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Funding Accountability

With Iyvon E. of The Parsnip Ship

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Iyvon E.: And it's really frustrating to see that there are many institutions that say they're doing the work that we do—, or can't even touch the amount of work that we do and the way that we do it—, and they get all this money and funding, and funders aren't actually checking them. Were Black people harmed while they were in your space? [music fades in] Did you actually pay them an equitable rate? Did they feel safe? Were you welcoming? Like there are all these nuances that I try to make up for with Parsnip.

Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Imanallatak kanki. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome to another episode of the Building Our Own Tables Podcast, Season Two. I'm your host, Yura Sapi, recording from Emberá Native lands on the Afro-Indigenous coast of Colombia in Nuquí, Chocó in the Gulf of Tribugá. The Building Our Own Tables Podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world.

I'm interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other founders of color to find transformative solutions and ways of working together that are not replicating the same white supremacy culture we wanted to get away from. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority, who have created arts organizations, movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond, that are changing the game, making new things happen within and building their own tables instead of focusing on getting a seat at existing white and Eurocentric ones. We'll be learning from incredible arts organizing visionaries on their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome.

In today's episode, I'm interviewing Iyvon E., co-founder of The Parsnip Ship. The Parsnip Ship is a podcast play company that amplifies bold artists for audiences who crave accessible stories and storytellers. Their live events and audio podcasts are eclectic and transformative, creating communities in-person and digitally. Through their work, they revolutionize the way you hear theatre.

The Parsnip Ship re-imagines the concept of the radio play by specifically focusing on stories that differ in form, content, and plot by underproduced playwrights. The series features new plays and new music performed live and released as a free podcast. This live event and podcast series highlights diverse stories in both theatre and music, and brings awareness to inspiring artists. No other theatrical company provides a free live event with their format, which includes the curation of live independent musicians and a personal interview with the playwright. Recorded live every month in Brooklyn, The Parsnip Ship is available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher.

As they believe there are as many distinctive styles and voices as there are playwrights, they remain open to a wide range of plays that will engage audiences in an intimate setting and on a podcast form. They see their recordings as a collaborative effort among the playwright, the directors, the musicians, and the actors.

Iyvon E. is a Nigerian-American independent creative producer, company manager, and dramaturg hailing from Brooklyn, New York.

[music fades out]

Iyvon E.: My name Is Iyvon E. I am the artistic director, and founder, and the host of The Parsnip Ship, which is a radio play platform. We focus specifically on showcasing and sharing, via audio theatre, works by artists that we really think should and need to be produced more widely in American theatre. So, this specifically means books of the global majority, qQueer folks, women., anyone Anyone who is not centered currently in American theatre is who we want to center on our platform.

Yura Sapi: Can you share more about the origin story?

Iyvon E.: Yeah, I started it and I co-founded it with someone who no longer is with Parsnip. And when we began, it really was, you know, we wanted to gather friends and read a play and record a play in a living room, and have some people play music, and then maybe we interview them. Something really like fun, nonchalant, casual. Anyone who does audio knows that it is definitely not nonchalant or casual [laughter] when you actually have to put it together, so it took some while for us to get out our first episode, which was actually School of the Americas written—, and that episode was directed by— José Rivera, who is a dear friend of mine and was so gracious to be the first person to do this weird experiment with us.

And then we were kind of in and out of it for like a year or so. And then I went into this program in Berlin that was really transformational and really helpful, and it gave me space and time to think about Parsnip and what I wanted to be about and speak to. And, of course, this was during, you know, Trump had also just been elected, and so, I believe season three I was consciously wanting to choose plays that responded to everything that Trump stood against. So I was like, I want queer playwrights, I want women, I want people of color in this tapestry of audio theatre.

