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Blurriness and Fragmentation with Julia Rhoads of Lucky Plush Production

From the Ground Up Episode #14

From the Ground Up

The kind of formal experimentation that we do is… about trying to unlock the illogical logics of storytelling.” -- Julia Rhodes

With serval sustaining initiatives taking place at Lucky Plush Productions, Founding Artistic Director Julia Rhoads has positioned this company for long-term success. From national tours to hometown audiences, every decision for the company is meticulously calculated. Their work is relentlessly human and the way in which they portray the ordinary is extraordinary.

actors onstage

Rink Life by Lucky Plush Productions

Jeffrey Mosser: From the Ground Up is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and howlround.com.

Dear artists, welcome to From the Ground Up. I am your host, Jeffrey Mosser. Today, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with Julia Rhoads of Lucky Plush Productions in Chicago, Illinois. I had started recording the podcast From the Ground Up when Jessica Thevis said to me, "You know who's really into what your podcast is about? Julia Rhoads," and all of the sudden, the lights went on and I knew she was absolutely right.

In 2015 or 16, I had seen Lucky Plush's show Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip, and it was beautiful, hilarious, and delightfully interdisciplinary. It married movement and text and visuals so well. I finally met Julia when she was working as stage movement director for Things I Know to be True at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But before I go any further, I have to say thanks to Jessica for reminding me of this brilliant ensemble dance theatre company.

As you'll hear, Julia is so fantastically open about her own experiences as an artist and what it has taken to sustain Lucky Plush since 2000, including touring and some novel sustaining initiatives that have kept them going. Julia is fantastically strategic, and I love it. Things to know while listening: She refers to Steppenwolf's 1700 space, which is a small, 80-seat stage at Steppenwolf that typically showcases work that is either in process or is a remount. It can be done by Steppenwolf ensemble members or other Chicago-based companies. The Harris is also a local Chicago venue, as well. She also refers to Chuck Mee, a playwright that I really think that you should dig into, if you don't already know.

Okay, folks. That's it for now, and enjoy this conversation with Julia Rhoads.

I do have a little one. Yeah, we've... Yeah, she's twenty-two months almost, and so yeah, little one has been little for a long time. But-

Julia Rhoads: Well, that's still pretty little.

Jeffrey: Yeah, right? No, but it's great. It's so fantastic. She's the whole reason for everything, so it's great.

Julia: I know. I hear you.

Jeffrey: And you have a few little ones?

Julia: I do. A few is a good way to put it. Yeah, I have three kids. They're 14, 12, and just turned 11.

Jeffrey: Cool. Wow, wow. How do you... Oh, man. I don't know how I can do it. How do you do it with three?

Julia: It's just piecemeal-ing it together with my husband. My job is, it's both somewhat flexible, so I guess it's how... I don't know I would do it otherwise, because dealing with tours and just erratic schedules. But Lucky Plush does have some consistency in the way that we rehearse, because we don't do intense projects kinds of devising and building. We meet three times a week pretty regularly throughout the year, which offers a consistent source of income for the ensemble and then there's that regularity and we can build ensemble skills together and kind of feel more like it's not so crazy project to project. So that helps, actually, because then people know what the expectation is in terms of building the pie of income, including myself.

Jeffrey: I'm really curious about that. How much are you able to pay your ensemble in terms of for that much time?

Julia: Yeah, it depends on how long they've been with the company, but we're close to $20 an hour. I think we're at $19 an hour for the folks who've been there the longest. They'll start at $17, which I think is pretty solid in the field. It's not like... I don't feel great about it. They're worth way more. But it's just hard. It's like... I want to honor the artists, first and foremost, and it's just the way it is where oftentimes, they'll come last, and I experienced that a lot myself in the past where it was like I was just doing kind of project to project pickup work and you get a little stipend. So I'm just kind of trying to shift that paradigm for us and then yeah, so it's just a matter of committing to a certain hourly rate and a certain tour rate and then depending on what we can do, sometimes we'll have time off. There's a little bit in the summer and over holidays that we're not in rehearsal, but it does give folks that consistent income so then they know how to patch the rest together.

Jeffrey: I was just talking to somebody about this. It's the idea of the gig economy, we need to work our way away from the gig economy. When you first are ... At least it feels like when you first graduate, you've sort of just got to take the gigs, you've just got to do the and build the resume and do that kind of stuff, but eventually, you need the stability, you need the sustainability, and it sounds like you're leaning into that pretty hard. When did you start ... When did you find that you were able to start paying yourself in that process?

