Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Follow Up: The Tribe vs. the Macroeconomy

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

I’m pumped for tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conversations Abuzz, and Brainstorming Value for Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve Got Your Writers Right Here

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

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

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

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

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

Five minutes of Brain Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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URL-licious, and Your Corner of the World

January 26, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

I decided to get all serious and stuff. This blog is now also available at theaterforthefuture.com. Now that’s easy to remember, isn’t it?

In other news, we finally moved back in to the New Leaf space today in our ongoing rehearsals for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. We’ve been blogging about our contract drama with the Chicago Park District which is finally being resolved (it’s scary when a storefront theater administration is more together than a city department, but there you go). Walking back home into our little storefront today after such a tumultuous week and a half brought back some wonderful memories.

You know those little theaters that you’ve done dozens of productions in? The little quirks and oddities about the space that overtime become part of the life of the space? Well, today got me thinking about all the stuff we’ve done with our quirky little home over the years.

If you have a little corner of a theater that brings memories like this to you, a favorite seat or an odd dressing room, I’d love to hear your story.

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The Glacier Shifts

January 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

Glacial ActivityFirst of all, a thrillingly honest perspective today from Dan Granata on the old inter-community feedback question, and the specifically difficult challenges facing performers on that front. Also of note is that funny way that theater lifers seem to get a little cracked as they hammer away over the years. This hit me most of all as I’ve been making steady moves this year towards becoming a Chicago theater lifer, for better or worse. Who knows if that’ll stick over the next decade, but sometimes you just see when you’ve arrived home, and it’s time to go “all in.”

Can you hear the ground shifting?

Two recent announcements made me check my seismograph.

The first was the League of Chicago Theatres’ announcement of the finalists for the second ever Emerging Theatre Award, which is awarded to theaters that “have been in existence at least 3 and no longer than 10 years, and have demonstrated artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility in business practices.”

This years’ finalists are:

ADVENTURE STAGE CHICAGO
DOG AND PONY THEATRE
SILK ROAD THEATRE PROJECT
THE GIFT THEATRE
T.U.T.A.

And the deadline for voting is in one week, February 1st.

Yes, no New Leaf, but that’s cool. We’re going to be a much better candidate next year, that much I can say, and this is a solid list of finalists. It’s really great to have another grant in town, this one specifically to be used to enhancing a theater’s marketing presence in the company. It’s even BETTER that this has been organized as a community-offered grant, with League member theaters offered a vote in the process. The one criticism of the award that some leveled in its first year was that it went to the House, which seemed to be a theater that certainly met the criteria but didn’t really need the marketing help. Even more eyebrow raising was the possibility that the award was being used to provide Broadway in Chicago with cheap artistic labor to produce the next blockbuster Broadway hit (not a bad thing at all for storefront theaters with a marketable product, but check out this Parabasis article on the potential ramifications of the increasingly common practice of enhancement. Which is essentially generating or even test-driving a for-profit production in a non-profit theater. *SpArrOw*. Excuse me, did some one cough?)

Happily, I think this list allows me, at least, to put to rest any doubt I had about the program.

So who would I vote for? Well, I’ve only had the privilege of working with Dog & Pony, and I’ve directly seen the work of Silk Road. I’ve talked in depth with company members and freelancers who have worked with every theater on this list, so I know at least a bit about how each company works. So I’m aware of the excitement surrounding each company. So then for me it becomes a question of: Which of these theaters is best for the community at large, and who could use the help the most?

For me, that becomes a tossup. I see Silk Road as one of the only theater companies in town creating theater for and about a huge and underserved demographic in the population. That’s important work which brings new audiences to theater, and I think they do an amazing job with it. (Merchant on Venice was one of the most delightful shows of the year this season). On the other hand, Silk Road’s upcoming partnership with the Goodman means they have several developmental and marketing hands pulling them up already. And thanks to designer Andrew Skwish, their marketing materials are already the best in town. THE BEST.

