The Challenges of Challenging Work with Emily K. Harrison of square product theatre
From the Ground Up Podcast Episode #3
“Put people in the room that you can agree to disagree with.”—Emily K. Harrison
Emily K. Harrison and square product theatre understands that if you’re going to have the mission of creating radical acts of inquiry, there are going to be some tough conversations in and around the work. Emily is an open book about the necessity of connecting with community while simultaneously challenging its conscience.
44 Plays for 44 Presidents directed by Emily K. Harrison in the University Theatre at at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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. So glad to have you back. Hello, hello, hello. I hope you made it through polar vortexes and Super Bowl halftime shows and all kinds of other fantastic things. Glad to have you here. I'm so excited. I am excited to share this podcast with you.
I first heard of square product theatre in 2011, when I was working for the Plays for Presidents festival. What's this you ask? Well, it was a national festival that worked to connect and promote productions of the play 44 Plays For 44 Presidents, written by five Neo-Futurists. Our goal was to get forty-four productions of 44 Plays For 44 Presidents across the country and we got somewhere in the ballpark of forty-six. One of those was square product theatre, which is where I first connected with our guest, Emily K. Harrison. But it wasn't until 2016 or so when I went to a staged reading of a play called Slab, hosted by the New Colony Theatre Company in Chicago. Emily was in it and was busy adapting and directing it as well, but I knew that I had to go so that I could finally meet this fantastic powerhouse of a person. Emily works hard and understands that you reap what you sow, and it just so happens that she sows seeds in the Boulder Colorado theatre scene. She's connected to the community and it shows with the community programming that they do, in addition to creating really surprising and challenging work, challenging in terms of material and pushing their audiences' boundaries and content wise. It's just fantastic.
A huge part of this company's financial success is grant-based. Emily sheds some light on this in this episode: how they ask for money, how it helps her artistically to write the grants, especially when she might not have much more than just the title of the script or something that is born out of another idea. I'm so glad that Emily opens our eyes to how useful this process is for her and how square products' work is an exchange with the community. She also brings a lot of really great conversation in about group dynamics and how to work with the company and how you develop that company and how, especially, that they have cultivated that with their group.
I allude to an exercise in here as "who do you take in the life raft with you," and I don't know if you've ever done this before, but it's one of those. Do you remember playing this game in middle school or somewhere? You're in a life raft and you can only fit four people in it or something, and it's usually your football coach/civics teacher who goes down this road with you. So they ask you, "who do you bring with you" and there are all these different types of archetypes. There's the politician, there's a scientist with a cure, there's a navigator, there's a child, there's an astronomer, there's a doctor. So who's the most worthy of getting in the life raft with you is the big question. Well, this whole exercise is really meant to get you to think about team working and survival, and it's a metaphor. It's really just a giant metaphor as far as I'm concerned and how a company needs to run. You have these different knowledge bases that are necessary for the company's success.
It also does this subtle thing that says nobody can do everything. It sort of admits that you are not an astronomer, you are not a doctor, you are not the navigator, but you are a necessary component to this whole thing as well, and I think that's brilliant. I think we could all claim less expertise on things, right? We can all say "I'm not a doctor. Can you do this for me?" Or "I'm not a lighting designer. Can you do this for me?" Admitting you're not an expert is such a fantastic relief, I think. That's why we need a team, that's why we need to work together, and I think one of the cool things that Emily exposes us to is her thought process on that.
Also, we allude to an article on Boulder/Denver, Colorado theatre scenes as reported in American Theatre's March 2018 magazine. If you want to hear more perspective on the Boulder scene, check out that great article by Ms. Kennedy. This interview took place in April 2018, and here we go. I hope you enjoy this interview with Emily K. Harrison of square product theatre.
Jeffrey: How have you been? How are you?
Emily K. Harrison: I've been alright, just busy trying to get essays graded in the little amount of time I have.
Jeffrey: Sorry, I just barely read that you're a visiting professor overseas these days.
Emily: Yeah, I'm teaching at a university in London for the year.
Emily: It's been really great.
Jeffrey: How have you spent a year away from a company?
Emily: Well, essentially, we're on a production hiatus.
Emily: In part because I'm gone. I left in September, so I haven't been gone a full year yet. We closed a show in the middle of August, so we had a show right before I left and it was a really big, very labor intensive production. And when I got the job I basically said to my company members and some of the artistic associates "You know, if there's anything you want to do, feel free to do it. I won't be here, so you'll have to do it yourselves." Nobody really jumped at that idea … in part because historically, as far as administrative stuff, I do all of that in any time I can find to do those things.
