Ensemble as Contemporary Commentary
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Dear artists, on today’s episode I welcome you to another deep dive into Los Angeles theatre and performance culture, but certainly much more than that, as always. Today, we’re talking with Miranda Wright of Los Angeles Performance Practice, who is developing some inspiring work—creatively, data-wise, and programmatically. When we chatted, Los Angeles Performance Practice had been around for ten years. Today you’ll hear us reflecting on those ten years of discovering trends in the field. Some of those trends can be found in the Arts Vibrancy Index, which she mentions in the conversation. I’ll be sure to put a link to it on the show page. You might know Miranda from her previous HowlRound essays, or you might know about her from CIPA, C-I-P-A, which is the Creative and Independent Producer Alliance, or ISPA, the International Society for Performing Arts, all things which we’ve mentioned on past episodes. Miranda and these organizations are pretty well woven together with previous guests on this podcast, including Patricia Garza and Olga Garay-English from season two, episodes one and two.
Quickly though, before we jump in, it would really mean a lot to me if you could let me know that you are out there. Thus far throughout From the Ground Up, I’ve been reaching out to folks I think would be interesting to chat with, but I definitely want to know from you what you want to know about. Drop us a line at [email protected] or follow me @FTGU_pod or @ensemble_ethnographer on Twitter and Instagram. Many thanks in advance.
Are you or someone making amazing contemporary ensemble-based work? I need to know. Hit me up. I want to talk to them. To you. Right. Let’s talk. Okay. Onward.
Miranda Wright, producer and executive director of Los Angeles Performance Practice, Zoomed in from Chumash and Kizh lands, now known as Los Angeles, on May 23, 2022. Enjoy.
If the idea or question being explored is not visible or tangible to the audience, then I’m not sure it needs to be in front of an audience in this moment.
Miranda Wright: Well, I am curious how you are defining the “ensemble-based theatre” or “collaborative theatre.”
Jeffrey: That’s a great question because everyone who meets the podcast ideally will have their own sense of what “ensemble” is too, right, and so I have kind of leaned into what Diane Rodriguez’s definition sort of was and leaning into “collaboratively creative.” That phrase seems to be a lot more resonant with me and with maybe what I am exploring now. It could potentially mean a solo artist who comes into a room and with some collaborators who develop— Part of it is the idea of generative, like it’s contemporary and generative. And it works in collaboration rather than from the font of a playwright. So that’s not exactly what is “ensemble” to me, but it’s sort of the definition of what I am interviewing right now in terms of finding what “contemporary work” is right now and how do we lift that contemporary work in a way that is sustainable.
Miranda: Okay, great. I mean, that’s how I would’ve answered the question too. Perfect.
Jeffrey: Do you have an elevator pitch for what Los Angeles Performance Practice is?
Miranda: Well, I wish I did. I’ve been working on one for ten years, but I haven’t quite landed. Part of the reason is because we’re approaching our field through different pathways. We are going at it from different directions simultaneously. Our work involves working directly with artists to produce new work. We also have an annual festival, our LAX festival in Los Angeles, and we also have a series of programs for artists who are based in Los Angeles to help them develop their practices further. We have this kind of three-pronged approach. Then we do a lot of other things that seem unrelated, but all toward our central mission of really lifting up and providing resources and opportunities to West Coast artists.
Jeffrey: Great. Great. Talking about how you connect with West Coast artists, but I know that you like to bring in folks from sort of all over as well. I’m wondering how you serve such a specific and also such a broad base at the same time.
Miranda: Sure. Well, the mission has really always been directed toward Los Angeles–based artists, specifically. The reason for that is that, truthfully, I know most people in the country can say this, and I would argue, unless they live in New York City or Minneapolis—used to be Philadelphia, but I’ll let Philadelphia off the hook—Los Angeles artists really don’t have opportunities to make new work. I honestly cannot think of any substantive grants that are available locally to LA artists to develop work. Local presenters have started presenting local work more regularly, but before the pandemic, it was very difficult for an LA artist to even have a platform for their work to show. When I say a platform, one of the beautiful things about LA are there are a ton of artists-run spaces, but they’re the size of a living room. I’m really thinking about opportunities for artists to produce work at scale and at a scale that can gain national visibility.
In our effort to drum up that kind of support and visibility for LA artists, I’d started an experiment in 2018 where I worked with a couple of New York–based artists, partially because I really like these artists and I wanted to show support and also selfishly because I wanted to spend more time traveling. What was really eye-opening is as soon as I started working with these East Coast artists and seeing the true difference in resources and opportunities available to them, I mean, I was just kind of stunned. We launched a research initiative after that, that the California Arts Council has funded, and we’re hoping to finish up this year to really use data to demonstrate the stark difference in available resources between artists in New York City and LA. The Bay Area is part of the study as well.
If you’re a New York artist, you have just closer geographic proximity to more universities who have active commissioning programs. In LA none of the local universities proactively commission work for local artists. They might host residencies for out-of-town artists. That’s kind of the rub. I have to be careful about how I talk about this because I know anyone at any of these institutions will say, “That’s not true, Miranda. Here’s an example of how you’re not true.” I think most people generally would agree with me that the perception, which is based on a reality, is that even the largest producing and presenting organizations in LA are really prioritizing New York artists above LA artists. Center Theatre Group brings in New York directors all the time, and there’s a ton of incredibly talented directors here. Just as an example, not to throw them under the bus or anything.
Yeah. I’ve lost track of your question. Basically I work with artists from outside of LA as a way to understand the field differently. Truthfully, those artists have opened up new relationships and networks that I wouldn’t have had access to without them. That brings more value to the LA artists who we work with. I was— I’m part of this group called CIPA.
Jeffrey: That’s Creative Independent...
