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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

April 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I was thrilled to be asked by The New Colony contributor and blogger Benno Nelson to engage in an online debate that took the temperature of theater blogs in this our internet age. That’s why I totally didn’t join in until a couple minutes ago. What can I say, it’s tech.

At any rate, here’s the discussion so far, and you can join in yourself. You’ll hear from Benno first and then you’ll hear from me.

The internet will be for maybe only a few more years the Wild West, the Manifest Destiny of our age. Not everyone understands what it is or how to use it, but most everyone knows they cannot be left out of it. This applies, of course, to Theater Companies. There have been some attempts to codify, or at least examine the components and goals of websites, and particularly blogs operated by Theater Companies. The consistently excellent Kris Vire has, for example, offered a few ruminations on this topic, but I think it is worth our attention here as well. The justification for including it as a Cliché, I feel it necessary to point out, is that the possession of a “blog” seems to have grown into an unconsidered necessity for theater companies and I want to draw attention to this thoughtlessness and worry about it.

First of all, it is so self-evident that it is almost absurd to point out that the primary activity of Theater Company websites is marketing/advertising: making it easy for a potential audience to get telegraphic information – who, what, where, when, why – about the company and their productions. But what is a Theater Company blog, and what is it for?

Well, it’s actually not very simple. A clichéd response would be that a blog allows a theater company to maintain an online presence. What the hell is that? In the case of The New Colony, for instance, what do they gain by having these columns up once a week? Ideally, I suppose, they get increased traffic by becoming a place people can count on for new content: in the internet, updates are the equivalent of a neon sign. The more updates, the more content, the more people are likely to check your site and keep checking it. Does this sell tickets? I really don’t know, but when I saw FRAT it was full almost to capacity.

The Steppenwolf also relies on content generation, but they are much more streamlined. That is, their posts are all about the Steppenwolf, their shows, their season, their collaborators. It is essentially like an ever-expanding playbill. Interestingly though, for a company like Steppenwolf or The Neo-Futurists where much of the draw of the company is in the company members, the blog offers a great way to deepen audiences’ familiarity with and knowledge of these members. By including a post by Joe Dempsey on joining the cast of Art, for instance, we get a better idea of who he is. Perhaps we’ll want to see him more, and return to the theater when he returns.

What is a bad theater company blog? One that is hard to read or navigate (with regard to design), or contains meaningless information, or is updated infrequently. The insistence on web 2.0 interaction is a little tiresome for me, because I don’t believe that the companies really care what I think; these seem to me rather more an extension of the farce of post-performance talk-backs, but I hope I’m wrong.

The interesting thing about the internet is that it is in some ways a great equalizer. It is essentially as easy for a tiny company without even a reliable performance space to operate an excellent website as it is for the Goodman– to make a home online and offer consistent and engaging programming there as on stage. It is not a requirement to offer this, but it is really not particularly difficult and if it exhibits that Theaters are engaged in the world as we come upon it today, not desperately keeping up and not hopelessly aloof, then they are certainly worth the trouble. But the panicked desperation to have a blog because it is the thing to do leads to a lot of bad blogs and a haziness about what they can and should be.

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

While I’m late to contribute to this online debate, it’s certainly not for lack of interest. A number of the concepts of content generation that Benno explores here (capturing more traffic, deepening interest of the work already being done by theaters, cultivating an ability to communicate clearly and interestingly about one’s own work) are things we tried to throw into relief with World Theatre Day – an event a number of Chicago theater companies threw in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chopin Theatre.

For me, the Chicago WTD celebration was about putting some of these theories into practice and, hopefully, feeding that growing energy of theater’s online presence back offline into a live spectacle. Before the event, theaters from all over the world were asked to contribute video, audio and images of work and play – content they were already generating in the normal course of producing theater – to an open blog. That video and content was then projected and shared in the event on a big screen. During the party, a team of volunteers captured quick video snippets and interviews, and uploaded it within minutes to the open blog using the dirt-simple video capturing tool that is the Flip Camera. International theater artists live-tweeted their responses to the fun was being had in real time, and I posted those tweets back up on the projector screen. It was like internet connection feedback.

