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Resource Sharing in Theatrical Communities

January 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Community Building, CTDB

The League of Chicago Theaters brings up the big issue itself today on their blog: Is Chicago Theater ready and willing to share resources for the overall health of the community?

As you could probably figure out from the comments, I’ve been thinking about this question and how to break down the natural resistance to the idea of sharing resources for about as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Here’s some of the misconceptions about theaters working together – some which I think I’ve actually perpetuated through my cheerleading – and the reality of what I’ve seen so far:

MISCONCEPTION 1 – Sharing Resources takes money.
Almost never (or if it does, we’re talking about minor administrative costs like the cost of web hosting.) One easy way to break up any relationship, whether it’s between two people or two organizations, is to get financially entangled before you’re ready for a permanent committment. Fundraising in particular is one place that I think will likely never be a shared resource between theaters, since it has the potential to make us so cagey as collaborators. Resource sharing is about recycling and reusing energies that are already being spent to help conserve future energy. Any project that requires money to conserve money – like say, a shared storage facility – should probably be set up as an independent and self-sufficient body with its own community-serving mission.

One area in particular with the money discussion worries me on a gut level – too often the discussion of collaborative projects turns to funding the project before the real needs and mission of the projects are fleshed out. Remember that both government and corporate forces tend to take action with money rather than the more non-profit actions of dialogue, initiatives, and begging for money from governments and corporate forces to be able to do the right thing. When we’re talking about funds on the community level for things like arts centers or programs, there is a great need to have the organizations doling out those funds to be overseen by the community and be accountable to public transparency. This is going to matter a lot when we start talking about Community Development Block Grants and how they are administered. I think we’ve all seen what an arts boondoggle looks like, and I think given the history of NEA funding in this country, it’s important to be more demonstrably responsible with all public and donated funds than the arts have been in the past. In my opinion, that means investing in growth infrastructure — rather than new buildings with people’s names on them, it means creating new ticketing systems, experimental programs that generate money over time, and new partnerships that connect new audiences to the art and connect the arts to the needs of those audiences.

MISCONCEPTION 2 – Theaters and individuals want to share resources.
In practice, theaters and the individuals that make them up are ready to participate in programs like this, but they tend to be resistant to actually setting them up. The fact is, collaboration is a lot of work and creating programs of the scale we’re talking about require first collecting a great deal of input, then processing that input into a proposed program, and then getting notes about that proposal and gently shaping and shepherding the program through its launch and early use. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s just like putting on a play, and just like plays, you can have a resource sharing program that responds to its audience and one that operates independantly in a bubble and goes nowhere. While theaters and individuals want to share resources, their primary goal – at least right now – is to fuel their own artistic agenda by asking for help.

I think this document may change that. Americans for the Arts and the Obama administration are already engaged in a very high-level dialogue about specific leveraged programs that they want to see implemented. These are all programs that could have a huge effect on the way the arts relates to the American people, and I highly encourage you to read and react to them.

MISCONCEPTION 3 – Theaters are too busy to share resources.
This one is so very close to true. Since theater tends to occupy that place in our lives reserved for obsessive hobbies, most people engaged in theater have literally five minutes of spare time that they often reserve for things like… sleep. Or combing one’s hair on a regular basis. Initiating a resource sharing program often means investing time in getting to know other theaters and how other theaters work, seeing if the two theaters are a good fit and where overlap occurs. I’d say we’re already talking about five hours of high-level discussions that get to the core of our theater operations before any benefit can even be proposed. I get that.

Here’s where the time crunch is moot, though: The entire idea of sharing resources should lead to discussions and partnerships that almost immediately enrich the skill sets of each theater. Let’s say one theater has a great production department, and the other theater knows how to market shows like nobody’s business. By discussing operations, comparing notes, and making some resources available to other companies, you make your own company more equipped to make quick innovations.

