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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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In Which I Drink My Own Kool Aid

January 12, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere, projects, Teachable Moments

I don’t have a mug big enough.

It has just been awe-tastic to see the reactions coming from the audiences and the theatrosphere in particular about the three shows I’ve been working on for the past two weeks – Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones, Rivendell’s These Shining Lives, and of course, New Leaf’s production of Touch, all three of which opened to oversold performances this weekend (which of course was helped by the unusually limited seating in all three venues).

All three load-ins came abruptly following that wonderful and restful vacation to Hawaii I mentioned where I reconnected with family, especially my brother Zack, who I haven’t really seen since my wedding. The mix of long plane flights, time change, immersion in family, rest and then sudden lack of sleep and being witness to some earth shattering moments of theater (as well as several pieces of scary and sad health news from too many friends) that has been has kind of left me in a kind of lucid unbloggable dream state.

So now that the first real all-month theater bender of the year is in a lull, it’s time to get back on the blogging horse for what’s sure to be an exciting year. So, in no particular order, here are some updates in brief:

– I’m getting over as many hangups as I can this year. I feel like I’ve already got two down: working with the Wooster Group this week has helped me work through my irrational sense of competition with the NYC theater scene (I’m sure more on that later), and thanks to an internet innovation FROM New Leaf TO Me (that’s a new direction I’m happy to get used to!) I can now be found on Twitter. I’ve been reeeeeally hesitant to explore another web service that is that addictive (I have some co-dependancy problems in my relationship with my computer). But I was convinced, thanks especially to the examples of @travisbedard and what seems like the entire theatrical community of Vancouver, BC, to try to use Twitter as a lightweight fuel to throw on the fire of fast and furious community building. Tweets are now in the sidebar, and I’ve already got some dreams in the oven about how a Twitter Mob of theater lovers in Chicago might be used to amplify that hard-to-find word of mouth early in a show’s run.

– New Leaf has had a freaking killer week. The goal of any low-budget company that desires growth and a successful mission is to be good enough that your audience tells you why they like your work rather than you having to tell the audience why they should like you. Check out what everyone else is saying over at New Leaf, notably Kris Vire‘s Time Out feature on the company itself, and a Don Hall reaction that I will treasure forever. With this weekend’s reviews and audience input, and a run that chugs along through Valentine’s Day (can you imagine that date, Don?), we are armed with the feedback we need to go to some heavy hitters and get them to help keep our little theater chugging for years to come. The good news is: it won’t take much.

– Yeah, that was playwright Toni Press-Coffman commenting on the promo video for Touch in the comments of the last post.

– All that good news aside, my friends are sick, some more than others. I don’t feel right talking about their specific stories of struggle and hospital boredom in this venue, but theater folk are particularly vulnerable to the costs of health care and there’s one in particular that could use your help. Will Schutz, a brilliant but uninsured actor, side project company member and long-time member of the immortal Defiant Theatre, is having a benefit thrown in his honor – organized by playwright and friend Philip Dawkins – as he fights an illness at St. Francis Hospital. I leave you with Philip’s words:

Our friend Will is currently fighting an illness and, per usual, his hospital bills are pilling up way, way, way beyond his means. Chicago bar HYDRATE has very kindly donated their space to the friends of Will (and friends of friends, and strangers!) on Friday, January 23rd between 9 PM and 11 PM in order that we might come together to support our friend and offer up what we can to assist him financially. It’s PAY WHAT YOU CAN, with a suggested donation of $20, though any amount will get you an open bar (well drinks, domestic beer, wine, juice and soda), appetizers and some pretty terrific live entertainment, not to mention new friends. Every penny goes to Will.

If you’re not able to help out financially, no one understands that better than theatre folks and their friends. But we hope you’ll at least consider coming out to show your emotional support in person. And whether you’re able to make it or not, please keep him in your minds and hearts each and every day. He has requested ALL of your prayers and thoughts and well-wishes. God knows, Will is worth every penny you’re able to give, and every ounce of your energy and efforts. And if you don’t know him personally, trust us.

