That Blue Sky with Stephanie McKee of Junebug Productions

From the Ground Up Podcast Episode #6 

This mixed-medium ensemble understands that as the world speeds up the way audiences consume art is quickening too. With roots in the Free Southern Theater Stephanie McKee tells us about their foundation as they look to the blue sky. This interview was originally recorded on 18 April 2018.

Shownotes: 

“We look at three things: We look at the past, the present, and the possible.” Stephanie McKee

three actors onstage

Gomela: to Return Movement of Our Mother Tongue Junebug Productions. Pictured Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Kiyoko McCrae, Sulah. Photo by Melisa Cardona.

Jeffrey: From The Ground Up is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and HowlRound.com. Dear artist, hello and welcome to From The Ground Up. I am your host, Jeffrey Mosser. I've got an inspiring interview here today with Executive Artistic Director Stephanie McKee of Junebug Productions out of New Orleans, Louisiana.

You can't talk about Junebug without talking about their founder John O'Neal. Stephanie makes mention of him throughout our interview and I want to make sure you know who he was. Mr. O'Neal passed recently on 14 February 2019. In brief, Mr. O'Neal and his co-founders at Free Southern Theater were pioneers in civically-minded and community engaged theatre practices. They engaged audiences through the story circle process. Mr. O'Neal was responsible for inventing and refining it. Many of these productions with Free Southern Theater were centered around civil rights and their productions toured and still do, as Stephanie tells us.

Junebug is the organizational successor to Free Southern Theater and that's a quote and to further quote, the mission is “to create and support artistic works that question and confront equitable conditions that have historically impacted the African American Community. Through interrogation, we challenge ourselves and those aligned with the organization to make greater and deeper contributions toward a just society.”

I first heard about Junebug productions at a Network of Ensemble Theaters Conference and then again in 2016 in an American Theater magazine article. I knew, from the nature of their interdisciplinary work and the work that they were doing as an ensemble from dance to theatre to film, that they were breaking the mold as they look forward.

Stephanie eludes to one other thing in the podcast: The National Theater Project Funding, which is a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. We talk about NEFA quite a bit in an interview a few weeks back and we have a NEFA interview coming out soon, so stay tuned for that. Many of their deadlines are rolling, so you've got plenty of time to give that show a listen as it comes out soon.

On a final note about this episode, please allow me to say that I found Stephanie to be one of the most grounded artists I have had the privilege of speaking with. Her idea of the blue sky opportunity, as you'll hear, it stands out to me as how we should be attaining the final product. We aim for the blue sky but whatever has to happen, has to happen, and I'm going to leave it there and hopefully you'll hear more about what she means by that.

Alright. With no further ado, here comes Stephanie McKee of Junebug Productions.

* * * 

Jeffrey: You know, I have to say, Junebug has been on my radar for two years now, so I'm glad to finally have you on the phone here. I've thought of you since, I think I first heard about you at the Network of Ensemble Theaters, or someone at the Network of Ensemble Theaters told me about y'all, and I was like, oh my gosh, I should reach out because at the time, you were doing mixed medium material, which is something that I really find fascinating for an ensemble to do. How's your day going?

Stephanie: Day's going okay. I can't complain. We're in the middle of getting ready to do our show again at the Contemporary Arts Center, so it's been kind so crazy. This year has been a really good year and a challenging year all at the same time.

Jeffrey: Yeah?

Stephanie: Good and a lot of beautiful things have happened. It's been a crazy season. Most of the reason why it's been crazy is because I got married in November.

Jeffrey: Oh, congratulations!

Stephanie: Thank you very much. So there's a big wedding as a part ... you know, you have to make that a part of your season. Can't be separate from, you have to plan it as a part of your season, which is very strange.

Jeffrey: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Stephanie: You know, there we have it, so it's been incredible.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Stephanie: And again, just lot of pieces and parts. We’re trying to look at sustainability as an organization. We'll be forty years old in two years, trying to plan for that, so there's a lot of activity happening.

Jeffrey: Oh wow, yeah.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And you haven't been a part of this from—When did you come into working with Junebug?

Stephanie: Well, it depends on how you mean work with Junebug. As a young artist, Junebug was my first organization I think that really invested in me, locally as a local artist. I was in my twenties, I think, at the time when that happened, but also my father knew John O'Neal very well, so I actually had gone to some more Free Southern Theater productions with my father and didn't really realize what I was looking at or experiencing because I was very young. All of that happened and then I came to work with John in 2010 as a part of the Homecoming Project, which is also sort of our home-based lore of our local programming model through the Homecoming Project. That must have been 2010, 2009? He started talking to me about it and [in] 2010, we really got started with that. And [I] came on as Artistic Director, must have been about 2012. 2012.

Jeffrey: Gotcha.

Stephanie: Already seven years, that's weird.

Jeffrey: Wow, yeah, right?

Stephanie: Doesn't seem that way but it's already been seven years.