Everyone who's a company member of square product or an artistic associate, they're all people who work full time at regular day jobs because we live in a region of the country that it's very difficult to earn a living here in the arts, and especially in theatre. There just is not support for it. It's like that in most places in this country, but my company members all have pretty labor-intensive day jobs. I think for a lot of us it felt like okay, maybe this is actually kind of a place for us to take a breather and just not focus on having a big show coming up, and we'll just basically wait until I get back, although there is now going to be a production happening before I get back, which is great. I'm helping to organize it from afar. We're having a production meeting this afternoon and it's a collaboration, so it makes it a little bit easier.
But yeah, we essentially went on a production hiatus in part because I was going to be gone, but quite frankly I don't know that we would be doing much even if I were here because we don't really have space in Boulder. We're kind of the only theatre company operating at the level that we are that doesn't have a home base. It makes it really hard to produce work. There was actually just a few days ago an article about theatre in Boulder that came out in American Theatre magazine, in which Lisa Kennedy, who wrote it, did highlight of these four companies, square product is the one company that does not have a home base in order to produce their work, and what it's meant is that these other companies have been able to drill down into the work. Square product, we have to keep looking for where we can produce the work and when we're producing in non-traditional spaces, which we've done more than any other theatre company in Boulder I think, there are lots of limitations in place when you have to do that. It's exhausting. I'm sick of lifting risers, I can tell you that.
Jeffrey: Yeah, totally. Do you have, it looks like you have a, or you've been having a, you had a partnership in some capacity with the University of Colorado Boulder, is that right?
Emily: Yeah, I completed by PhD at CU Boulder. It's interesting too, because there's an artistic director who says in the American Theatre magazine article, she's quoted as saying that the university is a silo, and that has not been my experience. I know that it's in part because I'm part of that community. I earned a graduate degree there and I taught there as an adjunct for ten years, but I think that CU has, at least with square products, been generous with resources. And it's not just the theatre and dance department. As you know, I think you probably know, we collaborated on 44 Plays For 44 Presidents with the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Emily: In 2016. And we had produced the play as part of the national festival in 2012, so I basically made a proposal to the administrative higher ups in the department saying "Hey, we've done this play before. I think it'd be a really really great play to do on campus as a collaboration between a professional company and a group of student actors, and kind of a mix of student and professional designers." And they fell for it, which was great.
I in part made that proposal because it seemed like a really great community to do that kind of work in, to try to galvanize young voters, but also just out of necessity of the fact that we kind of had been boxed out of the only, what is considered the legitimate theatre space in town that's not on campus. We were not able to get space there because they prioritized these three other companies got to book space there before everyone else and there was not really any space left. So I was like "okay, well I'm really interested in doing 44 Plays again and it seems like the university would be a good place to work on that." That ended up working out.
But we've also, the Department of Theatre and Dance has, we've rented a lot of scenic and prop elements from them at what is very, it costs a lot less than building something new. And then from a green standpoint, we're not building these big sets and then throwing them in a dumpster, which is what most theatre companies end up doing … because CU Theatre and Dance Department has a huge storage facility where they have a bunch of platforms, and they have all these props. So for us, we can rent them for a very reasonable rate and then we're not just throwing a bunch of stuff, we're not wasting a lot of material.
Then we've also produced four plays in the ATLAS Black Box on campus. The ATLAS Black Box is not part of the Theatre and Dance Department, it's a separate facility … although there are people from the Theatre and Dance Department who are sort of on the … I don't know what they call it, but sort of an advisory board basically that helps select projects. The Black Box theatre and space is by far the best space in town, by far. They have a tension grid. It's a true black box. They have flexible seating and just outrageous technological capability in that space, and we've managed to be able to … It's really difficult to get into that space because it is prioritized for student use, which makes sense. The students are paying a lot of money to go to school there. But we've managed to be able to get in and do runs in the summer when they just don't have as much. There's really not much demand on the space. Or sometimes spring break, or right after the semester's over. We've all tolled done five productions on campus, and I really like working with people on campus.
Jeffrey: It's really great to hear that they recognize the exchange that can be given. Like, we are a professional company, we're giving your students an opportunity. And then at the same time, there's some discounted things that you can pull off as well. That's really great to hear.
Emily: Yeah, and we also have historically worked with a lot of interns from the Theatre and Dance Department because they're all at this point required to do a professional internship, so we work with a lot of their students in that capacity. Yeah, our relationship with them has been really strong. I wouldn't consider them a silo at all.
Jeffrey: Great. You had talked a little bit about your company members and that you are the sort of sole administrator. Are there any full time staff members at square product?
