Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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How to get the Right Website for Your Theater Company

April 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere

When we first got the proposed design for the Newleaftheatre.org site in 2004, the marketing team of the era was in absolute awe. We were sitting in the spacious, well-lit trendy “living room” of one of our company members’ friends design firm (won’t tell you which one – we’ve been lucky enough to have three such relationships in our eight-year history) and we were each handed this shiny binder with images of orange bevels, warm handwritten text, and black-and-white stills from our current production. It was SNAZZY. For a company that was tiny and had no money, this pro-bono design was the get of a lifetime. We still get comments, in a market five years older, about how great our site looks. That site has caught the attention of artists just landing in Chicago, and we get the privelage of working with them first… because we had a web presence that was simple and sleek and showed us off.

Cut back to 2004. I’m sitting there, trying to figure out the world of marketing as an artist, and I came to that meeting with a question. I was to be the webmaster once the site was rolling, and I wanted to be ready. I had been learning this neat new (to me) programming language called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.. The possibilities of CSS seemed to fit right in with such a sleek design – easy to read code meant that the site would be simple to update under many unforseen circumstances. For example, a vertical production photo instead of a horizontal one. I asked the question: “Would this site be coded in CSS?”

Sure, it may have been a rude and rube-ish question to ask a hot shot designer who just handed us the keys to a beautiful pro-bono design. And I felt that rush of guilt immediately, and I backed down.

And you know what? I’m STILL cleaning up and working around and limboing under that jerk’s code five years later. Look at it! Go to Newleaftheatre.org, click on “view source” and look at it! It’s a freaking mess! Table code every which way, embedded font tags that make the simplest updates cumbersome and confusing… The very definition of an unextensible site. Over the years – as I’ve learned more – I’ve slowly updated under-the-hood in little half-day bursts to allow for a database-driven site (which in turn compresses a half-day of updating the site everytime we put on a new show to about half an hour), and fancy things like photo montages, twitter integration. But the thing that prevents all these things from really gelling? Not enough time to massage and fix the shoddy programming that underpinned a beautiful site.

So, you know I love you. I don’t want you or your theater to have this fate. So here’s some tips and ‘gotchas’ to look for when your board and marketing department get a crackin’ for a new website.

1) Be very careful with conflating the identity of a graphic designer and a programmer / web developer. It is actually rare to get both in the same person, and boards tend to like designers but forget the programmer. (though now that’s starting to shift: Social media means there’s now a primary focus on web developers — but everyone still assumes that they also design, which many of them don’t) To really confuse the issue, designers also often think they can program (you know I love you guys), and programmers often think they can design (you’re my peeps). If someone says they are both, look at both sides of their portfolio. You need BOTH when you’re creating an online identity, but given the realities of long-term theater budgets, I’d argue you MUST have a good programmer or you will be fighting bad programming decisions for the life of the site, and that will cost you in time and missed opportunities. You also want to make sure that in addition to submitting a nice proposal (ooh! It’s velo-bound!) and coming in under budget and on time, your designer and programmer are hearing you and thinking creatively about how to translate the identity of your company into both a functionality (programming) and a look (design). It’s the same thing as theater, and board-types from the corporate world forget that when they put on arts marketing hats. (Don’t get me started with the corporate world and web presences – they know they need one and that theaters are bad at creating them but 90% of them don’t know how to achieve that on a granular level.) You know what designer/director trust feels like in your company, and you know what a designer who can’t execute their ideas looks like. And what do you do when they design beautifully but can’t execute? You hire them a technician – an ME, a sound engineer, a Technical Director. Same theory applies here.