Julia: Really it started about ten years ago, I would say. Lucky Plush's financial trajectory has been pretty consistent. We started out very typical of within the small theatre and dance field, where operating budgets, if you don't have space, can often be $150,000 annually, when you're doing that project mentality of just trying to put on a show and raise a little bit of money. So in the very beginning it was like, that but we've had some great support from Chicago funders who gave general operating support and slowly built our audiences. And then I would say around 2009-10 is when we started doing more touring, and getting some kind of bigger project grants that help both in the development and the touring of work. So that's also been part of the puzzle.

The challenge is that a lot of the pieces of the financial puzzle, for any small nonprofit, you never know what to rely on because gen op support, while it can be very... it is very stabilizing, funders don't always offer it. There's kind of a tendency to want to just support project grants, and those are few and far between and oftentimes when you're getting them, you might get two from a funder and they'll say, "Oh, you can't get one for another few years."

So it's a constant puzzle of trying to figure out what's out there, how to supplement it on years when you don't have that kind of support. We were very fortunate to receive a MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions in 2016, which is great, because basically, it's a reserve fund, and so the hard part about it, quite frankly, is that we're not really supposed to spend it.

Jeffrey: Oh!

Julia: It's like... Yeah, it's this... It's awesome, because you would never advise an individual to not have savings, you know, for a rainy day, for things that come along where you have to put unexpected reserve resources into it. So we have that, and we can use it, but one of the things in getting the award was having the board of directors come up with a policy of replenishment so that if you take from this reserve, you have to have a strategy for the goal of replacing it so that you're maintaining that as opposed to spending it down, which makes sense, but it's so hard for a small nonprofit to be like, "Oh, but we have the money and we can't just spend it how we want."

So that's been great, and then the other thing that we've done is we've had two sustainability initiatives, one that started in around 2010, which was a development share with two other arts organizations. At the time, there were a few back office shares that I had learned about through working with a consultant, and I realized that part of the actual problem for me was that if I had a part-time staff person helping me out, it was at a really kind of low wage where it was someone straight out of school where they'd get a little experience and move on, or I could get funding for a higher level consultant and they would come in and give me great information and then leave, and I would have no one to implement the actual work that they suggested that I do.

So when I was thinking about a share, it occurred to me that if a couple organizations came together, perhaps they could cobble together a salary of a mid-career professional and we went with a development professional, so that ideally there would be greater ownership and less of a revolving door kind of mentality with either someone who's really young and will move on, or someone who is more of a consultant, that's constantly coming and going. So that was with Eighth Blackbird and Blair Thomas & Company, we had a chamber music ensemble and a puppet theatre company, and then we applied for funding, really not knowing that we would get it. I mean, the point in the beginning wasn't to have it be fully paid for. We were just fortunate to get a significant grant from MacArthur Foundation, which covered staff salaries for several years. That allowed us to really grow Creative Partners and have the development staff so that then, each organization could incrementally start paying for the structure itself.

I chose to go the interdisciplinary route in part because Lucky Plush is interdisciplinary and that is the spirit of my work. Another piece was that there is the concern in development of sort of if you're in the same discipline, does that kind of ... is there more of an unnecessary competition if you have the same development people, and then the third, and really most important piece for me, was the hope that then there would be a corollary audience development component. I selected those organizations thinking that there was more of a shared aesthetic interest and that people who possibly didn't know about movement theatre, dance theatre, but that understood that from a music perspective might see our work and be like, "Whoa, I didn't know that was out there," and there was a little bit of that that happened in a really successful way. We had a couple shared concerts and gained new audiences in that way.

So that is called Creative Partners, and the amazing thing about it is we had some fantastic seed support, again through MacArthur Foundation and a couple other funders who are really interested in understanding these resource-sharing models as a way to offer sustainability for small organizations and to leverage existing resources and not duplicate those. For instance, we shared a database and prospect research, things like that, that you could do for one company, you also could do that for three.

So that lasted five years with that cohort, and both of the other two organizations, Blair kind of shifted from a model of making his own work exclusively to having a more curatorial model with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which has been hugely successful and it happens every other year. Because of that, he sort of grew out of the model and needed a more dedicated development team. And then Eighth Blackbird was always the largest. They're a large organization already and they kind of were on the cusp of also wanting their own development personnel. So right now, we're in the phase two and we're starting to work with actually another dance organization this time, but with a very different kind of audience.