Emily: There aren't, and actually I'm now being paid a small monthly stipend for the first time ever in our history. We've been around for thirteen years. I started being paid a little tiny monthly stipend in October maybe, and that's the first time that's ever happened and it may not last because it just depends on how much, if we can sort of sustain. We did a pretty good job doing fundraising last year, mostly just me writing a lot of grants, and we got a donor who did a matching donation campaign. I worked really hard to push that out and people really stepped up and gave us donations to help get that matched … But we don't have any full time employees. In fact, historically, and it's the same way it'll move forward for a while at least, people aren't paid unless they're working on a show. Any time we do a show and someone's working on the show, they're going to be paid a stipend for their work on the production. But no one until now has gotten a stipend that's like "Here, I'm going to compensate you for all the work that you're doing."
Jeffrey: Sure. How did you decide how to allocate the money that became the stipend?
Emily: Well, part of it came from two grants that we got that were specifically for organizational support, operational support. We've never received funds for operational support before. We've always sort of focused on, and by we I mean me mostly, because I write all the grants, I've really focused on project support grants in part because in a town like Boulder where we don't have our own space, sometimes it's hard to predict how many shows we'll be able to do in any given year. So operational support has been something that I've sort of been like "Well, I don't know that I can really apply for that because I don't know what we'll be able to do next year because I don't know if we'll have space."
Jeffrey: Sure. So does that mean—
Emily: But last year I just went ahead and applied and we got it. We got two operational support grants, and we got this donation from a donor who specified this should be used to pay the producing artistic director a stipend to run the company. That was helpful. It was like oh, okay well that's what this person has specified it should be used for, then that's what we're going to use it for.
Jeffrey: Does that mean that you don't necessarily have a season planned out ahead of time?
Emily: We don't always. Sometimes we're able to do that. It really depends on the year and the demand for space in town and whether or not we're able to establish collaborative relationships early on. Because a lot of times we collaborate with other companies to cross-pollinate our audiences and to save money if we're sharing rent and we're sharing production costs and things like that. It really kind of depends. Right now I have a show I'm interested in doing in the fall, but we don't have a space in Boulder to do it in.
Jeffrey: On your website you talk a lot about the associated programming, colleagues in the neighborhood, etc. Is that sort of where the collaborations begin or do they have roots there with those different organizations in town?
Emily: Sometimes, it kind of depends. A lot of our collaborations are artistic collaborations. We'll do a co-production with another company. For instance, we did a collaboration with a company in Denver called Buntport Theater Company that's an ensemble theatre company. They're fantastic. I really, really like their work and so I sort of pitched a few ideas to them and they really liked one of them, so we collaborated on a show together.
Then the associated programming typically comes after we decided on the show. A show will be like "OK, we're going to make this show or we're going to produce this show, and we're interested in it because of these themes and topics. How does this relate to our community and who do we know that can deepen the conversation with our audience in a way that we may not necessarily be qualified to?"
For instance, with House of Gold, which was a play that features a character named JonBenét Ramsey, which I chose to produce in Boulder, which, as far as box office was concerned, was not a great choice because people here really, really don't want to talk about that. They really don't want to talk about it, which I learned. I wasn't aware of that, but they really, really don't want to talk about it. We did that show in a theatre half a mile away from the Ramsey home, so a lot of people were like "Well, that's a little too aggressive." But I am glad we did it because I think it was a fantastic production, a really valuable show for our community, whether everyone chose to engage with it or not. For us, one of the things that I was really interested in that play in particular is the way that it sort of highlights the ways in which women and girls are sexualized and objectified in our culture. It's American culture and it happens in every city and small town in the country, and it has larger implications that ripple out. Boulder, especially in the realm of the university, has a real sexual assault problem.
I chose in part to do some associated programming about rape culture in Boulder for that production. Here's the story about this young girl who clearly was objectified from a young age, made to look like an adult, and potentially attracted some attention that was not appropriate … We don't know if that had anything to do with what happened to her. We probably will never know that. But the reality is that she didn't really have a lot of control over her own narrative and she was absolutely sexualized by being put in the context of the beauty pageant.
So I'm like okay, this is … the idea that this happens, and it happens even in communities like Boulder, where people in Boulder really like to think "oh, we're progressive, these kinds of problems aren't a reality here," but they really are. So we had a conversation about rape culture in Boulder. I don't feel qualified to lead a conversation on that topic, I don't feel qualified to be a panelist for a conversation on that topic, but there are a lot of really great people in our community who absolutely are qualified. And I know some of them personally, so I just reached out to the people I knew, and made some connections through other people, and we had a really great panel of really brilliant panelists who were able to talk about issues in our own community that relate to that subject. It was a great talk and it was a … difficult conversation, but one I think that was really worth having and one that I'm not convinced people actually want to have. There were probably maybe twenty people at that conversation, which is a shame because it was great but … I'm really interested in teasing out the themes in the plays that we're making and that we're producing to have the conversations that often make people uncomfortable.