2) The Good-Fast-Cheap-(Pick 2)” rule applies. As much as I just bitched the dude out, I do think that getting an experienced designer on a pro-bono basis absolutely pays dividends over the long term. Pro-bono means that the designer – for once in their career working for the man – is allowed to play and push their own creative limits, so you can really end up with staggering work if you cultivate the right relationship. To that end – If you’re getting Good and Cheap (gotta have cheap, right?) DO NOT THINK THAT YOU CAN PUSH FOR FAST. Budget plenty of time to get the results you want with little investment. The designer has to take you and your deadlines seriously, but for instance – don’t fall into the trap of the ‘partial launch so that we can hit this deadline.’ This is just asking for trouble, because your developer will usually need to develop two working sites within the time frame that they would normally be building one. Two mediocre sites do not equal one good one. When you sacrifice good, you will burn them out, and then they will drop you like a hot tamale. Check in with them. Find out what makes them excited. Continue to engage their interests, and they’ll keep working with you – just like any collaborative artist.

3) I swear to god, no one does this, but it’s so much more important than getting the right the visual look of a site. When a process neglects Content Management training, designers tend to push their Content-Management-of-choice on you, the client. This allows them to fake you out a bit and get you off their back – when they’re on home turf most designers have great agility and can *appear* to provide all three pieces of the magic triangle: Good, Fast & Cheap! You Win!

Not so fast, Sonic the Hedgehog. Allow enough time in your timeline to make sure that you understand under-the-hood programming choices. You should budget time to have a rep from your company research & discuss the relative merits of each Content Management System (CMS) with the preference but without the bias of the designer/programmer. Some CMS’s that might be proposed:

– Dreamweaver / Text editing. Run away, already. Dreamweaver is an HTML tool, not a CMS, and updating the page will require HTML skill. That means crazy maintenance time and/or costs and a greater likelihood that your updates will break the page.

– Designer maintenance. Not a viable option for the theaters these days, and if you went pro-bono, it’s a laughable thought. The goal here is that the CMS should be easy enough to use that any company member can update the site – because at some point, marketing will be a burden.

– XML or database-driven site interpreted by PHP / Ruby / Javascript. Now we’re talking. Requires some very basic coding knowledge in some cases, but data is separated from design so your updates will not mistakenly break the site. In this case, what goes into the database (the “schema’) and what gets hardcoded into the site should be a subject of some scrutiny, since your programmer will probably not get it right on the first guess. Extending your site later will require another visit from the programmer in most cases – and increasingly, as new technologies like Twitter pop up every long weekend, that could turn into a sustainability problem. Unless you REJECT change.

– Joomla or Drupal. Perfectly servicable CMSs with built-in databases, though it can be confusing to some – including me, and I know five web languages. Try it out first. Tony will recommend Joomla every time. Tony, you’re a crazy person for this reason.

– WordPress, again with a built-in database. My flavor of choice because of its ease, ubiquity, and extensibility, but it needs some tweaking to wipe away the wordpress “look” and would also need considerable modifications to power say, ongoing box office functionality. I’m biased, too, remember. Again, try before you buy. We did quite a bit of this sort of tweaking with Dan Granata’s new net-home, Theatre That Works.

This post was (once again!) sponsored by Elizabeth Spreen at Ghost Light, who bought me a nice late-night mug of Genmai-cha. The toasted rice tea reminds me of Iwate, Japan. Sigh. Thanks (oh so belatedly), Elizabeth!

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How (and why) to write a Company Bible

June 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Ever seen one of these? It’s a big binder filled with knowledge. Procedures. Contacts. Lists. Accessible Information.

In his big comeback post, Scott Walters illustrates very clearly the reasons for an artist to be proactively collecting and sharing the knowledge of what it is they do and the tricks and insights that make the work itself easier and more effective: knowledge is power.

… Those who wield power in the theatre — the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff — do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action — and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think.

The lifespan of an artist within a theater company is often a lot like the lifespan of a fruit fly. Artists often want to do one thing – say, perform – and get signed on to do that, and run box office, and figure out how to market a play, and raise money for that play, and keep the bathrooms clean… It’s tiring, and the passion for your work either carries you through the balogna or it doesn’t, and after five to ten years you start dreaming of a normal adult life that doesn’t involve begging and scrubbing and poverty.