So that's one way that we've tried to address this issue of sustainability, and another is that we have something called Volunteer Cultivation Lab, which basically engages an annual fellow who researches, hires, and manages volunteers that aren't just student volunteers, they're also professional level volunteers, so folks who have specialized skills that might have time or interest to do a one-off project, or perhaps a more long-term engagement that would be like two hours a week.

One example of that is we have a bookkeeper who does... Her bookkeeping is quite affordable, it's a very low rate that she does for us, but then she's also kind of our finance manager, and she does that pro bono. We found her through this... Actually, we found her first, and then in realizing that there are people out there like her who have that kind of capacity and interest, so that sort of was the genesis of the idea of Volunteer Cultivation Lab, is trying to figure out when you have limited staff, how can you maximize that by engaging a fellow who then can do some of that work in recruitment and management.

It's all a puzzle, but I think that's been part of Lucky Plush's success, is that we have been able to both keep the artistic product going in a way that has been successful, both locally and nationally, and also bring the impulses that we have in our work to the administrative and management process, so kind of thinking creatively about sustainability.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I was going to ask how you came to that Volunteer Cultivation Lab, and that's really curious to me, because... Can you talk about that a little bit? What really was the driver between developing the Volunteer Cultivation Lab?

Julia: It really was this woman that we hired as a bookkeeper initially, and she was ridiculously skilled, and we thought, "Wait, why are you working for us at such a low rate?" She said, "No, I'll do it for this," and she had been in finance. She started out at Columbia College in audio, and then somehow started her own business and then joined her father in kind of higher level finance career, and then she just felt like the soul-crushing nature of it all, so she shifted because she was okay from a financial standpoint and started doing her own work and then wanted to get back into supporting the missions of organizations that she cared about.

So when we landed on working with her just as a bookkeeper, and she's like, "I'll do this for you for," I don't know, it was like $18 an hour, some very low rate for a high level person like her, and then it was like the light bulb went off, because we had also been doing Creative Partners, it was like, "Wait a minute. If she's out there, there must be other people like her that... They're not doing it for the money, but they're also just really excited and energized by the work that we're making."

So then yeah, we just kind of ran with that, thinking through how to research, cultivate, manage folks like her in a way that wouldn't put extra burden on our administrative staff, because it's just me, I'm full time, and I still do a lot of the administration and management, but less and less, and then we have a full-time managing director, and then we just have a host of part-time folks helping us out, social media, bookkeeping, things like that, and then Creative Partners, which is the development share and we're currently looking for a shared grant writer.

So as you know, managing staff takes a long time and a lot of work and training, so the idea of an annual fellow seemed like the way to go. We're currently working with a woman who's with a program out of Northwestern University, and it works great, because she's with us, I think, ten hours a week, maybe ten to twelve, and so she's in the office doing this kind of research, getting volunteers. It might be more than ten. But the point is, we receive money from Arts Work Fund to give her partial stipend for this work and then her institution also does that. So it allows us to retain her for a year, she becomes really invested in the company and its mission, and can communicate then with our managing director and facilitate a lot of the work that needs to be done.

Jeffrey: So if you're paying your performers for the rehearsal process and everything, how big is your ensemble typically, and does it fluctuate based on the project? Or do you try to keep the whole team together for every project?

Julia: One of my ensemble members has been with me for fourteen years, so that's really amazing. Two or three others have been anywhere between four and six years, and then I have some newer folks. Because I think there is a shared investment in the work and the kind of work that we make and because I really draw from my collaborators, they are so much a part of the devising process, that I do have a deep investment in the individuals and so most often, they're part of the company for more than one project.

It's not always a perfect fit, and so sometimes we do rotate. Other times, people go to graduate school or they move or they have babies, so there are all kinds of reasons why people have come and gone, but I would say that the overarching commitment is to a group of people who are really trying to hone the craft of what we're doing together. It is a uniquely hybrid kind of world that we're making, and we're all learning about it together, so it feels important to have folks across more than one project.

Jeffrey: We were talking about our kiddos earlier, and I'm just thinking about that and I'm sort of looking at your timeline, because you started in 2003, is that right? Or Lucky Plush sort of started in 2003?

Julia: A little before that. We became a nonprofit around that time, I would say. So yeah, but unofficially, I would say it was 2000. So it's been... Yeah, been a while.

Jeffrey: Okay. Was it a main revenue stream for you personally as an artist while kiddos and life and everything else was happening all around you?

