Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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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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A Better Way to Paper the House

June 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

It’s no secret that early word of mouth is the key to a successful run. That’s why it’s a common business practice to fill the house with all your friends and industry folks that first cobwebby week of a run, so that the engine of buzz can get primed. Except there’s a pretty major caveat to papering – the practice often floods the tank, filling the books with reservations that never show up. It’s hard to shake the assumption that theater that you can see for free isn’t theater worth seeing, and so papered seats aren’t really taken as seriously as they should be.

That, surprisingly, all changes with $1 comps. I gotta hand it here to Ken Davenport – that unsettlingly bottom-line-oriented Off-Broadway producer from the iPhone commercials (I’m personally unsure about the idea of a producer using remote technology to conveniently monitor lurker comments and feedback on fan sites and twitter those comments back to his director– but to each his own process). However you feel about his perspective, Ken certainly knows how to work an audience, and that’s worth reading his thoughts.

$1 Comps is a freaking great idea – and it’s withstood the rigors of Ken’s real-world test. It subverts the psychological damage of perception that “free theater” has to overcome – 96% of the comps in his experiment were redeemed. Yeah, that’s right – he tested the idea, collected data on it, and executed it. Remember we were talking about that? He’s also identified ways of making the $1 comp practice better next time around – by reducing the workload on the box office, for instance. Worth a look!

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

May 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All while the SM ran a run without stopping.

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

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

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

I love applications named after poultry.

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Better Nutrition for Healthy Living

January 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, Teachable Moments, Tools

The recent Jerry Springer-esque throwdown on the TOC blog comments section this morning has, indeed, devolved into a lot of angry shouting and not a lot of listening. The good news is that it’s throwing some light on a major disconnect in our community that can be worked on. A lot of people are reading it (it’s certainly the topic at the tech table today with bloggers & non-bloggers alike) and I’m finding that most non-bloggers are both passionate about the discussion but are also choosing not to participate, as G said this morning, lest they “feed the bad energy monster”. It’s true, I feel positively gaunt after reading the discussion, like I binged last night on beverages infused with gwarinine or whatever they call it. The adrenaline is primed, and blood is in the water. Discussion is no longer possible, but lessons have been learned on both sides. Well, okay, maybe not their side.

Today is not the day, alas, due to looming deadlines, but I’m gearing up for an exploration of different models of online communication and their relative merits in feeding discussion and collaboration. There’s a structural reason why blog comments breed this kind of piranha-like debate: comment sections have a built-in lack of accountability and absolutely no incentive to build relationships or credibility. That’s why the culture of blogs is so different than say, Facebook: The people are the same, but the defined goals of the web application powering the conversation are different.

This is a(nother) hugely important question to an industry as resource-poor as Chicago Theater. With nothing but volunteer time and funding (including audience ticket sales) to fall back on, theaters need to be able to have extremely efficient and powerful discussions. Prominent blogs lend the power of wide public discourse, but they sacrifice efficiency – each commenter on the blog has different reading lists, for instance, so it’s a fairly common experience to have very indignant, but essentially separate, arguments. See also Scott Walter’s analogy of the frustration that gets generated when you tap out a rhythm of your favorite showtune and having your friends guess what the hell you’re tapping. That kind of shared experience and knowledge is critical to having meaningful debate and collaborative policy development. If the conversation is poor on information, the results become based on gut instinct, and if that’s your poison, try debating Stephen Colbert some time.

Luckily for this situation, the last few years have seen an absolute explosion in collaborative networking technology, and the results of that explosion have been carefully detailed in this Top 50 list of social networking sites that Jess was nice enough to forward to me. Not all are useful to promoting theaters (don’t try to find your next production manager on Monster.com) but a surprising number of them are.

Right, onward and upward. I’ll be back with that soon.