Jeffrey: Yeah. It's wild when you look back, you're like wow, time has not stopped. This whole project sort of stemmed out of the question of what is an ensemble in the first place? You ask four different ensembles and you'll get four different answers, you know? Everyone has a different idea of what it means to make collaboratively and collectively and so that's sort of like the center point for this whole conversation, but I'd love for us to kick it off by you expanding on what you just started to talk about, the sort of evolution of Junebug out of the Free Southern Theater and what John O'Neal and Doris Derby and other folks were working on through into what Junebug is in its current iteration.

Stephanie: You know, that was the first question that we asked ourselves. We had a bit of an identity crisis by the time. Keep in mind, Free Southern Theater started in 1963. Junebug started about 1979-ish. 1980. I think it was then, the presentation to the world was out there, and then we found ourselves in fast forward; it felt like we found ourselves in 2010, right? That's a lot of time and a lot of different things that have been introduced to the world that make the doing of the work different and even the consumption of the work.

Add to that, where we were as home base being in New Orleans, being disrupted by a natural disaster, so that changes everything up. All the forward motion and momentum that maybe had been there for Junebug and its followers and people who came to those productions, I would say, was deeply affected by a number of things, Katrina notwithstanding, that we found ourselves in a bit of an identity crisis. Like who was Junebug?

Junebug has had many ebbs and flows and different organizational structures. At its height, when I was a young artist, at its height, Junebug had a staff, was pretty well staffed. It also had an ensemble theatre that toured. It was a touring ensemble and this was at its height. This time was during the Environmental Justice Conference, are you familiar with that?

Jeffrey: No, tell me more.

Stephanie: Junebug had a really huge conference back in the '90s, I want to say. Might have been 1995 was when there was a pre-conference, Environmental Justice Conference. All of it was really looking at our environment being in Louisiana and specifically in looking at the term. This was the first time as an artist, as an individual, I had ever [become] acquainted with the term “environmental racism.” It turned out to be a big festival investigating environmental racism and its effects on many communities, but we were highlighting that through what our central focus is, is the art. And Junebug, in that festival, invited a lot of artists and companies down for that and there were a number of different ways in which there were performances that happened. There was a tour of an area that's called Cancer Alley, which is along where a lot of refineries are in Louisiana, and where we talked to people inside the community about the medical effects of living in those areas, but also at each stop, each stop was activated by something artistic, be it a poem, be it—that was grounded in some way shape or form in what we were exploring.

That was really game changing for me as an artist. I think, before I saw myself as a dancer—I always tell people that dance is my first language, so I saw myself as a dancer. Never before was I confronted, I think, as an artist, about who you are as an individual, your art and its role in this world, and then helping to shape the world and also just meaning something.

So that was really game changing for me, to be exposed to that in my early twenties and I continued to be supported by Junebug in a number of different ways after that. Well, it wasn't that long after that, maybe it was in the '90s, somewhere around '98, '99-ish, that Junebug, at that time, had gone to more of a skeleton staffing. So, they got rid of the touring ensemble and I think part of that was just—it was at a time that a lot of people who had full time companies, all of a sudden, it was like that was not a sustainable model. The amount of money to pay people full time to be in an ensemble just became not a sustainable model, so like many, many organizations, Junebug went ahead and disbanded that and then became, I think, more of a pickup company and/or they may have just completely stopped that portion of it and started doing more touring with John as an individual.

And so, when I was reacquainted with John, it was around 2000, it was around Katrina, actually, and the Katrina Project that we had here called Uprooted. It was a number of different artists that were from New Orleans. It was post-Hurricane Katrina and that was when I saw John again. I didn't realize how Junebug had really kind of ebbed and flowed and I think it was starting to build up again after that where Kyoko McCray, the forming managing director for Junebug, came on as, I want to say, education director is when she came on and worked directly with John to help create this educational component that Junebug had for a while called pre-Southern Theater Institute.

So, then it was just, again, just a few people and, for a while, Junebug just operated as maybe three people in the office and I'd be damned if we're not back to maybe about three people in the office, which is not sustainable. I think we realize that that's just not sustainable. The work has really outgrown us and we outgrew— I think the work outgrew us even at the start of it. Our ideas were really big and because they were really big and more forward thinking, it meant there was more work to do and so that's where we find ourselves now, but also we find ourselves— I mean, I gave you that journey from the 70s into the 80s, 90s, one of the things that we were sending things via fax and giving memos. Now you have social media, you have information, you have videos, you have all of these things that can get to people in lightning speed.

I think we also find ourselves in a place that we had to re-examine one of our central focuses is on stories and story circles.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Stephanie: It’s a really central focus, not just to the way we do work externally, but also how we work internally because the story circle process has a number of different values attached to that. That's how we formed our organizational values, through looking at what is the central things that's most important to Junebug and how we're known and defined was stories. It's part of it, but not just in any way, but with this sort of pedagogy that John helped to carve out for the organization.

But we were then forced to rethink and reimagine what would the digital extension of stories look like for Junebug and how my coming in, where my first language is dance and where I'm not a playwright as John is, what would the work then look like? And so, for me, I really started delving into more multi-disciplinary work, which is what I'm more used to, and so therefore the work that goes out from Junebug is more multi-disciplinary. There's lots of movement in there, there's video. There're all these forms sort of marrying as a part of the work and I think that's part of the place that we live in now. Also, spoken word has replaced— not replaced, I mean we could still do a play. It's not out of the realm that eventually we might do just a very straight forward play, it may happen, but I'm a child of more of a hip-hop era, I come out of rap, right? And so, to me, that is a form of— it is a linguistic form and one that I felt worthy of exploring on the inside of the work that we do and so that way I think things are update a bit.