Julia: Yeah, I wouldn't say that... I mean, my sort of income from Lucky Plush has grown over time, as well. In the very beginning, when we were first a nonprofit, we maybe had a couple of grants that we applied for. In the first few years, we were operating at under $100,000 and so I had to do everything with that amount of money and I was always paid at the end, you know, if there's something left over. I was in graduate school at the time, at the School of the Art Institute, and I had the good fortune of having a Jacob Javits Fellowship, so that was kind of paid for and there was actually money, a stipend to attend grad school, and I had less needs. I was pregnant with my first in 2004, that's when she was born, so expenses weren't as crazy with kids back then.

I would say that there was a critical moment where I do have a master's and I wasn't sure if I was going to keep doing the nonprofit company, just for family purposes and income, and so I was looking at tenure-track jobs. But it was also right at the same moment when we were getting more national tours and grants, and so I thought, "You know what? I put in, whatever, eight years into this, and it's going really well," so it felt like it wasn't the best time to just bail and go for the thing that was, maybe not even safer. I don't really know. It's like... You're just trading in one job that has got certainly issues of sustainability, but the other is kind of like... I don't know.

So I decided to really push through and see where it would take me, and gratefully, the annual budget of the company... I mean, we're still a very small company, but it was enough to probably about five years ago switch to a salary version for me. So before where it was, I was still kind of an independent contractor and I would work it out based on what we had in the budget, what I was paid. Increasingly more and more and more, it's become something that I can rely on and I know more about. And for the ensemble, they were also contractors for many years, and now they're on payroll, so we're contributing to their Social Security. Who knows where that's going as a thing in general, but it feels good to kind of, for the organization to also to commit to their futures and their retirement.

Jeffrey: Yeah. It's becoming more and more your main stream of income, though you are still supplementing for sustainability, personal sustainability?

Julia: Right, I teach at University of Chicago. I'm the director of dance there and a lecturer, which is like a part-time lecturer position, and then projects like Things I Know to be True and little things here and there. But those are my two main jobs, and Lucky Plush is really quite full time, so it's a lot.

Jeffrey: Yeah. You talked about getting into touring, and I'm always astounded by people who are able to tour and able to just pick up and go and have the humans who are able to go with and just make it happen. Did touring come out of the feeling of opportunity or out of a necessity? Or just the desire to do so?

Julia: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that touring is really important to expanding audiences. It's also an important source of earned income. For us, we learn so much about our work sharing it in real time with audiences, and if you... In the older version of Lucky Plush, when we were not touring as much, we had little things here and there, but in the first several years, we'd work for a year on a project and have a weekend of shows in Chicago, and then it was like you'd have the worst postpartum depression ever because you didn't get to actually figure out what the thing was. So touring gives you that opportunity. I think that it helps in terms of getting some of those national grants. I mean, the more that you are recognized as part of the national ecology in the field, the more that people start becoming aware of your work, your vision, your goals, what you want to share with communities. So all of that feels really important to the overall puzzle.

I would say that for me personally, I'm not interested in a touring model where you go out of town for multiple weeks. We try to avoid a lot of routed tours, and in part, that's because I am a mom. We do a few because they often are financially more feasible. So right now, we're going to be going to Florida then North Carolina, two venues in Florida and North Carolina next week. It'll be a three-venue tour, which is less common. I try to sort of go out on a Wednesday usually, go to a venue, tech, have some community engagement, workshops and events that we customize for the work that we're touring, and then we'll come home on Sunday, so it doesn't feel like it's that disruptive to our lives. Because the ensemble puzzles together their work with Lucky Plush with other teaching or whatever other kinds of work that they're doing, because they're not going for huge long stretches of time, they're also able to figure that out with subs or getting their other work covered.

Jeffrey: So therein, how much do you pick up as earned income versus contributed income in that regard?

Julia: Yeah, it used to be the contributed income was much higher than earned, just because the nature of the field. Now I would say it's closer to 50/50 or maybe 60/40, the 40, the slightly lower still being earned, because you're... just the grants, the individual support in that nonprofit model. We're not doing long, long, long runs, because work that involves choreography and dance that is at a certain kind of... I don't know how to put this. The kind of work that we make requires a certain kind of floor. It requires a certain kind of space. Those spaces tend to be more expensive when you are self-producing in a home season.

So we prefer to be in a smaller venue where we can have an extended run, which is why we've been at Steppenwolf 1700 for the past couple years, because it's satisfying on so many levels. Not only do you get press and word of mouth and people coming, the shows are filling out, it's a smaller venue, there's an immediacy and an intimacy in sharing the work, and the performers get to have that experience of learning about what it is to be inside of the world of the work and to find nuance, and there's a lot of improvisational aspects to the work that we make. So on so many levels, that's our preference.