Jeffrey: It's clear that the associated programming that you have on your website is a big part of community engagement for you. Do you charge for these events, or are these just post show events, or are they events unto themselves, standing beside the programming?
Emily: Yeah, it's a little bit of both. We don't charge for them. Historically they've always been free and open to the public … and we've been able to compensate our panelists by getting grants. There's the Commission in Boulder that's part of the City of Boulder's Commission, it's called the Human Relations Commission, that gave us a grant last year to help us fund some of our associated programming. Sometimes we're able to fund part of that stuff through grants we get from the Boulder Arts Commission or the Boulder County Arts Alliance, so we're able to pay our panelists a small stipend for their time, which often is donated to whatever organization they're representing. That way we can make it free to the public, because I like to compensate people. I'm not down with asking people to come talk about this really difficult subject for an hour for free. We don't do that.
Sometimes the conversations happen after a performance. They're structured in a way that's different from a talkback because we typically have someone who's sort of leading the panel. That person comes in prepared with specific questions that they're asking the panelists and specific questions that they're asking the audience to sort of engage in an actual conversation, because I'm also not super interested in audiences just being talked to. I want it to be a conversation.
Sometimes they are completely standalone events. It relates to the show, but you don't need to have seen the show to have this conversation and, in fact, there's not even a performance this night so you don't feel pressured to buy a ticket to come to the show. Because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in having these community conversations, but may not necessarily be interested in theatre, and/or may not be able to afford to buy a ticket. We work really hard, one of our goals is to keep our ticket prices as low as possible to be as inclusive as possible, but even so, a full price ticket is usually between $20 and $25, and there are definitely people who can't afford that.
Jeffrey: That sort of brings me to a question about … So you are constantly on the hunt for space, you are constantly paying all of your artists. How much would you say of your income is contributed versus earned, and how does that come out in the wash for you in terms of looking to the next project after that?
Emily: Yeah, it's tricky. Quite frankly, the majority of our income really depends on the year, but most of the time the majority of our income comes from grants.
Jeffrey: Okay. Could you give … I don't need you to get into the nitty gritty of X amount of dollars, but if you could give a percentage that would be great.
Emily: I would say that probably 60-70 percent of our income comes from. Well, if we're talking about donations as well, I would say maybe 60-70 percent comes from grants and donations. Then the rest of it comes from earned income at shows. We don't really make very much money on tickets … way less than every other company, which is interesting. I think in part it's because our programming really does make people uncomfortable, so there's sort of a limited amount of bandwidth for that, which I totally get.
We also don't have the budget to fund a marketing position. Of the four theatre companies in town that are consistently grouped together, we're the only one that doesn't have a dedicated marketing person. I do all of it. Sometimes I have enough money to hire somebody to paint the image I want or something like that. A lot of our marketing efforts are really grass roots and guerrilla. We really, really, really hope for reviews. We've been historically pretty lucky with getting reviewers out. It's very, I'm sure you know in Chicago too it's probably changing. Arts coverage is getting slashed here and it's because the newspapers are not going to be around for much longer, so … trying to get creative about how we're going to make people aware of theatre in a town where people are really like "let's smoke a bowl and go for a hike" … It's a challenge.
It's interesting because our typical productions, we pull in between $4,500 and $6,500 in ticket sales, and that's not very much. And it's really not very much compared to our colleagues, who pull in a lot more. But they also have higher ticket prices, most of them have higher ticket prices than we do. And they have dedicated marketing personnel who have the time and the resources to push out advertising in a lot of ways that we just historically have not been able to do. Part of what we're doing with some of the operational support that we received recently is drafting a job description for marketing personnel that, it'll be a small stipend but it'll be can we hire someone who's young and engaged and … I'm not that old, but there are things about Facebook that I just don't understand.
Jeffrey: Right, and Facebook is a changing animal anyway. Every social media is something that's trying to improve itself, so then you have to keep up with their own improvements and somehow that affects you. It all trickles down. How did you go about collecting your company members? How do you bring new folks on if you see the need to?
Emily: It really has varied. A lot of times we, so there are four people who are core company members.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm. And then I see you have a large number of artistic associates who go from between LA and Chicago and Boulder and everywhere else.