***If you want to donate but can’t come on the 23rd, shoot an e-mail to philipdawkins@gmail.com and we’ll send you information, as soon as we have it, on a forthcoming online payment option.***

Hydrate is at 3458 N Halsted St, directions can be found here. Pass it on.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Rotogravure

November 24, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Theater Media Roundup

The most important thing about theater that I learned from designing web applications (or was it about designing for the web from theater?) is that you have the most fun and the most insight when you build the thing, not when you share it. But if you don’t share it, it’s like never building it in the first place.

Less fun is communicating the message and context of that work so that others can enjoy it – it’s a bit awkward to boil all that delicate and detailed work down to what is often an uncomfortable three-sentence pitch.

And even less fun – but oh so rewarding – is learning to choose an appropriate vehicle for your message.

In the press release for Roell Schmidt’s play The Rotogravure (opening Jan 16th at the Atheneum), the marketing team explains:

Leading up to the opening, Chicagoans are hosting dinner parties to spread the word about the multi-media production that begins with the line “Helen was rarely asked to dinner parties.” This community approach to building awareness about the premiere began in November 2007 with a discussion of The Rotogravure at a dinner party of artists and theater-lovers. Several of the guests were inspired to host their own dinners which have in turn led their guests to host additional parties.

And, helpfully, these dinner parties were also filmed and released on the production’s website.

Now before I get all distracted by debutante ball rules, owl bric-a-brac and OC-inspired finales, I should say: there’s a lot I like about what “The Roto” is doing here. I totally get behind the impulse to create a solid audience base for your show by building an intimate and comfortable word of mouth campaign (in this case, by throwing around a dozen virally structured dinner parties). And a year out actually isn’t too far in advance for such a campaign, especially if you politely refrain from sending out the press releases until a more reasonable time frame. The meet-up format is popular – because it’s about real human connections – and it should be our first crack at a different approach to getting non-theater-goers to giving theater a try.

If there’s anything unsavory here, you might be able to pick it up from my phrase “viral dinner party.” I don’t think these folks are aware of the voyeuristic awkwardness that watching someone else’s party inspires. Plus, with a camera crew in the room, it must have been very difficult to find truly spontaneous moments and burgeoning friendships. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the stellar editor for these video promos had to focus on emotion-lifting music and perfectly timed quick cuts rather than lingering on the more human-driven confessional moments that we almost get to:

Aww, man. Look at all those people having fun. I want to throw a party now. I love sharing in the joy of confession, trust, food, and comraderies. But that leaves us with a big problem – after seeing these videos, I’m not exactly sure that there is a show that is being promoted or what it would be like.

This promo effort doesn’t pass the newly-coined “Adam Thurman Really Shiny Hammer Test. It uses new media, in this case, video, as a message dissemination vehicle for a community-driven word of mouth campaign, but doesn’t actually craft a clear message to put in that vehicle. I had to rely on four pages of website and getting the press release in my inbox to put all the back story together, and I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong by this point.

“The Roto” does point us towards a possibility, however: these videos are a record that people were convinced, through a community-building experiment, to risk it all, commit to seeing this play, and discover why the themes of the play – community and the “banishment of loneliness” – are important to them. They were shown that the conversation inspired by theater can – and should – extend beyond the bounds of the theater and the play. They were convinced to have a stake in the play, and found new friends to go to the show with, before seeing the play. That’s amazing, and more amazing is how this group might end up continuing to get together and make theater and other community-driven arts a part of their lives.

The video, however, doesn’t capture that transformation – to steal a line from Mission Paradox, the moment this group of people connect over a central idea – it captures images of meals we didn’t have, laughter we didn’t share, stories we don’t understand, and people we never get to know in the course of the promotion. We are lead to believe that the moment happened, but it doesn’t prompt us to make the same leap. This dinner feels like a fading photo album rather than a neighborly call to action.

My theory here is that for theater to effectively harness the power of new media – which is a key strategy in the effort to develop a broader audience that appreciates what we appreciate in theater – theaters need to treat their communications like miniature plays. New media promotions need to have self-sustaining stories, characters, and even miniature, cohesive designs. Just as there is a “world of the play,” there is a “world of the promo,” and the same rules apply – if you want people to hear your work, it has to be clear, well-crafted, and it must both set up and then obey its own rules.

The Rotogravure’s parties may well be an example of a really interesting and potentially lucrative word-of-mouth strategy for a particular kind of audience – one that has been arbitrarily isolated from the positive experience of theater-as-community and is now ripe for being re-connected to theater. A dinner party promotion like this is a vehicle for discussion that will undoubtedly create more true fans of theater than 1,000 pounds of postcards.