In terms of that, we have to look at the forms and the things and the gifts that we have before us and I think that that's what I try to do is to marry those forms.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I want to get back to forms, but I also want to take us on a tangent that I was reading about the story circles that Junebug does and talking about civil rights. I see on your website that there's— having these story circles surrounding civil rights in different parts of the country, is that still true for y'all?

Stephanie: It is still true. What's interesting is, I think that another thing that has happened in how things have sort of shifted, again, all being informed by our experiences, is that what we— I mentioned that I did the Homecoming Project with John. That's been really his brainchild, but part of what I brought to Homecoming Project, that he and I were sitting and talking about it, was that all of the things that we were exploring on the inside of Homecoming Project, which is a project that really explores a central focus as like home, what it means to call a place home, and the things that are in danger, make it a challenge for us to be and call something home is really looking at the declaration of human rights.

So, during that time, it was after Katrina, and so the idea had already been planted in the first time we were referred to as refugees and not citizens, and I'm like, well we absolutely have the right to turn up. These are human rights. This is declaration of human rights and there are human rights violations that are happening locally. In that way, we still— it's yet different from the civil rights movement, but it's so appropriate for where we are right now, in the face of building walls and other things, that this is so appropriate for the time we live in. So, we had to look at where we live right now and to be able to look at how our work moves forward with that, but we are, yes, we are very much connected to our work, being connected to the liberation of everyone as a people, and those that have been oppressed.

That is where we find our stories because we feel like those stories are not magnified, told, or under-told and so we feel like it is both healthy and necessary for us to turn around and present and to produce works that are reflection of where we are and not. We don't just languish in the past with that, we look at three things: we look at what the past, we look at the present, and we look at what's possible because that's really important. Without naming what is possible and looking at the future, we don't lay out a foundation for creating a world, a better place for people, generations long after we're gone.

So, in that way, I think that we are very much in aligned both with Free Southern Theater, also with John's initial vision for Junebug, and where we are right now with this refreshed look at Junebug's mission and focus.

Jeffrey: I love that. I love the past, present, and possible. That makes me, I don't know why, but that makes me feel really good because I love what you're saying. I love that you have to imagine how other people are going to be able to survive not just the— when you say the future, the future is like, you automatically connect with we don't know. We don't know what the future could hold. Yeah, that's totally true, but what is possible is also we don't know if it can happen, but this is what we want to happen. This is what needs to happen in order for every human to survive, to be, to be healthy and safe. Yeah, you really hit something.

Stephanie: And you have to name it because there are many things that have happened and that have come to fruition that weren't supposed to be possible. My grandfather reminded me, we were sitting— so my grandfather's ninety-two years old—

Jeffrey: Wow.

Stephanie: —and I had a conversation with him and my grandfather said, “You know, when I was growing up there was only one phone in the entire town where we lived.” I had to sit with that for a second and think about how far my grandfather had come, from seeing one phone in the entire town where he lived to there being maybe a few phones around him —maybe you knew somebody who had enough money to have a phone at their house so maybe you'd go there and use that— to everyone phone, a phone being accessible in every house, more accessible than it was, to having a phone in the palm of your hand where you can travel anywhere and call anybody to being able to see people and Skype and or use FaceTime or even have a phone on your wrist. It sounds like something from the Jetson's.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yes.

Stephanie: But all of that has happened in that lifetime and all of these things are supposed to be impossible, just like the man going to the moon was supposed to be impossible. You have to name it. It can't come to fruition until it's actually named, until it happens.

Jeffrey: I want to get back to form a little bit. I'm wondering how ensemble plays into your new forms or your new ideas of this sort of lightning fast consumption. When I think about ensemble based work, I think it takes, sort of like in a slow cooker, it takes a while for us to figure out what we want it to be, and you just sort of let it ruminate for a minute and you let it percolate and you work on the creative process, but in a fast consuming era, how do you marry those two things together?

Stephanie: Well yeah, and that's the challenge with it right? I would say being a small, black company, the speed at which we move is sometimes, it's a lot faster than what's actually healthy for us and it's out of its survival and understanding that people need to understand relevance in a way that doesn't necessarily serve us all the time, so we have been trying to be deliberate and strategic about the work that we explore. So, one of the ways that we continue to do things, and I think become sort of our attempt at that slow cooking process that you mentioned, is we don't abandon works, we reimagine works. We've been reimagining two things for a while now, all built off the Homecoming Project so out of that. I mean, with any other work that you're creating, they're always themed and things that make it to the cutting room floor, but that doesn't mean that they're not good. It just means we're not going to explore that in this. It doesn't have a place in this but man, that's really juicy and I want to sit and I want to think about that a little bit more. We're constantly going back and revisiting the things that made it to the cutting room floor and finding out ways so this is still relevant. It's relevant and we need to pick this up and it becomes a seed for building on, so in lots of ways, all the works that have been done since my coming on to Junebug have all been connected to other, longer explorations. It's not that we've departed from any of those things, we've reimagined pieces of it and reimagined the whole.

