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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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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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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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Schedule C for the Theater Freelancer

April 13, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, productivity, Tools

If your income stream is anything like mine, you kind of feel a one-two punch at the end of the tax year for simply being an artist in America (though clearly Canadians also have issues). Most theaters don’t employ artists on a full-time basis, nor do they pay a lot. Assembling an artistic income means 1099 / Independent Contractor income and that means no matter how little money you make and how close to the real, scary poverty line you are: you’re in business for yourself now. You get to file a schedule C and pay self-employment tax. The punch that you feel is the realization: I already GAVE my financial stability to theater… now I have to give again because it actually paid me less money than it took for me to survive?

Ah, doesn’t whining make you feel better? I recommend a good whining / coffee / bite your pillow break every half hour or so while doing your taxes.

Before I get started: This is not meant as a catch-all tax guide, nor should you use it as one. I am not a CPA. I am also writing this in 2009, and the tax law changes every year, sometimes drastically. Think of this as a catalyst for your own personal investigation and deeper understanding of how the tax code applies to freelancing artists. If you’re looking for an artist-friendly CPA, I highly recommend getting one locally via word of mouth. I’m also a little “too little too late” for this year, so hopefully this will help serve as a guide to help you capture the information you’ll need for next year. Those of you in the Chicago still in need of help area could also file an extension ASAP (most CPAs are only taking extension clients right now) and look to @rockstarcpa, aka Martin Kamenski of Collaboraction Theatre.

So the trick to Schedule C is the claiming of deductions – expenses – that legitimately offset your as-yet untaxed income and prove to the IRS (in terms it understands) that no, I’m eating Top Ramen for crying out loud, I didn’t turn a $14k profit this year that you now need to tax me for. You’ve accrued more expenses than you may think in the pursuit of your artistic work, which is why it may feel so ridiculous that you’re being taxed on this income. After all, the money is gone now, right?

Hopefully not, actually. In preparation for your next year, make sure you find some way of imposing a rule on yourself that you squirrel away a certain amount of each check into savings over the course of the year or pay estimated taxes at the end of each quarter. The first way, you keep the interest, the second way, the government does. Either way, you’re talking about a couple packets of Starbucks VIA, so do what makes you happy. It makes the tax crunch a lot less stressful to deal with when you’re only worried about filing paperwork rather than hustling for scratch to pay the tax man.

So about those deductions. I use my debit card almost all year long rather than cash. It’s really annoying for splitting the bill, but I find that getting a receipt for everything is both a good budget reminder and takes care of my paperwork for me. I sort and file these receipts all year long into deductible and non-deductible expenses in a little coupon file like this one, one for each year. Best part about the folder? It’s a deductible office expense. I also keep track of my budgets, expenses, and anticipated freelancing income using the cheap and pretty useful online software Buxfer. It’s easy to tag transactions into pre-sorted deduction categories, and balance my checkbook from my iPhone. The upshot of all of this: You’re going for a stress-free tax season. That’s much easier to achieve when you do all the sorting and filing work in little easy chunks all year long rather than in one chaotic panicked mess on April 14th.

These are the deductions I track:

Business Meals. Not every meal, but every meal that I took because I was discussing work related to my 1099 income: Production meetings, design meetings, interviews, planning sessions, all that jazz. It always ends up being a bigger percentage of my meals than I expect. You only get to deduct 50% of these expenses, but the collaborative art of theater often makes us go out together to chat when we could be bringing a sandwich from home, so it’s a cost of doing business. I always write who I was meeting with and what we discussed on the receipt or in a Buxfer note, because you can be sure I won’t remember later.

Office Supplies
For a designer, this can be a pretty big expense. For me, it’s CD-Rs and play binders, for some it’s model building or drafting supplies. In the paperless age, however, it’s nothing compared to the allure of…

Resume and Job-seeking expenses
Oh yeah. Headshots. Portfolio expenses. Kinkos. Anything you spent looking for work, and especially for you performers, that’s a lot a lot a lot of potential deductions.