Miranda: Creative Independent Producer Alliance. We had a CIPA West Coast gathering in the early days of the pandemic. What was interesting was there were maybe twenty West Coast producers on that Zoom call. I asked, I said, “I’m just curious how many of you actually produce work by West Coast artists?” Of the twenty, there were maybe two of us. We talked about it for a little while. The reason is it’s just too hard. There are no resources for West Coast artists really to be able to afford to work with a producer in that way either. Most of the West Coast producers, on that call at least, who are operating at a national scale, they’re working with New York artists to achieve that scale. I think there’s some real work to do with the funding community and the presenting community here on the West Coast to really bolster up those resources.
Jeffrey: This organization started with you ten years ago. Yes? Or more than ten years ago now. Can you talk about how you’ve seen things change in your tenure there?
Miranda: Sure. Well, anytime you work in a field for ten years, you start to see the patterns that maybe weren’t visible to you before, but a lot of moments of thinking like, “Oh, I really should have listened to my senior in the field.” Diane Rodriguez comes up a lot. We were talking about her before you pushed record, but Patricia [Garza] and I sometimes are chatting, and I’ll think of something Diane used to tell me that I really resented in the moment, because I was in my late twenties and felt like I was carving out a new path. Diane was pretty much right every time she gave me advice, in terms of how to think about the development of new work from a dramaturgical perspective, the importance of storytelling. Early in my career, I think I really valued and prioritized challenging form and aesthetics above storytelling. Actually, storytelling is so important in this very moment now that we’re two years into a deep crisis.
In terms of seeing things change, I’ve changed. I think the artists who I work with have had personal changes. The world has changed around us. Funding priorities have changed and will continue to change and go through cycles. At the end of the day, the things that haven’t changed are that artists who have something to say are going to say what they need to, with or without those resources. They don’t have enough support to get urgent messages out. Those are the things that have not changed. I don’t see any sign of them changing, to be honest, but we can continue to work.
Jeffrey: What’s a pattern that you have observed?
Miranda: I feel like I’ve seen one cycle of this. If you were to talk to someone who’s worked in the field for twenty or thirty or forty years, they could say, “Yes, that is a cycle,” or, “Actually, here’s the rest of the picture you’re not seeing.” I’m a little hesitant to say it with only ten years of experience. One example is prioritizing funding in rural communities versus urban communities. That, of course, impacts me because I live in a large metropolitan area where there’s a high concentration of artists, a high volume of artists. When funding is rerouted to rural communities I feel conflicted, because I know that artists in rural communities are very deserving of support. I wonder about major metropolitan areas where resources are stretched and sometimes nonexistent. If you don’t live in those areas, you may have a different perception of how those artists are able to get by.
I don’t know the right way to do it, and I actually don’t have an opinion. I know what impacts me and it impacts me when those resources move away from urban funding. Yeah. That’s one pattern, this kind of sway or pendulum between rural funding and urban funding.
Jeffrey: I’m really taken with what you said about storytelling and how storytelling is still at the crux of all performance-making or of contemporary performance. One of the reasons why I think I’m with you in terms I fell in love with sort of ensemble generative kind of stuff is because I sort of... You know how when you watch a cartoon or a puppet that you map yourself onto that character in a certain way. I think I had a moment where I realized I was mapping myself onto some more abstract storytelling or lack of storytelling maybe. I think that’s where I sort of found myself connecting with less storytelling-based content. Or maybe I fell in love with it for the wrong reasons. I’m not sure. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I think I just had a discovery just now with Diane’s words about finding... What’s a tip from Diane there that you’ve been applying?
Miranda: I don’t know if I can think of a specific tip from her. All I know is that she would just really stress the accessibility of the story, and I would fight against that when we were together. The pandemic was really tough on all of us. It took me a while to be able to come out and go see work again. When I was ready to see work, I didn’t want to see anything abstract. What I wanted to go see was— I just wanted to go actually see someone play guitar by a fireplace or by a fire pit. I was like, Oh. I would really love to see a magic show. I just wanted to see things that were just simple and direct. I just needed to feel things and not need to work too hard with my analytical self in thinking about formal structures.
Then it makes you question the work you’ve been doing for ten years, because the work I’ve been doing for ten years has really been thinking critically about the formal structures of theatre and performance and pressing up against those. This is very recent for me too. What I’ve realized the value, the work that we do is that we provide a critical laboratory. That laboratory space for experimentation doesn’t exist really anywhere else institutionally. I mean, I can name a few institutions where it exists. It exists in EMPAC in Troy, New York. I know it exists in places, but it’s so high value. Without that experimental lab, just the process of story changing doesn’t evolve or shift.
The world around us is changing so quickly. It seems like we really need an R&D arm of art and culture, and that’s the service that I try to provide. I know that it trickles into mainstream culture. I know it trickles into pop culture. I also know I’m not seeing the financial rewards of that, but it’s so important to be able to push through on that experimental realm so that the artists are able to really actively develop the tools that they need to tell tomorrow’s stories. Without that, we’ll just be in Shakespeare mash-ups for the rest of time. I just am over that. I don’t need any more of it.
Jeffrey: How do you find the pieces to develop, or how do you find the pieces to showcase at LAPP?
Miranda: I try to go see a lot of work. I’ll go to those artist-generated spaces and see what people are cooking up on their own. I travel a lot. I see a lot of work on the road. In the early days of the organization, those first projects were the projects my friends were making. We graduated from CalArts around the same time, and I was just so impressed by the ideas they were expressing, and I wanted to be a part of that and support however I could. The early projects and the early relationships were all really peer-based. Some of those have turned into really very long-term working relationships. The newer projects that we find, Patricia and I work through a process and we use our formal structured programs for artists as a way to allow access to our organization and to our producing structures.
