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In Defense of Stage Managers

June 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Anne Nicholson Weber, in the podcast interview I posted a few weeks ago, asked the question: “What exactly does a stage manager do?” Josh, Ray and I kind of looked at each other in that moment, thinking: “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”

At the non-equity Jeffs last night (yeah, Jared), I got to thinking (again) about something I think is missing these theatrical award ceremonies – Jeff, Tony, the whole lot of ’em.

How in the WORLD can we structure an award for best stage management?

Because when they do their job right, they are the the glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context. With patrons, house emergencies, prop emergencies, scenic emergiencies, costume emergencies, skipped pages…

Sure, it’s a tricky award to evaluate – there are enough pitfalls in evaluating design (which still can be flashy, brash and loud enough to draw attention to itself), let alone a role that is quieter if not more central to the functioning of theatrical performance. The very definition of good stage management is when it just works, seamlessly, brilliantly, and without leaving any trace of emotional, procedural or intellectual tint on the designs, direction or performances. That is a no-mistake tough job.

You *can* tell when there’s a ninja SM calling a show back there in the booth – usually when a mind-bendingly complex sequence of events is timed so perfectly either very early (first time!) or very late in the run (ready for closing!) that it still leaves you breathless.
I’m talking about you, Ellen, Amanda, Joe, Tim, Kim, Jaime, Alden and so many, many more.

If awarding committees can see beyond the footlights enough to give awards to directors, musical directors, lighting designers, or musical sound designers (the mad science/art of seamless vocal amplification that again, ideally doesn’t draw attention to itself – a fact that led to it not being included in the Tony Awards until last year, 30 years after the beginnings of theatrical sound design), certainly there is some way to evaluate and recognize these foundational artists who through their creative management support the entire team.

So here’s the question: If you had to write the rules, how would you choose to evaluate a stage manager’s performance?

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Sound Design Interview on Talk Theatre in Chicago

May 25, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere, Sound


Chicago-based sound designers Josh Horvath, Ray Nardelli, and little ol’ me are interviewed by Anne Nicholson Weber in this week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast. Ray and Josh talk about their design for Rock & Roll at the Goodman Theatre, and I talk a bit about the work I did for Piano Lesson at Court Theatre.

It’s a continuation of the discussion – and actually a great starting point if you feel lost – of aesthetic considerations of sound design that several bloggers have been talking about here and elsewhere over the past few weeks – from collaboration, using the text as a starting point, to having a conversation with your audience through sound. For those who caught my Twitter preview, the mythbusted phenomenon of Metonymy wisely didn’t make the cut, alas, but I’m sure you can tell where we brought it up – as designers one of our aesthetic goals is of course to make you (figuratively) crap your pants.

Also, there’s a little bit of throw down between the Chicago vs. Broadway approaches to theatrical aesthetics in general, so… Blood in the Water!

Hope you like it!

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I love on Chicago Amplified

May 15, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, On the Theatrosphere, Tools

WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified program has beefed up its presence in the Chicago theater talkback circuit… quietly and diligently recording interesting conversations and performances that would otherwise be lost to the world forever.

One of these recordings actually captured a portfolio dream for a sound designer… a full recording of Remy Bumppo’s original commissioned work Think Tank: American Ethnic, with both performer dialog and sound design mixed in. If your exposure to theater on the radio is primarily through LA Theatre Works – or if you’re outside of Chicago and want to see me put my money where my mouth is as a designer – I hope you can check it out.

If you’re creating great programming in Chicago and don’t have a podcast infrastructure to capture it yourself, I’d also recommend contacting the good people at Chicago Amplified… It’s one of the few places that will lend its excellent web infrastructure and traffic to creative organizations of all stripes.

You can also donate to Chicago Amplified here… And catch WBEZ employee Don Hall (and friends of TFTF Schadenfreude) in this video, doing what they all do best: Crank.

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DIY Web Hub Interview

May 06, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, productivity

Read you loud and clear. I got a little more mileage than usual after my post How to Get the Right Website for your Theatre Company and as a result I’ve been talking with several theater folks who are interested in increasing their web programming vocabulary. To be honest, I’m interested in teaching this stuff to theater folk interested in Doing It Themselves, and these first few meetings are a way of seeing if a reasonable curriculum can be developed with such a broad subject and if a training session ends up being how students best process such a large, expanding explosion of information.