Dog & Pony does really gutsy work that really excites me. From Jarrett Dapier’s stagings of the works of Sheila Callaghan, who I think could prove to be one of the most gifted playwrights of our generation,to Devon DeMayo’s balls-to-the-wall promenade project As Told By the Vivian Girls (a nine-room exploration of the works of eccentric Chicagoan Henry Darger) to be staged at Theater on the Lake later this season. This is also a theater company that has strong relationships with the city and potentially has the infrastructure for big growth along the lines of Redmoon that brings a new audience to see other storefront shows. But what they don’t have is money and a strong enough brand to carry that growth. I think if you want to invest in a company at a time where it could make all the difference, Dog & Pony’s your company.

This is not to slight TUTA or The Gift. They’re fine companies that value their artistic staff well and are true to their missions, but I don’t see them building communities on the scale of Silk Road or D&P, and I think community-building is what will eventually help us all. The Gift, in particular, already has a particularly savvy marketing plan, an ensemble of savvy movers and shakers, and friends in high places (check out their list of close artistic advisors) that are serving them well, so I’m not sure if their need is as great as some of the others on the list. I’m sure they make a great-looking candidate for Broadway in Chicago, of course, and their need is definitely greater than the House’s.

The one theater on the list that I feel a little queasy about is Adventure Stage Chicago. Not because of the work they do – I’ve heard it’s great, and many of the artists working there are excited about the company. I also think a healthy children’s theater has been really important to the overall growth of the theater scene here – the work being done by the well-funded, well-managed, and city-supported Chicago Children’s Theatre is some of the most exciting work I’ve seen for any audience in recent memory (we still sing songs with glee from A Year with Frog & Toad up here in the Owen booth). The tricky thing about ASC’s candidacy for this award is that they aren’t necessarily “emerging.” I don’t know much about ASC, which means I don’t know how completely they reformed from the preexisting Vittum Theatre, which had been in operation for over a decade. (I’d love any enlightenment from all you commenters out there). Was it simply a mission change or is it an entirely new theater and new staff that is capitalizing on the existing Vittum brand?

All told, it’s a good list, and I’m excited about this annual award again. I think it’ll be a great opportunity for industry folks to really get to know all the great theaters in town and get some positive cross-pollenation going.

I told myself this would be a short blog post, but I need to also mention the other announcement that came in the mail today… The Jeffs are auditing their brand.

and don’t forget the

In a letter to Chicago theater companies, the Jeff Committee announced the results of a preliminary Brand Audit process (conducted by Patricia Heimann & Associates and Peak Communications) which will be followed up with more discussion and feedback from within the organization and throughout Chicago.

New Leaf went through a complete brand overhaul a few years ago, and when done right rebranding isn’t just about a change in logo. It’s like organizational therapy. It means focusing some inter-organizational scrutiny on the entire process and culture of how the Jeff committee works and how it is perceived in the community. It means refocusing the mission and removing the bad habits that sometimes develop when you’re trying do something crazy in scope – like providing the valuable service of seeing and evaluating very nearly EVERY show in Chicago. It looks like one of the big things on that agenda is finding a way to introduce a little more organizational transparency:

Because Committee members are positioned as judges with the power to influence success or failure of a performance, respondents want to know the selection criteria for judges. Respondents felt they should be informed how committee members are selected, the committee’s extended relationships and define more fully the committee’s overall role in the theatre community.

Given what folks have been saying about the odd lines between theater practitioner and theater evaluator (see Dan’s final paragraph), I think that improving organizational transparency is a FANTASTIC step. The kind of step that makes me want to hug the Jeff committee members one at a time. Because it’s not going to be an easy road.

It goes to show that public discussion of perceived problems helps address those problems. Duh, nice insight, Nick. Making your voice heard is the first step in creating common techniques and public policy that creates solutions. Developing solutions that are both reasonable and new creates value for everyone in the industry. As Dan says and David Alan Moore backs up, our chosen profession has a way of making reasonable people leave the discussion, and that’s a clear hurdle to building a more healthy community culture. I feel the burn too, and it’s a battle with myself to keep writing and designing and periodically checking in with myself to make sure my actions aren’t making things more difficult for the other folks in the boat with me.

