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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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By Rote

August 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

So Patrick said this:

There has been much discussion about the right of playwrights to demand adherence to every word and stage direction in their script. Some have gone so far as to claim that no-one has right of copyright on any aspect of production of their work except for the playwright. This growing movement of animosity against directors and designers should give one pause.

And Tony said this:

One clause that I can’t abide in a lot of non-licensing houses contracts is the one that states the playwright has authority to approve pretty much everyone working on a show. Because they are creative artists, the Dramatists Guild would have you think, they are the focal point of the creation of theatre. Everything onstage is their vision and everything is subservient to the writer.

But how creative is a playwright writing about–dare I say interpreting–their lives, current events, stories they’ve heard or come across? And how is this different from directors, actors, designers?

And Isaac said this:

There’s a number of separate issues this raises, and I think it conflates a couple that should be kept separate. The first one is simply the idea of gratitude and humility amongst collaborators. Couldn’t agree more. We are lucky to do this, and lucky to work with people who are also lucky to do this, …

To me, changing the text (and here I mean the spoken words, not the stage directions which is a separate and very muddy issue) of a play without the playwright’s permission is pretty near inexcusable. When we decide to do a script, we are agreeing to do the whole thing, and giving ourselves permission to change the text when we want to would open a whole Pandora’s Box that gets us very quickly down a slippery slope to censorship.

Now, it should be said that I work with Patrick, and indeed have collaborated with him on a project or two, so I’m sympathetic to what he’s saying here – I was there listening to the Horton Foote interview that inspired his post with him, and we compare notes a lot. So I understand his largely design and technical viewpoint and vocabulary and I have shared some common non-blogging experiences – including many times where a playwright has behaved in a way that damaged their own show. Or a director made choices that damaged a show. Or a designer made choices… well, you get the idea. I think we can all see these things coming, and sometimes the train wreck caused by ego or dogma is the only thing worth the price of admission. But it’s important to acknowledge that we all have blind sides to the ways that we can also be a hindrance to the process, and it’s often our professional dogma that creates those blinders.

Certainly a lot of the overreactive conversation that was generated from these posts – and which somehow both Patrick and Isaac tried to avoid – can be chalked up to the divisive mechanism that is blogging and commenting – it’s a rich topic with many facets and thus there was quite a bit of subject shift on to Horton Foote said this (he didn’t) or Copyright law dictates that. Blogs have agendas, and a lot of the conversation didn’t really gain traction.

What I saw here was a dawning understanding of how theater will be transforming during our generation. Playwrights are dissatisfied with the industry-standard process. Directors are dissatisfied. Designers and Technicians are dissatisfied. And dissatisfaction, as we all know, is a good thing to have in rehearsal for the real performance.

Tony followed up with a question that, I’ll be honest, bothered me a lot:

In the rhetorical battle for supreme dominance of theatre there are writers in one corner, directors in another, institutions in another, indy companies trying to hold down the fourth.

Where does that leave actors? Ya know, the only ones that actually are needed for theatre to happen?

Actors certainly have good reasons to be silent on this issue, since they like to work. I think that may ultimately speak to their foresight on the issue, which I’ll get to later. What bothers me about Tony’s question is that it continues the flawed assumption that the way to sustain the meagre power structure of theater is to separate playwrights, directors, performers, designers, and administrators into opposing camps that must check and balance with each other for artistic control. The underlying assumption that Patrick, Tony, and Isaac all seem to make for the convenience of making a point is that one can assume that any person filling a role such as playwright, director, designer, or actor, will be the primary or legitimate shepherd of the work. These guys don’t believe that those rules are absolute, I’m sure, and yet we seem to be separating the relationship of the playwright or the actor to their work to be fundamentally different from other artistic roles.

The person who should be allowed to shepherd the work is the person, collaborator, or team who is best able to understand and articulate the story through their craft, whatever it is. It can’t be assumed that the playwright will be that person, even if they wrote the words down. How often are the words in the way of telling the story? I have been in rooms where, objectively, the playwright is the one person who isn’t working to tell the same story as the rest of the team. And I understand how deflating that is, because I’ve been that person in the room as well. But in those cases the team is right to move the collective story forward. At least the playwright can license their work on to another theater and eventually see their vision realized. When my designs are ruthlessly cut – yes, sometimes without my knowledge or agreement – no one ever sees them and they cease to be. The work is lost. And if the work didn’t serve to tell that elusive story, it deserves to be lost.