We’ll see!

In a related note, I’m interviewed today on New Media Blues, a resource site for DIY webmasters in any field. It’s a web programmer’s almanac of sorts. Brian’s got a bunch of common gotchas and tools that make learning and exploring Web programming a more accessible venture (like some of my recent favorites, Firebug and IETester)

Part of the issue with theater is that no one has any time. We work long hours for little to no pay, so all our theatrical work is on borrowed time. As print media coverage has shrunk rapidly over the last five years, we’ve needed to devote more and more of that “no time” to maintaining our web presence as an alternate way of convincing audiences to come see our work.

… So I guess you could say that at each step of the way, I learned by doing, and while it took a while, that knowledge starts to snowball at a certain point.

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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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Stretching

April 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, projects

Been catching up on my blog reading. It’s been a while, between taxes and tech and projects and travel, so I’m staring down about 3,000 posts or so. I am skimming, to say the least.

I have noticed, among those posts, that many of my consistently favorite bloggers have (kinda sorta) apologized on their blogs for not posting in a while during this time. In the spirit of Easter or whatever, why don’t we forgive ourselves and each other for these blogging vacations in the name of better conversation?

I am not sorry for not posting as regularly these days. I have been stretching. Unlike the impulse to raging monologue that I had when starting this blog, I’ve noticed a change in myself and others – an equally unquenchable desire for dialogue. The last few posts on TFTF have reflected that desire: < ahref="http://theaterforthefuture.com/world-theatre-day-happened/">World Theatre Day was a catalyst for idea sharing and note-comparing that is still going on. I’ve been digging on Dan Granata’s work with his new share-our-theater-stories blog Theatre that Works. Benno Nelson and I had a quick dialogue-format blog conversation about what makes a theater blog tick (god, like I know.) And New Leaf is working on a new way for us to have a deeper back-and-forth conversation with our guest artists and audience.

Specifically, the New Leaf company has been balls-to-the-wall in developing The Long Count. We wrote it (adapting several source texts and original material into an apocalyptic melange) and revised it as a collective, and it’s been hard. A good hard. Like really challenging yoga. Ssstrrech. What happens when you create a project with a group rather than a single auteur is that you have to let go of ownership of ideas, and that just plain takes practice. The gut response to having an idea is that want to see it realized. The gut response to realizing an idea that you initiated is that you want to have it realized your way. In this process, however, we have applied collaborative principles to every step of the process, including the text itself. When it works, a kind of group mind takes over and the ideas themselves lead us to new impulses. Its scary, because it’s a very lizard brain approach to creating theatrical work. We could be acting like bees, a flock of birds, ants… or lemmings, sure. It’s been so intensive to just learn how to best work this way that we haven’t opened the process up quite as much as we wanted to.. yet.

These past few weeks I hit the extent of my reach for the time being. I’m thrilled by the amount of experimentation and flexibility that our artistic home has been willing to demonstrate on this project, but like any family we can only push the collaboration, hopefully, just to the point of strain. Then it’s time for a little massage and cooldown. Yesterday, we entered the final phase of tech – which is still a more gradual layering tech process than we’re used to. Though the designers, like tightrope walkers, are all a little off kilter teching a show that is built to be this fluid, it was at the same time back to that place of comfort again for me. The whole company was there, collaborating, all jumping in working on moments of choreography, vocal texture, sound, set configuration, prop usage, lighting angles, cue timing, staging for evolving sight lines… After the stretching soreness of finalizing our first collaboratively authored script, we were immediately a family again for each other and for the cast, watching, shaping, giving each other feedback, like bees building a honeycomb that we don’t really understand.

We leap this coming friday, and open this process to the public. We are especially curious about how guests will participate in our Thursday open rehearsals – April 23, 30, and May 7 at 7 PM. The show will be open, but we will still be clarifying timings, intentions, staging, and design after we learn more about how an audience reacts to the show. We are curious… what happens when the audience is invited in to share their reactions and have that feedback actually facilitate the creative process?

What happens when you talk with others and work to draw out their ideas before you present your own?