And then after doing that program in Berlin, and my old partner left, it really helped to crack open—now that I was in full charge of what the artistic vision of what this could be, the space I had really helped to crack open that—-- as poor as I was, I had to put money for Parsnip out of my own pocket. I just did not want to center or like produce plays by cis, straight, white dudes. I just didn't want my money, as a Black woman who is already underpaid by American theatre, to go to uphold and support the supremacist notion of American theatre, which centers cis white dudes. That just didn't feel in line and in tandem. And so, I just had this desire to go like, “Okay, what if we had a full season of these specific types of folks that are not really being centered?” I was like, “Season four is going to be all playwrights of color. Season five is going to be all female, female-identifying folks.” And that, of course, began to, in terms of gender and conversations about gender, that also began to evolve as well.

And then season six is going to be all queer playwrights. And that also has a richness to it where, yes, we are going to have white dudes, but they might be white trans dudes, and that's okay because they don't get produced on American stages. And that is what we want this platform to be. Parsnip has gone through this transformation via, like, what I and my team are just very much trying to break down and also make more accessible to people, especially these communities that we center in our programming. We also want to center in making sure that these works are accessible to them. So, we don't charge for our episodes when we record them live in our theatre in Downtown Brooklyn, nor do we charge for listening to these episodes.

And so, we really want them to be a vehicle for theatre institutions, for theatre teachers, acting students, directing students to be able to have a breadth of work and a real tapestry of work that they can go to that is outside of what is the traditional, white-centered canon in American theatre, because our storytelling is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. And we have technology now, so there's something really beautiful about when I get messages on Parsnip or emails from people who are in India or Brazil, who listen to our episodes. And folks who are queer in countries that queerness isn't embraced, that they can turn to one of our many, many episodes written by— you know, so many of our playwrights actually identify as queer, thank you intersectionality— that they can have access to these stories and feel seen from thousands of miles away is really beautiful.

So that's Parsnip.

Yura Sapi: That's something that happens for me., it It happened for me—, I think it happens for a lot of folks who I've interviewed—, taking money out of our own pockets to start the organization and make it happen at least at the beginning. And thoughts on that phenomenon that happens, that ends up being the case.

And I feel like it's part of what is about, one, bringing agency, because when it ends up being a specific funder or even going into the nonprofit industrial complex— Kyoung Park, talks about this in another episode, like that shift. We started to feel like the difference between needing to make work specifically for funders and starting to shift priorities to go in line with what these funders are looking for instead of having our own agency and being able to do what we want and what we need to do.

And so, yeah, having crowdfunding, having money that's much more directly accessible and not necessarily tied to a specific line item—general operating support, I guess it can be called as well. So yeah, that is a strength of being able to use this type of money that comes in on our own, but it's also maybe not super sustainable and there is a shift that happens as time goes on, right? So, would love to hear more of your thoughts on that.

Iyvon E.: Yeah, it's all, of course, definitely complicated. I will say for Parsnip that we have not needed to shift what we do for funding. And the reason for that is because we are just starting to get funding, and the reason for that is because audio theatre was not eligible for funding because funders had decided that audio theatre wasn't theatre. So there was already those layers that forced to me to continue to put money or to like, you know, I had very kind friends and we have volunteers that work for Parsnip,s so they donate their time, and their money, and their labor, and their bodies to Parsnip to keep it running and to keep it up and moving. So there was that for a while, but COVID was actually helpful in us getting funding. And it's so fucked. It's so fucked that a pandemic that forced all of us inside really had people rethinking, Oh, theatre doesn't have to be us all in this space to make that happen, but that's what had to happen.

Yeah. So Parsnip has not been as beholden to grants. We don't necessarily apply for grants just so that we can get the money and then we'll figure it out. We've really tried to figure out which ones are for us. So yeah, the money thing is all new to us. It feels like we've matured in a certain aspect. The money's coming a little slower, which feels a little frustrating at times, I'm not going to lie, because of the work that we're doing because we can't pay our artists. And that's really, really disheartening that it can't pay our artists, and we're centering people who probably get paid less than white cis males in theatre already. And so, it really does sadden me. It frustrates me.