So yes: there’s many different ways to generate content as a theater, and there’s many ways to streamline the process of generating new content. But there’s a couple points here where Benno and I seem to have completely different perspectives. One is on the preeminence of new content over easy content. We agree, before you get too excited, that this content has always got to be good. This difference of opinion makes sense, as I’m a production manager of a small company who knows that when you make time for creating new content during a production process, you inevitably rob time from another project … like opening your show. Since marketing is a contract of trust with a potential customer, the model of “you must create new content on your online presence every week or you will lose your online audience” just isn’t sustainable in my experience. What I think is sustainable is something similar… a model of “capturing” your

While Benno is suspect, I’m a total believer and convert to the value and, yes, necessity of social networking as a conscious and intelligently-utilized component to a company’s online presence. World Theatre Day in America simply would not have happened this year without the presence of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate and fuel it. We quite literally organized every aspect of that party – from putting together the talent and equipment to getting the hundreds of partygoers to show up – all through a Facebook meme that allowed individual theaters to add their own branding sauce to the event. That said, Benno’s point about the way he feels about the way especially very large and very small theaters have been using social media – that “they don’t really care what he thinks” – well hell, attention must be paid here. If you are a theater that wants to take advantage of the huge currently-erupting geyser that is social media, part of the bargain is that you must demonstrate care about what your readership thinks. When they feel it’s not a two-way relationship, they bolt.

Remember to remember the obvious: rich two-way dialogue is what theater is all about. The fact that there seems to be a prevalent idea that post-performance talkbacks – or indeed any structured dialogue between theater and audience – is a “farce” is a sign of trouble in my book. That’s a signal to me that we need to reengage and re-conceive how this dialogue could really take place in the future. There have been many moments in the past year that actually indicate to me that theaters take the nurturing of this dialogue very seriously. I was witness to some electric moments of audience engagement in the talkbacks and performances of the O’Neill fest at the Goodman.

Speaking of the internet being an equalizer, it’s a little sad to note that this is because NO theaters, and really no industries on the planet right now, have the infrastructure currently to incorporate Social Networking and web content into their day to day operations. I’ve seen big, small, and medium theaters miss or delay big opportunities to engage in online dialogue, because they’re all still getting the hang of it. The wonderful talkbacks I mentioned above were captured – as the sound engineer I actually did the recording – but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t been rereleased as podcasts yet after over a month. The reason everyone is buzzing about these services and their effect on society right now is because those effects are potentially revolutionary. The effects of blogs on print journalism have shown exactly how revolutionary they can be. I’m not one of those (anymore?) that think that theater is in trouble, since theater ultimately thrives wherever people can talk with each other. New Leaf has been very lucky, as a very very small company, to be one of the beneficiaries of that equalizing force. Getting involved in bringing World Theatre Day to Chicago has put us, a tiny storefront theatre company, in contact with the strategic planners of TCG and in direct collaboration with the League of Chicago Theaters. Sharing our ideas has the added benefit of making us thought leaders. Before I get too excited about that, remember that our theories are only as strong as our data. Companies like Steppenwolf and the Goodman may prove to be the adopters that really matter, since they can accurately test how effective this new form of communication really works.

This is an unprecedented moment in theater’s history in the internet age. Finally, technology is not simply working on producing more widgets or harvesting more resources, we’re focusing our innovative energies on the fundamental challenges of human communication. And I think theater has a lot to teach technology in that department. But we, as a theater community, have to re-learn to have a dialogue in new formats first. And we’re doing it! Gold star.

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Re-Alignment

April 03, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments

It’s been a week of face to face meetings for me – some planned, some by chance. I usually both dread meetings (for the butterflies that I still get when presenting with a team of collaborators for the first time – or the inevitable long to-do list that I end up with at the end) and have a great deal of excitement for them. When face to face meetings work, they generate a lot of excitement and clarity that e-meetings and phone chats and blog comments can’t even approach.

Some things I discovered within my meetings this week:

The Side Project Annual Retreat
If you’re at all under the assumption that theater artists live a life of leisure, look no further than this group of folks to shatter that illusion. This year we will produce six plays, nearly all world premieres, plus an entry for the Rhino fest and an evening of 365/365 performances and other one acts, but despite all that work (and a brand new facility that serves four or five other theaters each year – a facility operating without so much as a production manager for crying out loud) many of the company members consider the side project, well, a side project. So much so that this week was the first chance that the entire hive of TSP worker bees were able to actually sit down and get acquainted in a lasting way with our newest batch of company members.

