A welcome to The Room

A great company web site.

Somewhere on it you’ll find a set of posted rules.

The first rule is:

In the room, things are being made.

The fourth rule is:

In The Room no one can say for sure what these things will be until they are done, because making things is a kind of magic, and magic can’t always be controlled.

I like the sound of this already.

Congratulations to Brendan, Christopher, Geoffrey, Natasha and Ian. Welcome to the world. We’ll be watching for your uncontrollable magic from the left side of the country.

the room

The Return of the Blogfather

You can blog like a man! What's the matter with you?!
You can blog like a man! What's the matter with you?!

Good news, everyone. Canada’s primogenial theatre blogger Ian Mackenzie has migrated his ground-breaking blog Theatre is Territory to a new corner of the internets, and re-launched with typically discussion-provoking content.

Click here to absorb and subscribe to Theatre is Territory 3.0

Good news Part II: The old URL has not been forsaken, Praxis Theatre co-ADs Michael Wheeler and Simon Rice are running with the well-worn baton and authoring the Praxis blog themselves. Artists and activists both, look to them to continue using the site to raise awareness of political and artistic issues facing the independent theatre movement in Canada, as well as a lot of the fun series we’ve come to expect from the Praxis crew.

Click here to feast upon the newly re-christened Praxis Blog

All of these cats were inspirational to me in publishing my own regular theatre blog. If you find similar inspiration at these sites, please drop us a line and let us know so we can get your address out to the neighbourhood. It’s a fun place to play…

The passion of the theatre blogs

thepassion

A look back on a good year in the theatrosphere

By Ian Mackenzie and Simon Ogden

Time to put 2008 to bed? Good idea. But not before we take one last look at the year that was in theatre blogging. And what a year it was! From epic online dust-ups to Internet-wide collaborations, here’s our list of last year’s greatest moments in theatre blogging:

The Empty Spaces’ Or, How Theatre Failed America.
The American monologuist Mike Daisey’s scathing editorial for the Seattle-based The Stranger newspaper argues that American theatre has been irreversibly damaged at the hands of corporate commodification. It quickly becomes the most widely discussed theatre essay of February.

The Great ‘Value of theatre’ Debate.
For one day in March, the Ohio-based blogger Matt Slaybaugh of TheatreForté organized a theatrosphere-wide discussion to answer one simple question: ‘What is the value of theatre?‘ More than 32 different blogs from around the world weighed in on the topic that day, and yet surprisingly few common themes emerged. That theatre’s online diarists could not reduce the craft to tidy soundbites is welcome evidence of the art form’s complexity.

The SummerWorks ‘Expression’ video controversy.
The Toronto-based SummerWorks Theatre Festival promo video depicts some of the city’s most highly regarded women playwrights acting like bimbo valley girls, up-talking and saying ‘like’ a lot. ‘Expression‘ sparked an all-out brawl among Toronto’s theatrical intelligentsia. Some called it demeaning, some called it transgressive, others called it smart marketing. But no one called it late for dinner.

Professor Scott Walters ‘retires’ from theatre blogging.
After a lengthy monologue explaining his Tribes model of running a theatre company, and some highly personal bare-knuckle scrapping in his comments section, the resident professor of the theatrosphere calls it quits again in May. He’s back posting within a couple of days; posts sporadically for a few months; and then officially reboots his blog again earlier this week.

The proliferation of the Canadian theatre blogs.
Although theatre blogging exploded in the U.S. a couple of years earlier, 2008 was the year theatre blogging officially took flight in Canada. Here’s a quick, incomplete survey of the current landscape:

And the list keeps growing. Thankfully.

Canadian artists rally online over $45 million goverments arts cuts.
The Canadian arts community unites against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government following its controversial $45 million cuts to Canadian arts programs; sets the national theatrosphere ablaze, including dozens of reprints of playwright Wadji Mouawad’s scathing response to Harper and the birth of the arts advocacy group Department of Culture.

