Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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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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“All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

November 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, On the Theatrosphere

Here’s a follow up on the impetus behind the conversation about new sound technology and how it is implicitly affecting the audience over at the Reader – and why discussions like that matter right now to theaters, to schools, to everyone with access to the internet.

Will Richardson at Web-logged busts it all open for you with advice about integrating digital technology with education from George Lucas, of all people.

“We need to get kids asking ‘why does that happen?’ as opposed to ‘why am I learning this?’”…

“The system falls apart around innovation. This is going to happen because there is a disease out there called digital technology. It is going to change education. All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

When George Lucas calls digital technology a disease, well now, that makes me sit up and ask “Why does that happen?”

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Frankenthumb

October 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments, Tools

Once more from the brink. Theater is what happens as you plan more theater.

The past few weeks have been some of the most hectic and challenging of my sound career, as we at the Goodman have put up not one but two enormous musicals, Turn of the Century and Million Dollar Quartet, which I’ll be happily mixing during its stay at the Goodman. To top it off, I’ve been designing sound and projections for the New Leaf season kick-off, Six Years (see below for a blogger discount, all ye Chicago bloggers), and filling in for a friend in a sound design elective at Northwestern. So, clearly no smarty-pantsiness coming from me during that time. On the contrary, it spawned quite a bit of dangerous assery on my part. My loopiness set off what was for a little while an alarming string of accidents that made me check myself before I wrecked myself… including unintentionally (I swear) hitting my boss in the head and smashing my thumb (oh come on, you knew it was coming….) between a crescent wrench and an instrument yoke. Not fun.

So I can add a reawakening of safety measures and being well-rested to my list of reasons not to blog over the past few weeks, and indeed, I’ve been gun shy until now about picking back up the commentary during a time that required constant focus. In the meantime, I’ve been running ol’ Donny Hall’s post on Caudal Autotomy through my head like a mantra for two weeks, waiting for my literal and figurative nail to fall off so that I can grow a new one. Thanks again for that post, Don, it was gold made of lizard tails. Sometimes life is a big steel wool loofa that takes off the dead skin and most of the living stuff too, and I think it was just my turn.

One of the reasons for the sleepy and manic is that MDQ is, by far, the most difficult mix I’ve ever taken on, in one of the most abbreviated techs I can remember for a show of that scale. It’s also easily the most fun and most rewarding show to mix. It’s a blast of a show, and one that pushed back in an unexpected way. (Hint: part of the “pushing back” comes from the wall of rock that hits you from the massive array of 8 Meyer CQs in the Owen theater. We’ve never squeezed quite so much SPL into that particular space, and it was certainly a fun trick to do so.) So come and visit if you find the opportunity, and stop by the sound console when you do and say hi.

I was lucky enough to be working with sound designer Kai Harada, who was one of the first sound designers to make the leap into the web to comment on the theater sound community’s red-headed step-relationship with the rest of the theater community that was prevalent at the time – and I think is happily turning around. His online reinforcement resource, Kai’s Sound Handbook, is a great read for schools and folks looking to broaden their understanding of the art and science of sound mixing and want a little bit of real world opinion and experience thrown in with the technical information. It hasn’t been updated in eight years or so, but until he gets around to that, it’s one of the best free sound resources out there.
And the dude knows what he’s talking about, even if you might disagree with him on some of the specifics. We ALWAYS disagree about the specifics, after all. That’s half the fun of collaboration.

So it was nice to break out of all that after opening MDQ last night. This morning I jumped in as sub in the sound class and taught a bunch of students about basic editing with Logic Express, which was more fun and less fearful than I had expected. It was nice, almost edifying, to see some solid sonic stories coming together after only an hour or so, including this one utterly hilarious one that started with footsteps, then a woman sighing deeply and sadly, and then the kerchunk whirr whizz of a copier going crazy. It never fails to astound me how one little brilliant choice that I get to witness will just make my day. Sigh. Copier. Giggle.

Which brings me to the work being done on Six Years. I feel like haven’t had nearly enough time with this truly stellar cast and crew (including New Leaf regulars Marsha Harman and Christian Heep, storefront veterans Sean Patrick Fawcett, Kevin Gladish and Mary Jo Bolduc, Circle Theatre member Darci Nalepa, and up-and-comers Chris Carr and our stage manager, Amanda Frechette) and what they’re doing with this play just cuts me to pieces. Sharr White’s script needed only the slightest touch of design, so in many ways my job has been simple if abbreviated, and tonight’s dress was very much about absorbing, reacting, and just enjoying the performances. More importantly, my next few days are about returning numerous favors to my wife Marni, who leapt in with both feet as production coordinator when it became clear that I was about to go incommunicado.