I’ve seen this work on the ground: New Leaf and the Side Project have been engaging in various types of resource sharing for three years, often through me since I’m a company member with both theaters. This is at times hugely time consuming and draining for me, it’s true. However, look at the mutual benefits that these theaters have generated for each other in the past year:

New Leaf –
– Needed seating risers for Touch to achieve specific sightlines. Side Project runs two spaces, and loaned them.
– Needed cheap rehearsal space over the holiday season. The Side Project, which owns space in Rogers Park, didn’t have tenants during that time.

The Side Project –
– Needed talented designers and stage managers for the huge and all-consuming Cut to the Quick Festival – New Leaf is well-connected to the design and technical world in Chicago and recently worked with newcomer SM Amanda Frechette to hone her rehearsal and performance management skills in the context of storefront theater. Designers, technicians, and run crew hired.
– The Side Project doesn’t have a large production department, and technical projects often need to be postponed based on company energy. New Leaf restored, reinforced, and repainted the aging seating risers in exchange for their use, which both companies needed to do anyway.

Both companies –
Have participated in a program ad exchange for several years. That’s cake. On a more human level, we’re often committed to each other’s work… New Leaf’s artists talk about the side project a lot and vice versa. This is the most basic kind of visceral marketing: The two companies care enough about each others’ work to see it, evaluate it, and recommend audiences go see the good stuff elsewhere and we work to feed the other company more talent when we uncover a weak spot.

The individuals in both theaters –
– Get to work more closely together and increase the number of opportunities they have. New Leaf company member Kyra Lewandowski directed a show in the Cut to the Quick Festival after collaborating in the companies’ relationship, and the aforementioned Amanda Frechette got to network her way into her second Chicago theater relationship. You might not like the word ‘networking,’ but the action itself still can be exciting, challenging, and nourishing to the work.

– Learned new skills. To date, I have trained members in both companies how to use graphics programs, email blasting software, and even running a facebook page. I have learned so much about press relations, an area I’m particularly sketchy in, by watching Side Project Artistic Director Adam Webster, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post. That’s just me… I’d wager the simple act of collaborating on a granular level in both artistic and administrative duties has taught each individual in both companies dozens of valuable skills.

MISCONCEPTION 4 – Resource Sharing is a no-brainer. We’ve gotta do it.
There are a few potentially disastrous pitfalls to a relationship of resource sharing like this.

One is imbalance. When you’re talking about resources that aren’t as quantifiable as money, there can be disagreement and hurt feelings about the relative worth of what each party puts in. As I say on the League blog, I think the way to most effectively short circuit this natural human response to being screwed or used is to encourage a sense of ownership and participation in the community itself rather than individual companies.

The other is lack of traction. You can create the smartest resource sharing strategy in the world, but if you don’t get people to sign up and buy in, it ain’t worth nothing. I can say this with some level of certainty, as the Chicago Theater Database is absolutely in this teetering zone here, and I think most people with their eye on it are aware of that possibility. Either it takes off, or the time invested isn’t worth the results.

Early in the history of this blog, the incredible programmer Chris Ashworth (creator of qLab audio playback software) wrote in the comments:

I’m inclined to think that starting with the whiteboard (i.e. always doing the simplest thing first, and the next simplest thing second) is the sanest way to try to ease our way up to that line without turning people off from the whole thing.

Which I suppose is another way of saying that the problem should drive the solution rather than having a solution (”web 2.0″) in search of a problem.

Words to live by.

This post was sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee required to write this post. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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Wonder Twins Activate! Form of: 2008-2009 Season Launch!

August 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects, Uncategorized

Holy crap. August is inevitably a crazy month for a theater company, isn’t it? Time to get our acts together!

This two-week block marks the first real test of my retooling of the web presences of three storefront companies – not necessarily the graphics or layout of those sites, but the custom content management systems that makes the sites theoretically easy to update. Why bother? Well, my thinking goes: if a website is a mouthpiece for a company, you’d want to attach the mouth directly to the brain, not to some troll like me banging on his binary keyboard and mumbling something about “hexadecimal ftp bandwidth mumble grumble.” Blogs are a nice and easy way of making it easy for companies to speak about their work, but it’s the non-bloggable events in a theater company’s summer preproduction that really necessitate quick turnaround on the ol’ website: When a cast member has to leave a production because of a plum gig, when you confirm a space and production dates at the last possible minute, when you have to rearrange your season due to, oh, a rights granting service that isn’t communicating with another rights granting service.