Section 179 Depreciation
This one is cleverly titled to be as confusing as possible, but it roughly translates as a deduction for the full cost of medium-term assets (Computers, hard drives, PDAs, Software) that you bought this year. Since these assets often die after 3-5 years, Section 179 allows you to depreciate and thereby deduct the entire portion of these assets that you use for business in a single year. Needless to say, if you own a computer or hard drive or seven that you use exclusively for business, as I do, this is the golden child of deductions.

Business Travel
If you’re lucky enough to get regional or even national work, you probably don’t need my advice. However, this can be a useful deduction. Taxis, Hotels, Travel Meals, Parking Fees and Plane Fare are all deductible in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Track ’em.

Business Mileage & Use of a Personal Car
No, you can’t deduct your regular commute, so get that out of your head. But if you’re freelancing and go to a different location to work, that is deductible, as are Taxi fares and Parking costs that you incur for freelance business purposes. (For instance, my “day job” source of W-2 income is downtown, so when I park there as part of my regular commute, I do NOT get to deduct those expenses, but if I travel to Wisconsin to design a show, I DO.) What the IRS would like here in your records is odometer readings all year long, which I find to be an unsustainable practice when you use your car for both personal and business use. The key here is specific written records. I find myself keeping a really good calendar record of everywhere I go day-to-day, so I cross reference round-trip mileages for a number of theaters in the suburbs where I work with my calendar. A simple spreadsheet later, I have a table of about a dozen places I drove for business over the year and the number of times I drove there, and voila: a pretty close estimate of my business mileage. Also, if you really want to make the IRS happy, make writing your odometer reading into a dashboard notebook an annual New Years tradition. How they want you to do this and while also not drinking and driving is something they leave up to you.

Professional Research & Subscriptions – This is something you should definitely talk over with a professional, but I encourage you to track your expenses here, whether or not you can deduct them. Artists spend a lot on research in the course of the year. We see other shows and buy tickets, we go to awards ceremonies and trade shows because we it’s good for our career. We rent movies and purchase books and music and all kinds of art to investigate dramaturgical history or artistic technique. Actors and dancers need to maintain themselves physically, so a gym membership is a reasonable business expense. If you spend money on it because you’re using it as research or material for your work, it is deductible. Be reasonable now. Your Nintendo Wii is probably not helping you with your flexibility all that much.

IRA Contributions – Why pay taxes when you can be saving for poverty-in-retirement? You ain’t gonna be a ballerina forever. Another benefit I’ve found about squirreling away some of my 1099 income is that it means I have a glut of savings that I can throw into a traditional IRA at the end of the year… some of which will actually increase my refund at the end of the year. Stocks are also in the toilet this year, which means that unless the economy really falls off a cliff your donations will go farther when the economy rebounds. Check with an accountant about the pros and cons of traditional vs. Roth IRAs… They are DIRT simple to set up online. I was surprised.

Other deductions you should track closely:

Tax Filing Expenses including software, filing costs, and CPA professional fees. I guess this is how the government absolves themselves of the guilt of making the tax code so complex that you need a professional to file if you have a non-traditional relationship with your employer.

Credit Card Interest on Business Expenses ONLY sometimes.

Cellphone Usage for business purposes – as with all personal / private usage, deduct business usage only.

Professional Dues & Fees – I got my IATSE Union Card this year. It was espensive, but it’s quite the deduction.

Charitable expenses – Track all your donations of materials to 501(c)(3) organizations, and make sure you get a donation letter for the agreed-upon value of your donated goods. Update: thanks to @rockstarcpafor this catch: You cannot take a tempting, tempting deduction for donated time to an organization. Donated goods and materials only. Also, do not deduct political contributions or anything that you received a benefit in kind for, like that CD I got with my NPR donation this year.

State, Local Taxes and Registration Fees – Different states allow you to deduct different taxes, so this is definitely one you’ll want to investigate more. For instance, Illinois does NOT allow you to deduct annual car registration fees, other states do.

