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How to Tour Theatre Like a Punk Band

If you want to tour, you have to do it like a punk band. Lately, this is something I've heard several times. I first had this conversation with Internet poet Steve Roggenbuck over vegan pancakes and I heard it most recently from Louisville circus act Blue Moon. But my favorite band of travelers this summer was a group of puppeteers and musicians out of Chicago. On August 20, Rough House Theater pulled into Louisville; put up their hand built stage; erected their DIY light system; and performed Sad Songs For Bad People. It's the second show the group has taken on the road, following last summer’s tour of Constance and the Perpetual Motion Machine.

Sad Songs for Bad People is a musical collection of murder ballads with a meta-theatrical structure that asks the question: why do we sing sad songs? I spoke with Rough House founder Mike Oleon and company member Claire Saxe. They both echoed the sentiment about touring that I've been hearing: take cues from small musical groups. It makes sense. DIY bands raging against the corporate machine have been cobbling shoestring tours out of nothing but talent and grit for decades. Why can't other independent arts groups use the same tools and structures to tour? So, here is a collection of advice and a handful of stories from the Rough House road tour of Sad Songs.

a woman posing with puppets
Maddy Low with two puppets that are about to die in Sad Songs for Bad People. Photo courtesy of Rough House Theater.

Kindred Individuals
At nearly every turn of my conversation with Rough House, they talked about finding partners in every community they visit. According to Oleon, "the key is finding a kindred individual." The first partner is the venue. "We performed in so many different kinds of venues ranging from totally empty warehouse spaces, to anarchist punk houses, to art galleries," said Oleon.

The second partner is your opening act. This opening act will serve as a street team for your company and build an audience. Rough House reached out to all kinds of acts. In Louisville, they teamed with Squallis Puppeteers, but finding a local puppet group was actually a rarity. Rough House often teams up with theatre groups doing ten-minute plays, or local musicians. Matching Sad Songs vibe mattered more than the medium of their openers.

Rough House often sources venues and opening acts through the informal web of communications that many theatre artists bolster through social media and the Internet. Did Rough House know someone in Pittsburgh? Do they know someone who knows someone in Pittsburgh?

Keep it Loose
Sometimes they also use word of mouth. On their 2014 summer tour, they had a last minute cancellation from a venue in Buffalo, NY. Rather than search for another space in Buffalo, the group decided to play a second show in Detroit. They had been hearing good things about an anarchist collective space called Trumbullplex. Oleon recalls, "We pretty much knocked on their door, and said, 'Hi, we have a puppet show. Can we perform it?'"

The venue already had a punk show booked for that evening, but they were game for something different. So, they invited Rough House to do their show after the music was finished. At midnight, the last guitar wail ended and the half-drunk crowd of rowdy punks and hipsters were unprepared for what happened next. But Rough House reports that they loved it. By choosing an interesting venue and opening act, Rough House was reaching out to non-traditional theatre crowds, including gallery goers, music fans, and anarchists.

The design of their show was key. Rough House's beautiful set and incredibly functional hand made lighting system come from designer Will Rudolph, who Oleon calls a wizard. Without this set and lighting, the list of spaces that could host Rough House would either have shrunk to almost nothing, or the group would have had to let go of control of the more technical and fine tuned moments in the show.

The Best Laid Plans
For this year’s tour, Trumbullplex was at the top of the list of venues to visit. "We only need ten feet by ten feet available on the floor, an electrical outlet, and a place for audience members to sit," said Oleon. With an ingenious technical setup, kindred spirits awaiting their arrival, and a really great show, Rough House hit the road.

Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and puppets can amount to very little in this cruel world. Two days into their trip and just a few minutes from their triumphant return to Trumbullplex in Detroit, the tour van broke down on the off ramp of I-75. Rough House jumped out, pushing the van the last half-mile to the venue. Fearing that poor visibility might cause an actual death, one member pulled the brightest biggest puppet from the van, a life-sized white horse head on a long pole, and raised it high. "It felt like a flag of surrender," said Saxe.

There in Detroit, at the anarchist collective where they had created a spontaneous midnight performance the year before, they were greeted as legends. Rough House rocked their Detroit show while waiting for news from the mechanic. When word came, it was bad: the van was dead and it cost thousands of dollars to purchase an entirely new engine. Rough House's tour was over…or so it seemed.

DIY bands raging against the corporate machine have been cobbling shoestring tours out of nothing but talent and grit for decades. Why can't other independent arts groups use the same tools and structures to tour?

Do Not Go Gentle
After an intense brainstorming session, three members of the group boarded a Greyhound back to Chicago to retrieve set designer Rudolph's truck and Saxe's hybrid. They drove through the night and arrived back in Detroit just as the sun was rising. Rudolph hacked pieces off the set as the group packed everything into the truck and car. Then, the whole group drove ten hours to Pittsburgh to kill puppets and sing about murder.

Not including auto costs, this tour would have paid the artists and left them with money for their Chicago performance run of Sad Songs later this fall. With the death of the van, however, this tour goes down in the history books as a net loss.

But for this audience member, who saw the final show of the tour in Louisville, Kentucky, the journey of Sad Songs can't be counted as anything other than a raging, roaring, crying, killing, success. And I'm personally hoping to see a lot more independent theatre groups tour like punk rockers.

Chicago audiences will get a chance to see Sad Songs at the Neofuturarium from November 20—December 12. For more information, visit Rough House online.


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