Sometimes the story is best articulated by the audience. Batman & Robin remains one of my favorite yet still awful movies of all time, and it’s not because of the script, direction, acting, or those god awful costumes with latex nipples: It’s despite all that crap. It’s because I saw the movie in an empty theater with friends and we felt empowered to scream at the screen while the movie went on, creating a rich MST3K / Rocky Horror-esque performance to go along with the film.

And didn’t Brecht say something about that once?

I understand Isaac’s point that, well, free interpretation without notification is not how copyright works now. And that’s certainly a fair and accurate “best practices” point to make. But this was always a conversation about what should be, not what is today, so I feel like defying his impulse to quash this particular thread. This is a question of: What should be the policy that we fight for as we all journey together into uncharted waters of arts management in this nation’s history? When is the law or our personal dogma in the way of our work? I’d say: most of the time. I would like to work to make the law safe for artists to benefit from their work without being dogmatic about how a process is supposed to look or behave. One really promising area of exploration here is the emerging Creative Commons options for artistic licensing – a system that both protects the artistic intentions of artists while also allowing for financial protection and various levels of artistic freedom.

And so it’s ultimately it’s that gratefulness that Horton Foote has felt – the gratefulness that any of us get to collaborate with others who check our assumptions and push our work forward – that provides the richest environment for working. Gratefulness doesn’t mean complicity, and it doesn’t mean obedience, but it does mean respect. And when we are grateful for the presence of our collaborators, we drop the poisonous, clutching kinds of ownership and battle of ideas and the process gains a flow and a respect that serves the story. The process becomes less of a zero sum game and more like horticulture. Ideas grow in well-fertilized soil, and when shoots go off in the wrong direction, we don’t burn the plant with pesticide… we bend them back or trim them gently and let the damn thing continue to grow in a revised direction.

What I think Patrick was reacting to was that there are these emerging notions – or in some cases, entire schools – of self-righteousness in theater that make these odd claims along the lines of “where I stand is the center of the theatroverse.” There is this desire to create new paradigms for the theater, and those desires have begun spouting a whole bunch of inspiring but also scary-looking dogma. What I heard from Patrick was actually a call to reason – the fundamental idea that trust in collaboration – the most simple act of sharing ideas and impulses – and appreciation of that collaborative process will feed the work better than strict adherence to any given text, directorial theory, or design principle.

A while ago Isaac made the claim that the value of theater comes from collective imagination, and I have come to hold that as the fundamental principle behind effective theater – which I’ll define (poorly) as theater capable of changing a perspective. So: theater’s effectiveness isn’t generated by the words that the playwright selects for the play, or the way the actor says them, or the blocking and emotional beats that the director has arranged, or the music, scenery, lighting, costumes, puppets, projections or smells, or whether an audience member can sit without fidgeting for two hours. It is whether any of these people can for a moment create or spark an image in each others’ minds that makes the theater worth doing. And we should all find a way – and be permitted by a fair licensing scheme – to try to make those moments happen together.

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A Strategy for Educational Initiatives

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

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

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

This is a freaking amazing thread, Laura.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of

May 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

Update for all of you running OS X 10.5 – Yes, it’s true, Chicken of the VNC is indeed obsolete now – every feature described in this post can now be done with the integrated Screen Sharing feature. Check out the comments for details, but you may want to read on to pick up a few tips on creating a remote control system for sound design.

Chicken of the VNCIt’s hard to determine sometimes if technology is making our creative work better and more efficient or just more complicated in new and different ways. Part of the problem is that for most of this decade software and hardware engineers were moving in the direction of modular solutions.

Instead of building great dishwashers, they theorized that it would be better to perfect the ultimate cost-efficient fork washer, leaving you to buy an equally astoundingly cheap cup polisher on a separate basis. This gave consumers (and designers) CHOICE – now you could save a TON of money buying the exact modules they needed separately and find new ways of getting the modules and devices to work together – or you could opt for a simple all-in-one solution that kinda sorta did what you needed, and you’d pay for the convenience. This is one of the reasons that your local designer on a budget looks like some kind of Max Max-era hacker with wild eyes darting from side to side looking for bargains and a magical toolkit of gizmos that will, you know, suture a pants rip in 10 seconds or diagnose whether a light isn’t working because of a broken lamp or because the dimmer load is about to make the circuit box explode.

In this chaos, it’s always refreshing to find a multi-use tool that makes not one but ten things easier to do. It means by using it you’ll be dumping a bunch of extra junk out your toolkit in a giddy and impromptu spring cleaning.