Content is king for a day.
Well, several days actually, after Tony Adams drops a post called ‘Content‘ in which he wonders aloud why no one on the Internet ever discusses the content of their shows. The topic has legs.

The age of the guest post.
Theatre is territory and its west coast sister blog The Next Stage host a series of guest posts that help inspire their writers to think outside the blog:

Don Hall gets divorced.
The usually irascible Don Hall blogs about the dissolution of his marriage, morphing the normally incendiary Angry White Guy in Chicago blog into a tender and affecting piece of Internet theatre.

The Globe and Mail gets its theatre blog on.
After showing all of England how to theatre blog (by founding the Guardian UK’s theatre blog roundup Noises off), J. Kelly Nestruck returns home to Canada to fill the prestigious national theatre critic slot at the Globe and Mail. He promptly starts a Globe theatre blog, Nestruck on theatre, and seals the deal on theatre blogging’s legitimacy in Canada.

Canadian theatre critics invite unprecedented dialogue with artists.
Notorious Vancouver theatre critic Colin Thomas challenges theatre artists to change their status quo and engage him directly about his opinions online – none do (yet). J. Kelly Nestruck does likewise.

How Mike Daisey failed American Theatre.
‘The Daisey’ goes head-to-head with American Theatre Magazine.

The theatroshpere unites to say goodbye to Harold Pinter.
Legendary American playwright shuffles off his mortal coil and goes on to join the choir invisible; the chorus of the theatrosphere sings his praises down here.


Well, it’s clear that our list could be twice as long and still wildly incomplete. Lest we forget Isaac Butler’s oddball Hair Blogging, George Hunka’s syllable-heavy Organum series, Matt Freeman’s awesome Star Wars fixation, Nick Keenan’s constant innovations, James Comtois’ horror film posts, Leonard Jacob’s prolific flamboyance, Paul Rekk’s island of insight, Adam Thurman’s paradoxical mission, those anonymous ponderings at 99Seats, Travis Bedard’s extreme connectedness, Alison Broverman’s fashionista quipping, Chris Wilkinson’s succinct reporting of the whole fine mess . . . oh theatrosphere, we hardly know you and yet we bleed for your love.

Suffice to say, 2008 was the year that many will remember as the year theatre finally made a successful transition to digital.

You can also find this here.

Selling at the fringes

A new approach to theatre marketing from a Canadian sellout

By guest blogger Ian Mackenzie

I cringe when I hear theatre people say the word “marketing.” It’s like when you hear your grandma say “Facebook” – you know she’s heard of it, but you can be damn sure she’s got no idea how to use it.

I mean, here is a group of otherwise creative and talented people whose best idea for a marketing campaign is printing 1,000 postcards – 500 of which never get handed out. Or email “campaigns” that have the sole effect of guilting friends and family into coming to the show. And have you ever been to a theatre company’s website? Don’t bother. There’s nothing there for you except headshots, vanity copy and half-hearted mission statements.

How bad is theatre marketing? Theatre marketing is so bad it’s not even visible enough to be obnoxious.

There are three good reasons for this dismal state of affairs:

First and foremost is that most independent theatre companies are run by people who are primarily interesting in acting or directing, and those people generally went through acting and directing programs at school. Check out the performance curriculum for one of Canada’s most respected theatre schools, Humber. Lot’s of acting classes. But nothing about marketing or management. Certainly no course called, “Running your own independent theatre company – 101.”

What’s the thinking here? That all these actors are streaming out of these programs into high-paying theatre actor jobs? That ain’t happening. What is happening is that many of these actors and directors are graduating from school and in the absence of decent career opportunities in their fields, they are starting their own independent theatre companies – an undertaking for which they have absolutely no training. It’s a setup.

The second major problem is that artists have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into thinking that business = Walmart; that “business” is somehow fundamentally evil; and that the great artists throughout history existed on some astral plane above personal and professional finance.

And while that works fine while you’re still in school, romanticized notions of penniless playwrights fall apart when it comes time to pull together funding for your next show. So out come the complaints about lack of public funding. About how people don’t care about theatre. About how hard this industry is. About how there’s nowhere to rehearse and lights cost too much.