 [inaudible 00:24:44] the seed for that was the scene that was an auction block that was done many years ago as a part of the Homecoming Project. It was really a concert that was done by Kombucha African Drum and Dance Collective and they had a scene in there that was an auction block. That really stayed with me because I asked myself, “what is a modern-day version of that?” and “what kind of ancestral trauma have we carried into this world where we are in this time from that moment?” That became the central focus of what it was that we were exploring on the inside of Gomela, to return movement of our mother tongue, which is the piece that I just recently directed and got National Theater Project funding for.

We're still exploring that and we do that through the lens of… like we explore three different places, in that we explore Africa, Haiti, and New Orleans as place but the themes are universal, you know? The hope, the resilience, the beauty, and it's important for us to show that because I think, particularly when you're doing work that makes references to the middle passage and is rooted where we are showing this very painful part of our history, it becomes easy for people to then make that a target and go “oh, we're living in the past and why are we doing it” and it's important for us to do that, but we also recognize that is not the story.

Black folks in America, our story did not start with slavery. Our story started long before that. We were kings, we were queens, we were part of healthy communities, right? And so it's a reminder of there was something before that. When we're here in the States, we tend to think about: “and everything started with slavery.” Well everything didn't start there, not at all, and so it's our attempt to sort of show the trajectory, and also the beauty, and give a reminder to people that yeah, these are hard times we live in. Those were hard times we live in and we are made from stuff that is sacred and that is strong and that is beautiful and that gives us more possibilities. It gives us possibilities so we're not looking at ourselves or looking at that as necessarily the beginning part but looking at that power lies within us to maybe be able to make that change for ourselves and for each other and how to support each other in that.

Jeffrey: What is your ensemble 2018?

Stephanie: 2018's ensemble would look like everyone that's in Junebug office, the community in which we work with, and the artists in which we work with. That's essentially who makes up—and our partner organization, those are all the ensemble members, that's how I think of ensemble. It was really funny because I had been asked that question one time before about ensemble, “well are we an ensemble?” And I'm like, well yeah. It's all of these pieces come together to form a whole. We're complete when all of these pieces come, they're all connected, and so that process that you mentioned about the slow cooking process and the testing of ideas, all of that happens with all of these people, they help us and each time we try something. If there's something we can do better we have to go back, take a look at it, talk about it, and figure out another iteration, like let's try this other thing until we find something that's the sweet spot, and even when we find something that's the sweet spot, we recognize there are a number of factors that helped to make that something in that moment, but that's not a cookie cutter formula. Next time, we actually have to do the work. The thing that makes it come to fruition is the amount of work and how you do the work, the integrity of which you do the work is the thing that helps you to find the sweet spot.

Jeffrey: You know, with any ensemble, your sort of—it sort of becomes a three headed monster, right? Who are you serving, right? Who's the—who are we making it for and are we making it for ourselves, the artists, are we making it for the community? Who gets to decide what the final product is, you know? Because eventually, it results in a performance so who says “yep, this is what we're going for?”

Stephanie: I would say that that primary responsibility kind of lies with the director of that piece and, in this instance, that would be me, but it doesn't mean that it's not informed by many.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Stephanie: It's informed by the people that are there. I'll give the example of even this piece that we did: When we started quite a few years ago, we invited people into works in progress to hear feedback from people that were in our circle, that we trusted, that are members of the community, and ultimately even community has a lot of ideas and there are a number of reasons. There are ideas that are great ideas and that are wonderful and big and expansive and at the end of the day, budget will always be the thing that will be the deciding factor on what all you can and can't do.

We'll try to be resourceful and we try not to ...  we try to keep the blue sky idea there and then just try to, okay, what are the ways in which we can achieve blue sky on a ten dollar budget. It's just real. [inaudible 00:30:31] okay, so we can't do any of this. We can't. None of this can happen, but it was great idea and well maybe this can happen as part of it and it's scaled down, but it still gives you the idea of, it's still the spirit of what the intention is, is still there.

Jeffrey: In your making process, does the ensemble have the same—does everyone have an egalitarian sensibility that everyone can contribute to the idea of what the blue sky is or does it come down to you as director, choreographer, maker just say nope, I think this is the goal.

Stephanie: Well, no. Everybody does and then there's a point in which everybody is giving something towards it, right? Everybody contributes in that. There are moments when I turn around and I let people go off and I just give them a task. Here is the task that I want you to come back with and let's see what you come up with and then there's a testing of some things there. I may add another thing or here’s something to consider, would you try this or try that, so it's really just gently molding and shaping, but a lot of that work is really created, like we all co-create these stories. We co-create them. There is an understanding of how we work in that I help to give some direction and help to give context to things and ask them to explore so they have to be people who are comfortable exploring. I would say it's not people who are just tell me what you want me to do. Not so much that.