But occasionally, we will go to a place like the Harris, where we're a resident company there, they give us office space and it's lovely, they're just a fantastic venue and organization. But it's a union crew, it's a very expensive theatre, and for us, it's harder for us to try to get all of our audiences to a show on one night or two nights as opposed to spreading it out and having those more intimate and longer runs. So it's kind of a balance of that. But at the Harris, we might do more audience development work because they have their own kind of built-in audience and so if the people are unfamiliar with our work. So it can be strategic why we would do one kind of venue or another.

But all of that is to say that the work that we do here in Chicago and touring in terms of earned income has grown a lot, but it's still, I think for small nonprofits, you're still heavily relying on that contributed income from foundations, from donors, family foundations or government entities and these kinds of grants that help you make your work.

Jeffrey: I'm really glad to hear you talk about being strategic about the venue or the place that you're in, because I think folks really tend to feel like they have to grab every opportunity as it comes.

Julia: Right.

Jeffrey: It goes back to the idea of gig economy. So if we don't show that we're doing work, we'll somehow vanish into the dust, or if I stop working, I'll disappear or something, those myths that we tell ourselves.

Julia: It is, and sometimes the values of... Those strategic things that we're considering as an organization to support our artistic product may not align with the checkboxes that you have to fill on a grant application, where they might want to know more about metrics and how many people did you serve and what wards did they live in, what are the zip codes. Which all of that is important to us, but when that becomes the primary driver, I think it's a different kind of strategy, and so we try to balance that, because we understand that all of those things are quite real and important, but we also have to do the thing that best supports the work that we're trying to make and allows us to thrive, both artistically and organizationally.

Jeffrey: I want to go back to ensemble a little bit, and you talked about how ensemble is... how you're very collaborative and how you like to devise together and how they are so important to the process for you.

Julia: Right.

Jeffrey: But you yourself, you do consider yourself the, capital T, choreographer, capital C, when it comes to working on each project, is that correct?

Julia: So I actually don't think of myself as primarily a choreographer.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Julia: I am a creator and director, first and foremost. Movement and dance is one of the core vocabularies that I draw from to create my work. In many ways, we are making devised theatre more than we're making dance theatre, in terms of process. However, I think a lot of people think of, sometimes think of devised theatre anyway as that everybody is equally contributing to the artistic product. And in our work, I'm usually the person that is ... I am the person, unless I'm co-creating with another person, which I do quite regularly, most notably Leslie Danzig, who I adore and who's brilliant and we both, we have a great working relationship.

But whether it's a co-creation with Leslie or it's an independent work of my own, I'm coming in with the overarching questions and ideas and narrative arc or those kinds of broader frames for the work. And then, I come in or we come in, Leslie and I, and we bring in different prompts that we throw out to the ensemble for developing material. Those prompts may be around a script, they may be about movement, they may be about song, they may be... There are a lot of different strategies for getting at the material that is in service to the overall arc of the work.

So the kind of formal experimentation that we do is less about being an experiment in service to itself and more about really trying to unlock the sometimes illogical logics of storytelling. I find that so much bubbles up when things are ... when maybe the most technically crafted choreography is overlaid with the most casual conversation. It's very difficult to do, and the ensemble makes it look quite easy, but it takes a while to have those two different tracks.

From an audience perspective, sometimes it really taps into a kind of logic of or psychology in your nervous system, like you don't always think about grabbing your glasses or moving a cup of coffee while you're talking. We do these things that are not always so clear in thought or in action, and so that is the way that people communicate all the time, and yet when we craft narratives, we're often only crafting them in complete thoughts and sentences and phrases. So I'm really interested in the blurriness and the fragmentation and in the way that that actually feels like a very human experience and thought process in the way that people interact with each other. So I don't know if that makes sense, but-

Jeffrey: No.

Julia: ...yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah, for me, that makes a whole lot of... I'm a huge fan of The Neo-Futurists, as well, so sometimes, talking about not thinking in complete thoughts, I feel very often like even a sporadic, even a thirty-second, one-minute scene from a Neo-Futurists play is like, that's an incomplete thought, but it's so magnified in this awesome way. Turning the mundane into the extraordinary is something I absolutely love, and so how you explode that idea, crafting... What did you say? Crafting incomplete thoughts. Yeah, I love that. I love that.