Home Office
This is one that every CPA and tax software warns you that it’s like playing with Audit fire, and I tend to agree with them. However, it’s a huge potential deduction IF you have a dedicated space of your home that you use exclusively for business. The concept here is: figure out the percentage of square footage in your home that you use for your home office, and then deduct that percentage of your home expenses: Rent, Utilities, Mortgage Interest, Association Fees. This is an oft-abused deduction, so handle with care and seek specific advice to your situation. Remember too that you can deduct 100% of any office-related expenses like furniture that you use entirely for business purposes. Getting the trend here? Do not deduct your personal stuff, DO deduct your business stuff, the rest is just capturing and estimating the relative value of each. If you own your home, there are also some long-term ramifications to using the home office deduction.

One thing that’s really important than can be confusing when using tax software like TaxCut or TurboTax: Most business deductions can EITHER be deducted on schedule C as business deductions OR you can deduct them as part of your itemized deductions offsetting your W-2 tax-withheld income. Obviously the advantage is to apply deductions as much as is appropriate off your Schedule C income, since the standard income deduction is pretty healthy on your W-2 “day job” income. And be careful when moving column A to column B that you don’t accidentally deduct expenses in both places, because that of course is a no-no.

See? This is SIMPLE. Taxes are EASY for EVERYONE to do, especially artists whose livelihoods neatly fit into predescribed non-corporate deductible behavior like BOTTLED WATER DELIVERY. I am being SARCASTIC.

I’m gonna wrap up with a little bit of social commentary about an often-overlooked, but significant deduction that I think artists would be more vocal about if they had ever heard of it. It’s called the “Qualified Performing Artist Deduction” and it’s a doozy. It’s so obscure and mostly useless that most CPAs I consulted in my early theater years had never heard about it. If you are “Qualified” for the deduction, you are allowed to deduct all your job-related expenses IN ADDITION to the standard deduction, even on your non-schedule-C income. However, to qualify you need to jump through some gut-wrenching hoops that I wouldn’t wish on anyone:

– You need to have made a minimum of 2 $200+ performer-related W-2s during the year
– Your performing-related deductions must have been 10% or more of your income
– Your adjusted GROSS total income cannot be more than $16,000 for the year – and married couples taking the deduction must not have a COMBINED income of $16k in a year.

Here’s where I get incensed… that $16,000 limit is awfully close to the poverty line, and don’t get me started about not doubling the limit for married couples. I’m glad truly starving artists can actually take this deduction, the problem is all those folks who are still starving and make more than $16k in a year. The limit on this deduction – as far as I can gather – has not been amended to adjust for inflation since the Tax Code was overhauled in 1986, as similar deductions are on a regular basis, although Sens. Schumer and Feinstein attempted to in 2006. So bully to them. It’s such a weird tax code exception – an exception literally made for only one kind of worder – and so on the one hand it’s one of the only tangible examples I can think of where the government has actually tried to treat performing artists differently and give them a leg up. On the other hand that assistance is so half-hearted and I’m sure politically unstable that a prerequisite for that leg up is that you chop the leg off first.

This article was sponsored by @marebiddle, who not only bought me a cup of home-made Kona coffee that fed the adrenaline drive required to write a post on tax code, but also specifically requested that I follow through on it with a simple “Please…”. Thanks, Mare, and good luck!

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Saturday Night Shakedown

February 21, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

I am not writing a blog post. I am simply getting all the crap running through my life on e-paper. A lot of this stuff I’d love for you to drill down to if you’re interested, but for now short and sweet is all I can do.

– League of Chicago Theaters meeting about World Theatre Day ’09 was, in one word: Exhilarating. In three different words: Here we go. Look for the League announcement next week at some point. If you are a theater ANYWHERE, you can be involved and you should be involved, and it doesn’t have to be taxing to be a big deal. March 27. Look it up.

– We’re totally having a World Theatre Day conference call tomorrow. London, Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and Australia are talkin’ at the same time. This project is like an onion made of crazy fearlessness – an international game of “Yes, and…”

– I think one reason this doesn’t feel like blogging is that I haven’t been keeping up with my Google Reader very well, and having trouble processing other blogs these days. Understandable, but guess what: Being connected with a larger discussion is important for the health and relevance of one’s work.