Local artists can apply for a research and development program, which provides them with a little bit of cash support and then some other offering based on what they need. It could be a studio space, it could be childcare, it could be a piece of equipment or funding for another collaborator to work with them. They’re modest resources, but we really do try to be as responsive as we can based on the project. At the end of that program, some of those projects go on to do a work-in-progress showing at our festival, for example.
Then from there, we make sure we get really solid documentation of the works that are in the festival so at least the artist has work-sample material coming out of it. Sometimes we see real promise and real excitement in those work-in-progress showings. We then kind of take those projects under our producing umbrella. That happened this year. We did a smaller installment of our festival in November. Out of that, there are three projects that we’re contracting to fully produce moving forward.
Jeffrey: Can you talk a little bit about where the projects go after they sort of complete their process with you and what it’s like to work with some of those organizations as those fledgling productions move out of your nest?
Miranda: Sure. Well, we keep them closely tethered to us, those projects. Once we sign a project on for our producing support, we’ll work hand in hand with the lead artist and do all of the development and fundraising with them side by side. We really need to identify a premiere partners. In an ideal world, that would be some someplace like REDCAT here in LA, so we can work together to co-produce the premiere. We also try to find an East Coast partner right off the bat so that there’s at least two opportunities to show their work. That usually sets the work up for touring as best we can. Touring is not the easiest thing, especially right now. There’s a huge backlog of presentations that our colleagues are working through. Our projects have gone all over the world, really.
We have really great relationships with the Time-Based Art Festival, TBA, in Portland that PICA [Portland Institute for Contemporary Art] produces. ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] Boston is another one. New York Live Arts—we’ve worked with New York Live Arts a couple of times. We’ve worked with BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] a couple of times in Brooklyn as well, and the Chocolate Factory. We have several relationships across the country and around the world. Upcoming, we have a dance project going to Tel Aviv. In August, we have a theatre show that’s going to be touring from BAM to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. That’s kind of close to you. It’s not super close, but same region. Then we’ll be here on the West Coast at a couple of other venues that aren’t quite contracted yet, but hopefully soon. It’s really kind of all over the map.
Jeffrey: How do you develop and maintain those relationships too, with those different regions?
Miranda: Well, the relationships are all person to person. Sometimes it’s the artist who has the relationship actually and I just come in to help facilitate the work, which is usually welcomed by both the artist and the presenter, just to have someone else dealing with the contractual stuff, the travel stuff, whatever, the money. It’s taken me ten years to develop these professional relationships. A lot of them have become friendships over time. When I was first starting out, I would go every year to APAP [Association of Performing Arts Professionals] in New York, and I would make sure to go to the Under the Radar festival and symposium. I would really try to put my networking hat on. But one: I’m not a hard salesman. I’m not very good at that kind of networking vibe. And two: presenters, if they see a producer or an artist trying to hard network with them, they’re going to avoid eye contact and run the other direction because they’re so overwhelmed.
What I learned pretty quickly was it actually is just about earnest relationship building. If I can leave one of those conferences with two new friends or two new contacts, then I’ve done a really good job. That’s a slow pace and it’s a frustrating pace. I do know there are managers and agents out there who are really hustling, and it’s just not in me. Sometimes I wish that I had someone on my staff who could be the booking agent, and I wonder how much more we would drum up for our artists if we had someone in that role. The relationships are so important to me, because I want to be able to reach out to any of those presenting partners and suggest a project. I want them to trust that I’m suggesting it to them because I know what they are interested in, what capacity they can handle. I want them to trust me and my artistic sensibilities. I can’t be a hard hustler because I need them to actually rely on me and trust me when I bring something to them that I need their support on.
Jeffrey: What I hear you say when you say that is a real dedication to the artist as well, because it means that you believe in the work that you bring to develop and you believe in them. To have that sort of trust between organization and between artists, that feels like a heavy lift all by itself. To me, two partners a year sounds like that’s huge.
Miranda: I feel good about it. I have had artists in the past express some frustration because the flip side of that is that the presenters will also turn around and tell me, quite frankly, if the work isn’t what they’re looking for or if maybe the work needs more development before it would be ready to come to their audiences. Then it’s my job and obligation to go back to the artists with some critical feedback and come up with a redevelopment plan. That’s really difficult if the artists believe that their work does not require more development. That’s something that I have learned over the years. It usually just comes with a little bit more... The older the artists, the less likely I am to run into that issue, actually. There are pros and cons on the way that I work.
Jeffrey: Can you say a little bit more about… When pieces leave LAPP, are they going to more presenting houses or more production houses or... Yeah. Maybe, what’s the ratio of that?
Miranda: Yeah, they’re usually going to presenting organizations. LAPP is also kind of graduating into managing the tours for the artists as well. They don’t leave our nest. We produce with them, and then we help them manage and navigate the touring network. Most of the projects are touring to contemporary art centers and festivals. In the US I would say 70 percent of the projects are going to National Performance Network member organizations. The other 30 percent are probably going to college and university presenters, or just presenters who are not part of that NPN network, like BAM. Yeah. It’s that sort of networking, it’s the college and university networks, the NPN networks, the contemporary art centers in various cities, and then international contemporary performance festivals.
Jeffrey: I did really appreciate looking on your website, just the tour dates and the calendar and seeing where you can see these productions, where and when and how. I really appreciated that. I was like, Oh. These all look like fantastic things that I do want to catch if I can. I really appreciate that.
Miranda: There’s not too much there. We’re still rebuilding.
Jeffrey: Oh, no. Yes. The framework is there. I was like, Oh, there’s not a whole lot of dates and I just chalked it up as COVID. Everything is COVID.