And it's really frustrating to see that there are many institutions that say they're doing the work that we do, or can't even touch the amount of work that we do and the way that we do it, and they get all of this money and funding., and And funders aren't actually checking them to see, hey, actually, you got this money to put on three Black shows. Were Black people harmed while they were in your space? Did you actually pay them an equitable rate? Did they feel safe? Were you welcoming? Like, there are all these nuances that I try to make up for with Parsnip considering we can't pay. I have a background in company management, so taking care of people is in my DNA, and it's in the DNA of Parsnip. So we know we can't pay you, but we will treat you well. We will meet you where you're at. We'll take care of the production. We want this to be something you're proud to share with your community because we're here to celebrate you and this work that you are graciously allowing us to record and share with the world.

And so, there's that beautiful reciprocity with our artists. But I want there also to be financial, we want to give you money for this work that you're doing and for how you're bringing our communities together. And it is really frustrating that it feels like we have to jump through so many more hoops, even so much so as like, we now, because we were fiscally sponsored, we're now becoming a 501(c)3 because we find that there actually is more grant and opportunities that way. But, as we know, 501(c)3s are kind of problematic, and the ways in which that system was created is not meant for people of color. It's mostly meant to uphold supremacy we say we want to divest from.

But that's where we're at and that's what we have to do. And it's exciting in one aspect, but it's also a little sad that this is what we have to do in order to make ourselves sustainable and make it so that our team isn't burning both ends of the candle to continue to do this work that other theatres say that they do and have the “prestige” of doing.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, it definitely feels like working with what we've got in the moment and potentially planting seeds, like planting trees that we won't get to bear the fruit or the shade of them in what we're doing. Because I wonder too, like, because it is this catch-22, like just what you're saying, is wanting to be able to pay our artists and have—yes, we're offering these workspaces that are free, or much less microaggressions, much less oppression that ends up causing costing more money in the long run in terms of like healthcare and different things that we'll end up needing to pay for, mitigate that difficulty in the workplace. But then we also need to figure out how to get that money or how that exchange will work, how that funding model, how living in these tax structures and these governments day-to-day works for now, at least.

But it does make me think that if we're able to then be able to, yes, I guess create these nonprofits and create these spaces where we can receive these larger grants and money, and start really educating the funders as well in terms of what they need to be doing to support us in terms of, yeah, checking up and making sure, and not just checking on the budget, sending budget reports, but sending more community-based harm reports, harm reduction, and talking about accountability. And so, educating folks and creating these new systems that the transfer of wealth can happen, the transfer of power can happen from these predominantly white nonprofits to be able to go to these other organizations and then maybe in the next twenty, forty years, one hundred years, we'll be dealing with other things that we're looking to improve and change upon.

Iyvon E.: Absolutely. And I tell people after everything that happened in the last year with calling out the supremacy in American theatre and, you know, We See You WAT. For me, it's all like the funders, the major funders are probably some of the big hindrances to the revolution of theatremaking and theatre support that we're very eager to see. And I don't think it's talked about enough because from all the letters, the open letters that were written from artists and administrators, to folks that run institutions and to the institutions themselves. Like a lot of these places, if there was this accountability check of harm reduction and of how artists actually felt while they were in the space, rather than just sending a budget report, a lot of these places would not be getting funding or would not be getting as much funding.

We're already seeing how when those big funders—-- because they know their power—-- when they realize that, okay, let's actually create funds and grants for smaller organizations to thrive, those communities are going to be a little bit better off than other places that would have gotten that because of the community and arts programming that will be brought to spaces that absolutely need them.

But what is also frustrating about that is larger foundations and the places that could really set you up for success, long-term generational success for smaller arts organizations, they ask you first to have so much money. It's like, you need to be a nonprofit bringing in one million. And I'm like, I don't know if Parsnip is ever going to bring in one million., I think like that would be so much for us, which then excludes us from a lot of grants that could set us up for long-term support. So we don't need one million a year, but could you give us a million over ten years and make sure that we're sustainable and that we can still support five hundred artists a year? Could you help us do that? That would be thrilling for me. I don't need a million dollars this year. That would be really overwhelming.