But that being said, everybody also recognizes that there's a point in which it then becomes about editing and that some things are not going to make it there and everybody's okay with that and they know that I'm the one who maybe has to lead some of the editing just because there's time and so everything is sort of this democracy until we get to a certain point where it's okay, I just have to make some decisions and it's based on budget, it's based on this and it's based on time.

Maybe a big bonfire can't happen in the theatre, but that's because already know what the constraints of the theatre are, right? And it's sometimes things that the artists don't know, but I like to make sure that I let them know and give context to the why some things are happening so that they understand this isn't because it's not a fabulous idea, we'd love to do it, but I want them to have the information because in the chance they may, themselves, run a company or be an artistic director or do anything in any leadership position, I want them to have all of the information.

Jeffrey: You're in a funny position where you sort of also have to say, hey, we also don't know what we're going to be making. Who wants to help us pay for this? Who wants to give us the resources for—

Stephanie: [inaudible 00:34:00] the thing that we don't know what it is.

Jeffrey: Right, how do you pitch the thing that you don't know what it is?

Stephanie: Well again, theme. Big broad theme and also just a testing of the idea. We test the idea, so we're like this is kind of where we're going, but it may not be that. We know—like I gave you central themes in it, like this is what we're exploring, here are the places that they explore that with.

I really love the application process for the National Theater Project, and I love that process for a number of reasons. When we went for that, I went for it because I felt one, we had a solid idea for something to be developed, so I felt like there was a solid idea that was there. Felt like it was important because I didn't think people— we hadn't been on the scene in creating work in a while, so it felt like it was important for our name to be in the mix, and the original goal really was that, because it's such a competitive process, that I said well, here’s the thing, let’s go for it and our goal is to put in the best application that we can, and we would hopefully have feedback, you know? So we know what we need to improve.

I love the questions that are there. Who are the people? It forces you to do the work before you do the work. The things that you name and the people, that has to be authentic. There has to be some authenticity there, else it's just not going to work. When they ask you to name who are your development partners and in what way are they helping you to develop it, who are the partners in this? The people that you name in there, it has to be real. It has to be real. It's a wonderful exercise in going if we were going to tour this, what would that look like? What would we need? What is a realistic budget for touring? It's real, and it's been so helpful.

We didn't realize we would actually get the grant, we did. We were very fortunate in that. It was our first time going for it and we got it on the first round out and that's very rare. Extremely rare, especially for a company that hadn't had anything out there in a really long time, but I think that part of it was no, let's sit down and really think about these questions. Let's make that real. We have women in the ensemble that are mothers. In fact, really the star of the show, Sunni Patterson, is pregnant as we speak. We changed our date to present this piece to this weekend because it was in June and I did not think she was going to make it to June.

Jeffrey: Oh come on, I watched some of her def jams, I know she can carry a baby on stage with her.

Stephanie: Yes. She can carry the baby on stage but we don't want her to have the baby on stage.

Jeffrey: Wow, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's a good point, good point.

Stephanie: So that becomes one of those things that's actually a budget [inaudible 00:37:16].

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Stephanie: Is you have mothers that are there, that we need to look at childcare, and what does that look like on the road. We are working mothers, that's real and we want to support them and I think it's important to think through all of those things. This is our first place of touring having not toured, I don't think Junebug had really toured anything as an ensemble since the '90s. John as an individual had been touring, so it's a really big deal to do that and we feel so honored and blessed that we had the opportunity to really figure these things out and it gives us more to talk about, if that is really going to be a thing with Junebug, touring.

Now it's really the time to sit down again, it's the slow cooking process about, okay, how do we—we took a little stab at that this spring. Everybody kind of knows what it feels like, what could we do better?

Jeffrey: I talked to a friend who's a doctor and I talked to her about the grant writing process for her, and one of the things that you're really isolating or bringing to the forefront of my brain is how she talked about how you talk about in a grant what is possible and really authentically believing that that thing is totally possible, that you have to say this might be a 10 percent chance, but it's a 10 percent chance that my studies or my research is going to end up with this result and how amazing would that be and to talk about that authentically and to crystallize the big idea of what you want to make and, what you expect of your theatre to be making, is so crucial in that grant making process and it just brings it all back to what you're saying about being possible. Let's talk about what is authentically possible and what we are absolutely capable of and maybe we don't have all the resources to get to that 10 percent of what's possible or the big idea, but at least we're going to get closer than we were without the grant, right?

Stephanie: Exactly, and I think also it has to be something you really believe in. I really am a believer in that we're going to do this with or without the funding and we're going to do it. We're going to make some iteration of that happen and honestly, the first iteration of Gomela happened because of that kind of scrappiness of being super resourceful, finding and having great partners who can then offer space to you at a discounted rate, are really supportive of you. That was how we were able to do the first iteration of that which actually—and what we were able to do with that was to have really good lighting. We were able to have really good documentation of it, so the video quality was really good, and then that became hey, this was basically not a premiere of anything, but this is our first stab at this idea.

And that was really clear too because we didn't have the resources that it really was that. We were exploring ideas, right? It wasn't fully fleshed out or fully finished. A lot of the things weren't fully finished and that gave us something to say okay, here’s what we'd like to see. Here’s what we want to explore more because we realize we were able to do this with just a few resources. With more resources, we could do a lot more. We believe in it. I don't think there's been anything that we've done that we've not really believed in and that was the best piece of advice. This was given to me by Carla Perlow, she was like if you're going to curate anything you better love it. If you're curating it, love it, believe in it because in that way, it's not like you're selling anything. You believe in it honestly and people can see that.