At the end of the day, the Jeffs are us – committee members are picked from theater practitioners and appreciators in the community – and they already have a record of serving the community that far exceeds the record of organizations like the Tonys. Their institutional health and vigor should matter to us, and we should help them to make their vision and mission clearer and more achievable. The better our process for quickly recognizing quality work being done in town, the more our fair city can be seen by the rest of the world as a place where that quality work is nurtured. And that will mean that there will be more quality work to go around for us to work on and for our audiences to enjoy.

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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Infrastructure

January 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Squirrel PopsicleWinters are a bitch.

It’s cold as hell, and we have it easy. Try walking outside sometime and looking up into the dead, empty treetops on your street – you’ll probably notice clumps of leaves and twigs, high up near the top.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s your neighborhood squirrel’s home. They’re sqwunched up in that little ball of insulation, shivering through wind, snow, sleet and freezing rain.

The fact is, some animals make it through the harsh winter, and some don’t. But the squirrels do what they can to make sure that they make it.

There’s been some pretty disheartening news from storefront theater this week both Live Bait and the Bailiwick are in danger of collapsing and closing their space’s doors. I wish I was surprised, and I wish this wasn’t an annual tradition, just as predictable the new crop of newly-budding storefront troupes pop up just after graduation.

I’m not a social darwinist, but there’s something that fixtures like Bailiwick and Live Bait could have used to protect their institutional assets to fend off the climate change of a rapidly shifting cultural demographic: An infrastructure that is closely fitted to their institution, lightweight, simple, and powerful.

What do I mean by saying something that impetuous? Let’s look at Live Bait. According to the article, and consistent with what I’ve seen there, the problem isn’t money, it’s time. For over twenty years, the Live Bait space has been run by a husband and wife duo and often a third or fourth management overhire. This is just not enough people to sustainably run a mini-rental house. Trash piles up, strikes aren’t completed, repairs need to be made, bills need to be collected. Sharon Evans and John Ragir have put in their time and they deserve a change of focus and time to focus on their personal creative endeavors. The problem for the institution has been finding like-minded folks that they could trust to delegate the work. Now there’s no one who can run the ENTIRE theater infrastructure for them – from the minutiae that I mentioned to maintaining board relationships, filing taxes, and making long-term planning decisions about the building itself – and that’s like having no theater infrastructure at all.

Mission Paradox outlines the importance of valuing your own time in his blog this week, and I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. But building your theater infrastructure doesn’t have to mean refashioning your organization in the image of the Goodman or Broadway in Chicago. It simply means using the resources you have at your disposal to build yourself a home that will last through the long dark winter that your organization will inevitably face.

Resource 1 – Your people. Build trust and a common vision with your company. Sustainable organizations don’t rely solely on the input from a single leader. Teach everyone in the company as many skills as possible. Encourage each others’ growth, value each others’ time, and only bring on folks into your company that are in it for the long haul. If you’re an individual thinking about joining a company, think about that long haul. Be honest with yourself, and each other, and you’ll find a lot more energy in that honesty. Earn each others’ trust and check in with each other to make sure you all stay happy. It’ll be okay if someone needs to leave someday – if what you’ve built together matters, it’ll keep going if someone needs to pursue other endeavors.

Resource 2 – Your stuff, your place, your home. These are the twigs that are around you. If you used a prop bucket in your first five productions, you’d save that bucket, wouldn’t you? Try not to rent something twice when you can own it once. Bigger ticket items in this category are things like your space. Don’t get a space unless you have deep pockets and a plan for using it, and the people power to keep that use going.

Resource 3 – Your audience. Build them up. Talk to them, a lot. Talk about your organization like you care about it. Build your organization so that you DO care about it, so when anybody walking on the street asks about your theater, you know what to say, and you know how to excite them and convince them in that moment to come to every show you do for the rest of time. Include your board in this category – share what you do with people, and they will want to help you grow it, because you’ve let them own a piece of your success. If you treat donors like audience and audience like donors, you have a simple relationship with everyone, and you’ll still be getting those donations. You’ll get those donations by caring about what you do, and letting the world know that you care.