Here’s what it does
Chicken of the VNC is such a tool. It allows designers to do one thing and one thing alone: remotely access and control another computer over a network. Like a wireless network.

But here’s what it really means
Sound designers can be more active participants in the production process. I can sit in the house, experiencing the play like an audience member would, and be editing my qLab show file at the same time. If the sound is too loud, I don’t tell the SM to hold the run and high-tail it to the booth to twiddle a bunch of knobs or wires. This kind of behavior, let’s face it, undermines my credibility as a designer, because I’m stopping the show at every cue.

Instead, I nod at the director, and as they react to the loud sound, I turn it down, from wherever I am in the house. The stage, the balcony, the grid, whatever. With a little practice, I’m fixing the sound and resetting levels before they become a problem.

And voila, I’ve become a designer who has the tools to perform as if I was onstage, reacting to impulses and adapting the dynamics of the sound to better match what I’m seeing and hearing from the performers on the stage. I can design each and every moment of the play – silence through transition – rather than spending the time that I have on 30% of the play. I can react and shape rather than dictate in preproduction what the sonic world feels like.

Here’s how it works
I’ve set up in the booth a sound playback computer, which runs the increasingly excellent and free-as-dirt program qLab to route all my layers of sound files to the various speakers in the room. Normally, I’d have to do my programming from the booth or run some kind of umbilical cable to a remote keyboard and monitor. That’s a lot of crap to lug around from tech to tech compared to a single laptop.

First, I set up a computer-to-computer wireless network from the playback computer – simple as pie from the Airport menu of most macs.

Then, I connect to that network from my laptop, again through the Airport menu.

Boom! I launch Chicken of the VNC. After some initial configuration, the playback computer shows up as a VNC server on my laptop. Bookmark that, and then the remote screen is always just a few clicks away.

On my current show, A Red Orchid’s Not a Game for Boys (opening tomorrow!), there’s this ongoing ping pong tournament that is seen by the performers “behind” a plexi screen that is theoretically along the fourth wall. Getting the sound of ping pong and sneakers through glass to come from behind the audience required a large number of replacement files to get the reverb and equalization just right. But it didn’t mean frequent trips into the stamp-sized booth that can’t comfortably fit more than one person without getting in each other’s business and grinding rehearsal to a halt.

Instead, I connected to the playback harddrive using the computer-to-computer wireless network…

Then after copying the replacement files over the ether, I used my CotVNC connection to replace the files…

All while the SM ran a run without stopping.

Not exactly razoring reel-to-reel tape anymore, is it?

The half-life of technology is getting shorter and shorter, and so it’s not surprising that Chicken of the VNC is already obsolete. Apple’s latest operating system Leopard has included a built-in VNC client accessible through System Preferences. I gotta say – I love Apple for the way that they integrate incredibly versatile applications (VNC, Samba, Ruby on Rails) into their core operating system. Like many technophiles, I trust that if something out there is worth running, it’ll probably show up in my laptop next time I upgrade the OS.

I only use CotVNC as an example because, like the excellent and free FTP application Cyberduck which can be used to manage your theater’s website, it’s a brilliant program that does just one thing that will help you in a billion ways. Technology doesn’t replace human performance, however… doing the work well still requires practicing and rehearsing with the tools you keep at your disposal.

I love applications named after poultry.

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Where to find the Good Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

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

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]‘s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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Conversations Abuzz, and Brainstorming Value for Theater

January 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

A couple conversations on various blogs are hot hot hot in the last 48 hours (and taking up all my time in posting responses). They are posts that have generated a lot of community thought, and underscored both the value and the pitfalls of developing ideas and solutions as a group. I’m summarizing them for the benefit of those of you that don’t read a lot of other theater blogs yet but are interested in the collaborative aspects of blog problem solving.

If this doesn’t interest you, skip down to the picture of my proposal for a marketing campaign so bad it just might work.

1) The aforementioned exploration on the TOC blog of who the hell are these people anyway? Recent additions include pleas for reason and pizza. Insightful follow ups on Kris’, Patrick’s, and Rob’s sites.

2) Rob asked about whether previews should be sold as regular performances. This sparked a more general conversation about the value of previews on Creative Control, Grey Zelda and once again Storefront Rebellion.

3) Don Hall wants to lower ticket prices and/or increase the perceived value of theater. (And it turns out that Roche Shulfer wants the same thing.) Awesome. Finally something we can agree upon.