Jeffrey: Yeah, people know when they're being lied to or when something's inauthentic. Two questions here, you mentioned you have a staff, you have an office staff, yes?

Stephanie: Yes.

Jeffrey: Are they full-time?

Stephanie: Two people full-time.

Jeffrey: And do you have a physical space that they work at or do they get to do the work from home in some way?

Stephanie: We do have an office space that we're at and it's really funny that you're talking to us, tomorrow. Tomorrow, we are breaking ground on a brand new space that Junebug is going to be one of the artists inside. That space is an arts space development and there's a big groundbreaking celebration, mayors, ribbon cutting, all kinds of dog and pony things happening.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: The whole list of dog and pony activities, but all happening on tomorrow so by the time we get to May, our possibilities and the way in which we work and the amount of time that is always taken up to find space is no longer going to be a consideration. We actually have a space that we can work out of. It's not a huge space, we'll still for larger productions, we'll still need to go and partner, but we've had great partnerships with the contemporary arts center and other places and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

So, the process for slow cooking, when it comes to building our relationships with community partners, has been a good one and it's actually served us well so we'll continue to do that but smaller activities, things that we want that are more community driven. That we want to happen more often, but didn't have the resources in or the space for it to happen in, now all of a sudden, we'll be able to do that before the new fiscal year, actually.

Jeffrey: Oh wow. That's amazing, congratulations. I had no idea. I'm so happy for you. That's so good to hear.

Stephanie: That's part of the crazy of the year, right? Besides the wedding, there's a new space to move in, there's a production that tours for the first time, there's a big grant from Mellon that we're expected to get, so it's been a big, crazy year. Wonderful, but really full of surprises. Not in a million years, I said to myself, a new space for Junebug to be in and get grounded was more of a twelve-year plan for me and we were able to get there in seven.

Jeffrey:  Wow. Oh wow, congratulations! That's great.

Stephanie: You know, a building is a big responsibility.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah.

Stephanie: I daresay not one that I was—I would not enter into that lightly and I felt like seven years is great for finding another space for us to be as a lead tenant. As a lead partner and tenant is one thing, but to turn around and actually have our space in a building is a whole other ball of wax and we need more time for that. That's more of a fifteen, twenty plan but not out of the realm of possibility and they're totally open with that.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and how great to have it just be for your fortieth anniversary where you can say, hey, look at all—

Stephanie: Wonderful.

Jeffrey: —this action that we've built. Yeah, yeah. So along with that, my question is when did you start realizing the need to have full-time staff?

Stephanie: Well you know, that's still something that is a constant, you know, a testing out of ideas of what is the right combination for finding that. What we find is, certain things can be siloed, that's one of the things that can't necessarily be siloed. It's tricky, right? I find myself in a position where I'm an artist and I want to be able to do my artistic work and I happen to be—I really just find myself being a conversationalist. I just like to talk and—you know? And I'm very proud of the work that we do at Junebug. Well, what that does is makes me more of the face of the organization and I'm the one who actually develops more of the relationships. I'm comfortable in that, but it also means that that's a piece of work that's there that's more development driven.

Jeffrey: Yep, yep.

Stephanie: You know? And so it's tricky with figuring out how and what combination of skills that are really needed there. I will say, the one skillset that's really needed is somebody to be the conductor in the office and just be the one conducting all of the pieces that need to happen administratively. If I have that in place, that will work and that's what we're working towards. That's what we're working towards is finding that. I think this year has been a year of exploring what we need. I think we're really much closer to having identified the places that we're the weakest and that we need support in. It kind of needed to happen with a little shaky wheel. This year needed to happen with a shaky wheel, right? Where we're like, we know we got to get another tire, we're just going to patch it up real quick and we maybe can get another six months out of it, you know? You know, to identify what's what.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Stephanie: And this has been that year for that, to identify what's been broken organizationally so that we might be able to get better and I have full confidence, especially with this other funding coming in, that we'll be able to get there. We're already halfway there having identified some central, key areas that we definitely need some good people in. So it's not even just the identifying what's needed, it's identifying the right people.

It's interesting because, even when we're sitting down and we're talking about the right people, that has to happen with—they have to be steeped in Junebug values. If they're not, it's just not going to work and that's not something you can really teach. That's the learning curve you can't overcome. Other things are skills. Skills can be taught. Values. They come in and they don't have any of the values of the organization, you will find yourself without a lot of partners, you will piss a lot of people off. How they are—you know, everybody plays nice until you don't have the capacity to play nice, right?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Stephanie: We try to put people in opportunities where we get to see how they function.

Jeffrey: What do you believe your earned versus contributed income is?

Stephanie: Not nearly enough. Yeah, not nearly enough. I mean, we probably operate with about over 90 percent are grants [inaudible 00:48:44] funds.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Stephanie: And that's high. That's not unusual.

Jeffrey: Sure, right.