– I’m back with my old friend Idris Goodwin and many new friends working on American Ethnic, this awesome collection of short-form hip hop theatre at Remy Bumppo. It’s gonna be *ha* exhilarating, and yes, Kelly Tsai might hold a pitchfork like that.

– Today was the first round of auditions for New Leaf’s next (and first ORIGINAL) work, The Long Count. I am so excited to bring this play into rehearsals I might just explode, which would be embarrassing. Both of these new plays, by the way, have been developed via Google Doc.

– Sat down with the other company members of The Side Project to talk about next season and following the next steps in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable, low-cost theater venue. Drafting the model and organizational structure in the coming weeks with the rest of the company… I think there might be some exciting stuff to share there, and I think if it works The Side Project is gonna be a significantly more kickass place to work. If we’ve had a conversation about this and you’re interested, shoot me an email.

– I have not forgotten about the Chicago Theater Database, and we are still inviting new folks to grab a username and update their stuff. However, that artists auto-fill problem is still there, taunting me, periodically causing mischief, and for the moment at least, it is still running around the countryside tormenting the peasants. In happier news, not working on this has allowed me to actually achieve some sleep.

– Last day of Hypocrites today, the Dutch arrive monday!

– Oh yeah, did I mention I’ll be designing this at the Goodman? It’s five hours long, and will be concluding the engaging and I-think-I-can-safely-say successful O’Neill fest. I think I might be in love with it. Note the pics of the Neos taken with hats and warm coats to metaphorically signify the lack of heat in the Neo-Futurarium. They’re going from there to here. Chicago: City of extremes.

– Don’t look now, but a certain big regional theater has a sweet new 26-channel QLab 2.0 sound playback rig. Hint: rhymes with “Qleppenwolf.”

– Been kicking up a bunch of educational work thanks largely to Cherubs students, including a big sound upgrade install at Whitney Young High School, wireless mic consulting for New Trier High School, and it looks like I’ll be helping out a pal with teaching a sound for science fiction course at Northwestern. [sound of light sabre]

– Twitter is seriously pulling the rug out of my impulse to blog. Mostly because I’m finding micro-blogging to be so compelling and useful to my typically action- and momentum-oriented projects. So if I seem to be going dark, check out the latest over here or in my sidebar.

– My sister is graduating from high school this year, and has landed a leading role in our high school’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. This is awesome. She is the third best singer I’ve ever heard. And I’m a sound engineer. This gal can belt something fierce. I am a proud brother.

– My brother is, at the end of the month, going to be setting sail from Oahu to Palmyra Atoll – 1,000 miles of empty Pacific Ocean, using traditional star-guided-and-tasting-the-sea navigation with this boat. Palmyra is a target 4.6 miles across. I have been asked several times how I do all this crap without collapsing, and the answer is: I will never be as bad-ass as this guy.

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Conversion

February 10, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Do you ever have those moments where life imitates Art? Where you realize that your life is following the same path as the characters in your play? I think I finally internalized the meaning of the word “resonance” the third year I ran A Christmas Carol in a row and each December I found the story of Scrooge to be drawing my attention to my own avarice. Don’t get me started about that time I ran Massacre.

It took me a while to figure it out, but I’m experiencing the same kind of Art->Life effect while working on the Hypocrites’ version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape over the past week (which opens Wednesday).

Only the minorest of spoiler alerts, I’m not here to give anything about the play or the production away, but I will discuss some details about the world of the play.

When you’re running a show (opposed to watching it as a member of audience), you get a very different experience of the play as bits and pieces of the story as they accrue between cues, programming changes, quick changes, and preset checks. So the character of Yank, a stoker on a steamship liner, is one that I understand in my bones. The stage manager tells me to hit the sound cue, the sound cue whistles, and Yank hears his engineer call him to throw more coal on the boiler. The director tells the sound designer how many whistles there should be, and how often, and my job is to know and push the machinery, the cogs of technological storytelling.

Where force is converted to momentum, there is stress. The energy of burning matter creates steam which pushes the turbine, cranks the wheel, grinds the gears, lurches the steel forward and there it is: movement. As Yank says, “25 knots. Steel. That’s me every time.”