Emily: Yeah. Typically, what we do is invite someone to be an artistic associate if they've worked with us on a couple of shows, and we really enjoy working with them, and they're someone that we can see having a continued artistic relationship with. A lot of them are people … we have a few people in Los Angeles. All of the artistic associates who live in LA, they were people that we had worked with here in Boulder. They ended up moving away, but they're still people who we're interested in collaborating with. So Gleason Bauer, for instance, who's based in Los Angeles, was just in Boulder this last summer directing House of Gold. Essentially, and Kelsie Huff, who's one of our Chicago based artistic associates, is someone I met in Chicago. We did a show together in Chicago and we just hit it off, and I really, really liked her work. She did a solo show there in Chicago and I was like "Hey, send me your script. I'd like to read it." I read it and I really liked it, so I was like "Hey, would you be interested in coming and doing that show in Boulder?"
She was like "Sure." So she started coming out and doing her solo shows in Boulder, and people here love her because she's really funny.
It's kind of … a few of the people who are artistic associates, or even company members, are people who I worked with at CU, people who were my students actually. Jess had just designed a show for me at CU, and I was like "Hey, you know, would you be interested in designing this show for my theatre company? There's a stipend. It's in kind of a weird, nontraditional space."
She was like "Sure." And she made that process really easy, so I hired her to do another show and she made that process really easy. It was kind of a no-brainer to be like "You're not a student anymore, you're a professional. Do you want to be part of this company and design all the shows?"
She was like "Alright."
Jeffrey: So it just stems from who do you know, who do you trust, and would they be a good fit for the company? Are they looking towards the endgame with you?
Emily: Yeah, basically. And at this point I'm also really, really trying to look at who are people that we've worked with that I can really rely on and who have skills that are different from mine. There's a lot of stuff that I am not good at, so it's nice to have other people in the room who are good at those things.
Jeffrey: Yeah, it's like who do you have in the life raft with you? Well, not someone who's exactly like you. Someone who's going to know how to read the stars or whatever, right?
Emily: Exactly, yeah.
Jeffrey: How do you amongst the core members, amongst the company, amongst the ensemble, how do you decide what you want to work on next?
Emily: It really depends, and I think some of it's going to change because we're in the process right now of developing a strategic plan. Because the way the company's structured right now, it's just not really sustainable. It kind of relies a lot on me … which would be fine if I were getting paid a living wage, but I'm not. I'm at an age where I'm like "You guys, I'm tired. We gotta figure something else out."
Jeffrey: Right on.
Emily: Everybody's on board. The other company members are like "Yeah, let's do this. Let's develop a strategic plan that we can actually enact so that we can keep doing what we want to do and kind of grow a little bit." Not necessarily grow in such a way that means we're making more work, but grow in such a way that we have the time and the resources to more fully explore the things we want to explore.
As far as choosing what shows we want to do, it really depends. When I think about our original works, a lot of what we've produced has been an idea that someone had, or an idea that someone brought to us, or an idea that sort of came out of something else we were doing. Ham McBeth, for instance, is kind of a weird. Ham McBeth was this show that developed out of a couple of different places. We were doing a production of a play called Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, which was a play developed by the New Colony there in Chicago. We did that play because I had a friend who was working at the New Colony who sent the script to me and was like "Hey, I think you'd really like this script."
I was working on my dissertation at the time, so I was like "I do not have time to write a new play right now. What could we be doing?" I read the script and was like "Oh my God, this is really funny. We should totally do it." We were only the second ever production of that play.
Jeffrey: Oh, really?
Emily: So that's how that show happened. Another show that we did called Slab, which I think you came to a staged reading of some version of that script—
Jeffrey: Yeah, in Chicago.
Emily: Yeah. That was a script we developed because the author of the novel, Selah Saterstrom, who's a friend of mine, had seen a few of our shows and was like "Hey, I really would like my novel to be adapted into a play or performance of some kind. Would you be willing to do it?"
So I read it and was like "Yeah, let's do it. There's a lot going on in this novel. We can translate it to the stage." That ended up being a project that was not as much devised by the ensemble as it was by Gleason, who lives in LA, directed that. She and I co-wrote the adaptation, but we did spend five years working on that piece and developed it with a lot of help from other artists. The first summer Gleason came to work on it, we invited a bunch of people to come into the studio and read chunks of the novel and then figure out the visual elements that were jumping out at them, oral elements, and sort of using a lot of that to start developing a script. I don't think any of those … nope, none of the people who were with us that first summer who were kind of helping develop some visual and oral things were part of the final production, except for Janet Feder, who composed some original music for it.
It just kind of depends. A lot of the time when we're producing a play that already exists, it's usually me who is sourcing plays and then I send them to the other three company members. I'm like "Hey, read these when you get a chance. Let me know what you think. If there's something that really speaks to anybody, then let's talk about doing it." It kind of just depends, is the short answer.
Jeffrey: It sounds like you are as egalitarian as you can be in terms of creativity coming to the forefront, like "What can we do, what are we most interested in making, what do we want to make?" Then it sort of sounds like between the core, the core kind of makes the final decision and from there you start to assemble an ensemble and work on it. Is that a fair boiling down of that?