Julia: Yeah, and so that's where the ensemble comes in, and they are incredible human beings. They have different backgrounds. In our current ensemble right now, there are two who originally came from Cuba. The cast comes from... Most of them have had concert dance training, either coming from ballet or modern/contemporary, postmodern. Some have had other kinds of movement-based experiences, improvisation, hip-hop. They draw from a lot of different traditions, and they have different kind of movement personalities, I would say.

For me, I'm less interested in making them all sort of look the same and in really drawing the audience's eye to their individual kind of uniqueness. I want to reveal the actual performers themselves, in a way that feels safe for the performers. We have a lot of conversations where they're bringing their actual stories to our work, and sometimes we need to figure out how to slightly distance them from those stories so that they don't feel like they're just, that the company's work is all about very personal things.

Other times, there will be fictional circumstances, characters that they're playing, and we have to figure out how to actually connect them more closely to those characters so that they are finding really the places through which they can speak as themselves even though they are maybe having dialogue about something that is more of a fictional circumstance.

So there's this dance between figuring out who the performer is on stage and who the character that they're playing, and keeping those things both very close and aligned but also with enough distance so that they feel like they can go to some places that maybe don't feel too exposing or raw for themselves as people.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I will say that I feel like there is a lot of really awesome presence in the work, and I feel like that was... Even in watching you work very briefly, I only got to catch a couple rehearsals for Things I Know to be True, but it seems like you gave some really great framework and then it felt like you gave them a lot of latitude in terms of saying, "What if you do this and I do this, and then you do this and I do this?" and then it all sort of swings together. Do you give them an ending point, a starting point and an ending point with your prompts? Or how do you sort of frame that for them?

Julia: Yeah, well, so there is a starting point and an ending point, and then there's everything in between. What I find that's different about a shorter form intensive process for like a piece like Things I Know to be True is that there really is less time for the kinds of experiments that I like to do. I like to make a lot of stuff and then throw it away. I like to have people feel skilled at one element of something and then I throw a lot of layers of improvisation on top of that thing, a lot of filters. And then in doing that over and over and over, I don't always know exactly what I want, but I know what I want when I see it. It's like I know what I'm going for.

People will say to me sometimes, "Well, what do you want me to do here?" and I say, "I don't know, but I'm going to know it when I see it, which is why I'm asking you to come back 50% on this in terms of scale and then add this layer. We're going to try it again and then again and then again, and then it's going to all hopefully click."

That was a little tricker in a process where I found that with more classically trained actors, their kind of experience with choreography and blocking is much more taught, it's like, "You're going to do this. You're going to stand here," and because I don't tend to work that way, that was a very fascinating, sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing challenge for me. It was just a whole new learning process.

But yes, I do have a beginning point and we play a lot, we fail a lot. One of my mottoes, both in family and in life and with my work, is fail forward, because I feel like that's where we're going to understand what we love, is by figuring out what we don't like. There's so much of that in our work.

Jeffrey: I love that. That's a good hashtag, fail forward. I'm with you on that.

Julia: Yeah.

Jeffrey: In terms of looking forward to your next project, it's typically you deciding, "Hey, this is maybe something we picked up out of the ashes of a last project that we maybe want to revisit now"? Or is it the group says, because you are working with such personal stuff, do you have different ensemble members reach out to you and say, "Hey, I'd really like to explore this idea further. Could we..." How do... I guess, what's your creative decision... How do you decide to do the next project, I guess? Or what's it based it?

Julia: Yeah, that usually is a personal choice. The ensemble doesn't tend to say, "Let's do a piece about X, Y, or Z," but I do open up the rehearsal process to talk about the work that we're making and oftentimes, things will move in new directions because of that kind of collaborative input.

So the process, the work that we're making right now is interesting, because it's different than the way I typically work. Usually, I come to a new process knowing something about the overall container, the narrative, the topic, the themes, and so then the work is looking at how to support and deliver that arc. The piece that we're making now started more as a formal experiment, because I was creating a piece for Hubbard Street Dance company and I knew that they also do these intensive processes where it's shorter form and I wouldn't be able to get them to the level of the kind of casual dialogue layered with the very technical movement that I do with my company, because we're constantly doing that as a training technique.

So I thought, "Well, let's still..." I still wanted to use the voice, so I worked with a vocal coach and composer who... The idea was to really work with song and singing, not in a musical theatre context, but because I'm personally fascinated by how song, dance, dialogue, how all of these things bubble up through the actual circumstances, often through very funny and fun ways, through relationships, so that it's not like all of the sudden, they're breaking into a song, it's that something might happen and then somebody's speaking and then it weirdly becomes a song or somebody's humming a song while doing something else and then later, that comes back.