But inviting a camera crew to that promotion to spread the word may be an inappropriate engine to power that vehicle. Like putting a space shuttle rocket on a sensible hybrid compact car.

Now that would be a fun viral video to see.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to plan a party.

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Fly on the wall opportunities

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

On the train, after my show, I overhear three women reading through their dirty dancing programs. They are cross referencing the asterixes in the program with members of the actors equity association. It seems to be their first introduction to the AEA.

One of them says, “I’m going to tell so and so: don’t get your hopes up.”

These are the moments where I get angry at broadway and cash-in productions. The audience comes to them with hopes. And the story is so often disappointment.

Few patrons have high hopes when they risk their evening slumming it in a storefront show. But that’s why we can blow our audience away when we display quality, immediacy and craft.

But we are linked – indeed dependant – on larger theaters. We are part of the same brand of “theater,” even though we have been consistently a different animal for over 30 years. This is something that I think is lost on arts marketing gurus when they tell me that the key step for me is to improve my product. It’s not entirely true… I have to improve my product, and then find a way to keep it good for four years while we find our audience – self-funded – on a largely word of mouth marketing campaign. It works… slowly.

I want to improve the brand of theater in total, because I find myself in an unfortunate position – shows like dirty dancing don’t benefit my theater with their show-specific splash of marketing. But when those shows disappoint, my theater DOES suffer.. These patrons think… Man, i hate theater. If a large budget show can’t deliver satisfaction, how could a tiny theater run by a couple dozen people with a $3,000 budget?

That’s the message I’d like to deliver to them: we can surprise you. we can create a memory that doesnt’ disappoint. But my marketing budget can’t yell over the noise… and my first step isn’t going to be bemoaning the capitalist system in the hopes that will make my efforts suddenly socially relevant again.

Our message is spread slowly, cheaply, inevitably, one person at a time. I do doubt I’ll ever reach these women on the train with this message: good theater doesn’t disappoint. It’s like treasure, you have to sift through a bit, and maybe you have to find a trusted reviewer or friend who can help you find the good stuff. And it’s not all live remakes of movies from our teenage years or the high school musical we remember being so cliquey and odd – that’s a good thing sometimes, no? But man it is worth making a part of your week.

Good thing I brought postcards.

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Street Vendors make the best Lemonade

October 20, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Butts in Seats, Chicago Theater, Community Building

Our ongoing experiment with the TCG Free Night of Theater at New Leaf is going so well it’s hard not to draw some very quick and dirty predictions about storefront theaters’s viability in the face of an economic downturn. Some things we’re finding (and I’ll let the rest of the Box Office staff at New Leaf give more detail here in the coming days):

* Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.

* Most theater goers don’t realize that storefront theater can be excellent. Because we tend to be experimental and/or developing artists, storefront work doesn’t have a consistent quality other than that intimacy. But there are shows that are hands down excellent in that grab bag, and we’re nearly always intimate, and we’re comparatively cheap, storefront theater becomes a no-brainer entertainment value. Human contact in a time of economic hardship is at a premium. We offer close-camera human experience.

* When patrons get past these two hurdles, and like what they see, they have an exciting reaction: Ownership. They feel they have discovered something secret that now belongs to them and they seem to be more excited to tell their friends about the experience than a regular patron would be. Since storefront theater publicity is often built primarily on word of mouth, this is potentially the most valuable patron experience we could ask for. Of course, the data isn’t in on how these patrons comparatively follow through in spreading the word – we won’t know that until the end of this season at least. But by greeting new patrons with a goodie bag of season information, 2-for-1 tickets and a lobby atmosphere that is more real, genuinely friendly, and built by a community than our big-box theater cousins (all because we’re not paid – we LOVE to be there) we’re hopeful on this front.

So what happens when everyone is worried about going broke? Well, we tighten the purse strings. But that doesn’t mean we stop living their lives. In the case of dining, instead of going to fine cuisine, people opt for Olive Garden. Or they take that chance on that local dive.

So, the prediction: Most of us have already seen how the downturn has made grants dry up quickly as foundations scramble to secure their assets and make larger and more flashy large-scale donations that don’t benefit small theaters. If storefront theater can make the case, this could be a year where as theater goers flake off from their big-house big-ticket subscriptions they take a low-risk chance on the work being done in storefront venues. And if the work is good and the experience is good, they might just stick.