Jeffrey: Just to know that that support is there for those creators is really cool. That’s great. What other services might you provide in terms of working with artists in that regard with those presenting houses?
Miranda: Sure. I mean, we provide a lot of services that are maybe a little bit on the boring end of the spectrum, but super useful. We provide insurance coverage for the artists. General liability certificates as well as inland marine, which covers their equipment as it tours. We do all of the contracting and negotiation on their behalf. We do all of the budgeting and budget management on their behalf. We do also manage intellectual property and some legal stuff that pops up now and then. We do payroll services. We’re kind of really doing a lot of the basic admin work that is just a huge burden if you’re an independent artist and you have to take any of that on.
There are also new regulations here in LA. Well, they’re a couple of years old now, but they just really are very specific in that, before the pandemic I think if there were a smaller production, you could kind of get away with paying performers a stipend and not a full salary or not hourly wage. That’s no longer legal or possible here in California. We luckily had payroll services set up by that point so we’re able to put dancers and actors and stage managers all on an hourly payroll system. That allows us to do some other exciting work around pay equity and thinking about how do we negotiate with presenters fee structures that accommodate and allow for artists to be paid for the work that they’re actually doing for a presentation.
There was the kind of old-school way of, like, “Everyone on the tour gets $750 for the week that you’re touring.” There’s been a lot of change in that regard over the past couple of years. Thank goodness. We’re trying to push it a little bit further and really break it down and say, “Well, this artist is actually going to be spending sixty hours in your theatre. If they were a crew member in your theatre, they would be getting overtime. No, it is not possible to do this work in less than sixty hours in a week. If we break it down by hour, here’s what they’re getting. Are you willing to increase the fee so that they can be paid above minimum wage for that level of work?” We’re doing that kind of negotiation as well. Because I have good relationships with the presenters, I know whose budgets can take it and whose budgets cannot, so I try not to be too pushy.
Just by focusing attention on the independent producers in the field, we have seen an increased awareness that resources are needed to support this corner of our sector.
Jeffrey: Right. Great. For doing all of this work, what does LAPP get out of the process?
Miranda: Well, it’s central to our mission, first and foremost, and we are a nonprofit. We do take a percentage fee of those touring contracts. It’s 15 percent. We just increased it, actually. It used to be 10 percent, but that wasn’t covering our expenses. We do take 15 percent of those touring contracts or those earned-income streams. Then, on the back end, we apply for as many grants as we can to support our operations and the artist programs that hopefully funnel artists into a more robust producing arrangement with us.
Jeffrey: I feel like I read somewhere, I think it was in your essay about your audiences— Gosh, I didn’t write the quote down. I’m terrible. You said your audience is constantly changing, and so there’s no reason to say who your audience necessarily is. Maybe I’m paraphrasing that too poorly. Does that sound like it rings a bell?
Miranda: I can’t remember that essay. There’s something about cultivating audiences that was just... Speaking of funding cycles, that was a huge cycle. Let’s invest in cultivating audiences. I think in that essay I probably said something like, “You can’t just grow people out in a field and cultivate them and then bring them into your theatre. You have to invest in the relationship.” You know what I mean? They’re here, they’re real people. We are really lucky because our local audience, for the festival, they are mostly other creative people. We have a great, diverse, and pretty young audience. Our age range is pretty wide. We had a new staff member start with us last fall, and she came from one of the 99-Seat theatres in town and came to our festival nights and was like, “Wow, your audience is really cool.” I’m like, “Yeah. They’re very cool. They’re very cool.” All different kinds of people come in.
It’s driven by the kind of work that you program though. A benefit of having local artists primarily supported is that they bring their communities with a lot of integrity to see their work. That’s kind of how it is. One of the things about LAPP is that as a nonprofit, you have these beneficiaries, and our beneficiary is not the audience in LA. We exist to serve the artist, first and foremost. The audience is secondary for us because we are prioritizing that laboratory space above— to get sales and public output. That’s just this organization. It’s not common.
Jeffrey: Do you have any sort of subscription model or anything where you’ll have return audience members? Because I can imagine that if your audience sort of rotates based on the talent in the area and they bring in fantastic newcomers, potentially, are there any folks who return again and again, who lean on LAPP as, I’m going to see the next thing that’s going to BAM, to the Walker, to the next place?
Miranda: I remember when our festival grew to a point where I stopped recognizing people in the lobby. That was just so thrilling to me because I knew we were reaching people outside of our immediate network finally. I remember, I think it was in 2017, walking through the lobby and no one knew who I was, which felt great. I could overhear what people were saying. There was a younger couple on a date looking at our brochure, and the man was talking to his date about, “Oh yeah, this festival, they bring such cool stuff in.” They were kind of flipping through the pages. Then I was like, “Oh my gosh, my dreams have come true.” The joy of the festival format is that people will come to support their friends, but then they pick up that brochure and are hopefully excited to try something new. They develop a trust for the festival platform itself as much as they do that individual performance.
That’s one of the reasons we don’t do a lot of year-round work, because when you have isolated performance events, that is when you need your reliable subscription-based audience. For us, we need a festival commitment. It’s a shorter commitment. We’re looking for people who are adventurous to come and see this very new work. We do have repeat audience members. We do sell festival passes at the beginning, so that gives us a little bit of a marker of how many people will be coming through.
Jeffrey: Great. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Creative and Independent Producer Alliance?
Miranda: Sure. Sure.
Jeffrey: I want to know what it means for you to belong to that organization and how LAPP sort of fits into that picture.