Resource 4 – Your time. None of this stuff does anyone any good if you burn out. Burning Out on theater is a wasting disease killing our industry. Here’s the real secret to building infrastructure that will help you avoid that fate. You don’t need complex box office structures and subscription series and mailings and cold calls to your phone list unless the STRUCTURE of your audience and your organization demands those solutions. Remember, our world is changing pretty fast these days, and these are old solutions to old problems. You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by listening to your audience and recognizing what they’re actually responding to, not what you think they’ll respond to. You don’t have to search far and wide for effective innovations that save you time – Just build your strategies and procedures well, test them, measure them, and make sure they still make you happy after you’re done with them. Make those strategies and procedures as simple as you possibly can without sacrificing their effectiveness and quality. Put joy into your process. I’m serious – if you have a hard time enlisting your company members to run the box office or come to strike, make those tasks fun. Write funny box office manuals. Throw a strike party. Then, you’ll all have energy to keep it going and enlisting other folks that will help you keep it going.

Notice how money isn’t even on this list? Money is water. You don’t just need water, you need a big bucket so when it doesn’t rain for a while, you still have something to drink.

And even if they’re cold, don’t pet the squirrels. They’ll make it.

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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Empathy

January 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Tool BoxIn what I’m hoping will become a regular series on this blog, I’d like to showcase one of the tactics and tools that is always available to the storefront theater or artist to accomplish their self-development goals.

The recent hot topic of conversation in the Chicago Theater blogosphere has been the “regional theater disease” of hiring actors from NYC when we could be using our local pool of talent more. It’s an issue that riles great passion in many folks, and there’s a great deal of blame that gets thrown around on both sides of the equation. It’s also a problem that needs a lot of heads thinking about a viable solution and a roadmap to achieving that solution.

However you feel about the issue, if your goal is to really end the problem as quickly and permanently as possible, I find it’s often best to not start with a complete declaration of war and revolution against those making decisions. As much as I love to cheerlead on this site, I believe that real change happens faster and more completely when you use tactics of understanding and dialogue with the people that have the power to influence the situation. Speak Truth To Power, and have them Speak it Right Back. I believe these people are trying to serve the interests of the community, but the interests of the community are so complex that it is inevitable that they both succeed and fail somewhat depending on the perceived priorities of their organizations.

To put it simply: There isn’t currently a switch you can throw and make it a no-brainer to hire local talent over NYC talent. There’s crap in the road towards that beautiful shining city on the hill. We need to first identify what the roadblocks are. We need to realize that since we’re in the same car with the folks driving us there, we’re better served by pulling a better map out of the glove compartment than telling them to pull over in dangerous territory. This isn’t a father-knows-best argument – I’ll wager that everyone’s flying just as blind as we are. It’s just that theater itself is in trouble here, and the more we foster cooperation between individuals, small organizations, and large organizations, the more we can improve conditions for all of us.

So how to pick the brains of the folks currently in charge and figure out what they’re paying attention to? How do you convince them that your idea is something that is worth doing, something worth prioritizing? Empathy is hugely powerful in problem solving challenges of this scale. Start by reading what they’re saying, and understand what their focus is through their own words.

(The image here is of course from the hilariously dead-on regional-theater-spoof Slings and Arrows, which delves into these issues in a far more entertaining way that I’m doing here. See. It.)

Everyone involved in any complex problem is still a human, and most folks act from largely self-perpetuating motives (usually still with a bit of the faded youthful idealism of wanting to make the world a better place and correct injustice – so that’s an in with almost everyone). Researching, understanding, and redirecting those motives often can benefit all parties. Empathy gets two people butting heads to put down the rattling sabers and discuss contracts, concessions, grants and real action. Empathy helps win over groups of people at once – a positive message is almost always more effective than a negative one. Empathy helps you understand when someone could be receptive to an idea, and when they just need to grab a bite to eat and please get out of the way.