But timing is everything. The election, necessarily, will be sucking all the oxygen out of the local and national news cycles right on through November 2nd. I’ve been talking with several theater companies trying to promote their shows right now (hell, I’m one of them), and my advice to them is: Save your energy, wait, and hit hard after the big election come-down.

After then, theater-going groundhogs everywhere will come out of their Cable News comas and want to be a part of life and collective imagination again. Be ready with your best work, your comparatively cheap tickets, and your comfiest chairs. Communities are built from your neighborhood out.

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A Better Way to Paper the House

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

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

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

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

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Conversations Abuzz, and Brainstorming Value for Theater

January 30, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

A couple conversations on various blogs are hot hot hot in the last 48 hours (and taking up all my time in posting responses). They are posts that have generated a lot of community thought, and underscored both the value and the pitfalls of developing ideas and solutions as a group. I’m summarizing them for the benefit of those of you that don’t read a lot of other theater blogs yet but are interested in the collaborative aspects of blog problem solving.

If this doesn’t interest you, skip down to the picture of my proposal for a marketing campaign so bad it just might work.

1) The aforementioned exploration on the TOC blog of who the hell are these people anyway? Recent additions include pleas for reason and pizza. Insightful follow ups on Kris’, Patrick’s, and Rob’s sites.

2) Rob asked about whether previews should be sold as regular performances. This sparked a more general conversation about the value of previews on Creative Control, Grey Zelda and once again Storefront Rebellion.

3) Don Hall wants to lower ticket prices and/or increase the perceived value of theater. (And it turns out that Roche Shulfer wants the same thing.) Awesome. Finally something we can agree upon.

We’ve Got Your Writers Right Here

Before you complain about the link: I know, I know. It’s a placeholder.

I hinted in the last post about a Theater Dish event that changed the landscape for me. That specific Theater Dish was a talk about marketing innovations prepared for the League by Larry Keeley of Doblin Marketing, one of the architects behind the WBEZ programming renaissance. I still have his Powerpoint presentation which he generously posted for League download, and it’s one of the most inspiring and genius documents I’ve ever read. Check it out yourself. Unfortunately, while that particular talk was dead brilliant it was overshadowed by what happened next: the announcement of the resignation of Marj Halperin. (She went to become campaign manager for Forrest Claypool’s bid for Cook County Commissioner, so that was worth it). All told, it was a pretty eventful night for my first League event. I just wish more of Larry’s suggestions had been implemented by now. Frankly, this is where the League could use the help of the vast volunteer resources of storefront theaters to accomplish some of the big-picture goals on the table.

That’s where I’m coming from. I want to get this stuff done, and speed us along to the part where we see if it works. The solutions are out there, you just need to know where to find them and get started on implementing them, one step at a time.

I mentioned a few off-the-cuff possibilities to easily add value to your own theater productions on Don’s blog, in many ways inspired by Larry’s extremely leveragable and collaborative suggestions. Post your own.

Then we roadmap, people. It’s project management time.

Five minutes of Brain Storm

Blogs. Check. But every theater should have one, and there should be blogs that cross over into other disciplines and draw connections back to theater, and for every question we ask on a blog we should have four bad answers like this one.

Podcasts and Videocasts. Otherwise known as: make your own TV show and wave it in front of your ADD friends and say “Ah, it’s great to have good writing on this screen again. You seen that last Grey Zelda show? AWESOME script. That dude can write.”

Site-Specific stagings of issue plays or locally-inspired plays that matter to the community. Ask the Chicago History Museum to sponsor showings of a time-traveling play about the current CTA debacle in that old rail car they have. Who wants to write that? I’ll production manage it. Seriously.

Get excited about other people’s work, and talk it up. Talk about your fellow Chicago Theater artists like they were superstars, and see through their financial and temporal limitations to see their genius and value their efforts. Be ambassadors to the general public and make talking about your theater habit at your day job as easy as discussing what happened on The Office last night. Theaters should not have to waste their time marketing to the industry, that’s a horrible losing game. Help them out by proactively seeing, discussing and encouraging the best of their work.