Miranda: Yeah, definitely. Well, CIPA was created at the beginning of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I was part of a group of maybe fifteen producers who, most of them were New York–based, and I was in New York regularly enough I could join them for these meetings. A producer in New York named Tommy Kriegsmann would gather producers together, maybe quarterly, to just talk about: How do we move through the field as independent producers in a way that is supportive of one another, because our work before this has always felt very isolating and very competitive with other producers. We were already on the track of coming together and being a little bit more supporting of one another and helping each other out a little bit more here and there.
When the pandemic happened, of course everyone lost their income instantly, and people were aware of the fact that artists had lost all of their income overnight and organizations were in crisis. The independent producer who was really the tether between the organization and the artists, no one was thinking about us, as a group of people who suddenly had no employment. CIPA came together actually and formally to gather some data around how producers were managing through that moment and to approach a foundation for some support for this particular group of people.
Luckily, we were able to partner with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. With them, we were able to receive a planning grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. That planning grant allowed us to develop CIPA further. I think by the end of that planning year, we had I want to say 130 members across the country. It’s an incredible organic movement of people. I don’t know that we’ve figured it out 100 percent, what the structure of CIPA is, but what is important is that we know each other, we can call each other when we run into problems. Just by focusing attention on the independent producers in the field, we have seen an increased awareness that resources are needed to support this corner of our sector. That’s all super positive.
Then in terms of LAPP benefiting, I personally just was lucky to be in the room when this stuff started to come together. Even before the pandemic, I really was interested in figuring out if there was a way we could support a producing fellowship or some kind of incubator for independent producers. Independent producers, once an artist works with one of us, it just seems like a good thing. It’s like, Wow, it’d be great if there were more people who were able to work in this way, but because of the financial difficulties, it’s just a difficult road to kind of pave for yourself. It was like, Well, what would happen if we could have some structured way to support young producers coming into the field? Instead of taking ten years to learn what I had to teach myself, they could at least get a few years of a head start.
Sorry. My brain’s just kind of a little bit fluttery still from the travel. LAPP was able to manage CIPA’s emerging producing fellowship. Lucy Jackson, who used to work with me, but she’s working independently now in New York, she’s primarily running it. Patricia is really working closely with her. We have three young producers who received $3,000 each. Then they have monthly meetings to talk to each other. We’ll set them up with meetings with any producer in the CIPA network who’s willing. I mean, that alone is so valuable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emailed— When I was starting out, I would email anyone I could think of just to say like, “Hey. How are you making this work? Can you tell me a little bit about this producing thing?” Most of the time, I got no response. If I did get a response, it was, “I’m really busy right now.” I just think that there’s a shift generationally and people are willing to help out the emerging producers a bit more than they were when I was starting.
Jeffrey: Totally. Can you, for our audience, sort of outline what the difference is between maybe an independent producer versus a producer at a regional theatre or something along those lines?
Miranda: Sure. There are a couple of distinctions. There are so many ways to process what it means to be a producer. With CIPA, we’ve actually been coming up with some terminology to help. There’s independent line producers who artists can hire to actually take on a lot of the administrative and producing work with the artist still really driving the ship. The work that I do and a lot of my peers in CIPA do is really under the framework of creative producing independently, which means that we are somehow shouldering the infrastructure that an organization would have if they were producing it. We’re working with artists who are generally not served very well or very frequently by those major arts institutions. The independent creative producer is often working as a partner to the artist and taking on financial risk with the artist, working with the artist to do all of the fundraising and development, connect all of the pieces together. Usually for a new project to be developed and premiere, you need three to five residency and presenting partners on board. That independent producer is really kind of connecting those institutional dots.
Whereas, a producer who is working on staff in a producing organization or a theatre organization, they’re typically producing a project with an artist that maybe that institution has commissioned. In the case of a regional theatre, they’re producing it from beginning to end, but it’s all under one roof and all of their resources are contained within that organization. An independent producer is working with an independent artist, who is not housed within one institution, to really put together many pieces of resources and opportunities to have enough to create a new work without that primary organization.
Jeffrey: That’s very helpful, I think. You’re right, “producer” can mean many things, and so it makes a lot of sense to think of it as someone on the outside who does the work of someone on the inside. That’s really great. I’m really glad that your membership is growing. How do folks realize that that might be an organization for them to join?
Miranda: Well, it’s a free and open membership right now. Let me see if I can find… cipausa.org. On that website, if you scroll down a bit, you’ll see CIPA’s mission and CIPA’s values. If an independent producer is interested in joining, there’s an email address to reach out to on the website. They’ll take a look at the values. The only qualification for membership is if your values are aligned with CIPA’s values. It’s pretty basic from there. It’s still an emergent organization, so there aren’t a lot of firm benefits from being a member. There are no membership benefits other than the community that you are a part of and the conversations that you’re able to have very easily. Hopefully those benefits will develop over time.
Some of the values really, just to give you a few, one of the primary, is we believe in the development of new work. That’s a distinguishing factor. Of course, the values include cultural equity, mentorship, empowerment, trust, and transparency. The first value that you’ll see is that we really position the artist at the center of our work.
Jeffrey: Okay. I want to bring it back around to that research study that you were talking about earlier on in, in the beginning of our conversation. I’m sure there will be a big reveal once you are ready to present. I’m wondering is there anything you can tell us about the data that you’ve gathered so far?
Miranda: Only that it’s so much more complicated than I imagined it would be, which is why it’s taking us so long to finish. The first step of the research, we basically cataloged every grant award that we could find as publicly accessible data from NPNs, creation funds, Creative Capital, the MAP Fund, NEFA’s National Dance Project, and National Theater Project, some of the major artists awards like the Herb Alpert Award, the Foundation for Contemporary Art Artists Award. We looked at all of these and we cataloged them, then we really ran them through some pretty basic data visualization software so we could see the geographic makeup of all of those together. Nothing was surprising in that. I don’t want to misquote the study without having it in front of me, but some unsurprising number like over 60 percent of those resources are going to artists in New York City or Brooklyn. No one is going to be shocked by that.