A Little More Coffee For You?Empathy is a tool learned by every good intern on the first day. You’re new, you’re green, you can see that your entire career depends on just a few people noticing you and valuing you enough to give you recommendations and jobs. There are interns who rightly call this bullshit, and refuse to play the game. Then there are interns who watch everyone on staff like a hawk. They get to know the personalities of the staff, not just their roles and responsibilities. They see when an artistic director forgets her script everywhere she goes, and they know to be there to pick it up and hand it to her. They see where they can be useful and make the process easier. They see that the director of development is insecure about their interaction with the artistic staff, so they engage the director with conversation about their thoughts on the last play and help pump up their ego, self-confidence, and trust. They do all this so that they will earn the trust of those who have the power to make change. It’s a mutual exchange… the intern here isn’t lying to get ahead, they’re learning how the folks in powerful staff positions think, and engaging with that thought process for the time when they will be in power. They can learn simply by keeping the flow of creative energy in the room open.

Empathy is also a tool that can help a theater drastically improve its relationship with the audience. How does the audience feel when they walk into your space? What does your space tell them? How do your plays make them feel, and how do those feelings mesh with the artistic goals of your play? Empathy is an essential ingredient in fostering the trust that a subscriber feels for your theater.

So, back to the problem of actors: if you follow the chicken and the egg around, the real problem seems to be that there is a perception in the public that they should buy a ticket if a show is from New York or if the actors are from New York. The perception is that New York shows are good, and Chicago shows and the talent that creates them are hit and miss. This is certainly a false perception, but that perception is not being systematically repositioned to the Chicago public. In order to solve the problem, we have to understand why it exists and adjust the perception, slowly and patiently and with a minimum of blood and rolling heads.

This perception that Chicago needs star power in its plays is perpetuated by the immediate and constant need to provide high-risk and high-value arts programming in regional theaters that sells out or carries a minimum financial risk. If a regional theater casts an LA or NYC star in a gutsy show, the play will still sell out, and the financial reward will satisfy the board and create financial stability which means they have served the community by getting their public institution closer to self-sufficiency. Yes, it’s arguable that they haven’t served the long term needs of the community or the organization by failing to build a cult of stardom around the more sustainable local pool of actors. But long term needs and short term needs for any organization are almost ALWAYS at odds and need to be carefully balanced. There is no “suck” knob on a mixing board, and there’s no “local only” button in a regional theater’s speed dial.

So how do we change situations like this, with multiple motives that create systematic injustice over time? I take my lesson (yet again) from David Hare’s The Permanent Way, where Hare picks apart the various motives and personalities involved in British Rail’s disastrous and systematic string of train wrecks from ’94 – ’02. From the bereaved to the rail managers to the investment bankers who funded a failed privatization that resulted in reduced maintenance, track failure and lots of fatalities, Hare approaches the disastrous system simply by listening, and paints a path through empathy with each player towards systematic health. As it turns out, everyone wanted the same thing – a safer, efficient, and well-used rail system. Everyone in our community wants the same thing for our community – opportunities for all, artistic growth, and audience development.

The simplest technique to shepherding everyone’s competing interests turns out to be the reverse of a standard dramatic technique. If you seek to understand the motivations of the people and groups of people that you see blocking you from your goal, you can quickly defuse the drama and find the quickest path to a mutually beneficial compromise.

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All Meta and no Real Work make Nick a Dull Boy.

January 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, productivity, projects

Nick knows ProductivityWhile the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project is chugging away, adding a few shows each day, I’ve dove head first into the actual production work that I’ve been carefully procrastinating on this month. The ideas are still bouncing around, but the time to execute them using the glorious tubes of the interwebs is running dry for the moment. That’s cool, right? We’re cool. Baby steps.

Some thoughts bouncing around this week:

– Our new sound intern at the Goodman is from the realm of sound, but is brand spanking new to theater. It’s been really fun to see him open his eyes to the possibilities while watching the process behind Shining City. It looks like he’s really falling for it, which is really great to see. Yesterday, I put the Opening Night Calendar to the practicality test and used it to find four shows – all in previews or early in the run to help his wallet – that showcased the variety of Chicago theater to a newbie with an appetite. It’s been a great reminder for me personally just how much is out there, and we’re not even done yet. Thanks to new adds Point of Contention, Theater W!t, Speaking Ring, Stage Left and Live Bait for being early adopters and Kris Vire and Rob Kozlowski, who both drove some traffic to the project over the weekend.