It’s a time for regrowing those damaged and sore parts. A time for sleep and letting the unconscious mind make the connections for a change.

And soon it’ll be a time for looking at the sound load out and the schedule for the next changeover… Whooooooo, doggy.

Oh yes… and before I forget: We’re offering pay-what-you-can tixx to fellow bloggers for Six Years, which opens this wednesday. We’d love to see you and hear what you think.

Because what doesn’t kill us will leave a nice scar that we can be proud to show off at the bar.

P.S. Anyone else been participating in TCG’s Free Night of Theater (arranged locally by the League of Chicago Theaters)? Holy crap has it been popular.

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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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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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For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago

November 21, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

Oh, if we only didn’t need money and could focus on art, right?

There’s been a number of creative web fundraising ideas floating around the storefront community – and theaters have been doing a pretty good job copycatting the ones that are easy to use (though it’s still unclear which ones are most financially effective for arts organizations).  There’s those good ol’ web marketplace affiliate programs like CafePress.com or Amazon Associates – where your patrons shop through your site for swag or targeted products or just plain anything – and the e-marketplace gives you a cut.

More recently, major search engines have gotten into the non-profit fundraising game and created programs like GoodSearch.com which donates a portion of its ad revenue to non-profits that send users their way instead of Google. And (perhaps in retaliation?) Google created Google Grants, which sort of works like free AdWords for non-profits and increases exposure. 

There’s never a truly free ride, of course. Affiliate programs are partially there for the benefit of the affiliate, but there’s a much bigger profit to be had in having minions convert their (high-value disposable-income-weilding) patrons into big, giant streams of fresh, flaming consumerism. As I described in Part I, these programs only generate reasonable sums of money for the affiliate when you start amassing a great big critical mass of users on your own, and before that happens, it’s just a trickle.  

But, Chicago Storefront Theaters don’t have a lot of resources to chase that money, so they participate in these programs on a small scale because they require very little effort beyond the initial setup. A little easy money is better than staring into the void of funding a show on the ensemble’s collective credit cards.

About five months ago, Chicago businessman (and actor) Steve Misetic decided to throw his hat into this ring.  Like most Chicago Theater cheerleaders, Steve was frustrated with the way that Chicago Arts Organizations often have to fight with the rest of the country for the attention of our local big businesses. He noticed that theater companies were throwing their patrons’ money to e-commerce companies in California, while local businesses spend ad money with national firms, and both seemed the poorer for it. The result of this frustration – his brainchild SaveChicago.org (which launches this Friday) – was modeled on the success of other affiliate programs and the success of locally powered sites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.  The basic idea, in his words:  

SaveChicago.org is the first online marketplace where local merchants and local consumers are able to find each other on the Internet.

SaveChicago.org mobilizes the audiences of non-profit organizations into a unified consumer demographic as members of SaveChicago.org.

Local merchants then pay to reach this first ever critical mass of local consumers on the internet.
SaveChicago.org then gives 50% of the money these merchants spend back to the non-profit groups who’ve helped us mobilize these consumers.

SaveChicago.org keeps local advertising dollars local and sustainable by re-injecting the money back into our local economy via non-profit organizations, instead of letting the money escape into Silicon Valley.

The website we have built is a completely state-of-the-art e-commerce site that basically does to local advertising what Ebay did to garage sales. We’re putting local businesses together with local consumers and splitting the money with non-profit organizations. No one has figured out how to do local advertising on the internet until now.

If this sounds at all convoluted, it’s because Steve is trying to bring together three very divergent groups together with a common marketing strategy – local merchants, local shoppers, and at this point, even the non-profits that the site is designed to support. His mission, other than the glory of saving chicago theater and culture forever, is to generate those deliciously sustainable and work-free revenue streams for non-profits on a local level – hopefully to the levels they require to turn off the fundraising (aka “begging”) bullhorn and regain some long-forgotten sense of dignity. He’s also learning the PR and marketing and e-commerce games as he goes (with professional PR support and a killer web developer), and trying to bring together two e-commerce models that haven’t worked together thus far – local savings sites like craigslist and national affiliate programs like Google AdWords – with the goal of creating a revenue loop that feeds back on itself and grows the local ad money pie for the benefit of organizations that can do some good with it.

