Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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TFTT Writer’s Strike Edition: The HTTP:// isn’t just for marketing

November 07, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

The web community spirit of You Tube hasn’t quite been working yet for theatrical marketing and promotions, but thankfully we’re in good company… TV Writers have also been given the shaft on the emerging market of “New Media” – web downloads, promotional content like webisodes, and viral entertainment, and that’s about to change. A number of theater companies are also experimenting and Chicago company stagechannel brings theater to video… But I was wondering today about the possibilities of bringing theater to the web and drawing in audience through the ever-growing internet viewing market…

First, check out this wonderful bit of social activism mixed with star power and street theater:

I often think the preshow, lobby area, and even the preshow announcement are ripe opportunities for extending the world of the play beyond the four corners of a theater space. But we’re also starting to see a number of experiments in extending a play’s walls into the internet to help promote a show, including our own at New Leaf for Vox Pandora, TheOnlyOneLeftWasHope.com. It’s rich territory, as the number of people trolling the internet for content instead of cable TV is growing exponentially by the day.

Another of these fifth-wall experiments crossed my inbox a few days ago, Jason Grote’s web world created for a production of his play 1001. Jason has created a fake news page with easter egg links to his box office, his reviews, even a world-of-the-play wiki for user-generated comments.

These web productions are often slapped together, but when you think about how many of our young audience members sit in day jobs surfing the net, how great would it be for someone to start to experience a rich theatrical experience for the entire day before they actually get to the theater? And then after they see the show, they could visit the world again from their office? Why is this kind of creative obsession reserved for TV serials like Lost, the Office, and Heroes, when theater artists also create multiple worlds of that scope a year? Even better, why can’t part of the play BE the web page, not just a links page?

Theater folk don’t quite know how this web audience works yet – we have the open source technology, but not enough to understand the user experience. Jason is throwing every web gadget that he can at this thing – wikis, phpBB forums, a list serve, but he doesn’t focus the site’s attention on the web technologies that his audience will actually want to use in their valuable free time and be entertained by. He hasn’t built a web audience yet, either, so he also has to resort to emailing folks to drive traffic to his site, which completely breaks the illusion that he has crafted so carefully.

But all is not lost for Jason, and I applaud his experiment. Theaters are by nature small and aggressively experimental, and require the least amount of resources from concept to execution than other entertainment media. We experiment like mad, and learn from that experimentation faster than larger entertainment organizations – though we also forget the things we learn faster. The question of how the web can be used to host and promote entertainment is a big one, and one I think film studios, TV networks, Internet Technology Companies, Theaters, and a nationwide audience will all be answering at the same time. I think on a more even playing field like the ‘net, it’s actually theaters who might know what their audiences really want, and have the most to gain from such a paradigm shift from at home content to online worlds that hold our attention hostage.

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I wish we had a League of Awesomeness

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

the LoAAbout a year ago, I started getting addicted to The Show by ZeFrank, a hilarious video podcast that served as the front end for a growing online community that built collaborative art projects such as the Earth Sandwich and Craft the Ugliest MySpace Page.

The Remixes for Ray struck me as a project that had big huge possibilities for theater. The story of Ray is pretty simple… Some guy recorded a short clip of a song (with the lyrics “I’m about to whip somebody’s ass”) and sent it to his daughter to cheer her up at work. He probably sent it to a few too many recipients, and suddenly the clip landed on YouTube. In this episode, Ze and his league of loyal viewers find this clip, and generate buzz to create not only musical remixes of the the little ditty, but a pretty kickass collaboratively-built video as well.

THEN… they find the original Ray, somehow, (don’t ask me… they only had his first name and that he was somewhere in North America) and PRESENT the remixes and video too him. Lives were changed forever, and there was much rejoicing.

All these projects are theater… they get the audience involved in the action, they have an arc of thought to build to the payoff of presentation. They often feel more like theater than sitting in a chair for two hours and listening to cell phone vibrations and crinkling cellophane.

Ze dubs his loyal followers “sports racers” and the secret community of really kickass creative and life-loving folk that he wants to be a part of “The League of Awesomeness.” It’s a little Colbert Report in its sheer playful audacity. I look at our community of storefront theaters, and its League… and I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for audacious cooperation and co-inspiration there. Hot Tix and Theater Thursdays are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t exactly get the groundlings jumping.

As much as I’m jealous of their catapult to success, this is where I feel the House deserves their media cred. Walking in to their theater, you feel like you’ve been invited into a secret society. High Jacobean Drama this is not – they’ve got a lot of the flash, and I wish they were more disciplined storytellers (and more conscientious community builders – though they certainly have enough on their plate), but I will never fault them for not knowing how to create a little buzz of excitement and anticipation about seeing some theater. Secret Order of the Magic Pearl indeed. (I feel manipulated, and (yes, I love Heroes.))

People roll their eyes when I say maybe there’s a way to create an online community or collaboration network for these kind of audience-energizing projects and works… when I say crap like that, I don’t mean more myspace, facebook, blogosphere self-promotion. The weariness generated by the theater community’s blind and desperate self-promotion is a real problem, and a topic for another time. I’m talking about the things that Ze did – for free – in his year of the show.

Take a look through his archives of the show, you won’t be disappointed. Dream More, Work Less, Whip Somebody’s Ass.

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Why For the Future is For Now

November 03, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

toothpaste for dinner
Lord knows I don’t need another project on the ol’ plate.

But I’m becoming obsessed with how I do the same research, make the same explanations, find the same solution, and begin the same projects with each of my theater companies. I’ve found conversations begun in one theater company being echoed in another. I wonder why theater companies don’t talk to each other more.

I’m beginning to see a great collective wealth of thought about storefront theater infrastructure, and great and achievable possibilities for inter-company collaboration and workload sharing. I am working on experimental collaboration techniques that both excite and scare the bejeezus out of me. These techniques and tools may help to legitimize and streamline an industry that is largely assumed to be inviable and unprofitable and a great waste of time. And in the same breath they may serve to homogenize the same industry, as diverse as each individual that works in it.

The main problem I deal with on a day to day basis is theater infrastructure – and lack thereof. Theaters are often crippled with a lack of money and a lack of time. This is a problem that I think can be solved.

For Example.

In this past week, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a busy theater company – real movers and shakers they – who manage their collective projects through email. Everything – Marketing strategies, Production Schedules, Casting Calls, Box Office Duties, all over email – often in the SAME emails. Epic, multi-page, carefully outlined emails.

Now some of you may have just squirmed, and there’s a reason – email is an ephemeral, inconstant, disorganized tidal wave of a web technology. It confuses and babelfies as it tries to spread information. Some people don’t read their email, some people reply to all when they should focus their stream of consciousness, and some people don’t realize that THEY’RE YELLING IF THEY WRITE IN ALL CAPS. I don’ t mean to harp on you if you’re one of those people, but the fact of the matter is, email and web technologies have changed the way that we work and communicate. As a country, very nearly as a species. That’s all happened in the last ten years, so like any evolutionary step, there’s a period of adjustment that gets pretty messy. Welcome to the era of messy.

Many alternatives to the email strategy of project management have popped up in the last few years – from online group forums like phpBB to wikis. These are tools that can organize projects a bit more logically, and they also save old information and posts. They’re not perfect, require a very little bit of adjustment, but they’re hand over fist better at managing multi-step projects than email is.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to talk about here… The systematic inefficiencies that just pop up and can end up squandering a theater company’s resources, what can be done differently, and what could be created to make everyone’s life a bit easier.

Because we’re in the business of changing people’s lives. That’s something worth working for.

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