– Read this totally kickass analysis of why, systematically, the music industry is slowly drowning itself, and what other industries can do to avoid a similar fate.

– A spectacular cross-blog conversation on the importation of actors to regional venues has popped up here and here and here. I am grossly under-informed on the topic, or I’d join in. From my vantage point in the storefronts and even a great deal of the larger theaters, I see a lot of great local working actors, which makes me happy, and the imports don’t often last. I know it’s a major issue, and as Marc Grapey and David Cromer would say, we designers don’t have to deal with the import issue as much while we chew our bon-bons from atop our great piles of cash. Again, though… cross-pollination is a good thing, so if we can encourage it to actually happen and maybe balance the trade deficit a bit, we might be able to pump out a little lemonade from the situation. It’s losing actors to LA and NYC and other regions that I dread, but getting them to visit every so often is good for all. So while I have little to add, I think it’s pretty neat that the arguments are being refined right where you can read them, add to them… and now you can do something about it.

– The discussion of international theater festivals in the last post led me to try out a few great online resources, including the Chicago History Database which is operated by a history-minded English professor from Valparaiso University and assisted by Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams. The site’s mission is to track the founding, disbanding, archival materials, and key membership of all theater companies in Chicago, big and small.

The process of finding information on a now defunct cultural institution, the Chicago International Theater Festival, which last convened in 1992, proved to be more difficult and speculative than I would have thought. And finding information like this, which is key to a developing artist’s career and theater’s development. I think in Chicago’s scene there are a number of theaters that travel the same path as long-gone theaters because of a lack of institutional knowledge and community memory.

After all, one who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it. (Institutional Memory is one of those things that I mention at almost every company meeting. I’m a die-hard supporter of saving and processing the past and present for the benefit of the future in any organization.) Difficult and history-changing tasks like opening a new space or organizing an international theater festival leave traces of extremely valuable information and lessons that can be passed on to other theaters, or used in the pursuit of city law reform or improving public support. Plus, why do something twice when you can do it once?

Can you tell that I’m justifying the need for another crazy group collaboration project? It’s so crazy it just might work. (I’m so crazy I need to get to work.)

So the scarcity of institutional knowledge in storefront theater got me thinking: Just as our system for managing our collective scheduling might be insufficient to maximize the potential of Storefront Theater in General, how successful are our current methods for knowing just what work is being done in town right now, and knowing what work has been done before we even got here? Armed with that kind of cohesive knowledge, could we more easily notice trends, and use the lesson of the past to benefit the entire storefront community?

Like any possible project, it was time for me to survey what’s currently out there and what exactly was dissatisfying about it. Institutional knowledge certainly exists, it’s a question of where is it being stored, and who is storing it. There are a number of Chicago listing sites that also provide some insight into the wide kaleidoscope of the Chicago Theater Scene. The lists I was able to find when I first moved to Chicago just happened to be the ones with the top Google results: Centerstage’s largely comprehensive list of theaters unfortunately is usually quite out of date; Illyria’s Chicago Theater Homepages lists most current companies’ websites, but hasn’t been updated since February 2007; and Chicago Traveler has a good hit count but is by necessity driven by commercial interests. Other more recent sites try to get the list right, including a formidable recent attempt (powered by php, of course) by Theater in Chicago’s attempt to dynamically map every theater in Chicago.

Why are there so many lists, none of which are comprehensive? There’s several divergent motivations at work here for taking on the task of creating a comprehensive picture of the entire Chicago scene and the network of artists that work together to create it. The first motivation is pure Metromix: The commercial value of providing a listing service to audience members, and these sites are positioned to get the web browsing public to spend top dollar on glossy entertainment. As such, they leave out some of the younger companies and often do not update the information on even the mid-sized companies on a regular basis. Why not? Well, because that’s an overwhelming amount of information that changes almost daily. It may be valuable information, but it’s not valuable enough to these organizations to justify a full-time employee to seek the information out.