All this wrangling, courting, and dreaming big has I think created a very interesting situation on the eve of SaveChicago’s launch – at least from my vantage point outside the down-and-dirty planning – and there’s a couple big challenges ahead for the site in its infancy. The first hurdle is to demonstrate a clear need in the community – not a need to support the arts, but a need for shoppers to find deals and for merchants to find those shoppers. Without this incentive, the whole growth mechanism falls apart – Google and craigslist built that kind of national name recognition after years of providing free, innovative services that were more convenient than the phone book and classified ads, respectively. In his initial planning, Steve envisioned companies like Starbucks spending their advertising dollars on his site to reach local shoppers. Put that way, there’s no reason for Starbucks to buy in to website marketing when they’re already reaching plenty of customers right on the street. To generate that need, Steve has created an Angie’s List-esque membership program for shoppers and promised deep discounts from member merchants that can’t be found elsewhere to those members. And Neo-Futurist and SaveChicago.org groupie Mary Fons points out, the merchants that will be the biggest beneficiaries of a program like this will likely be that mom-and-pop cafe down the street that need to get you to patronize them instead of Starbucks.

The second hurdle to make a system like this work is one that papa Google and uncle Craigslist actually created pretty organically, over time – a critical mass of market share. For merchants to want to give these secret, targeted discounts, they need to know that the people using SaveChicago.org will grow their businesses. That kind of patronage doesn’t grow overnight, which creates a third hurdle: To help grow the patron base, Steve will be leaning on the member arts organizations to help promote the site and drive traffic, patrons, and merchants his way, at least until the ad revenue is self-sustaining.

And the biggest hurdle of all? Convincing all three groups that SaveChicago is a brand worthy of their trust. Chicago Theaters are actually quite conservatively-minded businesses for the most part… their risk tends to be small (though proportionally huge to their income), and they tend to feed their creativity into the product, but not so much the actual making of money. The reactions from other industry types that I talked with to Steve’s initial volley of e-mails promoting the site were skeptical at best, and Steve’s language (which was still being retooled for branding and positioning, and of course betrayed his intense personal excitement) didn’t always help:

Subject: SaveChicago.org to make fund-raising obsolete: Launching November 23rd

Could you imagine getting checks in 2011 from a Fund-raising drive completed in 2008?
Take 5 minutes to register your non-profit with SaveChicago.org and earn recurring income from a one-time fund-raising effort.
no cost – no obligation
Launching on November 23rd, 2007

Savechicago.org is the first company in history to attempt to consolidate the supporters of non-profit organizations in order to create the “critical mass” needed to generate real advertising dollars. We want non-profits to stop begging local businesses for the 5% of their ad budget they feel obliged to donate to charity every year. We’ll get you access to the other 95%.

When the spam filters didn’t whisk away his audience, phrasings like “No cost – no obligation” sparked interest but didn’t inspire confidence, despite his best intentions. Since then, Steve has hired a PR rep and refined and focused his language a bit, which will make his merchant patrons a lot happier and his non-profit beneficiaries a lot more trusting. The first checks will also help to change that tune as well. Smirk.

So what does Steve have going for him? Some folks are already way on board, with a non-profit member list that already includes several high schools, hospitals and churches, hotshot neighborhood development organizations like Rogers Park’s DevCorp North, and a few representatives of the theater scene, including Barrel of Monkeys, Rivendell, The Artistic Home, and Raven, which has never shied away from closer neighborhood involvement. Steve’s also aware of what he’s up against. Which always helps.

Plus? I think his idea is truly innovative and creative. If he can manage to implement it, he will at the very least create a locally-based version of an AdWords-like system, even if that doesn’t immediately translate into flowing rivers of cash for his affiliates. That “local” part of the business model is huge – if you’ve ever bought or sold anything through craigslist, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole human, dare I say theatrical, element to the transaction because at some point you’re not just exchanging money and goods, you’re coming into contact with a stranger. The time I sold my old iPod to a craigslister was, while brief, an incredibly exciting day for both of us. I used the cash to upgrade to a video model, and I left most of my music on the old one. And I have A LOT of music, so the buyer pretty much jumped up and down at the deal he got. That kind of excitement can only happen on a local level.

There’s a spark of something here – local cooperation, a spirit of being neighbors – that I think needs to continue even if Steve’s web experiment doesn’t pan out. Steve is also going to need to work his butt off to build that trust and enlist help. I know I moved to Chicago because of idealism like that, and I applaud Steve for thinking really big, and taking the big risk. I think there’s a potential renaissance out there for Chicago Theater and interdisciplinary arts, but it will take a big spark and plenty of fuel – and that means we need to build that fire together and share the wealth.

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