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New Blog: Theatre that Works

April 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere

Okay, so Dan Granata has been working on this idea for a while: A blog that tells the stories of the theater of today and digs up comparisons with the theater of yesterday. As I’ve been helping him (and graphic designer extraordinaire Marni Keenan… soft plug…) build the site over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking over his shoulder at some of the research he’s dug up.

It’s learning from our history and our present… over the interwebs. Dan has unearthed a treasure trove of archived Chicago Theatre history, has been interviewing some exciting and articulate artists, and connecting the dots between the two with story. Truly, truly thrilling.

Theatre That Works launches today. Check it out.

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Theaters and The Web: An Online Debate

April 01, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

I was thrilled to be asked by The New Colony contributor and blogger Benno Nelson to engage in an online debate that took the temperature of theater blogs in this our internet age. That’s why I totally didn’t join in until a couple minutes ago. What can I say, it’s tech.

At any rate, here’s the discussion so far, and you can join in yourself. You’ll hear from Benno first and then you’ll hear from me.

The internet will be for maybe only a few more years the Wild West, the Manifest Destiny of our age. Not everyone understands what it is or how to use it, but most everyone knows they cannot be left out of it. This applies, of course, to Theater Companies. There have been some attempts to codify, or at least examine the components and goals of websites, and particularly blogs operated by Theater Companies. The consistently excellent Kris Vire has, for example, offered a few ruminations on this topic, but I think it is worth our attention here as well. The justification for including it as a Cliché, I feel it necessary to point out, is that the possession of a “blog” seems to have grown into an unconsidered necessity for theater companies and I want to draw attention to this thoughtlessness and worry about it.

First of all, it is so self-evident that it is almost absurd to point out that the primary activity of Theater Company websites is marketing/advertising: making it easy for a potential audience to get telegraphic information – who, what, where, when, why – about the company and their productions. But what is a Theater Company blog, and what is it for?

Well, it’s actually not very simple. A clichéd response would be that a blog allows a theater company to maintain an online presence. What the hell is that? In the case of The New Colony, for instance, what do they gain by having these columns up once a week? Ideally, I suppose, they get increased traffic by becoming a place people can count on for new content: in the internet, updates are the equivalent of a neon sign. The more updates, the more content, the more people are likely to check your site and keep checking it. Does this sell tickets? I really don’t know, but when I saw FRAT it was full almost to capacity.

The Steppenwolf also relies on content generation, but they are much more streamlined. That is, their posts are all about the Steppenwolf, their shows, their season, their collaborators. It is essentially like an ever-expanding playbill. Interestingly though, for a company like Steppenwolf or The Neo-Futurists where much of the draw of the company is in the company members, the blog offers a great way to deepen audiences’ familiarity with and knowledge of these members. By including a post by Joe Dempsey on joining the cast of Art, for instance, we get a better idea of who he is. Perhaps we’ll want to see him more, and return to the theater when he returns.

What is a bad theater company blog? One that is hard to read or navigate (with regard to design), or contains meaningless information, or is updated infrequently. The insistence on web 2.0 interaction is a little tiresome for me, because I don’t believe that the companies really care what I think; these seem to me rather more an extension of the farce of post-performance talk-backs, but I hope I’m wrong.

The interesting thing about the internet is that it is in some ways a great equalizer. It is essentially as easy for a tiny company without even a reliable performance space to operate an excellent website as it is for the Goodman– to make a home online and offer consistent and engaging programming there as on stage. It is not a requirement to offer this, but it is really not particularly difficult and if it exhibits that Theaters are engaged in the world as we come upon it today, not desperately keeping up and not hopelessly aloof, then they are certainly worth the trouble. But the panicked desperation to have a blog because it is the thing to do leads to a lot of bad blogs and a haziness about what they can and should be.

Aww yeah. Showing up late to the party.

While I’m late to contribute to this online debate, it’s certainly not for lack of interest. A number of the concepts of content generation that Benno explores here (capturing more traffic, deepening interest of the work already being done by theaters, cultivating an ability to communicate clearly and interestingly about one’s own work) are things we tried to throw into relief with World Theatre Day – an event a number of Chicago theater companies threw in cooperation with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chopin Theatre.

