Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement

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 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 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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5 Comments to “Yes, Rob Kozlowski, There IS a Santa Claus”

  1. Hi, Great idea for a project. How many theaters are there in the Chicago area that you have to track and coordinate? To a point, I can’t imagine too many theaters actually altering their schedules for the “Help a Critic” project. Looking through January and February, there are already more openings on the schedule than days in the month.

  2. P.S. Your link to “Rob Kozlowski’s Christmas Wishlist for Chicago Theater” is busted html.

    Thanks, it’s been fixed! No more 2 am blogging for me. – N

  3. It’s true, Michael, I’d say we only have about 50 – 60 theater schedules on there so far (out of about 120 – 150 total?), and it’s a rat’s nest already… which of course most storefronts know already how difficult it is when you’re a young theater company to get a critic to come to your opening night given how much theater is going on every day in Chicago.

    That said, most of the private feedback I’ve gotten from about 10 smaller theater companies is that this will be a useful tool to help them avoid the big pitfalls of season schedule planning. Let me review the systematic difficulty that we face here, which may help provide those outside of Chicago with some context – If your press opening is on the same night as say a Goodman or Steppenwolf press opening, for instance, that’s basically a guarantee that no reviewers will come to your show in the first week of performances. Since word of mouth is one of the key factors to getting audience, that can contribute to slumping ticket sales until the third week of the run or so… which is for most small theaters a week before they close. However, if you can make an adjustment and get a critic to see how wonderful your show is (and, also, get them in early enough to make that week’s deadline), that can get a good review out in some cases two weeks earlier. That single scheduling coup, in the case of the theaters I work with, can often result in $500 – $1000 more in ticket sales from the increased exposure over time.

    So it may be tricky to navigate, but there’s artistic, financial, and community incentives to at least take a look when planning your season.

    Of course, for a scheduling coup to work, you’ll also need to make your show compellingly wonderful. Which we should be doing anyway. So this isn’t at its heart a “help a critic” project, though my previous language may have made it sound that way… if anything, I’m calling for them to have fewer nights off.

    It’s also true that the bigger LORT theaters don’t need to use the tool – and probably won’t. If you’ll look carefully, you’ll see that the biggest theaters in town already don’t conflict with each other, because they have staff already paying attention to that kind of detail. My primary hope is to remove one of the tricky obstacles in the way of the tiny storefront theaters – who don’t have production staff that has time to do the work I’m doing here – and help them gain improved access to media outlets.

  4. Two week old blog that no one is looking at anymore. But I’m gonna comment.

    Even if lets say I move my show to a night that NO ONE is performing (lets say I do a press open on a Tuesday) with the budgets of papers these days only sending out critics to cover 4 or less shows in a given week (Reader, Windy City Times, New City for example) even if my show opens on an off night with the weekend packed with shows it still might not get seen.

    How do we fix the problem that the internet is loosing us our newspaper critics cause of budget cuts. That I have no answer for.

  5. Oh heck, it’s up forever, so I’m glad you’re weighing in.

    I think to solve that problem, we can look at the root causes of the problem and find creative ways to tap ourselves back into the news market. For that, I say look no further than the blogosphere. The money isn’t going away from media, it’s going away from classified-supported print media. At the same time, online ads and news is blossoming, so it’s becoming increasingly important to become engaged as a theater company with the online outlets in addition to print media.

    People are also changing the way they get news these days. A LOT more young professionals spend a lot of time reading online magazines and listening to podcasts. I think the vibe that I’m getting, and you’ve been successful with this, Angie, is that theaters now need to treat critical involvement as icing on the cake, but really become proactive about making their own news and buzz and getting users to engage with them directly.

    I’m hoping that increased blog activity from theaters can create a kind of common pool of readership that will effectively supplement the loss of outlets like the reader. But we’ve got to make it happen ourselves.


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