A portrait of the guest Ivyon E. against a galaxy background with the Building Our Own Tables logo to the left.

Ivyon E. of The Parsnip Ship.

Yura Sapi: And what happens when you have to run an organization that is a million dollars, you end up getting hierarchy immediately because-

Iyvon: Exactly.

Yura Sapi: How can you possibly have this machine without going into these capitalistic white supremacist systems that they've created that, I guess, “work,” but at the cost of everybody's care and health?

Iyvon: Sometimes I'm like, oh yeah, I really want a millionaire to just give me—I want MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos's ex, to just give me like ten million for Parsnip. And that would be great, but in reality, yes, we could do amazing things with 10 million, but we're not going to use the ten million. We don't need to be a ten-million-dollar organization a year. That's basically what I mean. We don't need to do that for us to do the work that we do, and do it well, and pay people and ourselves to do the work.

There's something I'm really interested in like, I love with Parsnip—I love working with friends, I love working with very smart friends, all of whom are not theatre people. And that's, what's really great about our team is, like, I'm not in a room talking in an echo chamber, I'm talking with people who run a production company, so they see production—we see production in a different way. They see it in a very brilliant way that is really hard for me to access sometimes, and it's great to have people who can break it down.

We have someone who's in tech who helps with our digital offerings, and it's really great to be able to talk to someone with this knowledge. And then we have someone else who has nonprofit administrative background, but wants to run businesses. And so, that is not something I want to change, and I think becoming a 10 mil organization all of a sudden, you have to adhere immediately to a hierarchy that, Parsnip, we have been slowly moving away from because we're all so collaborative inherently. And I'm the artistic director and I'm the mouthpiece, face, but there are people behind who are helping me and setting me up in this way.

And so, I would want to continue that rather than radically shifting, which is not what small arts orgs want. They just don't want to burn out. We just don't want to burn the fuck out doing the work that needs to happen, because you get into the space which you probably know of, like, if I don't do it, who will, right? That's what it's always felt like for me. I think COVID has shifted what that answer is because now a lot of people are doing audio theatre, but it's still not the way I do it. So, I still sometimes have, if I'm not doing it specifically in the way I'm doing it with every season as a no excuse, fuck you to American theatre—we are showcasing and programming these people in this specific way—who else is going to do that? Other people can, but I don't know yet. I haven't seen that yet.

And I also want to make space for more people to do that. I don't want to be the only one at all. This is not like a, "I need to be the person." I want other people to do it, and I guess until I see that a lot, then, I keep going back to—if no one else is doing it or if we're not doing it, no one else will.

[music]

Yura Sapi: Yeah. Can you speak more about how decisions are made, how you work with decision-making in your team?

Iyvon: Our team is, you know, we've always been pretty remote. We all have other jobs. We're all very busy people. We come together to do this thing. So we have my managing director, Katy, we have Al who is my right hand in artistic as our associate artistic director, and then we have Charlie, who I went to school with at Brandeis, he is our business manager. Todd, who I also went to Brandeis with—Brandeis, love it—and he runs our digital operations. And then, Jesse is our head of special projects. I also went to Brandeis with him, lived across the hall from him freshman year. And he runs a production company that he and Katy work for called Business Lunch Productions, and they are producers on Parsnip. So we are a very strange mishmash of how we work. We have a mishmash of skills, different interests, different ways of looking, and all of us are producers in some way, shape, or form in what we do for our platform.