All hypothetical examples, I assure you.

So I’m trying to delegate and train other folks in these companies a bit, because I’m beginning to realize that NOT everyone is comfortable with the webby language of things like FTP – and I’m seeing a need in theaters to have some training in this area. (I’m tossing around the idea of putting together some screencasts on this site for some of the basics, as I’ve been hugely indebted to the excellent Ruby on Rails Screencasts out there and want to share the love a bit. Post a comment if you’re interested in any topics in particular…)

Last week I met with Libby Ford and Rebecca LaDuke of Greasy Joan & Co., to train them to be able to update the company website as, well, the gods tend to laugh at our hubristic pre-season planning, and at some point they’re going to need to do it. And it’s been clear from the past year that you don’t want a lone webmaster in those moments, as they’re often unavailable.

The training session went really well, and it was like: Relief. On all sides. Libby and Rebecca are much more intuitive when it comes to the mission and the voice of the company, and hooking them up with direct access to change the language on the site was like blood returning to a limb that has fallen asleep: A little awkward, a little painful, but oh my god RELIEF.

Meanwhile, in Rogers Park: The Side Project has ALSO been running on all engines in preparation for the coming season. A major cleanup operation is underway thanks to our new production manager, Jeremy Wilson, including the furnishing of an improved green room in the upstairs space and a massive Yard Sale to clear out furniture from the storage space. (There is still some available, I’m sure, if you’re in need of chairs, tables, or artistically broken window casings) This past weekend has been about designing a big ‘ol brochure that highlights the FIVE resident companies doing work there this year: The Side Project, LiveWire, Idle Muse, Blackbird, and Rascal Children’s Theater, as well as Point of Contention, which is mounting one of my favorite social-responsibility-themed plays, Radium Girls. The brochure also highlights the emergence of a new approach to selling a season on a storefront level: A cross-company flex pass. Along the lines of the Looks Like Chicago season deal, it’s kind of a grab bag of theater. TSP will be offering two packages this season: A Side Project Flex Pass that gets you into one show each from Side Project, Live Wire, Idle Muse, and Black Bird, and a Rogers Park Flex Pass that gets you one show each from Side Project, Lifeline, Theo Ubique, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

The challenge with that amount of programming, obviously, is keeping the dates straight. The Side Project’s new space has always been scheduled to within an inch of its life, but this year it feels like: Let’s make a template for production. Let’s make a template for marketing. Let’s make a template for box office. Let’s make a template to get the word out. Let’s use technology as a lever. So that we reinvent ourselves in our work, not in how we present that work to the world.

This theory seems to be working well for New Leaf this year as well. We’re seven over-booked people and so historically those kind of last-minute surprises have always felt like real damage rather than simple conditions in which we must work. This year, it’s about efficiency and agility and this word… “Leap.”

So today was about making the final decision about performance venue and announcing our season to the press and to the world via our website. There is always that last minute flurry of proofreading and copy polishing, like something out of The Front Page. Here’s my philosophy on writing marketing copy: I ultimately don’t like doing it, I’m not the best at it on my own, but I consider it a skill that I must cultivate to be able to invite people to see my work. In fact, I don’t think of it as marketing, since that kind of bursts my bubble. I think of it as language that is a public extension of the performance. And there’s thankfully a simple test for when copy is good and when it is bad: Adjectives and Adverbs = bad, Verbs = good.

Verbs leap off the page. Verbs distill meaning and pump your heart. Using descriptive adjectives in your copy is equivalent to using descriptive indication in your performance — audiences don’t believe TELLING, they believe DOING and LIVING.