Stephanie: And very high and that's the thing that we recognize cannot continue to happen and that's the thing that we ... you know, the testing out of ideas. We are really looking at other ways to establish our income. I was introduced to something the other day, a term that I had never heard of before. Someone came to do—it was actually another podcast. It was funny, it was a podcast but it was something about people. Focusing on people, interesting folks across the south and I'm trying to remember the name because she said—what was the—a Fixer! Have you heard of that?

Jeffrey: A Fixer?

Stephanie: A Fixer when it comes to people who come down in the film industry. It's somebody who has local knowledge, like you're really knowledgeable about local places, people, connections, so on and so forth. Junebug has done that for many years, anybody comes down, we've been asked to do that for funders when they come on listening tours, we've been hired to do that even.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Stephanie: I didn't even know that was a thing! And so now I'm sitting down and I'm like well, is there a way for us to break into that organizationally? Where that becomes our income, especially in a place where the film industry is kind of big here, more recently. I'm just really curious about that, so we're just looking at even some things that are really off the beaten path.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: And we're not crossing anything out. We're not crossing anything out, especially if we already really sort of do it already.

Jeffrey: Totally, yeah.

Stephanie: It's not an easy thing and I suspect we'll probably be trying to figure it out for a while, but at least we have some resources available to us to help us in the exploration of that idea.

Jeffrey: So do you also pay your artists?

Stephanie: Yes, we do.

Jeffrey: Okay, okay. But you don't have them on full-time, you have them on project by project is that right?

Stephanie: Yes. We don't have them on full-time, we have them on project by project. A lot of artists are working artists. They're teaching artists and that's not unusual for us here, but one of the things we've been looking at, what would it look like for us to have a Junebug resident artist, which would have and give us a little bit more access to the artist, but they're paid for that and they're paid also to do their work. So I think part of it is that, not the ways they're already doing the work, they work with us, but they're already doing amazing things. How can we also support artists while building that collective in a real way? So we're looking at something that we're able to pay artists like 20 thousand for the year part-time to work with Junebug, but [inaudible 00:52:04] also gets a certain stipend, not a stipend but actually a budget to work with for the creation of their own work as well.

I don't [inaudible 00:52:15] the fact that we'll be able to do a lot of those, but we will be able to get some of those there. I think it's a worthwhile exploration; it gets us closer to not necessarily that ensemble that we talked about. I mean, it is but it isn't full-time work. It won't be a full-time, paid position.

Jeffrey: Right, yeah.

Stephanie: That's a lot more significant than a pickup company.

Jeffrey: Yes, yes, yes. Can you give me your definition of a pickup company? I think you've used that a little bit earlier and I just want to make sure our audience has the idea of what that might mean to you.

Stephanie: Sure, it's just a company that is only hired when there is something that's coming up, a production that's coming up so it's a for hire. We hire you, we got a production coming up, we'll turn around and they'll come and we'll do a work with us only for that, but they're not on full-time.

Jeffrey: And do you pay your artists through the rehearsal process as well?

Stephanie: We do.

Jeffrey: Very cool, that's great. I have so many folks who can only offer the stipend or offer the paycheck for the production kind of thing, like doing some sort of split of the door or something like that, but it's really not common, it feels like, to hear folks who get paid through the rehearsal process. Do you have grants? Have you applied for grants that ask for that sort of help specifically?

Stephanie: We do, we do and listen, we were one of those companies that only provided a stipend.

Jeffrey: Sure, sure.

Stephanie: This has been within the past, I think, four years that we've been able to really offer the artists more. I will say, and I'm not ashamed to share this, I think it's important, a cautionary tale, but one of things that, when I came onto Junebug, and again, it was like another thing and stuff twirling around, but a lot of companies had gotten into a really unhealthy practice of those monies that are identified as artist specific monies, not necessarily being—they should be restricted funds and only able to use that for that, but what was happening was things were going into one general pot, all the salaries were being paid, but once we turn around and we actually went down the line, it was a really sad apportionment of the money that was dedicated to artists fees that was actually going out and I'm like, in that way we're not artist centric if the greatest part of the money is actually [inaudible 00:55:01].

I'm actually extremely proud of the amount of money that goes out to pay artists for Junebug. It is a far cry from where we were before and I'm actually really proud of that fact, that we pay our artists and we try to pay them as well as we can. We try to pay their wages and we try to be advocates for paying more and that is a challenge sometimes, especially when you're working with organizations that are under capacity because you feel them and you understand it and at the same time you're like, we got to pay our artists. This is a lot of time from home. They need to get compensated for their time away from home.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah. What is your greatest hurdle right now? What is the one thing that if Junebug could take out of the way, it would make your life so much easier?

Stephanie: I don't know if there's one thing. I don't know if there's one thing. I think the organizational structure is really one of them. Understanding how we work, I think that's a real hurdle right now because the division of work and to whom and to how has been a real challenge for us and I can get more specific with where it's been more of a challenge. Some of our greatest turnover has been in marketing and in a production manager and you know what's interesting is that I talked to some of my colleagues, just been some of the same. They had the same issues has been in those places.