For me, there is a lot of wasted energy in reinventing the wheel here. Let’s say a company is formed in 1983, and goes through five leadership cycles in that time. There’s a big difference in quality between the company with leadership that captures the collected knowledge of the company and the company that starts from scratch every time a company member moves on. It’s the difference between accruing institutional knowledge and burn out.

But when you get your feet wet, you’ll start to notice big challenges involved in passing complex knowledge structures on to a complete noob. Awful example from my own experience: Teaching a non-technical person how to mix their first musical. Let’s say your regular technical guru is moving out of town, and you have to basicially xerox them or face the loss of quality that comes with losing talent. There are two ways to go about this, neither of them ideal: You could label everything in the booth with a mountain of post-its and basically say “never touch this – or this – or this,” thereby simplifying the job. This definitely reduces stress in the training period, but it isn’t really a long-term solution – it cripples the student’s ability to explore and learn from mistakes over the long term. It leaves them to build their own foundation of knowledge, and it assumes that the choices you make in those final stressful and despairing moments of your tenure were the right decisions for the long term health of the company – which is almost never the case.

There’s another approach, akin to the development of a curriculum for self-study: the guru creates a comprehensive list of all the pieces of knowledge that one would need to do the job.

A) Acoustic Physics – How Sound Works
1) How sound waves mix in the air
2) The controllable properties of sound – Volume, Direction, Frequency, Timbre, Duration/Envelope,

B) How the Equipment Works
1) Microphone Pickup Patterns (what microphones “hear”)
2) Speaker Dispersal Patterns (cabinet distortion, directionality, phasing problems.
3) How Theatrical Sound Equipment can distort and shape sound waves
4) Mixer routing – Inputs, Faders, EQ, Inserts, Trim, Bus/Group Outputs, Auxillary Outputs

C) Cue Operation and Programming procedures
1) Mixer Manual – for Mute Scenes / VCAs or Scene Presets
2) Sound Playback Manuals – QLab, SFX, CD Players, etc.
3) MIDI and automation – getting equipment to trigger other equipment for simple show operation

D) Common “Gotchas”
1) Everything plugged in?
2) Everything plugged in in the right place?
3) Best signal testing practices – start at one end of the signal path and move carefully to the other.
4) The psychology of monitors and mic placement – getting the performers and the producers on your team with the common goal of the best possible audience experience (or, “If I turn up your monitor there, we either won’t hear you in the house, or we’ll hear you and squealing feedback”)

To be sure, each one of these items could be a dissertation in themselves, and this is more overwhelming for a blank slate student. However, it creates an ongoing resource for the student to explore and research over time and as their experience expands. It also doesn’t set a time limit on the training period – it allows peer-to-peer learning to continue beyond the tenure of the burnt-out ex-company member.

The MOST important thing is of course to create this knowledge resource well in advance of those often gut-wrenching final two weeks of a company member’s tenure. Capturing this information while stress is a factor is a good way to get a crappy knowledgebase. If you’ve ever been trained as a temp, you know what I’m talking about – If you need to know A – Z to properly do your job, some folks will teach you A (“Turn on your computer”) and then B (“This is the Power Button”) and then when that goes off without a hitch, they’ll spring Q on you (“And so then we just need to you to file the 990 Form with Accounting”) without explaining, oh, H (“Accounting is near the elevator”), or M (“990 Forms are tax forms for non-profits.”) or even C (“We are a company that audits non-profits”). And some folks assume you know too much and will rifle through the instructions for X-Z (“Just tell the president your progress by the end of the day.”) and they’re out the door. There is never enough time for the trainer to go through A-Z. And yet real damage happens to companies in both of those moments when A-Z isn’t effectively communicated or learned by the trainee. The corporate world can easily absorb that damage, but theater companies can often die off or suffer direly in fundraising in those moments when leadership changes.