Emily: Yeah, I think that's ultimately the goal. Sometimes that's not what happens. Sometimes I send scripts to people and people don't have time to read them, so finally I'm just like "Okay, well then this is the play we're going to do." That's just a byproduct of everyone having full time jobs, and some people have kids.
Jeffrey: Yeah, it's who comes to the party.
Emily: Yeah, and so we do try. If someone sends a script to me from the company and is like "Hey, I'm really interested in this," I'll read it.
We had a former artistic associate who sent me a script that he really, really wanted to do. I was like "You know, it's an interesting script. I don't think it's right for square product, but if you want to produce it somehow I'm happy to help you however I can." It just kind of depends on the project, and typically we are doing projects that are related to themes that I'm interested in because I'm the one finding the plays and sending them to people. But at this point I don't think there's anyone in the company who's uninterested in those ideas.
Jeffrey: Sure. How broad or small do you consider the word "ensemble" in terms of what square product does?
Emily: Well, we have a different ensemble for every show that we do. There are not shows that we do that don't involve people outside of the company because it's just not possible to do that. I consider the ensemble anyone who's contributing to the project—so our stage manager is part of the ensemble, the sound designer is part of the ensemble. Their relationship to rehearsal might be different than actors and a directing team … but they do come. Our lighting designer and our sound designer, they come to rehearsal perhaps more than normal lighting and sound designers would. They're very … Jess, our lighting designer, is I think very collaborative. I think that's in part because she's accustomed to working with us in this ensemble way. She'll come in and she'll come to rehearsal and make notes, and sort of walk through her ideas with the director and actors who are interested. Sometimes we have actors who are like "I don't know anything about that so I'm not going to be part of this conversation."
She's very, very flexible, so if one of us is like "Well, I see what you're trying to do here, but I think it might make more sense to, can we have something really flashy here?"
She's always like "Yeah, no problem. Let's see what we can do with it." Those are the kinds of people I like working with because ain't nobody got time for divas up in no pay theatre land.
Jeffrey: Right. Oh my gosh, isn't that the truth?
Emily: You know, all making like … everybody gets paid a stipend for the show, but even that, it's not like anybody's getting paid a living wage.
Jeffrey: Yeah. When you start to write your grants, how do you say "Hey, we're going to make a play about this topic. We don't know what it is. There's no script." How do you justify "Hey, we're running in this direction. Give us money for it"?
Emily: Yeah, sometimes it's really challenging. But actually, what I have found for myself is that writing those grants even before the script has been developed gives me a lot of information about directions that the script can go in. There have been times that we have written … I wrote a couple of grants for Ham McBeth, the show I was talking about a minute ago, and I had no idea what that show would be, aside from I knew that it would start with what we had made for five fifths of Macbeth for the Fringe, for their fundraiser, that it would start with that. I had no idea where it would go and what the exploration would be … and as I was writing grants for it, I kind of discovered this is a story about the mother-daughter relationship in a lot of ways. It's a story about what that relationship is, that specific relationship. Having that piece of information was super helpful to Michelle and I as we then started developing the script.
Actually, I've gotten really good at writing grants and I enjoy writing grants because they give me a lot of information that I think is often subconscious information that has not yet floated to the top. So writing those grants is, for me, a lot of times a way to uncover the things that I'm actually interested in exploring and articulate it in a really particular way, which then helps me develop the script itself … or helps me communicate with an ensemble about the things I'm interested in and then having a conversation about the things they're interested in and finding ways to incorporate bits and pieces of what everyone's doing, or connecting the dots, or not. Or saying "Okay, well these are two very disparate ideas. We have to choose between them because it's just going to be too much."
Jeffrey: Yeah … Then when you do get into those final moments of rehearsal, is there someone who has the final say as you're going into tech even though you've been working so egalitarian-ly? Saying "Hey, I have a few ideas about this," etc? Do you finally have a moment where someone takes the reins and says "This is what this moment has to be"?
Emily: Yeah. I mean, we typically have a director in the room. Not always, but we typically have a director who we're relying on to be the eye of the audience, which when you're in the show I think is really difficult to do. At least for me it's really difficult to do. I need to actually see it … But often, by the time we're in tech we've all pretty much agreed on what the script is. There might be some small changes up until we open, but we're not really doing big, big changes.