I think the marketing is because I don't think there's—I think there's a specialty market for marketing for us. You know? For organizations like Junebug, somebody has to understand, again, the history of the organization and be able to wrap their minds around that very quickly for them to see what our identity really is.

Jeffrey: Yeah, those values.

Stephanie: And who our people are. Mm-hmm (affirmative) and those values, again, back to the values, right? If they don't have that, then they're going to come with a standard marketing metric: how many ads are we buying? How many—you know? They're going to come with that and there is a healthy balance of how we do our marketing. Part of it is organizing strategy and it's really organizing practices which are separate from some of the marketing practices. So really, a healthy mix of those two that help you to get the desired results and so that's been a real challenge. I think the production manager has been, because we're not a company or a space that has— we have a space, there's always things happening, so that requires a production manager there and so then, you tend to hire a part-time production manager and that really has not served us well either.

Jeffrey: Sure, sure.

Stephanie: Just part-time comes with part-time attitude.

Jeffrey: Right, yeah. Oh my god. Right.

Stephanie: Part-time attitude and it hasn't been a good fit for us. We've not found the right people. We've not found people that are committed to our organization, but I mean, I can't really be mad at them because part-time salary looks like part-time commitment, so it cuts both ways.

Jeffrey: Sure.

Stephanie:  But I would say that those have been some of the challenges that we looked at and besides looking at what is a sustainable model, like how do we continue to drive money? How do we have earned income? How do [we] diversify some of the earned income? Where does it come from? And all of that feeds into what is a sustainable model?

Jeffrey: t's hard to sell. Hey, we make theatre and in a way that is not like a commercial style of anything like that so yeah, of course it makes sense that you want someone who jives with you, who understands what you're about. I can contribute to a non-traditional model of making or a non-traditional way of supporting that. Yeah, that's a huge, huge hurdle, that's great that you've identified that.

Can I throw my last set of questions at you? I do consider this the lightning round.

Stephanie: Sure.

Jeffrey: So don't think too hard about these and just give me your gut response on some of these. I just want to know what Stephanie McKee has to say about this.

Stephanie: Okay.

Jeffrey: What's your favorite salutation?

Stephanie: Hey.

Jeffrey: What's your favorite exclamation?

Stephanie: Shit!

Jeffrey: What's your favorite transportation?

Stephanie: Walking.

Jeffrey: Hm. What would you be doing if not theatre or art or dance?

Stephanie: Baking.

Jeffrey: Ooh, yeah. What's your favorite thing to bake?

Stephanie: Sweet potato pie.

Jeffrey: Oh, I was just thinking of making a—I don't know why, but I've been thinking about making a sweet potato pie for a long time because I got this weird—I'm telling you too much now. I've got this weird recipe that incorporates Chipotle into the sweet potato.

Stephanie:  Oh wow.

Jeffrey: And I love that and I was thinking what would it be like to make a Chipotle sweet potato pie and so you caught me just at the right time, this is great. I think I'm going to go home and do that now.

Stephanie:  [inaudible 01:00:37]

Jeffrey: What's the opposite of Junebug Productions?

Stephanie: Oh wow. Opposite of Junebug Productions?

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: Some capitalistic model, for profit model that doesn't care about people.

Jeffrey:  Fantastic. What does ensemble mean to you?

Stephanie: Ensemble to me means that there are a number of different people that come together to make something happen and that means that can be community, that can— that is community. That's artists and our instance, it's community, it's artists, it’s community partners. All of that.

Jeffrey:  That's fantastic. And what's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Stephanie: Vanilla.

Jeffrey: Yes! Thank you.

Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative), you're welcome.

Jeffrey: Stephanie, we're on the same page about that. I always think of vanilla as so, everyone's like, that's not a flavor, I'm like yes, it is.

Stephanie: I'm a purist. Yes, it is. Very much.

Jeffrey: I love it.

Stephanie: A flavor.

Jeffrey: Stephanie, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate talking to you. You brought a lot of moments of joy into my heart with your conversation today, so thank you so much for that and I really hope to make it down to New Orleans sometime here and check you all out. It's really been a lot to talk to you today, so thank you, thank you very much.

Stephanie: Thank you. Thank you. Please let me know when this comes out, I would love to [inaudible 01:02:12]

Jeffrey: Absolutely, we will ... yeah, yeah, yeah. My goal for ... so timeline wise [inaudible 01:02:18]

I keep going over their mission statement in my mind; it's that bit about a just society that really gets me and, as I mentioned early on, I do believe that the creation of each ensemble is an attempt to create a utopian culture, a culture which believes that the work that they do is to create that just society that it exists within and to influence the society to be just. It's this kind of long range, big idea sort of work that starts a revolution in my head and I hope starts one in yours as well.

There's something to that. Theatre can balance the scales. As Stephanie says, it's about the past, present, and possible and what do we want to be possible? Hm. As always, please subscribe to HowlRound Theatre Commons podcast wherever you get your podcasts and I am always looking for new companies to interview so please email me at ftgupod@gmail.com or drop a comment in the comment section of this podcast's transcript on howlround.com.

Thanks, y'all and we'll see you again next time on From The Ground Up.

 

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask the questions about this often generative method. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

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