Yummy Yummy YummyA final postscript for podcasters: The New Leaf Girl in the Goldfish Bowl Podcast Episode 2 is up today, and we’re about to go weekly. In it, director Greg Peters has a comment that really resonated with the whole TOC subargument about the moment he knew his childhood was over: It was the same moment he realized his adult teachers were idiots, and that they were more focused on disciplining him than teaching. My initial reaction to the anti-non-equity contingent on the comments was similar: I felt like I had just been slapped in the face by a total stranger and told that I better eat my brussels sprouts and like ’em or I wouldn’t grow up to be a big boy.

Luckily, I adore Brussels Sprouts. I also know how to cook them better than those people.

In any case, I’m proud of what the New Leaf podcast is becoming, and I’m excited about the possibilities of opening up a rehearsal process to the public (or even a potentially national audience) for feedback. It’s hard to criticize someone’s work blindly when you’re sitting there in the bar with them, listening to their thoughts and how they’re approaching the work. Podcasting is a format that breeds excitement and participation.

And there’s more! If your theater doesn’t yet have a podcast (unless you’re The House or New Leaf or (shudder) Broadway in Chicago, I think this means you), be sure to attend the FREE League Theater Dish event on Podcasts on February 11 (Update from Ben Thiem at the League: The event is public, and is at ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont on 2/11 at 5:30. RSVP to Ben at ben@chicagoplays.com

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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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Using all the Parts of the Pig

December 24, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: productivity, Tools

Pig CutsApologies to all you vegetarians out there, but this pork-cutlets-as-art metaphor is gonna get ugly quick.

As the past few weeks have taught me, even though I devote nearly all my time to theater, I still have very little time to devote to theater. In the many conversations I’ve had with other theater professionals about their attempts to develop their careers and strike a balance between love of art and need to eat, I find that’s really true for theater professionals at all points in their career. It doesn’t end. Everyone still does their work, the show goes up, and maybe someone came to see it in the process.

If OnlyThen it all gets chucked in the dumpster. You may be paid more in the bigger theaters, but unless you get lucky and picked up for a remount, it doesn’t change. There’s no DVD extras or webisodes in store for your storefront show. Just the trashheap. Downer.

So say I’m a managing director and I’m producing this show. We have these designers, performers, dramaturgs and directors working on it. I love them – they’re all hard workers and smart, clever, articulate people. We’ve come up with a clever tagline – a nugget of text that we’re going to be putting on the postcard that makes the show sound amazingly compelling in 15 words or less. If we’re lucky, we’ve got an in with someone who knows a little graphic design and as a favor we pull them in to make a pretty picture and boom, that’s our poster. But it’s gonna take us another two weeks to get ahold of our web designer to upload the graphics and get them to talk with each other, upload the show data and code the HTML. We open in six, so hopefully that’ll be enough time to get the word out to our close base of regular patrons who know to check the website. In the mean time we’ll get our marketing typeset, proofread, and printed, and tell everyone in the cast and crew to start pounding the pavement with postcards. That’s what we have time for.

SnoozefestWell, that’s not a growth model for audience development, and it’s the model that most 1-5 year old companies have unless they’ve got a marketing background and deeper pockets than they let on. It leads to an insular industry-centric audience which in this author’s opinion is strangling the dialogue between audience and artist that must happen in order to grow a more vibrant theatrical culture.

In our continuing saga of developing our production (make a show) and marketing (let people know about the show) process at New Leaf, we have a theory that we can achieve a lot more by being smarter with our resources than by generating more resources. Sure, on the one hand we have this finite amount of effort and dough that we can spend towards developing a production, and on the other hand we have these big goal/dreams of audience development numbers we want to hit and things that we want to accomplish as a company – whether those goal/dreams be writing more grants, reading more plays to consider for the next season, or marketing to a new audience (or even defining who our current audience is, exactly). Now, we don’t really have the time or the money to create more work for ourselves without sacrificing the quality of the work itself, and no one wants to sacrifice the detail in the work to create a bigger box office take. To me, that means finding different and multiple uses for the same kernels of artistic meat that we already have – the play, and the artistic components already being poured into the production.