We’ve Got Your Writers Right Here

Before you complain about the link: I know, I know. It’s a placeholder.

I hinted in the last post about a Theater Dish event that changed the landscape for me. That specific Theater Dish was a talk about marketing innovations prepared for the League by Larry Keeley of Doblin Marketing, one of the architects behind the WBEZ programming renaissance. I still have his Powerpoint presentation which he generously posted for League download, and it’s one of the most inspiring and genius documents I’ve ever read. Check it out yourself. Unfortunately, while that particular talk was dead brilliant it was overshadowed by what happened next: the announcement of the resignation of Marj Halperin. (She went to become campaign manager for Forrest Claypool’s bid for Cook County Commissioner, so that was worth it). All told, it was a pretty eventful night for my first League event. I just wish more of Larry’s suggestions had been implemented by now. Frankly, this is where the League could use the help of the vast volunteer resources of storefront theaters to accomplish some of the big-picture goals on the table.

That’s where I’m coming from. I want to get this stuff done, and speed us along to the part where we see if it works. The solutions are out there, you just need to know where to find them and get started on implementing them, one step at a time.

I mentioned a few off-the-cuff possibilities to easily add value to your own theater productions on Don’s blog, in many ways inspired by Larry’s extremely leveragable and collaborative suggestions. Post your own.

Then we roadmap, people. It’s project management time.

Five minutes of Brain Storm

Blogs. Check. But every theater should have one, and there should be blogs that cross over into other disciplines and draw connections back to theater, and for every question we ask on a blog we should have four bad answers like this one.

Podcasts and Videocasts. Otherwise known as: make your own TV show and wave it in front of your ADD friends and say “Ah, it’s great to have good writing on this screen again. You seen that last Grey Zelda show? AWESOME script. That dude can write.”

Site-Specific stagings of issue plays or locally-inspired plays that matter to the community. Ask the Chicago History Museum to sponsor showings of a time-traveling play about the current CTA debacle in that old rail car they have. Who wants to write that? I’ll production manage it. Seriously.

Get excited about other people’s work, and talk it up. Talk about your fellow Chicago Theater artists like they were superstars, and see through their financial and temporal limitations to see their genius and value their efforts. Be ambassadors to the general public and make talking about your theater habit at your day job as easy as discussing what happened on The Office last night. Theaters should not have to waste their time marketing to the industry, that’s a horrible losing game. Help them out by proactively seeing, discussing and encouraging the best of their work.

Don’t overextend. You get a lot done if the work excites you, but despair will shut you down. Don’t get mired trying to add false value in your actual work. Use just enough design, not too much. I say this as a sound designer, knowing full well my entire role in theater depends on you thinking you need sound in theater. You don’t. You don’t need projections. You don’t need a set, you don’t need programmable lights. You need what the show needs. If you can’t hire or bribe a designer for a theatrical element, don’t use that element at all, and think of some other way of getting by without it. That’s honesty and truth, and that is valuable, and creates a vital final product. Remove any need to pick up the hammer during rehearsal time, and use the time to coax better performances from your cast and build stronger trust within your ensemble.

Food. Drink. If not in the theater, as a part of an easy-bake planned evening. Make friends with the owners and/or staff at your local restaurants and cafes, and get them excited about your work. Wear them down, and kill them with kindness and excitement. When they get excited, they’ll talk about you all day long to every customer.

Train yourself to use talking points about your work. Use those talking points to convince your friends to be an ambassador for your work, and for the work being done in town in general. You don’t have to be a crazy automaton about it, but if you’re legitimately excited about something, let it show.

Audience Participation Events. Let the audience see the guts of how you make your show. Get the ensemble to invite friends to sit next to the stage manager and designers during tech and show them how freaking hard they work, and make THAT the show. Invite them to talk with the cast and the director about what everyone is thinking about in the room, and walk them through the process. It will make your theater focus as an ensemble, and every person that gets to do that will see the show in a totally different light. To a non-theater person, it’s like they’ve been invited on a film set with the stars. Seriously. It blows them away.

Keep it Smart. People want smart right now. Don’t fall into the double trap of dumbing down your work or thinking your work is smarter than it really is. Theater is just smart enough that it’s refreshing.

Bring theater to the people, and people will come to the theater. The most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth buzz, and with the number of people in our industry, there’s no reason we can’t make theater an activity that 40 – 50% of this town participates in on a regular basis.

Of course, that means that we’ll need to coordinate our efforts a little bit. Think we can do it?

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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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