For me, the Chicago WTD celebration was about putting some of these theories into practice and, hopefully, feeding that growing energy of theater’s online presence back offline into a live spectacle. Before the event, theaters from all over the world were asked to contribute video, audio and images of work and play – content they were already generating in the normal course of producing theater – to an open blog. That video and content was then projected and shared in the event on a big screen. During the party, a team of volunteers captured quick video snippets and interviews, and uploaded it within minutes to the open blog using the dirt-simple video capturing tool that is the Flip Camera. International theater artists live-tweeted their responses to the fun was being had in real time, and I posted those tweets back up on the projector screen. It was like internet connection feedback.

So yes: there’s many different ways to generate content as a theater, and there’s many ways to streamline the process of generating new content. But there’s a couple points here where Benno and I seem to have completely different perspectives. One is on the preeminence of new content over easy content. We agree, before you get too excited, that this content has always got to be good. This difference of opinion makes sense, as I’m a production manager of a small company who knows that when you make time for creating new content during a production process, you inevitably rob time from another project … like opening your show. Since marketing is a contract of trust with a potential customer, the model of “you must create new content on your online presence every week or you will lose your online audience” just isn’t sustainable in my experience. What I think is sustainable is something similar… a model of “capturing” your

While Benno is suspect, I’m a total believer and convert to the value and, yes, necessity of social networking as a conscious and intelligently-utilized component to a company’s online presence. World Theatre Day in America simply would not have happened this year without the presence of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate and fuel it. We quite literally organized every aspect of that party – from putting together the talent and equipment to getting the hundreds of partygoers to show up – all through a Facebook meme that allowed individual theaters to add their own branding sauce to the event. That said, Benno’s point about the way he feels about the way especially very large and very small theaters have been using social media – that “they don’t really care what he thinks” – well hell, attention must be paid here. If you are a theater that wants to take advantage of the huge currently-erupting geyser that is social media, part of the bargain is that you must demonstrate care about what your readership thinks. When they feel it’s not a two-way relationship, they bolt.

Remember to remember the obvious: rich two-way dialogue is what theater is all about. The fact that there seems to be a prevalent idea that post-performance talkbacks – or indeed any structured dialogue between theater and audience – is a “farce” is a sign of trouble in my book. That’s a signal to me that we need to reengage and re-conceive how this dialogue could really take place in the future. There have been many moments in the past year that actually indicate to me that theaters take the nurturing of this dialogue very seriously. I was witness to some electric moments of audience engagement in the talkbacks and performances of the O’Neill fest at the Goodman.

Speaking of the internet being an equalizer, it’s a little sad to note that this is because NO theaters, and really no industries on the planet right now, have the infrastructure currently to incorporate Social Networking and web content into their day to day operations. I’ve seen big, small, and medium theaters miss or delay big opportunities to engage in online dialogue, because they’re all still getting the hang of it. The wonderful talkbacks I mentioned above were captured – as the sound engineer I actually did the recording – but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t been rereleased as podcasts yet after over a month. The reason everyone is buzzing about these services and their effect on society right now is because those effects are potentially revolutionary. The effects of blogs on print journalism have shown exactly how revolutionary they can be. I’m not one of those (anymore?) that think that theater is in trouble, since theater ultimately thrives wherever people can talk with each other. New Leaf has been very lucky, as a very very small company, to be one of the beneficiaries of that equalizing force. Getting involved in bringing World Theatre Day to Chicago has put us, a tiny storefront theatre company, in contact with the strategic planners of TCG and in direct collaboration with the League of Chicago Theaters. Sharing our ideas has the added benefit of making us thought leaders. Before I get too excited about that, remember that our theories are only as strong as our data. Companies like Steppenwolf and the Goodman may prove to be the adopters that really matter, since they can accurately test how effective this new form of communication really works.

This is an unprecedented moment in theater’s history in the internet age. Finally, technology is not simply working on producing more widgets or harvesting more resources, we’re focusing our innovative energies on the fundamental challenges of human communication. And I think theater has a lot to teach technology in that department. But we, as a theater community, have to re-learn to have a dialogue in new formats first. And we’re doing it! Gold star.

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