Then when we started to wonder why, what are the systems in place in each of these areas? Why is this the case? What can we actually uncover through data? Then it became really difficult because there are also assumptions we could make like, Oh, it’s this way because most of those “national foundations” are based in New York City, so they’re probably incentivized to give more locally. Then other things came up as well. We had a consultation session with Olga Garay-English [season two, episode 2] who I have so much deep respect for. She very quickly said, “Well, it’s because a review in the New York Times carries value. There’s no other newspaper in the US that carries that kind of weight.” When you’re looking at a national award and you’re looking for credentials of an artist, if they don’t have a New York Times review, they’re going to be five steps behind the artists who do have a New York Times review for their work. Things like that that I just hadn’t quite clocked.
Another colleague pointed out that art service organizations play a huge role, and that wasn’t part of our study at the time. We’re wondering, Okay, do we have to look at the art service organizations in each region and how well they’re serving their local community? A.R.T./New York, I know, is an incredible resource for New York–based artists. I subscribe and I encourage artists to subscribe to the NEFA emails. We don’t have an equivalent of that in LA shockingly.
Then the other big elephant in the room is really what we’re calling power brokers. You can kind of trace over time these national project grants following around individuals in their careers as power brokers. There’s a time when Seattle artists were getting quite a lot of attention and support. It’s because they had an anchor institution that provided them with a creative home. If you’re living in a city where your local presenters are only presenting out-of-town artists, then you don’t yourself have that anchor that is incredibly important when you’re applying for a national touring grants.
All of these things we started to break apart. Really, it’s taking so long because we are just struggling to figure out how do we present this information in a way that’s fair and accurate. It’s just so nuanced. Maybe we’ll come out and just say, “Here’s the data, do with it what you will.” That’s where that project is. I’m really hoping we have some output by the end of the fall, hopefully sooner.
Jeffrey: That’s fascinating, because I always think of Los Angeles and San Francisco as being huge artistic hubs, and so it’s fascinating to hear Olga’s perspective that the New York Times is so dominant.
Miranda: Well, we were looking in the Herb Alpert Award, they’re actually based in Los Angeles, and CalArts manages that award. Again, I have to go double check this data. I want to say this is the first year a Los Angeles artist was awarded that award. They’re New York artists getting that award because major artists awards like that, that are really selected through a very small panel-review process, and they’re looking at achievements. If you don’t have critical writing on your work at all, it’s difficult to demonstrate that your career had value.
The other thing I’ll mention too, that was interesting about the research, was we also looked at the Arts Vibrancy Index report that DataArts puts out on creative cities. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this one. Again, I’m not an expert on this particular study, but I was curious how they were... They were kind of ranking the best creative cities in the country, or the top creative cities in the country. They broke it down by large cities, midsize, and smaller towns. One of the metrics that they used are: How many independent artists are working in each city? What’s the ranking for independent artists? Los Angeles for the past five years has been ranked number one in terms of independent artists.
There is a huge population of independent artists here, but then if you look at the rankings in terms of government support at the state or the federal level, Los Angeles is very low on the list compared to a city like New York. With state funding, Los Angeles is actually much lower than the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s all nuanced. Then again, it’s like, Okay, great, these are the numbers, but the question is still: Why? Is there anything we can do to help the scenario? I think LA, we have the film and entertainment industry, we have a really great visual-art market here. A lot of artists are able to work commercially and make their way there, but then when they have their own ideas they’re self-producing in small gallery spaces, and those ideas are not traveling, they’re not meeting audiences around the country. I think they deserve to.
Anyway, that’s the work that I’ve been doing on the research side.
Jeffrey: What was the name of that study that you just described of the independent artists in...
Miranda: It’s part of the Arts Vibrancy Index from DataArts.
Jeffrey: Along these lines, and maybe this is assuming a bit too much, but you know you mention also in your HowlRound article that we need to resist old habits when it comes to developing work. We have this opportunity to buck those trends and buck those old habits from the great pause that we’ve had here. Are funders learning that these old habits need to go away as well?
Miranda: I really wish I were closer to the funding community. I’m hoping to bring our study to them. I do know that funders are experimenting with how they’re rolling out dollars and how they’re reviewing criteria. I can’t speak in a lot of detail to how that’s going, but I’ve heard about Mellon, for example, giving really substantial grants directly to independent artists in the last year, as a way to circumvent that institutional control. I think that’s exciting.
I have questions about that too. I don’t know what the right way to go is. That’s basically giving the artists enough money to build their own infrastructure, but I don’t know if a lot of artists want to build their own infrastructure. That’s a good role for an independent producer maybe to share some of that support, but that’s not up to me. It is difficult. The funders really are in the most powerful position because even presenting organizations will be responsible and accountable to those funding bodies. No, I can’t speak to specifically how they’re making changes. It does seem they’re paying much more attention to issues of equity. I want to hope that those issues of equity include pay equity, but I don’t know if they do.
Jeffrey: Yeah. I think you’re right though that I think that maybe there is an understanding that we need to be changing some of these... All the habits need to change, funding habits need to change as well. I feel like you’re right that there’s a little bit of a shift. It’s happening. I can feel it. In the conversations I’ve been having, people are still thinking about it still. They don’t know exactly how it will roll out or how it will continue, but it’s in process right now.
Miranda: Yeah. Yeah. I can’t help but think though that it really does all boil down to money at the end of the day. Most of the practices that were pretty toxic before were really undervaluing artists and their contributions to society. One practice, I would love to see as an example, if any funders will listen to your podcast, I would love to see some kind of protocol in place where the presenter’s personal salary, if you break it down into an hourly equivalent, it shouldn’t be a certain percentage more than if you broke down the artist touring fee by the same equivalent. I don’t know if that makes much sense as I said it out loud.