So New Leaf tends to vet copy through the group, and as a group we’re starting to get excited about that part of the work: Finding the right language, the right verbs, the right articulation of this energy we feel as a company. No, it’s not the same kind of excitement that we have about the performance, but it’s a warm up to that performance… It’s like the trumpets blowing as we roll our pageant wagon into town, signaling that the players are on their way. We have to bring our energy and wits to that work as well. And since rolling the pageant wagon around is something we do all the time, often with moderate results, you sometimes get the urge to try a completely new tactic, to axe the wagon into little itty bitty toothpicks and buy something a little more snazzy. But you don’t, because this is the wagon you can afford. So it’s about finding the right crowd to roll the wagon through, the right thing to say as you walk through. And the only way to find that real and lasting connection with the crowd is to approach them with informed honesty. To be honest, to ask that one question you really want to ask, and hope that it is their question as well.

I felt this fear and excitement as we edited the website copy of New Leaf’s season announcement over Google Talk today, and we chose words that described how we felt about our final show of the season: An original work that we are developing as a company of performers and designers, The Long Count. It’s a leap of faith for us to trust our storytelling abilities and aesthetic to the extent that we promise to create a compelling story from our own framework. Since the voice of New Leaf at least for the moment is one of transparency, and honest self-analysis with our audience, we looked for words to communicate that fear but also our trust in our own abilities as artists. And we came up with:

“The Long Count will invite the company and our audiences to leap into the myriad possibilities revealed in the future we can’t foresee.”

There’s that word again. Leap. A Verb. A Verb that moves.

There are a billion choices like this that pop up every day in August. Where can we host our fundraiser? (“How about the Holiday Club?”) Who can we get to donate raffle prizes? (“Didn’t our pal DG just get an iMac and has an IPod touch he wants to give away?”) We need music. Where can we find music? (“My friend Mark Dvorak is a folk roots musician and he’s interested…”) And so we’re working this year on making those choices faster and with less trepidation: Trusting our instincts.

So good luck making your own choices as the season winds up… Like a spring with just a little too much tension.

Oh, and yeah, I was serious. Come to the New Leaf fundraiser FRESH! on August 27th for your chance to win an iPod Touch. It’s all the fun of an IPhone without a $90/month service plan.

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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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We Have Ignition

March 23, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, projects

The blogs of the theatrosphere weren’t the only things lighting up last week. This weekend alone I have been in touch with six movers and shakers who are all choosing now as the time to start cross-theater initiatives. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me, friends. They’re all in early stages, but they’re all incredibly exciting collaborative projects that you and your theater needs to get in on:

1) An IMDB for Chicago Theater. The CTDB? Dan Granata’s list-making of Chicago Theaters isn’t a vanity project. It’s about creating a tool to explore the network of connections that we have, and harvesting value from those connections. Since succeeding in theater often comes down to who you know and who knows you, such a tool can’t be underestimated. I’ve talked about this project before, but it’s starting to roll now… The relational database may now be jumping to the web, where it can team up with eager volunteers: That’s you, friend. Some possible benefits from such a site:

a) The ability to allow users to find and explore their own connections that lead them deeper into the detail of the industry. Did you like Kaitlin Byrd’s performance in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl? Well now you’ll be able to quickly and easily find out what else she’s been in and what she’ll be in next. This is a key feature that speaks to fostering local talent – it will be a way to provide the context of career to the specifics of a single performance.

b) Accountable user reviews. You can see the greatest challenge facing a theater simply by listening to the conversations in line: No one – NO ONE – sees a show unless it comes recommended by someone they trust. Some people trust certain critics, certain playwrights, directors, or theaters, and that’s been the answer so far. Well, let’s follow Amazon’s lead and allow user feedback to determine recommendations of other shows – shows maybe you’ve never heard of – but nonetheless are related to your interests. Step one: allow everyone to be a critic, and have “critic pages” where you can see EVERY user critic’s collected reviews – and determine for yourself whether you trust the glowing praise or the angry vitriol.