We also have a board now, which is very involved and is a diverse set of brains and thinkers who are helping us think about the long-term of Parsnip and what it can turn into. They've been helpful in what it has turned into during the pandemic, and their support has been really amazing. So I don't do Parsnip alone and that is a blessing and a godsend that there are other people who really believe in this. And the least I can do for them is to offer, to give them space to have an imprint in how we function and how we work. And sometimes it is that I have to make the decision because they're defaulting to me. But for the most part, I trust my team wholeheartedly in what they suggest to me on, like, what decision I can make specifically as we're going through this change of becoming a 501(c) and we're figuring out what pieces of the team we still need to have managed and covered as we experience this growth is super key. So get yourself a great team.

Yura Sapi: I love it. I'd love to hear about the future for The Parsnip Ship, the vision that you are thinking about in terms of the organization, the projects you're working on. And it's connected to, I would say maybe a vision for our community and even our country and the world at large, but wanting to hear about that.

Iyvon: That's so interesting. That's a good question. I think it's still always evolving and changing, but I really am excited about audio theatre being a cornerstone and mainstay in most, if not all, theatres in this country specifically. Audio theatre is big in the UK, I mean, in other places. And so, I'm looking forward to that being a mainstay. And since we've been doing this for a while, us being a part of that conversation and charge on what the future of audio theatre looks like and what it can sound like specifically, and who we're hearing from. And I guess specifically from small theatres, like this is outside of the Audible of it all, specifically talking about small nonprofits, small fiscally sponsored theatres really making this a mainstay in their programming.

I also envision a world where Parsnip has spaces and communities, which we have digitally, but in other countries, because I'm really keen on Parsnip being in other languages and us recording things in other languages—what we're going to do with our Audio Journey series, with Playwrights Horizons, in which it'll be offered in Spanish. And so, I'm really excited that we're going to record a play in another language. One, it's a language I kind of understand, so there's something about giving that inherent trust to another artist when it comes to this kind of work and expanding that community, because we really do want to be accessible and language is a part of accessibility, so breaking that a little bit more.

And I envision us going back to live episode recordings. I really miss that...It's been, I think our last episode was in February 2020, and I'm so, so thankful for that night. Usually, sometimes these episodes become a blur, and I'm like, "Well, what did we do? But that one is very firmly fixed in my brain as something that was, it was by Taji Senior called, 'A' (What The Black Girl Found While Searching For God). One, that being about Black womanhood, and as a Black woman, and that being during Black History Month, and then the next month the world coming to a close and not having done an episode since then.

I really miss reading a play in front of people, and a live musician sitting not more than five feet in front of me, and interviewing artists, and then going out to a bar after that with this new community that we made that night, and having it archived in that moment, in that space, in that time and place, and then sharing it with the world, and hearing it anew in that way, I really miss. So I envisioned just going back to that. They were simple. They were easy. And they were good and fulfilling. And yeah, I want that again.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. I have found challenges in working remotely, working via online communications with teams. In some ways, it's been also because my Wi-Fi will go out, and sometimes I can't even do a Zoom call. And so, at least even some of what you get with seeing the other person is lost, too, in like a WhatsApp message.

But yeah, I would love to hear about your experience doing that shift of coordinating and working with people online and via email, too, because I feel like email could be so harmful in ways of communicating.

Iyvon: The shift, for me, hasn't been too bad. All in all, I think that what is a constant in my brain is like, well, this is the safest thing we can do right now. I love that I've met so many people in this way that I never would have met because I never thought about communicating with people via Zoom. There was FaceTime, which I barely did before, I was still on the Skype. So I think that's been really nice. I was already before the pandemic half-working from home. I wasn't doing meetings remotely, I'd have phone calls with my boss. And I was also touring, so I was also not home.

I came into the pandemic a little like, "Okay, I guess it's good to be home for a bit. Cool." That was when I thought it was like two months, so I think I adjusted fine. But then, of course, being stir-crazy—I'm not a person who can be in the same place for too, too long before needing to jump out of my skin. So I kind of rediscovered my neighborhood in a little bit more intimate ways, which I think was helpful in terms of the work balance. I also learned that I can't be on Zoom for six hours a day, five days a week. I started getting really bad headaches.