This is where dynamic websites and other creative media can help a theater company use (wait for it) The Whole Theatrical Pig.

A little explanation, which may be unnecessary: Static webpages (like HTML pages) are pretty self-explanatory, and basically function as online word documents, where one person changes, formats, codes, and uploads each page. One page links to another. Updating a static website is like, well, almost all the laborious computer work you’ve ever done: Adding a new show is usually a major undertaking, with changes to be made of a baker’s dozen of eye-crossing pages of code; images to be uploaded, cropped, linked; and then there’s opening up a ticketing system for the new show.

Dynamic websites, on the other hand, have a mind of their own. Like theater, they are in motion, and they can be quite sensitive to specific audience input. Logic is built into the framework of the site to make repeatable tasks (like uploading content or displaying content in a unified style) much more automatic. Blogs have been a really popular dynamic framework of this type that makes uploading content and formatting it both pretty and super easy. And several Chicago theaters have capitalized on the blog as website platform – Collaboraction’s site is powered by Typepad, a popular blogging application, and features up-to-the-minute updates from the production team on the show currently in development. Silk Road’s recently re-launched site, designed by company member and designer Lee Keenan (no relation, we think), also features a lot of WordPress blog-powered content for each show, including review updates, self-generated news updates on company members and even their new comfy audience furniture.

This year, I joined Greasy Joan & Co., marking my third company along with New Leaf and the side project where one of my primary functions as a company member is updating a website with the latest and greatest news from the company. With the side project’s crazy visiting artist schedule alone, that’s close to 30 productions a year to update online, to say nothing of fundraisers and readings and new company members and company news. Updating static sites was looking to be apocalyptic in scope and a blog framework wasn’t going to cut it, since these companies were primarily concerned with the plays and not the process behind the plays (like say, Collaboraction’s clever use of their Blog).

So we built show logic. Now each of these thirty shows that you see online has some sort of simple data file – either a text file or a user-accessed database with basic show data, like the Opening Date, cast and crew lists (sometimes with links to their portfolio pages), that clever tagline I mentioned before, and reviews from the show. If I make any change to this master database, the site logic will use that new data to dynamically update the website as you download it. The most basic logic we use on all three sites is the closing night check – when a show closes on a given date, that show instantly jumps from the “current” page to the “past productions” page after that date, and I don’t have to open my laptop.

I just go to strike.

What I’ve found that works for me is to create a logic structure and back-end interface to the site that uses the existing company production process in its own logic. For instance, if you have a bunch of non-technically-inclined company members, you need a dirt-simple and intuitive admin interface so that everyone can feel empowered to update the site and do their part to keep the content fresh and current. (Websites should be no exception to the collaborative environment of theater) If you have a full show schedule that is constantly in flux, you’ll want an easy way to have every calendar update track through to every page it needs to – from your website calendar to the show detail page, to the company-used calendar to schedule your space. It is possible to work every quirk and skill within your company to your advantage, it just takes a little bit of effort and a lot of self-knowledge.

The Dining RoomFor example, at New Leaf, we have a great photographer, Chris Ash, who takes close to 500 shots of each of our productions. What a gift, right? But when the site was static, we found that we really needed to whittle that glorious mound of visual gold down to just six killer shots for our production history page, and the rest went to waste away in our archives. Then, there was an hour or so of coding to get the images to center correctly on our page, and reformat the images to be the right resolution, blah blah blah. Now that the site is dynamic, we pick 25 or more images, and upload them along with an mp3 of music from the show. That’s it. No coding. The site does the rest of the heavy lifting, detects that the files have been uploaded, and the result is a comparatively immersive slideshow experience for our users. It takes us less time, uses more of the juicy creative meat that our artists have generated, and gives the audience a better experience.