So I started working with Hubbard Street with this idea of using a range of vocal vocabularies, everything to three-part harmony, to whispering, to chanting, and in the end, that work, I was really delighted by the vulnerability inside of using the voice and using breath when they actually were struggling because it's quite hard to maintain your singing while doing technical movement, and sometimes you would hear it in the voice and I actually quite love that. To me, that speaks to the vulnerability and the humanity, rather than trying to always be perfect.

I then brought sort of the impulse of that to Lucky Plush, and we located it in a 1970s roller rink, of course, because that makes sense. So that piece is called Rink Life, and we did receive a National Theater Project award for the piece, and we're currently in development. The tricky part is that because I started with more formal investigations and then located it somewhere, the narrative arc is something that is a little bit more kind of, it's challenging me right now. We started kind of overlaying the material that we had with one-act plays, we started looking at Chuck Mee, who is a playwright that has this open source format, really beautiful writing that can be fragmented, already is often fragmented in these really extraordinary ways.

So doing that, doing a lot of scriptwriting in the room, and so that's sort of how that process is evolving and we're getting to some really exciting material now, but usually it starts in the opposite order, not from kind of a formal investigation into narrative. So it's been interesting.

Jeffrey: Cool. That's great. That's great. I was going to ask you about Rink Life. It looks like it's an awesome process that's coming up quick here.

Julia: It is. It's delightful. I think it's so fun. It's a space, when you think about a roller rink in the 70s and 80s, not everybody who sees the show has been in that space obviously, but I think that we all can conjure up notions of whether it's through nostalgia or things that you see around you, it's a pre-mediated space, pre-cell phones, where people are actually having... they're failing, they're having first dates, they're interacting, they're falling, they're checking out their own personal stylings, all of this stuff is happening in real time, and it's also kind of a perfect container for the sort of fragmented conversations, where you hear things that are coming and going, and how that starts to then bubble up these bigger narratives and relationships and dramas.

It's a real fun space, and I think that the vocabularies that we're discovering are quite lovely and funny and moving and human with them using their voices. The entire score is generated live by the ensemble, so-

Jeffrey: Very cool. Can you give some examples of prompts that you will typically start with?

Julia: Yes.

Jeffrey: How might you push people into creating something new?

Julia: Yeah, so okay, a prompt for the work that we're touring right now is called Rooming House, which is a collaboration with Leslie Danzig and the ensemble, of course. Leslie initially was interested just in looking at as a broad topic of regret, and Orpheus and Eurydice was the first myth where this idea of like looking back, what does that mean, these major decisions? At some point, I was having trouble kind of finding my connection to Orpheus and Eurydice, feeling like it was this sort of well-worn myth that ... and I'm so invested in kind of contemporary and personal storytelling, as is Leslie.

So we were talking one night on the phone and we were thinking about structurally what would both give audience an anchor into the stories and also crack it open, and I brought up, it was the idea of a game of Clue. And I was sort of joking at the time and she's like, "No, I think that's actually, there's something there," so I was like, "Okay, yeah. I'm going to bring in Clue to rehearsal," and we started playing Clue. First we played the actual game.

Jeffrey: Awesome.

Julia: Then for several rehearsals, we were on our feet playing it as a live action game, but looking at each room as a part of a decision-making process. So you have your backstory room, your disruption room, your event room, where the thing itself happened, the aftermath. And then looking at not just the person who made the decision, but the characters around that. So you have the provocateur, the action taker, the witness. So there are those people who all play a part in these major decisions that we make in our life.

What that ultimately got at for us, just in playing those games as a prompt, was we started to kind of mine this overarching idea in a clearer way about all these stories that we tell, that we'll hear something maybe it's on the news and then we spin our own interpretation on it, that gets told to someone. So it's like it really starts to have this richness about how people hear and share and claim and own personal stories.

That's one example. An example inside of that, which is funny, is that we were creating the underworld choreography in the beginning of the show where they are looking at Orpheus and Eurydice first, and I just gave them a prompt of a foot pattern where they had to do it in a five count, a six count, a seven count, eight... like there were certain numbers, and then I made a map and sequenced them so that they would align and start to align more and more and more, but the kind of unison quality of these different movement phrases, foot patterns, would first not align at all, but they would have moments of alliance with someone, this kind of disorientation of an underworld, where you're trying to make sense of who you are, who you were, who is in this surrounding with you, and so that became a quality of when they were trying to figure out like a process of Orpheus' decision, going down to the underworld, that's how the choreography then supported and cracked open another layer of psychological logic, if that makes sense.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that's awesome. I love that. I love that. You know, just the kernel of the idea of clue takes you to the kernel of the idea of all of the agents at play, just the structure that's created out of playing, literally, is so fascinating. I love that.