So, I learned how to take care of myself and set more boundaries. I do prefer email just because I have ADHD, and getting a text and then getting a Facebook message, it becomes overwhelming. And especially during this time of, we are communicating in these ways, that was very overwhelming. So, I've just learned to set the boundaries of if it's a work thing, email is great; if it's a quick thing you want to tell me, text is great. Facebook Messenger, I'll check it like once a week or sometimes once a month. And you can call me for a phone call because I love hearing people's voices, but I also love seeing people's faces as well, because it can be hard to gauge people without that.

But also, people are burnt out by the screen, and that is so real. So if someone doesn't want to turn on the screen, God bless them. I feel that sometimes I'm that way. I think it's really, again, meeting people where they're at and giving grace, because this is not normal times, and we are not meant to be in front of screens 10 hours a day. That's just also bad.

Yura Sapi: Definitely, I feel this energy of going back and opening up again. And the fears of what we kind of had thought might happen in terms of everybody forgetting what we learned, in all different ways, during the pandemic and that energy coming back. Although there are now, we know with the Delta variant mutation, being more hesitant. It's like not everything is going back as it was, I heard like a few weeks ago or something. It's just so much that's happening and that we're processing, especially for people who can't get vaccinated, who aren't going to be able to “go back.” We're working with, all of these things happening at once and then coping and managing with feelings. Yeah, so I think definitely meeting folks where we're at and having those conversations and community building with the specific people that we're around.

Iyvon: That's all we can do. I just feel a bit more of a realist. And after all of this ends, people apologizing for dealing with the pandemic the best that they can. When people are like, "I'm sorry, I had to go pee." I'm like, you don't need to apologize, you need to go pee. And I find myself doing that, where it's like, oh, why am I apologizing that I'm eating. I'm working from home, I have to eat. There are just certain things that I'm really keen on us breaking away from as the norm, is like, what if the norm is that like we're humans?

Yura Sapi: And that these pandemics were here before, and that they're probably going to be here after. And yeah, so many of us, of the global majority, our ancestors, ourselves, our parents even went through different pandemics, went through different apocalypse, different disasters and survived. And so, we're also living proof and we are basically going to that wisdom that's already there.

Iyvon: Yeah. And they also survived by not being fucking selfish. They were community-oriented more than we are, because it's easy for us to silo-ize ourselves. Yeah, I think about that. I think about, yeah, my ancestors.

Sometimes I wake up and I forget that there's a pandemic, and then I go on Facebook and I'm like, right, there's a pandemic. Or I go on news and I'm like, right, there's a pandemic. But then I remember like, right, I am here, and there have been many pandemics before that our parents, that our grandparents, great-grandparents have survived. But wow, they really had community in a way that we don't and that we have to really cultivate and carve out. It feels like it was a little bit more inherent back then. And now it's a little less so, and it's more so in the sense it's digital and virtual, but it's not the same as in proximity to one another, which we also can't do. It's incredibly nuanced, but we got this!

Yura Sapi: And yeah, one day our future ancestors will be saying similar things.

Iyvon: Yeah. There'll be hearing us say it to them via holographs or something.

[laughter]

Yura Sapi: Oh, we laugh, and it's probably true. [laughter]

Iyvon: Exactly. They're going to listen to this in the future, and they're like, we knew. [laughter]

Yura Sapi: Or it's like, you don't even know what's going to happen, so there's going to be so much more.

[music fades in]

Iyvon: Yeah. Like they can actually see this moment right now, it's going to be trippy.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. Well, future ancestors, you're awesome and you got this too.

Iyvon: Yeah.

Yura Sapi: This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables Podcast. I'm your host and producer, Yura Sapi. Our editor is Daniel Umali. Original music by Blackos The Producer and Julian Var. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search "HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts," and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, donate to support future episodes at advancingartsforward.org. You can also post a rating and write a review on those platforms to help other people find us. There is a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content available on howlround.com.

Have an exciting idea for an essay, podcast, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.

[music fades out]

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

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