Another possible motivation? Positioning your site as alternative media source. You can easily feed your site’s content by the press releases of small companies eager for attention. Both Theater in Chicago and Centerstage position themselves as alternatives to larger media outlets that provide a different kind of coverage. It’s debatable how effective and sustainable those strategies are given the recent collapse of the Chicago Reader, and there’s a key problem with the information contained in almost all of these listing sites: Accessibility. These are all listing sites managed by lone gunman webmasters, who you need to email and rely on to have your information go public. The biggest problem with this strategy (and the working strategy of my Calendar project, for that matter) is the editor-in-charge off in a room somewhere that you need to know about and have access to in order to get your data published. It’s a lot of work to create a completely standalone site, and when you’re done, you need to work out how to cut out a chunk of the market share of the people looking for this information. When you’re talking about theaters who are so young they don’t really understand the context of the theater scene they’re operating in, how can anyone expect one of these listing services to ever be definitive repositories of our history and our progress?

So I realized that what I was really longing for was an improvement to the current Theater in Chicago Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia already has that kind of market share, and it’s going to be one of the obvious sources of information for the forseeable future. The entry is duly based on the definitive Richard Christiansen book, A Theatre of Our Own, but the list of theater spaces and companies is woefully incomplete. Some of the highlights of the ghosts of theaters past (Organic, but no Wisdom Bridge?) Anyone can add both their theater’s entry containing historical information like founders, artistic staff, production history, and mission, and they can also make their presence known in the greater context of the community in the main article. And anyone can edit (and hopefully not vandalize) to provide some measured balance to the whole picture, and create something worthwhile for history and public context. Most importantly, talent that is young, new to town, and wanting to see where they might flourish could easily see a more complete picture of the pieces that make up the world’s most vibrant theater scene.

Community projects move mountains. Many hands make light work, and by making the projects simple (post your theater and the theaters you remember on Wikipedia, everyone!), you can create big, intricate knowledge and labor bases that can help a lot of people with challenges we may not be able to imagine. This principle can be applied to any number of tasks, goals and dreams that seem unreachable now. If everyone in the neighborhood builds a park, everyone in that neighborhood will be able to enjoy that park.

So I’m gonna get on that… and you theater managers and activists should be proud enough of your young history to record the important points in the Wikipedia article yourself. Some savvy theaters have already done this – the history page shows updates from Boho and Sansculottes, for instance.

I’ll be getting on that right after I get these seven shows open. Because, well,… meta, real work, I’m in trouble.

Back to work!

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Synchronicity

January 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

calvin-hobbes.gifIt’s nice, when you set foot into country that you haven’t discovered yet, to know that others have been treading the paths ahead of you and noodling with the same kinds of problems….

In order to better educate myself about what’s out there, what’s being discussed right now and what different voices are already engaged in the discussion, I’ve subscribed to about a gajillion blogs from Chicago (including most of the available myspace blogs that us storefronters have been using to, New York, several other strong theater regions in the country, and most enlighteningly, several international theater blogs. I’ve been reading up on the past few months of activity, and it’s promising, especially the burst of activity that’s begun in the past few days. If you’re operating a storefront theater right now, it’s definitely worth your while to get in on the discussion and consider the possibilities.

To that end, if you’re already interested in the topics of this blog, I’m sharing the blog articles from other authors that are just utterly brilliant or taking a different approach to the topics I’ve been discussing and thinking about, and sharing them in a digest feed – You know, for the future. You can read the digest of the latest articles in the sidebar, or you can subscribe to the digest feed in your own blog reader.

Two blogs in particular have great voices and a deep desire and strategy to explore solutions to the every day challenges of creating theater as a living. Mission Paradox takes a creative and practical approach towards theater marketing, and Theater Ideas by Scott Walters thinks very strategically about how to best take on some of the biggest threats to theater as an industry and as an art form. Check out Scott’s post on the importance of considering trust when building an audience, which I also discuss here. They are definitely must-reads if one of your New Years resolutions, like mine, is to be more engaged with the entire theater community as well as our little local pockets of glory. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, and it’s inspiring – and strategic – to connect and discuss openly with people you wouldn’t otherwise connect with in the theater community.

Speaking of the entire theater community, thanks to the folks that are participating in the Chicago opening night calendar project… upcoming shows are both on the public Google calendar and on the sidebar. Go team!

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