But humans are not steel, and the forces of the world bend us and provide resistance to our efforts. As the director – the theater itself, even – experiments and refines, there is a flurry of activity as the cogs of the theatrical machinery react and tack, shifting their course in collaborative tandem, and that flurry can look like chaos, can look like panic, can look like stress. As the winds fill the sails of my little theater company that could, we know that there will now come a time where we see if she is seaworthy. And that means sailing through a storm.

This week, like Yank, I’m trying hard to think. And it’s hard, it takes all of my body. I’m grappling with a big, underlying theory of everything, and my mind is just not big and agile enough to keep up with it. The forces that pushed me to Chicago, that pushed my theater company to develop its way of working, that pushed me to start blogging, to speak up, they are all pointing me to look at one problem: the problem of conversion. Converting energy into movement.

Is it happening for theater right now? I know so many people want it to be happening, and so many others believe that kind of change cannot happen, but under both wishes and prayers there are these fundamentals: force, direction of that force, and the natural resistance and momentum of the dead weight – our past and our future.

I’m still thinking about how to build a better machine. In the days of Yank, machines served a simple purpose, which is why they could proliferate: They burnt material, boiled water, pressurized the steam and turned giant wheels of progress. Progress was measured by how much you could move, how fast you could go. 25 knots. “That’s me every time.” Our very identities as Americans was tied with this idea of giant force, giant growth – but it dehumanized us, and made us cogs rolling towards an increasingly untenable dream of personal largesse. That’s why we gave that up and went towards a service economy, no?

Today we know the consequences of unchecked progress, and O’Neill certainly foresaw them in 1922. We know that machines designed to simply convert matter into force also create waste. We ignored that waste for decades, and now as it piles up in our air, in our water, in our land, we cannot ignore waste in our machinery anymore. We know that thinking of human beings as machines creates, well, just rampant unpleasantness in our daily lives. We must build purer machines, and we do that by:

– measuring their leverage (how much they amplify our own force)
– measuring their applied purpose (what is our goal by using the machine?)
– and by measuring their waste (what do we lose – on our planet and in ourselves – if we overuse this machine?)

In this new definition of efficiency, we must create sustainability and we can demand an increase in social quality. Where in the industrial world we would design a machine to move a mountain, in the post-industrial world we are starting to understand that the efficient solution is sometimes to keep the mountain and find a way to use its weight, heft, eco-system, and drainage patterns to our long-term advantage. In the online world, we are starting to see how social media can leverage the social mechanisms of human flocking and the natural-resource friendly connectivity of the global internet to solve problems by the accrual of many small efforts. In theater, we are starting to see how we can reuse our artistic waste as promotional material, feeding our excess energy and work right back into the creative process, just like a triple-expansion marine engine.

Which leaves one last, nagging, itchy question yet to be really answered: to what end? What does the end of this effort look like? Like Yank, I thought I knew my purpose when setting out and stepping up to the mic in Chicago Theater. I was truly surprised to learn that blogging, like steam power, is an example of literally, magically, turning hot air into momentum. I am also learning that the conversion of excitement into movement requires great stress as the hot air pushes, pressurizes, and pulls at many bodies at rest – until suddenly, we have shared momentum. Velocity in the same direction. And I am learning that there will be days when that stress will be applied directly to my mind, my body, and they will not be strong enough.

What I don’t know yet, what I know I will need to find a way to answer: How do I accurately measure the effectiveness of my efforts to improve something as mushy as the quality of my own work? I feel them working, but I will soon need to show, to prove, to provide the underlying physics of this new machinery. There are many who looked at the first steam engine and said, “sure, you *could* push that cart with steam power, but it doesn’t seem very practical.” To answer this, I am grasping at straws looking for a new metric, watching the rate and type of contributions to the database, and even counting the number of times that someone who watches Touch calls their family at intermission. These are questions that help us gauge our speed. 25 knots?

We must feed our problems into our solutions. This is the thing I’ve learned from studying the past this week: Increasing efficiency means reusing waste, taking nothing for granted, and feeding it all into the right engine. Conversion is an art in itself.