So manuals can cushion the blow as the company grows – or even simply ages – and folks move on. Some of the manuals that I have written for New Leaf and The Side Project include:

  • How – and when – to update the website
  • Run Sheets – how to preset and run a particular show
  • Box Office procedures
  • How to share files over the internet so that group collaboration is less time-consuming
  • Brand manuals (use this font, use these colors, use this page layout, use this logo, and the branding rules that you can bend, break, and the ones you can never ignore)
  • Marketing distribution (a checklist of places to put posters and postcards)
  • Production Timeline & Checklist (what needs to get done, and when it needs to be done)

What I’ve learned about these documents is that they usually need periodic revision – so the best time to write them is as the processes are being put in place or being revised. By writing a manual as you perform the task, you can often do a better capture of clear step-by-step actions and have a better retention of all the dependent knowledge that is helpful in performing your role.

Treating manuals like a simple dumping ground of everything doesn’t work, though – they need to be more or less a complete overview of day-to-day operations, but not an exhaustive archive of everything that has ever happened ever. That’s too overwhelming to be useful. So some diligent and forward-thinking editing is always a useful habit to get into.

For these reasons, the ideal medium for a company knowledgebase is often a wiki – a living, interconnected document that allows certain basic knowledge resources to be outsourced to say, Wikipedia or other blogs & websites. Knowledge can also be organized into a structure to make critical data more clear and supporting data settle into nested structures.

At New Leaf, we’ve used a wiki and a company discussion forum in tandem for about three years, and it’s proven to work very well with our own human natures. Most day-to-day company discussion happens on the forum, filling the forum with a rich silt of acquired knowledge, planning, brainstorming, and chat. It’s almost a daily journal for most of us, a big net that captures all our ideas. We have also worked out a quick sorting and archiving process that we do as part of our production post-mortem process. When a particular nugget of knowledge from the forum discussion proves permanently useful, it finds a home somewhere in our company wiki – the repository of permanent knowledge for the company.

And on the wiki, the information is clearly organized for future company or board members. It kind of looks like this:

New Leaf Department Knowledgebase
Artistic
Play Readings
Marketing
Development, Fundraising & Grants
Production
Box Office

Agendas (these contain items that require discussion in our next face-to-face meetings so that everything gets captured)
Company Meetings
Production & Design Meetings
Marketing Meetings
Board Meetings

Meeting Minutes
Company Meeting Minutes
Post Mortem Minutes
Marketing Minutes
Committees Minutes

Timeline & To-Dos (Each of these is a calendar for each production with template dates, like “Opening -3 Weeks”. We just plug in the dates before each production, and voila, we have a list of everything we need to get done.)
Production Timeline
Box Office Timeline
Marketing Timeline

Knowledge Base
Knowledge Base – Web Tools, Important Contact Info, Stuff to Know in case of emergency
Company Bylaws
New Leaf Culture – The way we like to do things, and why
Production History
Who We Are – Mission, Vision, Values. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Over the past few years, we’ve had the typical internal turnover at both companies that happens as artists grow up and live their lives – and new artists with fresh ambition pursue their artistic lives as a part of the company. The forum / wiki / knowledgebase process has proven its worth through the shifting membership to our newest company members. As they have time, or when they’re confused about how something works, our old discussions and accrued knowledge resources can be skimmed through and learned as needed. This is often an exciting process for a new company member, like opening up an old tome filled with old words and old thoughts. It is a training period filled with knowledge and cloaked in mystery. Can you imagine that in a corporate environment? Our old show notes create a clear picture of our context and our history – and steeping in that knowledge has helped us avoid the dangers of repeated mistakes, without limiting us to a knowledgebase of post its that limit the agility of our current operations. Understanding and remembering the old risks we’ve taken inspire better risks to be taken next time. I’d wager that our effective capturing of knowledge has helped us stretch our annual budgets as well, because we have a memory and a process that allows us to allocate money towards our artistic growth and our newest risks rather than sinkholes of productions past. Best of all, creating the knowledgebase was a dirt-simple, efficient, low stress, and even fun part of the process.