Don’t overextend. You get a lot done if the work excites you, but despair will shut you down. Don’t get mired trying to add false value in your actual work. Use just enough design, not too much. I say this as a sound designer, knowing full well my entire role in theater depends on you thinking you need sound in theater. You don’t. You don’t need projections. You don’t need a set, you don’t need programmable lights. You need what the show needs. If you can’t hire or bribe a designer for a theatrical element, don’t use that element at all, and think of some other way of getting by without it. That’s honesty and truth, and that is valuable, and creates a vital final product. Remove any need to pick up the hammer during rehearsal time, and use the time to coax better performances from your cast and build stronger trust within your ensemble.

Food. Drink. If not in the theater, as a part of an easy-bake planned evening. Make friends with the owners and/or staff at your local restaurants and cafes, and get them excited about your work. Wear them down, and kill them with kindness and excitement. When they get excited, they’ll talk about you all day long to every customer.

Train yourself to use talking points about your work. Use those talking points to convince your friends to be an ambassador for your work, and for the work being done in town in general. You don’t have to be a crazy automaton about it, but if you’re legitimately excited about something, let it show.

Audience Participation Events. Let the audience see the guts of how you make your show. Get the ensemble to invite friends to sit next to the stage manager and designers during tech and show them how freaking hard they work, and make THAT the show. Invite them to talk with the cast and the director about what everyone is thinking about in the room, and walk them through the process. It will make your theater focus as an ensemble, and every person that gets to do that will see the show in a totally different light. To a non-theater person, it’s like they’ve been invited on a film set with the stars. Seriously. It blows them away.

Keep it Smart. People want smart right now. Don’t fall into the double trap of dumbing down your work or thinking your work is smarter than it really is. Theater is just smart enough that it’s refreshing.

Bring theater to the people, and people will come to the theater. The most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth buzz, and with the number of people in our industry, there’s no reason we can’t make theater an activity that 40 – 50% of this town participates in on a regular basis.

Of course, that means that we’ll need to coordinate our efforts a little bit. Think we can do it?

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Yes, Rob Kozlowski, There IS a Santa Claus

December 26, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I was reading through Rob Kozlowski’s Christmas Wishlist for Chicago Theater and I was struck by Item#5:

Make every Chicago theatre company work with each other to make sure they don’t share opening nights. Critics want to see your shows. They really do.

Everyone – EVERYONE – I’ve talked to on every side of the theater community about how Chicago Theater works, Opening Night conflicts and the lack of cross-theater company coordination is always on the complaint list… it’s usually one of the first things mentioned, since it seems so easy to accomplish.

Well, no time like the present, right? Let’s get this DONE as part of our collective New Year’s resolutions. I’ve created a public Google Calendar for this purpose (see below to subscribe and post your own theater’s information!), but in the spirit of collaborative transparency and getting the ball rolling, I’m going to include the thought process behind the strategy.

Getting even a quorum – let alone a majority – of theaters to use any sort of half-baked system is difficult. There’s a number of possible strategies to make something like this work and get past the hurdles inherent in how the community does and doesn’t talk to each other. The best example of how difficult getting theaters onboard with a common system is the fact that the League of Chicago theaters already has such a calendar that not enough people know about, let alone use. In fact, the first I’d heard of the calendar was in doing the obligatory google search during the writing of this post. Apparently Rob and several other friends who work all the time in LOCT member theaters had never heard of the calendar, so that tells us something about how well it is utilized. I think this is because there are a couple of downfalls of the the League’s solution to the problem, which I’m hoping a Google Calendar-based system will alleviate.

1) This needs to be dirt-simple, and something that everyone has access to (or even something they ALREADY have access to)

Google calendar isn’t exactly dirt-simple, but it is something that a large section of the theater community either knows how to use or can learn easily with benefits beyond just being able to read this calendar. Edited to add some additional how-to info to help theaters add their dates quickly and easily, see bottom of post

Also making this simple? This calendar is just for this one thing – You tell me your dates, and I’ll tell you mine. However, it can also be used for several ends – feel free to include your venue’s address and your show web page since this is public and Google-searchable. We may eventually be able to find hard-core theater goers subscribing to this calendar to see nothing but opening nights (or opening weekends), which could be a huge boon in the ongoing effort to get people to see a show early in the run and generate word of mouth. No promises, of course, but like any web tool: the more people use it, the more results.