Here’s something they ought to teach at theatre school: If your business (i.e., your theatre company) doesn’t have enough money to make its product, then your business model is broken and you need to fix it.

Third – independent theatre companies are terrible at communicating their “big idea.” What’s the big idea behind your work? How do you feel about factory farming? HIV in Africa? Prison rape? Racism within families? Heroin? Ghosts? Flowers? Electricity? Cancer? Cotton candy? Blindness?

If you can’t tell me who the enemy is in a single sentence, you have lost my attention, and not even a marketing genius like Seth Godin is going to be able to help you sell me your product. How could he when you haven’t even figured out what it is you have to sell?

I’m not telling you how to be an artist . . . I am the proverbial parrot in the blender, and I see you there with your finger on the “purée” button. Stop. Step away from the blender. Take a deep breath. Let’s rethink this whole thing.

Here’s my three-step plan for independent theatre companies who want to make money and increase their influence:

1) Bring in the specialists.
It takes a team of specialists to run a successful theatre. Here, for example, are the staff positions at one of Toronto’s most successful independent theatre companies:

  • Artistic Director
  • General Manager
  • Administrator
  • Publicity & Marketing Director
  • Director of Development
  • Director of Education & Outreach
  • Literary Manager
  • Assistant to the Artistic Director
  • Outreach & Marketing Associate, Group Sales
  • House & Box Office Manager
  • Production Manager
  • Technical Director
  • Wardrobe Head
  • Props Head
  • Carpentry Head
  • Mainspace Technician
  • Extra Space Technician
  • Building Manager

Maybe your company doesn’t need all these positions filled, but it sure as hell needs some of them. Talk to people outside the actor/director circles and see if you can lure them to the job on the promise that theatre work will feed their soul. You might be surprised how many lawyers and accounts and marketers come running. Seriously. Once you’ve got them, hang on to them by keeping your natural flakiness in check – and let them help you grow your business.

2) Embrace capitalism.
Money is good – if you do good things with it. Business is good – if your business is focused on doing good things. And theatre is a good thing, right? “We need it to see ourselves.” That’s what Daniel MacIvor says.

This is about more than you and your world. Part of the reason capitalism has become such a clusterfuck is because artists have allowed themselves to be nudged out of positions of influence. Capitalism needs empowered artists working from the inside to help guide it. This notion that theatre is not a capitalist pursuit does a disservice to both capitalism and theatre – and by extension humanity and everything else under this sun. Reject this notion. Embrace capitalism. Make money. Build your theatre. It’s our only hope.

3) Know your enemy.
The elevator pitch is not a cliché. Why do you make theatre? Why did you start a theatre company? Why is your work important? What is your work about? Why should I care?

If you haven’t answered these questions clearly in your mind, your independent theatre company is dead in the water. I’m not telling you what the answer should be, just that – if you have any interest in selling your wares – you’d better have an answer.

That’s it. Three steps. Not all theatre companies are guilty of all of these inadequacies. But collectively we’re doing something very wrong. We are allowing ourselves to be pushed to the periphery of our own story. That’s bad. We are not victims. And theatre is not a charity case.

So who the fuck am I? I’m the guy with the $125 watch. I’m the guy with the soul job in theatre. I don’t know anything about acting, or directing. I don’t even know that much about marketing. But I do know bad news when I see it. And theatre marketing? Bad news.

I hope this helps.

Ian Mackenzie is a Toronto-based writer and Director of Marketing for Praxis Theatre.

Praxis Service Announcement

Dear Gentle Reader:

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to stop by and visit the site. Readership has been steadily increasing for the last little while, and the number of you that are checking us out regularly is both humbling and exciting. We are most appreciative and would welcome any comments or feedback on the site and what you’d like to see more (or less) of in the future.

And if you like what you encounter down here at The ol’ Next Stage, may I modestly suggest stopping by the sites of some other good Canadian folk blogging away across the country, working hard to stimulate good conversation on the progressive world of theatre.

