My latest web design project: TheatreUnleashed.org

I talk a lot on this website about my creative passions and outlets. Acting. Writing. Producing.

But there’s one skillset I don’t boast about much, and that’s web design.

I learned how to code in raw HTML using Notepad when I was in high school. almost ten years ago, I started using Joomla, my first CMS, to build websites. Two years ago, for a variety of reasons mostly stemming from the difficulty of keeping my sites patched and up-to-date without disrupting custom modifications, I switched all of my sites to WordPress and Divi. I have successfully changed over four of the five websites I manage.

The last site I’m working on is the website for my theatre company, Theatre Unleashed. I’ve been responsible for the company’s website since it was founded in 2008. With every redesign and update, my goal has been to make the site bigger, better, more engaging. I’ve been working off-and-on on the new TU website since the middle of 2016, posting updates to the old Joomla site only when necessary. My goal was to have a new TheatreUnleashed.org ready to go before making the switch. Unfortunately, a couple months ago, I got in late on a security update and logged into the back end of our site to find that Russian bots had gotten in through an exploit and run wild.

Thankfully, all of our financial and patron data are managed through a completely separate system. But still, they rendered that old site almost unusable. So, now there’s a temporary “billboard” one-page site promoting an upcoming fundraiser, and I find myself continuing my work on the new TU site with a new sense of urgency.

But this is where the fun starts.

A preview of the upcoming Production page on TheatreUnleashed.org

A preview of the upcoming production page template on TheatreUnleashed.org

As I said before, I like to make each new site bigger. Better.

Well, for the forthcoming version of the new TU site, there was a lot of features I wanted:

  • the ability for company members to manage their own custom profiles with embedded media, links to their IMDB, website, etc.
  • the ability for company members to post their own career news updates to the company newsfeed
  • functionality where any time a member is added to a production’s cast or crew list, that credit appears on their member profile
  • the ability for another administrator to be able to fill out a form, hit ‘submit,’ and have the site post a complete production page, even if that admin had no coding experience whatsoever
  • the ability for patrons to purchase tickets to our productions directly on the production page (no more “Buy Tickets” click-through to a shopping cart/storefront).
  • solid SEO and strong social media integration

There’s more, but those are some of the big ones.

Well, in looking at a lot of the more technical stuff, I realized that I was probably in over my head. A lot of that stuff would require me to know how to code in PHP and create a relational database. Unfortunately, I’m too busy to take the time to learn how to code in PHP. I know just enough about it to cause everyone major headaches. Our small non-profit arts ensemble that produces theatre on a shoestring budget also can’t afford a professional designer or developer.

So, what’s a guy to do?

Well, that’s when a friend who manages a similar site to what I want to build told me about Toolset. Toolset turns WordPress from a blogging platform into a relational database and allows me to get custom php functionality through a relatively easy-to-use GUI interface.

A preview of the upcoming member profile page template on TheatreUnleashed.org

I’ve been using Toolset’s custom post types, views, layouts and CRED forms to design good looking templates for pages populated by user-generated data collected from custom forms, and it’s been easy. I mean, sure, there’s a learning curve here, but it’s a heck of a lot simpler than teaching myself how to write raw code. What this means is that I’ve got a site that’s as easy and intuitive enough to use for my company members as their social media profiles. And that takes so much pressure off of me because I’m no longer the sole person responsible for generating content for my company’s website.

Oh, and when I get stuck? Toolset’s knowledgebase is a great resource. Their site features detailed step-by-step guides (with screenshots) on just about every out-of-the-box function imaginable that these plugins are capable of doing. They’ve become my #1 troubleshooting resource. And, if for some reason that fails, I can either reach out to the app developers or their community of dedicated users for support. Can’t beat that.

All-in-all, I’m thrilled to be learning how to use Toolset, and I would strongly recommend it to any designer looking to integrate advanced php/MySQL functionality into their next project. I’m looking forward to building even more websites with it in the future. But first, let me see if I can finish the new Theatre Unleashed site before our 10th birthday party next week…