We developed a show in collaboration with another company in 2010 I think called Songs of Meat and Cake that was a song cycle about meat and cake. We were really trying to, there were basically three primary performers in that show, and we were all creating the show together, and then one person we brought on later in the process to do something really specific. So the three of us who were the people who had developed the piece were trying to decide what's going to get cut, what stays, what order should it go in, and basically I put together what I thought would be a good version of the script, and one other person put together what she thought would be a good version of the script, and the third person didn't do anything. He had developed a lot of material, so that was fine. Then we all got into a room and read over both versions of the script together and decided. We all ended up being like "Alright, actually Nina's version of the script works better dramaturgically, so that's the one we're gonna go with."
I worked really hard to try to get people in the room who I can agree to disagree with on those kinds of things. I had worked hard to put together a version of the script I thought was the best version of the script, but ultimately I want the best version of the production we can possibly make. So if everyone else in the room is like "Nina's version is better," I'm going to be like "Okay, that kind of hurts my feelings but that's the one we're going to do because I want the best show that we can do." It's not really about my feelings at the end of the day.
We've had moments like that and I have historically worked with people that I had a really hard time getting along with, and I've worked with people that I've learned really well how to get along with. So it's kind of a … "Oh, I don't get along with this person" so that's a good lesson to learn. We made something and it was good, and I was miserable the entire time, so won't be doing that again.
Jeffrey: Yeah. That puts your own relationship building and creative cohort building to the test as well. That's really fascinating.
Emily: Yeah, and it's one of the things that the ensemble at Buntport talks about a lot, just that they've been making theatre together for so long that they've basically had all of the fights. They're able to say "Oh, we've actually had this fight before. We had this fight in 2007 when we were making this other show. How did that end up? Let's just go to the end of this fight." They've learned really, really well how to disagree with each other and then just move on, make the decision and move on.
Jeffrey: Yeah, because it is, you're cultivating the family, the members that you can have the conversation with. You're just choosing the family.
Jeffrey: I want to ask you, what would give square product theatre the freedom it needed? What would allow you to be your best selves at this point after thirteen years?
Emily: I mean, I think aside from adequate funding and appropriate space in which, not only to produce the work, but also to develop it. Because I'm really interested in scaling back on the product so that we're not just scrambling from endgame to endgame to endgame. Like "Oh, we have to have this product. We have to have this show up." I'm actually interested in taking some of that energy and time and spending more time in rehearsal so that we can develop the work we want to develop in a way that's more connected and allows us to explore more deeply. That's a resource issue.
But aside from the obvious resource issues, which are always going to be true, the thing that would really allow us to grow and develop in I think the most interesting ways just has do with a cultural shift in the way people view theatre and the arts, at least in this community. I can't pretend to know what it's like elsewhere, but I think … on one level I understand that, for instance, people who sit on grant panels are approaching grant proposals or final reports from a really capitalistic standpoint. I understand how and why that happens, and I just wish that we could really have a cultural shift around that, around … what it means to make new work, which is a really different thing. The resources that are needed for that, one of which maybe perhaps primarily is time. A lot of places you write a grant, you make a grant proposal, and you have to have completed the project within a year. But if you're a theatre company where no one is getting paid a salary, and you have a limited amount of money for stipends, and you want to respect people's time, it's really hard to develop the work as thoughtfully as one would like within a year, and to keep up with the idea that you're supposed to be producing a show every few months.
I think just a cultural shift around how theatre is developed and how theatre is made. I think there's still a lot of people in this country who think that a playwright locks themselves away in a room and writes a play, and then they hand it off to a director who develops a vision, and then imposes that vision on a group of actors and designers. Certainly, there are still a lot of places that operate on that model. Regional theatre still does that a lot. I don't find that very interesting … and I think the majority of people making theatre don't find that very interesting. It's not collaborative, it's not inclusive, it doesn't allow people to be their best selves and to actually, truly offer something different. It doesn't allow a lot of room for taking risk, I think is the problem.
Culturally I wish that there were more room for people making theatre to take risks, and that includes more room for people making theatre to fail. I wish there … Not everything is going to be Hamilton for Christ’s sake. Artists who end up making work like Hamilton also, in order to make something that is that great and speaks to such a wide array of demographics, also has to spend a lot of time making a bunch of crap. I feel like, especially in this community, there's really not a lot of room for that.
Jeffrey: Sure, no room for failure.
Emily: Yeah … and we've definitely made shows that I was like "Well, that wasn't good." It's not what I want to do, but I also think it's part of the process and there are things I learned on making those shows that weren't good that were really important things for me to learn.
Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. Part of your mission is about having a radical act of inquiry.
Jeffrey: Could you talk a little bit about that? I know throughout this past hour you've talked a lot about how all of these, everything you do sort of starts with a question, or an idea, or some kernel that sparks and you lead into the next thing. Could you talk a little bit about how radical act of inquiry inspires your process?