One of the things that’s really difficult in negotiating artist fees is pushing for an extra couple thousand dollars and knowing that you’re speaking on the phone to someone who’s in the six figure salary range, and they’re really fighting against that artist making $1,500 in a week. That has always been very frustrating. That kind of thing will unlock a lot of other doors that we need in terms of equity in the field, even in terms of allowing artists who are parents and mothers to participate fully in the field. We need to have cold hard cash to cover our childcare expenses and that extra airplane seat for the kid. These are all little things that money can solve. I do kind of sense, still, a little tightening whenever you talk about money as something that can solve problems in our field.
I do kind of sense, still, a little tightening whenever you talk about money as something that can solve problems in our field.
Jeffrey: Oh, yes. Yeah. I forget who it was, I talked to somebody, we were like, “Yeah, it’s such an American thing to be afraid of talking about money.” That’s just America. That’s just the culture that we have around money and classism and that kind of conversation. I think that’s a real challenge. We are in an advent where I think we’re going to say, “Hey. This is worth this artist’s time.” Yeah. One of the touring groups I talked to is like, “Yeah. We have to make sure that when we go on tour, it’s over a spring break or something so there’s childcare provided,” something along those lines ends up being satisfied. It’s really hard ultimately. Thanks for outlining that a little bit further. At the top, we talked about contemporary performances, storytelling and the storytelling nature of it. Why is it important for us to continue exploring contemporary means of telling stories?
Miranda: I should also say that I do believe that not all stories are linear. I am not at all advocating for us to, as a contemporary performance community, switch to linear storytelling modes. I just think it’s really critically important to have something meaningful to say with the work right now and the world and the state that the world is in. There was something about when I started that was super interesting about being engaged in the conversation of, again, these formal structures. There are just more important things to think about right now. For me, the value of storytelling in our communities is there’s a processing value. We all have to do some processing just connecting to each other. We just need to connect to each other. You know what I mean?
I think maybe that’s the biggest point. Maybe I’ll replace the word “story” with the word “idea.” If the idea or question being explored is not visible or tangible to the audience, then I’m not sure it needs to be in front of an audience in this moment. That’s just my opinion. I think about artists like Kristina Wong who may be on the nose, in terms of topical, but she’s made such an incredible difference in so many people’s lives. She did that in the height of the pandemic when she shifted from art-making to mutual aid. Then she turned that mutual aid back into her art and storytelling. Now, she’s able to tell the story of what she did during the pandemic, which is to completely organize the Auntie Sewing Squad as a national group of mutual aid providers who served so, so many people. That story is continuing to impact a lot of individual people.
I don’t know. I was feeling a little confused about the role of contemporary art. I went to see Kristina give a presentation and tell the story of Auntie Sewing Squad, and then the subsequent performance that she made out of that experience and the book that came out of that experience. Hearing even the audience Q&A after that presentation, I just was so struck by how impactful this work can be when it’s following an earnest path and really exploring a question. Again, it doesn’t need to be as literal as Kristina’s approach in terms of making work during the pandemic and then making work about the work made during the pandemic. We probably don’t need to dwell on the pandemic forever into the future.
There are just beautiful pieces of art coming out of the world right now, and out of artist communities that are maybe meditative, maybe just about connecting with one another. We’re hosting a pair of artists right now called the Touch Praxis Ensemble. They’re basically experimenting with how to touch people again and things like that I found so simple but incredibly meaningful and magical and what’s needed. I just don’t need to see anything that doesn’t have meaning in this moment.
Jeffrey: I’m wondering what inspired you to pick up the mantle of creating LAPP?
Miranda: It was a total accident of my youth and naivete. It was just kind of one thing led to another. I started by producing one project with a few artists in 2009 called The Closest Farthest Away with the theatre director Chi-wang Yang, and the composer Sage Lewis and the filmmaker Aleigh Lewis. It was really difficult work. It was the first project that I really had my hands in. It challenged all of us, I think, beyond what we imagined it would. After that, I had produced a project in Cuba, before it was entirely legal to travel there, and somehow our performance survived a couple of floods and equipment flooding, the load-in happened with two screwdrivers total, so I just thought, Wow, if I can do that... I mean one of our designers was almost not released from the country. I had to pay a cash bribe for him to get his suitcase to leave. It was just like… We were a group of people in our twenties and made this incredible thing happen.
Then I went back to my day job, and then another friend called and said, “I’m doing this project in East Africa and I have a Fulbright and I’d really like to work with you on it.” So I did that for a couple of years. Just one thing led to another. Sometimes I wonder if it was the right path for me because it definitely has not helped... I haven’t really gained financially from it, you know now I need to think about retirement savings, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that. I don’t know. I just loved it. I kept going, one thing after another. The pandemic really was the first time, with everything stopping, it was the first time I had to actually consider if this is something I would do by choice if the stones didn’t lay themselves out in front of me so easily. I think I would. I think I would.
Jeffrey: What do you see or hope for the future with this path with LAPP or yourself or the next steps?
Miranda: Well, there are a few ideal scenarios. One is maybe a younger group of producers would take on this work and I can go work for the post office and relax a little bit and get some government retirement money. It’s really a challenge because everything we did in the early years we did because there was no institutional support for us. We’re still advocating for artists who do not have institutional support. What has happened in the process of putting together an organization is that we have had to slowly institutionalize ourselves. We don’t have a lot of money or resource, but we have become a local institution.
I really question that position and I wonder what might happen if I handed off to someone new. I wonder if it is what the next generation of artists actually needs, or if they actually need to build their new system, and what can I do to help them do that? Can I give them any advice or any shortcuts along the way? That’s what I would love to do.