2) The system needs to be both totally accessible and reasonably free of abuse. If every theater company in town can’t update their information, it won’t work. If a single theater company or user floods the calendar with off-topic or useless information, the system will cease to be trusted, and user enlistment will dry up, making the information stale and unworthy.

This is a little harder to achieve with Google Calendar, and will probably have to work itself out with time and more users. Adding an event to a public calendar is fairly easy. The simplest method is to send your opening night info to an editor, like me (any other volunteers?), and we’ll post your event on the calendar. Since overlapping fundraisers have also been a problem for most theater companies, I’ve made the calendar for one-night-only opening nights and special events. But keeping the calendar well-edited is a further challenge. The basic principle that I believe in is: the more honest users who are able to edit the information, the more trustable the information. With that in mind, I can give editing privileges to any member of the theater community who wants to help keep track of this information. Ideally, we’d have a representative from every theater company able to edit their opening nights.

But this opens up some difficulties with editors not playing nice with each other. Wikipedia’s travails with both commercial spam entries and entry vandalism in recent years with web research have greatly publicized both the need for group editorial guidance and simple self-restraint. I figure, when a problem child theater decides to post every single night of their run, we can come down with some gentle and then more firm editorial guidance. Or, we start with fewer editors and encourage individual theater companies to post their opening nights by sending invites to those theater editors… a little more complicated, but the goal here is rock solid, trustable data at all times.

3) The system needs to offer a subscription service.

Subscriptions? Check. Google Cal is designed on group collaboration principles, and also can send updates to your local Outlook or iCal applications. As information changes, you know those changes, and it’s always online so all it takes is a quick web lookup while you’re planning your season schedule. Also, if you use an online calendar on a regular basis, a subscribable calendar will tend to remind you of its existence on a regular basis, and will avoid the fate of the dusty League calendar.

4) Everyone needs to know about it. Even if the information is complete because I’ve done some research and posted some other theater companies’ opening nights just to have some good info there, this calendar will really only do any good in the spring to summer when theater companies really start nailing down firm dates for their season.

That’s up to you, dear reader. I’ve got my people, and I’ll be letting them know. But let’s make the information good, the system trustable, and tell our friends who can use this info.

This is also the perfect first step towards strengthening this cross-company dialogue I mentioned earlier – and that Kris Vire celebrates in his Performink Year-End Wrap up (thanks for the shout out, Kris!) I don’t mean to harp on the League in this blog post, by the way – they offer a lot of underutilized services to small theaters, and I applaud their efforts a lot of the time. But sometimes I think they don’t get the concept of leveraging the resources they have to achieve bigger results, and this is definitely one of those cases. And frankly, I don’t have the personal resources yet to make Chicago known as an international hub of the Theatrical Art, and I’d rather they focus on solving that problem rather than this kind of ephemera.

My big New Years resolution this year is to explore more behind-the-scenes work that I can do to strengthen the community as a whole, so I think monitoring how we can use web tools like blogs and google calendar in increasingly collaborative ways will be a big part of making that dialogue happen. I hope you’ll join me.

New how-to information: After troubleshooting the way Google Calendar works the adding of events to a public calendar, I have a pretty simple solution worked out for most folks. Follow the following steps:

1) If you deal with multiple theater companies and would like a hand in editing this data long term (yeah, super users!) I can share the calendar with you and you’ll be able to make changes to ANY event on the calendar. We’ll call you folks administrators. Or ambassadors. Maybe I can come up with some kind of commemorative pin and hat combo.

2) For most theaters, especially those already using Google Calendar or a compatible calendaring service, simply create your event (including your show’s webpage URL, the address of the venue, and the date and time of the performance or event, and invite calendar@nikku.net as a guest. I’ll get that invite, and copy that event into the master calendar. Any administrator can do the same, so if/when that happens, I’ll give you a couple options.

3) If none of the above work for you, we still need your info. Just send calendar@nikku.net an email with the same information – Show Name, Date & Time, URL, and Address – and I’ll get it up there as soon as possible.

Finally, and most importantly: set your favorite calendaring application to subscribe to the calendar to keep updated on the latest opening night dates:

Through Google:

Or Subscribe in iCal with this link

or Subscribe to the XML feed

Happy New Year, and happy calendaring.

Thanks for the link fix, Michael

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