How do you measure your own effectiveness at the things you set your mind to? Is it an accurate measure? How does your measurement affect your will to continue your effort… or change?

P.S. I also realized tonight after reading this that the answer probably means having a bit more fun in the shows I’m working on. It’s been a soul-shaking season thus far. Look for summa that kinda playfulness in this.

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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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Multi-track Mixing with QLab and Audacity

January 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Tools

I was telling someone the other day that the goal of modern DIY design in theater is to get to the point where you can use design as agilely as an instrument. The flexibility, immediacy, and coordination one can throw at your work multiplies when you can reshape and work with your materials live in the space, reacting to other designers and performers who are playing with their instruments – whether it’s their voice, their bodies, their sets, their lighting, or their literal instruments.

So when a technique comes around that increases my own responsiveness as a designer, I get pretty stoked.

It’s buried in the wiki, but this explanation of creating multi-track WAVEX files in Audacity 1.3 [which is free] unlocks an amazing feature of the sound playback program qLab [which is free, and poised to release a hotly-anticipated version 2.0]. Bookmark it, and then let’s play, shall we?

Let’s take a real world example, like my recent collaboration with composer Stephanie Sherline on Rivendell’s production of These Shining Lives. We composed and arranged a number of themes for the show, including this one, which we called Music Box:

 

So, a couple of instrumental ideas here, all built using Logic Pro:

A clock metronome
A plucked harp
A rolling harp baseline
A clock counterpoint
A low bass drum heartbeat
A ratchet crank
A reverbed string section

Now Logic can easily bounce all these ideas as a simple stereo file and I could play that music through the main speakers just fine. But I’m gonna do something a little more magical.

I bounced each instrument separately as mono files, and imported them into a single Audacity file:

From there, we set Audacity to export with the multi-track WAVEX format. You can choose, when exporting, to mix certain tracks together or keep them distinct:

This creates a multi-track interleaved audio file, so as the computer plays back the file, all instruments will stay in time with each other. In many audio playback systems, multi-track mixing is achieved by playing several stereo files over each other, but this method can result in a certain amount of tempo drift as one file plays faster than another over a period of several minutes. Annoyance: avoided.

Now we drag this multi-track file into our qLab project, and edit the cue’s volume settings. We see a grid of crosspoints (also known as an audio matrix). Each row is one of our multi-track instruments, and each column is a speaker in the space.

Can you see what’s going on here? Each individual instrument can now be routed to its own speaker or combination of speakers to create a different audio shape, or image. So while our metronome clock tick can come quietly from the radio, our reverbed string section can waft lightly through the window. Or our main harp melodies can play against each other right to left through the main speaker system. It’s like the orchestra playing this music is hidden in different spots in the space, but they are still playing the music together.

In addition, I have added an eighth track, which is a reverbed version of the counterpoint clock tick. By adding in a variable amount of reverbed or “wet” signal to the “dry,” unaffected sound, you can make the overall tone of the music feel more distant or more present, more dreamy or more real.

All this can be done on the fly, as the director restages a scene or you see how the music times out with stage action.

With qLab’s fades, I can have individual instruments fade in or rest over time, or even appear to move around the space. A large, momentous reverbed clock tick coming through the mains can fade to become an ambient naturalistic clock tick coming through the radio. Or, I can adjust the masters for each row to use just one or two instruments in combination, varying the motif a bit. Here’s a version with just the Harp and the Ratchet:

 
or a pensive, waiting underscore:

 

That’s a lot of in-the moment flexibility, all with the same file.

These Shining Lives is now running at the Raven Theatre in Chicago through January 31st. More information at rivendelltheatre.net.

This post was sponsored by my good pal Andrew Wilder of LuxiousLabs, who bought me a medium Dunkin Donuts hazelnut with cream only. My favorite. You should check out his iPhone app, HelloCards, which allow you to send personalized greeting cards – yes, with pictures – from your iPhone. Many of the designs for HelloCards were created by my wife, Marni. (who is to Andrew as awesome is to also awesome.)

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