Then, I personally need to think about things differently now that I’m not as young and reckless as I used to be. I have to start thinking about getting serious about savings accounts and developing assets for my retirement, which will still be a long ways in the future, but now that I can feel how time goes by, I don’t have as much time as I thought I would.
Jeffrey: Is there anything right now that’s inspiring you beyond retirement savings?
Miranda: I’m always inspired by the artists who we work with. I just can’t help myself. I get so excited whenever we talk about any creative ideas. I still want to just have backyard barbecues with people singing by fireplaces. I don’t know. I think the stillness is the most inspiring thing in the moment, still. I’m waiting for my brain to kind of switch back over into the higher level of activity.
Jeffrey: Thank you so much for your time today, and thanks for bringing such inspiring and thoughtful work into the world. I am excited to keep an eye on that touring calendar as it develops.
Miranda: Thank you, Jeffrey. I hope that was a good use of your time for your podcast.
Jeffrey: Oh, absolutely.
First, a quick shout out to my Zoom sponsor, Quasimondo Physical Theatre, who permitted me to use their Zoom line for this uninterrupted conversation. I know so much was LA specific, but what ensemble or cultural center isn’t specific to its location? We learned as much from Bob Leonard on our last episode among so many others in season one, but LA being LA there was something in here that really made me think about the stigmas you might hear about creating work in Los Angeles. It was really nice to be able to lean into the ideas of developing work and what she learned from Diane Rodriguez. How the vitality comes from storytelling as a priority over form and aesthetic. That really hit me personally, as a creative. It was really great hearing more about CIPA, those who are working alongside the artists, taking the financial risk with them on the work, while taking the administrative burden off of the artist.
This takes me back to what Mara Isaacs said at the end of season two. Take a listen to that. Miranda here is saying it is a risk to make this work and that is so good to hear. If you go way back into season one, we had a convo with Julia Rhodes from Lucky Plush Productions. She talked about bringing on a full-time development person, split between three organizations. To have an independent producer who takes 15 percent of your work, as Miranda outlines, that’s quite a deal on project-by-project work. Again, we’ve summed Olga Garay-English back to the podcast.
Miranda’s dropped some research about the knowledge that LAPP is doing, and I’m not surprised that, one: a review in the New York Times is a huge draw for artists and funders, because that represents success in the work. That, two: the incentives that it takes for these funders to leave their money in New York where the philanthropy or funding is based makes sense. Some food for thought for another call in the future hopefully: “If you don’t have critical writing on your work at all, it’s difficult to demonstrate your career had value.” That’s an interesting thing to sit with for a minute.
I love how she describes success as making two friends at Under the Radar or APAP, and that she can’t just be pressuring folks for the sake of making a connection. That genuine aspect generates real trust. I think that’s just amazing. It just shows that the relationship between the processes for these connections does take a long time or they are already established in some ways. Again, how does an ensemble theatre make that connection to the work? Well, one thing she also said was how she started LAPP, because she wanted to assist her friends. It’s such a small and big step at the same time to start making work for one another and that suddenly spreads as time moves on.
She ends the conversation with the idea of having to institutionalize the Los Angeles Performance Practice and even then ask if it was the right thing to do. Then, personally, she’s also thinking about next steps for herself. Can she sustain herself in this moment with this kind of work as an independent producer? All excellent questions to take with us.
Hey, taking a bit of a step back to say if the philanthropy end of things interests you in what we’re discussing today, our next episode will be with Ben Cameron, champion of all things nonprofit. We’re going to be talking about his career at Doris Duke, Theatre Communications Group, and soon-to-be retired former president of the Jerome Foundation. We’ll definitely be getting into a convo about how we can be thinking about building your board of directors. I cannot wait to share it with you. Okay. Time to run.
First, your sound-check lightning round.
What is your favorite salutation?
Miranda: I think I just say, “Hello.” A little old school.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite form of transportation?
Miranda: That I find most enjoyable is by bike, but I’m too afraid to do it here. So I don’t do it very often.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite exclamation?
Miranda: I think I like it when people say, “Oh, boy!”
Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Los Angeles Performance Practice?
Miranda: Oh, wow. Probably the programming on Disney Cruise Lines, but maybe not actually. I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about that. I was trying to think, well, the opposite of practice is something that’s more of a, just, exchange, just transactional. That’s the opposite of practice. Anyway. Wow. That’s a tricky one, because I actually like to think that what we do is closer to Disney’s Cruise Line programming than people might imagine.
Jeffrey: You asked me what does “ensemble” mean, and I’m going to ask you, what does “ensemble” mean to you?
Miranda: Well, I’ll use your answer since it was so much in line with mine. An ensemble is a group of like-minded artists who are coming together to create something. I think of their practice as a group of people as being generative and, using your words, “not from the font of a playwright’s.” I’ll add to that: with purpose and intention to really explore today’s issues and concerns.
Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not Los Angeles Performance Practice?
Miranda: I think I would be working for the US Postal Service. I would probably wear some khaki shorts and organize things and then deliver mail and drive around to one of those trucks all day. I know I’m overly romanticizing it. I know it’s a really tough job, but it just sounds so idyllic to me.
Jeffrey: Amazing. Well, great. Most importantly, what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream or frosty treat?
Miranda: Oh, I love ice cream. I like salty ice creams. I actually really like rocky road ice cream, but I don’t have it enough. I should make a trip today.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.
Think you or someone you know ought to be on the show? Send us an email at [email protected]. We also accept fan mail and requests. Access to all of our past episodes can be found on my website, jeffreymosser.com as well as howlround.com.
The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org. This podcast is produced as a contribution to the HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can find a transcript for the episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.
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