Praxis Theatre’s resident marketing guru Ian Mackenzie (know in the Canadian quadrant of the theatrosphere as the “Blogfather”) has, after exhaustive research, compiled a comprehensive list of Great White Northern theatre blogs on his site Theatre is Territory. Have a stroll around the list and hey, if you’re in any way inspired to start a theatre blog of your own, there’s lots of room in the pool…

Someday – and that day may never come – I will call upon you to do an interview for me…

Devoted and Disgruntled: A Journey Through “Open Space”.

Ian Mackenzie over at Theatre is Territory will occasionally drop a post entitled What should we talk about now?, a call to discourse that, in my opinion at least, neatly sums up the need we all have as theatre artists to develop a common language towards breaking down the barriers between us and our dream of a modern sustainable theatre industry. This is a language and a method of communicating that should continue to be forged between different companies the world over, so that the global community of theatre can have an accessible forum for ideas and problem solving in much the same way that we talk to the other members in our own companies. When we put up our individual productions the process is always the same: we bump up against some problem, gather around and talk about it, solve it, and move on to the next. This is how we’re going to solve all of our problems, by sharing ideas, opinions and solutions. Upon this idea the theatrosphere was born.

This seems, oddly enough, a rather new idea out there on the internets, one that I believe the world of indie theatre is just waking up to. Web sites that are about theatre as a concept (not just about individual productions) are prolific, yet compared to the amount of people that declare theatre as their abiding passion, infinitesimal. I know for a fact that Ian’s web site has a strong readership, yet the number of comments on his latest petition for discussion topics was five. And they were about robots. The American theatre blog comment forums occasionally erupt in lengthy discussions which can alternate between robust dialogue and nasty, defensive, and unmediated schoolyard brawls, where at times commenter’s very opinions are challenged. But you know what? The rules are being written right now, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of. I’ve noticed that the real button-pushers tend to eventually fall out of orbit by the sheer weight of their own vitriol anyway, and the ones with real passion find more focus because of it. For the uninitiated (and even for the seasoned vets, I’m sure), jumping into the growing theatreweb is a navigational nightmare. (Until you master the mysteries of the feed aggregator, start with Matt Slaybaugh’s excellent site Theatreforte. He makes a great Chewbacca.) I often find myself wishing we could just get everyone in a big room together and hash it out face to face.

phelim.jpg

So did Phelim McDermott. Phelim is a theatre artist out of the Improbable Theatre Company in London who, after years of toiling away within the existing model of theatre, found himself sick of hearing himself moan on and on about the current state of affairs and decided to effect some change by getting a huge group of theatrists in a room to hash it all out face to face. And so was born Devoted and Disgruntled, a seminar series named for the feeling Phelim found he had developed towards theatre, and which has since had three consecutive annual mountings in the UK since its inception in 2005. Vancouver’s PuSh Festival organizers invited Phelim to bring his forum here to the North West, and last Friday your intrepid reporter was literally the first of about 80 in the door for North America’s first Devoted and Disgruntled seminar. How was it, you may well ask? Let me put it this way: Ian Mackenzie would have collapsed in an apoplectic fit of sheer arts-business bliss in the middle of the room.

It was one of those great two-day happenings that usually invokes a response of “…um, you kinda had to be there” from attendees when asked about the experience. In some ways that’s true, but I will do my best to describe it for those of you who didn’t make it out, but allow me to say that I really, really wish that you had. It was resonant and revelatory, and has made me a more educated theatre artist.

D&D incorporates a seminar methodology called “Open Space Technology“, which was invented in the mid-eighties by an American named Harrison Owen and which has since been adopted in over 100 countries. It was developed as a reaction to the boring old seminar model that had been annoying Owen for years. He noted that everyone would be fully bored two minutes into a given speaker’s lecture and disengage, and that the truly interesting stuff always happened during the coffee breaks. Open Space is the “coffee break” model of productive communication.