c) It’s built by the community, so it will serve the community. This is our challenge as web architects, and I think we’re up to it: It needs to be simple as sand to put up your own history and forge your own connections. It needs to be as fun and rewarding as friending people on facebook – with the added benefit of connecting you with local folk who are interested in seeing your work – and having their interests reflected in your work. And it’s worked before: as Bethany of Free and Cheap Theatre has told me, even after nearly two years of being offline, there is still a vibrant community of people who clamor for a service like they had before with Free and Cheap Theatre. It just needs to be built sustainably. To me, that means the community – not any single individual – needs to build it as it uses it.

d) Insert your idea here. The database we’re planning will be extensible, that is, able to incorporate future ideas and applications. If it relates to the information of theater in chicago, it can probably be stored, analyzed and capitalized upon. From an ethical standpoint, this means that needs to belong to the community, not a private enterprise. Many theaters in the past few weeks have discovered the joys of the Facebook Page to promote and analyze a core fan base, but have any of them considered where facebook’s ad revenue goes to? (hint: it’s this kid and his stock holders.) My personal feeling is that this project could not only “build the pie” of the theater going artist, but also feed a revenue stream to fund other projects that benefit the theater community in Chicago. This ain’t no money making venture, but if it takes off it could serve to help and benefit the people that use it.

2) Shared storage space and resource sharing for multiple theaters. This idea took off when two interested mid-sized theaters with a common problem (excess waste due to a lack of suitable storage, and high cost of props, furniture and costumes) decided to team up. I won’t name the theaters quite yet because the production managers initiating the project have boards they have to answer to, and this project is well in the “any-misstep-could-kill-it” phase. Also, it’s late and it’s Easter, and they’re not checking their email tonight… But our face-to-face is happening in a week or so, and already five other theaters have declared interest in the project.

Essentially, the proposal is: Pool our resources. As Joe, production manager for the largest theater involved, put it: “We have to throw out enough lumber every season to build 30 Side Project and New Leaf sets.” At the same time, Joe’s theater has very little access to props sharing arrangements like the one that the Side Project has with its visiting artist companies like LiveWire and DreamTheatre, so its prop budgets need to be pretty high. By creating a community storage facility with a unified organization and internal rental agreement, theaters can pool their money, throw out less, and find what they need with a minimum of headache.

Because it isn’t as free as data, this is the project that could be helped the most by the involvement of a community. This is a project that would need to be sustainable and financially solvent. It’s already clear that renting a space of the size required on our meagre budgets alone would be foolhardy, so the project needs eyes, ears and minds that can collectively work out some of the key details: Is there a donor who has a warehouse and is eager to take a mother of a tax break for the benefit of nearly every theater in town? What’s the best way to organize all these props and costumes? Where does the labor come from? How do we protect the rights of property for small theaters in such an organization? How would we resolve disputes if a valuable property is needed by multiple theaters at the same time? The answer may well be: Let every theater deal with their own storage solution, (UHaul here we come! Oy!) but we won’t know unless we really ask the question.

Here’s the best part about all three of these projects: You can start helping now, even in the “twinkle in our eye” stage. I’ve set up an online forum through this site (now with Sidebar action!) where you can help roadmap these projects, adding your input, suggestions, wishlists, feedback, resources, and reality checks every step of the way. After trying a number of formats, I’ve landed on the phpBB forum as the best existing method of getting a large community to collaborate on a project with a minimum of digression. I’ve also setup forums for other existing projects like Don Hall’s Off Loop Freedom Charter, because if you see someone pushing a rock up a hill… well, let’s help him out.

Also, this forum is meant as a practical and local companion to Theatre Ideas’ TribalTheatre Forum – which is a rich exploration of the theories behind the Theater Tribe ethos that is inspiring many of these projects. It’s not that theory, coordination, and action should be at all divorced from each other, but sometimes the conversation needs a little more focus.

There are two words that are still ringing in my head from the dozens of blog entries about the value of theater: “Communal Imagination.” Those two words formed a call to action that landed with me and many other artists interested in deepening their connection with this community, and this is the action: community-driven projects that are the result of community-driven imagination.

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Flow, or “Be an Opener of Doors…”

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

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

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

My teachers and students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, What did you learn today?

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