richard shows me that DP can transpose the transition music into any key (he likes the sound of the Phrygian mode). I try to do this with Logic and discover about 17 new features I hadn’t dreamed of before today (but alas, no Phrygian transposition). I show this to Dan, and in the process of even telling him what I’m doing and what we’re doing, I learn and clarify four new bits of knowledge myself. And it turns out Dan knows Ableton Live, which I’m going to need to learn from him at some point. The student has become the teacher.

And it’s not just us hypergeeks in sound land. We swear that we can hear the actors while they hold, static on stage while the director and the lighting designer craft a look, and they are discussing podcasts and the relative merits of various popular sound technologies. More importantly, the constant feedback and sharing of knowledge and insight in the room is creating a new understanding of what’s actually happening in the room. This is the first Owen show performed entirely in the round, and the actors and director and designers and production team are all learning and sharing information about how that’s working. What’s remarkable about this room is that the feedback and information is flowing in almost completely positive and constructive ways. In telling each other what we see, we both redirect and continue the momentum we’ve built up. We learn the world better ourselves without shutting other possibilities down.

Talking Pictures has some oddly resonant themes that I can see leaking into (and from) our thoughts and conversations in the room – the public craves an advance in technology, entertainment delivers that advance in technology, and the advance in technology seems to both destroy lives and offer dangerously exciting opportunities. I think we’re seeing this combination of fear and opportunity a lot in a lot of fields today because of the leveling force of internet technologies. There’s a great deal of paradigm shift and fear in the air… Will the argument over new media kill television and film, are ipods making us all deaf, will digital downloads kill the music industry, is there a need for news in a world populated by bloggers, does user-driven content disable a common public dialogue and exacerbate philosophical divides between us, and will all of this shift lead to a big cataclysmic recession? These are all related questions, and the answers will prove that the questions didn’t even matter.

And yet, we can continue to teach and learn from each other. We can look out for each others’ flow and keep our mutual momentum going. This isn’t just frilly feel-good work, this is about opening connections. This process of checking in, of bouncing ideas off each other, of collaboration – that’s the process that the internet was built on, and the process that will yield the most rewards in the future. I couldn’t have completed my sound design for Bilal Dardai’s Contraption without the assistance and input of Stephanie Farina. As she learned my style of programming, it taught me to refine my style of programming and use her set of ears with mine to make something more compelling. Without that teaching process, it just wouldn’t be the same design. I wouldn’t have developed any sort of fearlessness in my work without a simple lesson from Smith College playwriting prof and Taoist master Len Berkman: “Always start with a bad idea. Then you won’t be afraid of that your ideas are bad. You’ll know they are.”

We need each others’ help to get big change in motion, and that means passing torches and being able to trust others to teach us and help us redirect our own adolescent prejudice. I wouldn’t know about half the things I know about how sound works in theater if my students hadn’t asked those questions that started with “How do you do….” I wouldn’t have become a confident artist capable of making strong choices if my teachers hadn’t turned to me and said, “Okay, what would you do here?” Do this for others, and you’ll see – feedback comes quicker, stronger, and more effectively.

Building a better community, a community that works better, begins with a very simple step:

“Hey, check this out! Look what I can do with this…”

So, What did you learn today?

Buy Me a Coffee?

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.

Buy Me a Coffee?

  • Favorite Topics

  • Blogroll