Scott’s speaking the truth again: the key to better lives for you professional artists out there is taking responsibility for your own artistic goals, and empowering yourself with the tools and the knowledge you need to achieve and reach beyond those goals. For me, the thing I needed was a way of remembering where I’ve been. Breadcrumbs along the trail, so to speak.

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A Podcast with its Very Own Style

April 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

I’m listening right now to one of the best Chicago Theater podcasts that I’ve come across so far – the Serendipity Theater Collective’s 2nd Story podcast.

It’s a great example of how to take the work you’re already doing and translating it with a minimum of effort to a new, distributable medium. Second Story is a regular cabaret-style storytelling event, and because it’s essentially a sound-designed staged reading, it’s a perfect format to just plop right down as a podcast. They’ve also been very wise to keep a sustainable episode schedule – they’ve been monthly since the beginning of the year. In contrast, our poor “weekly” New Leaf podcast has been on hiatus for about a month despite having material for two more episodes ready to go. That’ll teach me to take up blogging.

The Second Story podcast also works as a carrot here – the reading sounds like a fun evening, and you know clearly what to expect from that evening from the podcast – including the fact that you can expect some eye-opening honesty. You can hear the small audience laughing along, you can hear the clink of glasses at the bar in the background, in “The Girls,” you’re even given a taste of the wine selections for the evening that you WOULD be sipping if you had come to the actual event.

Podcasts and YouTube clips are a great tool to convince your non-theater going friends to take a chance on seeing a show. With a wide variety of podcasts out there – from Second Story, to New Leaf, to the Neo-Futurists, to the House, there’s a style of performance that will appeal to a wide variety of entertainment-seeker. It’s worth putting some thought into how best to “capture” your performance – which is easier than recreating it – into some kind of distributable form. And it’s not always a technological solution – I’m excited to see devilvet’s upcoming photoshopped graphic novel version of Clay Continent – it’s the perfect medium to distribute a version of that show to folks who will find it appealing, and I’d wager that it’d make them more likely to see the live version next time it comes around.

Don’t know if there are theater purists out there, but I often also have doubts about dipping our feet in other media waters – it’s a plain fact of life when there are fewer and fewer delineations between artistic media these days. The breaking down of these delineations means increased blood flow of creativity to all the organs – and yes, there’s this nagging doubt that there may be some cancer cells somewhere in there that also get fed, in the same way that fundamentalist cells have greatly benefited from having the affordable distribution system for their ideas. (I stumbled the other day, in my search for information on a Mediawiki timeline plugin, onto a white supremacist society that had created an alternative to Wikipedia that reflected their values without all that accountability to the community that kept getting in their way. I’m not linking there because – well, blood flow feeds a cancer – but yikes.)

Irrational doubt and fear of change aside, it’s happening, and it’s more important than we might think to remind people that live performance – being there in the audience – actually does matter. Remember that children raised on the internet will not have the same exciting relationship with live performance that we did growing up, unless we expose them to it. The idea that live performance is valuable is going to be increasingly underrepresented in the newer forms of media – most artistic expression other than concerts, installations and theater, really. I think it’s important, given all the larger issues with new media, for those of us who are starting to fish in other media to remember the mystery and immediacy of live performance and infuse our new media projects with that energy.

I’m also jazzed about Second Story for another reason this week – I’ll be running sound for their event in the Goodman Lobby all Looptopia night this Friday. Drop by the sound cart, stick around for the event and say hi! For those of you who don’t know what Looptopia is, look here, and for god’s sake get your plane tickets soon. There are moments where Chicago lives up to its artistic mecca reputation, and Friday’s gonna be one of them.

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Buzzwords of Doom

November 10, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, Community Building, productivity

picture-1.png“Community Culture, Online Collaboration, Web 2.0, oh my!”