Emily: Yeah. I mean, I think it's rooted in curiosity, which it's hard to stay curious when you get older I've noticed. We really … as we get older sort of decide in a really binary way what is right and what is wrong, and what is good and what is bad … Those perspectives aren't really very useful because they don't provide anyone with the opportunity to grow or learn anything. There are times that I just don't want to grow. There are times that I'm like "fuck it, this is too hard." I'd really rather just watch TV and be a limited person than have to grow in these ways, and I know everyone feels that way. Sometimes it's just really shitty to try to grow and be a better person.
A lot of times for me the radical acts of inquiry have to do with approaching these questions that are kind of inscrutable or inexorable questions that make me really uncomfortable … and I think questions that make other people uncomfortable. Putting them … or even just general questions, but then placing them in a context that makes people look at that in a different way or think about it in a different way.
It's funny because I'm really interested in making theatre that makes people at least a little bit uncomfortable at some point. We did this show this summer, House of Gold, which I was telling you about, which I played JonBenét Ramsey. There were a few people who were like "I almost got up and walked out," at this one particular scene.
For me, I was like "Yes! Victory. You should want to get up and walk out. That shit is gross." The fact that it caused for you a physical reaction where you felt something in your body was like "I gotta get out of here. I don't wanna see this, I gotta get out of here." That's great. At the same time, often as an audience member I'm like "Oh, I don't want to do that." So I understand that part of our … You were talking about earned income versus contributed income earlier. Part of the reason that our ticket sales are so much less than other companies I think is because people know at this point "I gotta be in the right mood for that shit. I went and saw their last show and it was just like ugh."
Jeffrey: Sure. Am I ready to have my conscience challenged today?
Emily: Yeah, and I think we approach those questions typically really well, in a way that's very … I think horribly beautiful, most of the time. I think we're able to do it successfully, so I think luckily most people are willing to come back because they were like "Oh, it made me uncomfortable, but also there was something about it that was really striking."
For that reason, as part of our strategic plan, one of the things we're going to be talking about is okay, for the last couple of years we've been doing some pretty challenging, we've been really challenging our audience. Maybe we should … put a show in there every now and then that's a little less overtly aggressive.
Jeffrey: Uh-huh. Emily, I'm looking at the clock here and I said I would be about an hour, so I want to lead into what I'm calling the lightning round. So if you can throw your gut responses at me for these next six questions.
Jeffrey: Your favorite kind of transportation?
Emily: I love my car.
Jeffrey: Your favorite salutation?
Jeffrey: Your favorite exclamation?
Jeffrey: Nice. What does "ensemble" mean to you?
Emily: Misery. Just kidding. It means creativity to me.
Jeffrey: What is the opposite of square product theatre?
Emily: Jesus … I think Shakespeare I guess.
Jeffrey: Solid, yes. What would you be doing if not theatre?
Jeffrey: And what's your favorite kind of ice cream?
Emily: Chocolate with chocolate chunks and bits in it.
Jeffrey: Yeah, that's the ticket. So many people are afraid to say chocolate on chocolate, and I feel like chocolate on chocolate is just more chocolate. I don't see what's wrong with that.
Emily: No, it's the best. I long for summer all year because I can't eat ice cream when it's cold. It makes me too cold.
Jeffrey: Right? I wish there was a discount on ice cream in the winter-
Emily: In the winter?
Jeffrey: Yeah. Wouldn't that just make sense?
Emily: Yeah, that'd be fucking awesome.
Jeffrey: Right? Like Dairy Queen's still open. You just go in and it's half price.
Emily: Yeah, because you know you're going to be miserably cold for the next two hours.
Jeffrey: Yeah, right. Emily, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for everything.
Emily: Yeah, sure. Thank you.
Jeffrey: It's been really great to talk to you and talk about the ins and outs of square product theatre.
Emily: Yeah, any time.
Jeffrey: Alright, all the best. We'll talk to you soon.
Jeffrey: You know, if it wasn't for Andy by '80s and the Plays for Presidents festival, I wouldn't have encountered Emily to begin with, so I have to give a big shout out to him, Andy and Genevra as well. I hope you are both well. I love you both. Yeah, hope you're great.
Group dynamics, am I right? Getting people in the room who you can agree to disagree with, not just someone you have to work with. Ensembles have that special thing. Leading to the creation of utopia you can let certain personalities you don't want to work with slip away, but it's the ones that really challenge you that you know you can grow from and that you're growing with. It's hard to identify that and it's hard to be mature enough to know that you need it, that you need those voices … and the need to have more room for theatre to fail. I've always been a fan of open rehearsal processes and bringing audiences in early to give some honest feedback, but again, that requires a lot of resources of space and time, luxuries. Okay, that's all for now. So glad to have had you with me. We'll catch you next time on our next episode of From The Ground Up.