And I should add that dynamic web technology and functions are being developed at a lightning fast rate by a thriving open source community. These people are DYING to have you use their code for FREE, to do ANYTHING you want with your artistic idea. The opportunities to get the guts of your art to a wider audience using new media are staggering. It is not outside the realm of possibility – right now – to say, record your production meeting, scan a couple set drawings and costume renderings, pick out some show music, have your director say a few words on the way to the bar into your laptop, upload it to your server and have your website dynamically mix a video podcast episode and seed it to iTunes, your homepage, and automatically send your subscribers an email about the new behind-the-scenes look at your latest show while you enjoy a nice pint and dart game with your design team. With just a bit more work, you’ve taken a meeting about color chips and made it a compelling sneak peak that will convince people listening to you on the bus the next morning to see your show.

This example may be a little bit too automated for its own good, sure. But I would also argue that any repetitive piece of business that a company performs – from bulk mailing to ticket sales – can be alleviated by some kind of collaborative automation. And I’d also argue that there’s a lot of fantastic artists that burnout because of those repetitive tasks that never seem to end. And there’s a lot of eager patrons that never make it to the theater because those repetitive tasks don’t really reach them. If considered with a little care and big-picture Zen, every bit of effort that we spend working on a show can be doubled by a clever use of technology, and no one needs to feel futile and lost.

That is Theater for the Future, my friends. Use the whole damn pig.

The main difficulty with implementing a dynamic website for most theaters is getting the programming resources in to work with the company and create a system that matches very closely how the company works. You’ll get better results from creating site logic that fits your company resources closely, but that requires a website programmer that intimately knows and cares about your company, and more importantly understands where it’s going.

Can I be Your Intern?Now that kind of talent may be hard to come by for most storefronts. To say that programming resources of that scale are out of the reach of any theater company is simply untrue, though. Setting up a blog is cake these days, and getting any of the pre-fab content management applications (that dirt-simple backend I was talking about) like Joomla or Drupal working with your site is a pretty cheap endeavor. The software and platform to use it comes with your current web hosting service for free (I promise), and if you can’t get your 15-year-old cousin in Des Moines to fashion a genius PHP or Ruby-on-Rails brain for your current site (she’d totally do it for extra credit) you can always spend a couple bucks on an anonymous helper. Even a craigslist search will return a few affordable and skillful recruits like this resourceful young gentleman.

One caveat to enlisting the support of any old web designer for a project like this: As I mentioned in my last post, making your site dynamic isn’t quite the same as a redesign – in newleaftheatre.org’s case, adding a fairly full-featured dynamic backend to the site didn’t really involve any visual changes to how the site looks to the end users. It’s not the same as asking someone to “redesign my site,” which more often than not involves changing your visual look, which can be damaging to any existing brand you may have. So if you’re a theater company and would like to explore the possibilities of a dynamically powered website but don’t know where to start, start trolling your already extensive network specifically for a web programmer or web application builder. Your buzzwords to listen for in the interview are any of the following: PHP, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Joomla, Drupal, CakePHP.

Extra credit if you can guess the acrostic formed from all the buzzwords I used in this post. Kidding.

Happy Holidays, and have an extra slice of whatever you’re eating.

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Mellifluous Paint

November 13, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

So I guess we just saw one too many people texting from the third row that week.

We were trying to ease the burden on the poor box office manager at the Side Project and we decided to record a preshow announcement for the first time so the poor overworked ensemble could refrain from doing a hastily prepared curtain speech.

In recent years, preshow announcements have become part of the brand of the theater, not just a polite reminder to turn off your cell phones. They’ll announce the season, or invite people to participate in a survey. In the Side Project’s case, it’s a tiny tiny theater with 25 – 50 seats and some of the most intensely intimate staging you’ve ever seen. That’s the kind of “duck or the fight choreography might graze your cheek” image that we want to both cultivate and live up to – the brand we’re trying to reinforce. With a preshow announcement.

So we needed something, and it was midnight, and I got a little slap happy.

The announcement in question.

You know you sometimes do something and it strikes a chord?

For the love of god, I love technology as much if not more than the next guy, but blackberries can remove you from that wonderful human contact we were just talking about. Stop texting in theaters or we will find a way to paint you!

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