Now retreats are quite possibly the most fun kind of meeting I think you can have with artists. It can get knock-down and drag out – typically retreats are scheduled in snow-bound ice-fishing shacks near the UP to do important work like clarifying the mission of the company and really exploring the artistic boundaries and organizational priorities for the next few years. The door is locked, blood is shed, and epiphanies are inspired.

It’s the deceptively simple process of finding my priorities that I think finally became clear for me during this particular meeting. See, I still don’t know which fragment of my career I care the most about – or at what point they all will need to get set aside to make way for a family. I’ve been trying since I started this blog to really work out something like a personal artistic mission for myself and for the life of me I haven’t been able to understand what’s been shifting in my career lately… Since the start of this season it’s been a kind of chaotic flux between outside forces and my own irrationally workaholic behavior. Some days it’s difficult for me to describe why I continue to feel passionate about my work with companies like the side project, work which more often than not gets mired in the ugliness of practical detail and disappointing attendance. Who takes out the trash, how do we keep the basement dry, and how do I keep the graphic designs on schedule with all of these other projects in the oven?

In the midst of the team-exploring exercises (“Which one of us has swum with whale”? or “Who helped castrate a bull?”), that underlying reason was drawn out with the force of conversation and articulation with other fierce-willed and sharp artists: I do it so that I can be there and assist where other people are developing their ability to articulate themselves through art. In many ways, seeing others develop is much more rewarding than seeing my own work realized and recognized. I suppose it’s the difference one would feel between growing up yourself and seeing your children grow up.

The Chicago Theater Database Project Kickoff

Okay, Kickoff: Strong word. In our first meeting last week, some progress was made, and more importantly a roadmap was developed. While Dan continues to hammer away at data collection (check out his upcoming analysis of nearly all the 990 reporting from non-profit theaters in town as an example of the power of centralized data collection); and I pound away at the structure of the thing, we’ve added Bethany Jorgensen to the mix (of the on-hiatus site FreeandCheapTheatre.com, which in days gone by hooked industry folk with – ta da – free and cheap tickets on a weekly basis).

We’re exploring how FACT and a number of other sites could eventually be able to team up to collectively power, populate, and take advantage of the database. (hint: it’ll likely be through an API that your theater’s site can take advantage of and even integrate with to lighten the load of constantly updating other listing and social networking sites)

For me, the best part of the first meeting was jumping between the conversational styles of Dan, Bethany and I – Dan shares my excitement for database design and theory, so we got to geek out a bit on the design details one of the largest projects either of us have worked on. Getting MySQL to talk through ODBC to Access is proving difficult, but hey, it could happen. Got any tips? Bethany is much more of a hands on, face-to-face community organizer (and her FACT days have proved her incredibly effective in this regard), so her approach to the project was very much human-oriented: How will we take the collected data and feed a community of actual humans who use the site to network and find great work? What kind of time will humans like us actually save once such a network exists?

Finally, I opened up the very very young and impressionable back end of the database up to a few test users today to see how she handles. If you’d like to be a test pilot, let me know! So far, we’ve all learned a lot more about the depth of theater there actually is in Chicago. It’s all incredibly eye-opening data.

There are other meetings to come: tomorrow we’ll be discussing Community Storage possibilities with a number of theaters, and in the future I’m told that USITT is floating the idea of a computer lab and design center for theater practitioners in Chicagoland. There’s season planning meetings for New Leaf, and side project, and I’ll be meeting the crew at a Middle School in the burbs where we’ll learn together what we all know about lighting and sound and why we’re doing the play “30 reasons not to do a play.” I’m glad I have a reason to keep working on them, because I’ll need it to convince all the 14 year olds that indeed there are reason TO do a play. I’m looking forward to the clarity revealed and the focus generated by being in those rooms together with all those people.

And I’m not going to lie, I’m also looking forward to dropping it all and seeing this castle in a few weeks, as I pursue that other worthy priority: witnessing the world with my wife. While we can!

I’ve caught myself many times trying to solve essentially human problems with this laptop I’m typing on right now. And you know what? Sometimes it works. We can find a lot of help we didn’t know existed on these interwebs.

And you know what else? Sometimes being there in the room or out there on the hills is the only thing that’ll do the trick.

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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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