Julia: I do, too, and I think that people... It's community. It's like the ensemble world is so, I mean, it's so important. I think about how lucky I am all the time that I get to make stuff with these really amazing humans and they're so generous with their talents and their personal lives, it's astonishing to me. It's really gorgeous.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. So now I'd like to enter what I call the lightning round, and just a series of questions that... Don't think too hard about them, just whatever comes from the gut.

Julia: Okay. I'll do my best.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, short answer question format here.

Julia: Okay.

Jeffrey: All right, your favorite salutation?

Julia: Favorite salutation. I was going to say wow. That one caught me off guard. I don't have one.

Jeffrey: Okay. Well then, maybe that leads to our next one, your favorite exclamation?

Julia: Wow!

Jeffrey: Fantastic. Your favorite form of transportation?

Julia: Train.

Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not Lucky Plush?

Julia: Teaching.

Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Lucky Plush?

Julia: Ballet.

Jeffrey: And what does ensemble mean to you?

Julia: Life, joy, discovery, experimentation, play, everything.

Jeffrey: Fantastic. Great, well that exhausts all of my questions for today and beyond, so thank you so much for taking time to talk today. I really appreciate it.

Julia: I think we should have the first one be, your favorite salutation, uhhh.

Jeffrey: I would love to greet people that way. That's typically actually how I feel when people approach me. I'm like uhhh...

Julia: Uhhh... Well, it's that whole thing about "How are you?" and "Fine," it's like, "No, that doesn't work, saying fine."

Jeffrey: For a while, I did this thing where I was radically honest, and I realized, I knew it was going to lead me down a road when people would ask me that question, and people were like, "How are you?" I'm like, "Mmm. Mmm." So I realized, I'm just going to give you a series of hums that are ominous and maybe would end the conversation quite quickly.

Julia: Yeah, it's like, "Are you really asking me that? Or are you just talking?"

Jeffrey: Right, right, because I could tell you something that you ... less pleasant.

Julia: Well, if you're in Chicago ever on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, come to a rehearsal. We'd love to have you.

Jeffrey: Absolutely. Yeah, I would love to be there. Thank you so much. Thanks for everything, and thanks for your time today and thanks for being so open about everything and family and life and all [crosstalk 00:52:41]

Julia: Yeah.

Jeffrey: The sustaining vision has come from a place of asking what if. What if three companies banded together to hire one full-time staff member? What if our volunteers have talents beyond being ushers? What if this was common practice for small companies across the board? And for me, I'm wondering what if there's someone out there just hoping to hang their sign out there and say, "Yes, I'm a mid-career money-minded person looking to serve in a more meaningful way"?

I'm also a really big fan of how she expresses her artistic philosophy, that we think in messy and incomplete thoughts, but plays seem to be refined narratives. Their ensemble may express a story from beginning to end, but they might only explore a phrase of it. It goes back to that idea that audiences are ready for a more interesting artistic palette, and I think that a nonlinear method is one way they can be experiencing it.

And, I have to say that I really appreciate her talking about how she stays fulfilled in her creative life while balancing her family life, particularly how the way the company grows also relates to how her personal life changes. I think we're going to hear a little bit more about this in our next interview, as well.

The Chicago premiere of Rink Life, which we talked about in this podcast will be at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater from November 7-16.

In Rink Life, Lucky Plush brings its highly integrated approach to dance-theatre into a communal space that nods to the visual aesthetics and social dynamics of 1970’s roller rink culture, where relationships and storylines are as transient as the world that contains them. Rink Life’s staging and choreography are built from the rink’s spatial rules and social codes, and its script-turned-libretto—created from passing conversations, distant whispers, pop-song earworms, and found scripts—is entirely spoken and sung live. As the ensemble sings full-throatedly to score their experiences, they demonstrate through effort, risk, beauty, and failure that they—and we—are utterly dependent on one another.

All right, that's it for now. As always, hit me at [email protected] or on socials, Facebook and Twitter @ftgupod. Thanks, folks, and we'll see you next time on From the Ground Up.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. 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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