I think a lot of theater artists hear enough of this crap in our day jobs, and by the time they get to places at 8:00 pm and when they take the spotlight or hit that go button, they embody that force in the world that wants to smash corporate culture and servers back into the stone age. We scream, “feel something HUMAN, dammit!”

And alas, in that moment we miss the boat.

I just read an interesting summary of the current corporate-sector debate about Web 2.0 technologies and how exactly to implement them from Regina Miller at Future Tense. (Are they the dawning of the age of the aquarius? Are they another stock market crash in the making?) I think of this standoff between IT professionals and the corporate culture marketers (yeah, I know you’ve got it at work too) as similar to the self-supporting tension between theater technicians and artistic management.

We need each other, and we need to work together, but boy is there some unnecessary disrespect that gets flung around between us.

Here’s what’s going on, as far as I can see: Technical folk live with this technology, they eat and breathe and sleep it, and get REALLY flustered when they come in contact with folk who see it as external – even unessential – to a collaborative environment. (“For crying out loud we could work from HOME in our UNDERWEAR while we play XBOX!”) So flustered that they often become seriously unhelpful and uncollaborative, thus negating the value of whatever easy snazzy collaboration tool they were developing.

Want an example of such an impenetrable world-changing tool? Sure, I can dig one up.

This one comes from the workdesk of one of my Chicago Sound Design forefathers, Mr. Ben Sussman, long time engineer and arranger to composer Andre Pluess (and who I think got snatched up by Google recently). In between Jeff-award winning designs, He quite literally wrote the book on a new programming collaboration tool called subversion. Go ahead, try and read it. Even with pretty graphical explanations featuring little fluffy white clouds labeled “Ye Olde Internet,” you maybe understand 35% of what the hell is going on.

This is the language and collaborative world that the technical folk live and breathe in. They take for granted – in this case – that you know that CVS is a ubiquitous if flawed online collaboration framework for programmers, not that place where you can get your prescriptions filled. Like any speakers of a language, they take for granted that you’re fairly fluent. In my own work, I throw more acronyms around than a can of alphabet soup.

For technicians, this new language and vocabulary we build is useful and efficient. If we don’t share knowledge of how technologies can be used, we can’t say things like “Hey, can you register the globals on that php class and update the version control so that I can freaking FTP my localization preferences already?” and getting things done takes a LOT more time.

Marketers and Management in the corporate sector have a similar acronymble language developed for the feel-good world of institutional culture and branding. The language is sky-high with hope and inclusiveness and leveragable words that can mean anything and everything to anyone and everyone. (“Let’s get Actualized!”) It has to be in that inspirational world for so many hours out of the day that the technical folk on the ground can look at it be tempted to call it all BS. They look at the dreams and audacious goals and immediately start thinking about all the long hours they’re going to have to pull to get that pile of crap DONE.

These two groups need to train each other a bit, which gets painful, because they are both masters of a different art. When a technician’s dreams take into account the dreams of his colleagues, wonderful things happen. When a manager’s gameplan for success includes practical input on implementation, the path to success gets cleared faster.

I think Regina’s recipe for a “Change Management” team has many applications for theater. I’ve always thought that creating a unified online dynamic document – accessible and editable by all – is the fastest route to coordinating the huge challenges of scheduling and volunteer labor that is involved in mounting a storefront show. Nearest and dearest to my heart is a well-rehearsed and accessible production timeline. If a company can create – and regularly update – a cohesive and centralized to do list (say on a wiki or online forum, or even on a dry erase board at the space), tasks can be shared and people who are getting burnt out can get relief. Knowledge becomes shared – and remembered.

This only works, however, when the entire company can come together and learn to work as a collective. For some reason, arts management becomes a top-down structure again with a couple really overworked individuals serving as Managing Director or Artistic Director, or holy crap, both. We relearn to collaborate on every show that we do, it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for theater artists to learn to collaborate in our project management styles, and implement a single collaboration strategy within a company that works for everyone.

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