The overriding theory that makes an Open Space seminar work is that everyone in the room is an expert to some degree based on their passion for the subject, and that the attendees take ownership of the affair by creating a discussion on that which they’re most passionate about. It takes into account the myriad of personality types that attend conferences: some are super-keen and adopt leadership positions, some like to sit back a bit and react to the ebb and flow of the prevailing current, while others like to sit quietly and absorb. If at the end of the seminar what you wanted to talk about most hasn’t been discussed, there’s no one to blame but yourself. The group as a whole is the organizing committee, and the facilitator becomes redundant as soon as things swing into gear, which is about an hour into the weekend.

The concept is remarkably simple. The participants sit in a huge circle. In the middle of the circle sits a small table upon which is a stack of blank sheets of paper and some felt pens. There are several gathering points or “breakout areas” marked in various spots on the floor within the big circle and demarcated by an identifying brand (In our case it was styles of art; post-modernism, expressionism, etc., but they could just as easily been a,b,c…). Four sections of the surrounding walls had been reserved with signs corresponding to the four hour-and-a-half sessions that were to make up the day’s schedule. On another wall hung a large timetable with the day’s schedule made up of post-it notes, with each of the art forms that designated each breakout point written on them, one for each of the day’s four scheduled sessions. Off to the side was installed a bank of PCs and a printer.

The day began with Phelim calling the seminar to order and describing the process. Anyone who had something that they wished to talk about, anything at all, should first come up with a snappy title for their discussion topic, get up and walk to the centre of the circle and write that title on a piece of paper, sign it, and take it over to the timetable wall. From that, choose a breakout point sticky note from the time column in which you would like to hold your session, stick it on your piece of paper, and stick that on the section of wall corresponding to that time segment. Then find your seat again. Phelim then turned his mic off and sat down on the floor.

session-board.jpg

Silence. A few nervous chuckles and glances around the circle. Finally, inevitably, one woman sprang to her feet and, with a bold, ice-breaking intent, marched to the pile of paper. Then someone else followed suit. Then someone else, and then two more…until it looked like a feeding frenzy of conversation-starved artists. I watched for a bit, took a breath, and entered the fray. I wrote down “Marketing Through Community Building” (I knew I should have prepared something catchy in advance) in a green felt marker, announced it over the mic to the group and took it to the board. I affixed a “realism” sticky note to it and stuck it on a time-slot wall. The second time-slot of the day, 12:00 to 1:30. Then I sat back down. By the time everyone who had a session to lead had stuck their stickies there were about 30 potential forums to attend.

Open Space Seminars are governed by four basic principles which act as loose guidelines for the meeting, and one law, wherein lies the genius of the thing. The principles are:

Whoever comes are the right people.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Whenever it starts is the right time.

When it’s over, it’s over.

You can see how well this concept grafts onto a forum full of artists, can’t you? I know I’ll be invoking that first one in the future on nights when we have only a few people in the audience. Now, the only hard and fast law of the process, and the element that makes Open Space so appealing, is dubbed The Law of Two Feet, by which all participants have full license at any time to get up and leave their current discussion and go off and join another one. Or go to the bathroom. Or go to the pub. To basically decide what and how much you want to get out of the assembly. To quote Phelim: “If theatre used the law of two feet more, it might get more interesting”.

So that was it. The rest of the weekend consisted of asking and answering questions, hearing opinions, discussion and debate, bitching, commiserating, and generally absorbing the collective experience of theatre artists from all over Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, and many more places that I didn’t have time to identify, all of us taking responsibility for that which we cared about the most. I mediated my own session (people showed up! Several people!), I participated in others, and for some I just stood in the back and monitored before “butterflying” to the next. I’m sure there were a bunch of sessions that I missed which I would have loved to sit in on, fortunately each group has a designated note-taker responsible for recording the major points of the discussion and then transcribing them into one of the available computers. Each of us gets a dossier of every major point discussed over the weekend.

osgroup.jpg

I was a little worried at first that it might turn into a touchy-feely artist retreat. Now, I’m not against artsy-fartsy gatherings per se, been to more than my share, but at this one I wanted to talk business, and as it turned out so did most everyone else. You are allowed, nay, encouraged to call a session on anything at all, and some topic headings went up that were a little more, ah…nebulous than others. These were largely disregarded, the big groups flourished around topics like Passing the Torch: Is the next generation of arts leaders ready? and How to Create and Finance Your Own Theatre Space. Mind you, one of the most well-attended sessions of the whole event was called by Matthew Payne of Victoria’s Theatre Skam and was entitled Yoga. It was twenty minutes of yoga. Welcome to Vancouver.

Here’s a short list of some of the topics discussed at Devoted and Disgruntled

Small Town and Arts: Does it only happen in the big cities?

I Want my Intermissions Back: Can creators deal with this?

More Than Wallpaper: Design that’s useful, integrated, kinetic.

Dramaturgy of the Half Hour: What happens before the show.

How Does Art Compete With Pop Culture and Win?

Can Comedy be High Art?

How to Make Room for Chaos Within Organizational Structures.

At Last, Kismet! Finding your collaborative buddies, co-conspirators, teammates and partners.

Are We Ready for a Free Night of Theatre?: And what other ways can we build our audience?

Honestly Speaking: Why can’t we tell our colleagues what we really think of their work?

The Playwright is Dead: Dramaturgy for ensembles, collectives and improvisation.

What is an “Emerging Artist”, and How do I Stop Being One?

And as anyone who reads my interview series here will recognize as one of my favourites:

What now? What Next?

I wish that more Vancouver theatreists had shown up. I wish there were more people there altogether. I was surprised by how much the number of participants diminished on the second day, and it was interesting to see who showed up again. Ideally there would have been at least another day to establish ways to continue the discourse with those involved. Actually, that third day could have been devoted to introducing ourselves to those we met that we would wish to continue correspondence with. Phelim had mentioned something interesting to me near the end of the weekend, that ideally every member of the seminar would be anonymous, many at this one were not due to the PuSh Assembly name tags they wore. But the beauty of this concept is that everything that is offered comes from a very personal, experiential level, and truth be told ours is an industry that treats people in certain ways based on personal bias. Phelim spoke of a conversation he had with a notorious theatre critic in London after the last D&D there, in which this critic had noted that it was the first time he had ever had an honest conversation with a theatre artist, because no one knew who he was. Let’s face it, no one likes the “why don’t we go ’round the circle and introduce ourselves” guy. Perhaps we should just get on with it, and if you connect with someone, pull them over to the side later, outside of the matter at hand. (I did, however, recognize some names from Ian’s interview series because of their name tags. That was pretty cool.)

I hope that this is a model that the theatroshere can aspire to. I can see the value in going outside of your immediate circle to hear the considered opinions of artists with different backgrounds and fundamental ideologies than yours. And, most importantly, to adopt the old acting adage of accepting an idea before you reject it. There is, after all, value in opposing view points, just like there is value in watching theatre that you wouldn’t do yourself. And none of us should ever be at a loss when someone asks us what we want to talk about now.

over.jpg

Click here for the list of topics and notes from Devoted and Disgruntled 3, held on January 5, 6, and 7 of this year in London by over 200 theatre artists.

 

 

 

 

 

…any questions?

“The revolution in theatre needs to happen at the business end of the stick: an army of Arts Admin rebels so furious with the injustice of the current creaking theatre apparatus that they lead the march to a new model. A model that empowers artists to ask the kinds of questions we need artists to be asking. And theatre can retake its rightful place as a valued moral compass for the communities it serves.” – Ian Mackenzie

There it is ladies and gentlemen, three sentences that answer any questions you may have regarding how to move ourselves forward. They are lifted from a Theatre is Territory comment thread discussing Praxis Theatre’s 101 Sentences About Theatre series. Please check out the rest of the comment here, Ian’s wisdom on our future is simply essential reading.