How We Did It: Collecting Oral Histories to Preserve the foolsFURY Legacy
For twenty-four years, foolsFURY served as an artistic home for makers of ensemble and devised theatre. The San Francisco-based company began by producing existing experimental works and grew to become a showcase for original devised pieces, often in collaboration with playwrights or authors. It created the biennial FURY Factory, which presented international ensemble productions, works-in-progress, and workshops. It became the West Coast hub for training in Viewpoints and Suzuki. In recent years, the company embarked on a reckoning with its history as a privileged and white-led organization, engaging in reflective processes that attempted to disrupt its past and restructure its present. In addition, the founder and co-artistic director stepped down, and the company began to explore possible new leadership structures. The COVID pandemic prompted further changes; foolsFURY began to reimagine its own work in a digital setting. It created the multi-media Library Project. It presented the BUILD conferences, two online convenings that gathered ensemble theatremakers under the mandate of building effective, long-lasting systemic change toward social justice.
Then, in 2021, the challenge of providing livable wages in San Francisco, the devastating California wildfires, and the disruption of a global pandemic led foolsFURY to the difficult decision to close.
In order to close thoughtfully, foolsFURY began their Ritual of Dismantling. Company members created an altar at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and held a public “wake” with both virtual and in-person attendees. The company embarked on The Legacy Project, intended to preserve its work. The project team began with artistic director Debórah Eliezer and board member Dr. Mercilee Jenkins, and they hired me, Emily Weak, to serve as the archivist.
Our team embarked on an ambitious oral history project and ultimately conducted twenty-nine interviews in two months. These oral histories archive a broad sampling of community members from different eras and roles, and they include those who participated in productions, trainings, convenings, workshops, FURY Factory festivals, and the day-to-day running of the organization.
In the course of this work, the Legacy Project team created a protocol which may be of use to others in the field. While we were motivated by the company’s closure, any organization looking to preserve the diverse voices in their history may benefit from an oral history initiative. It is a rich undertaking and need not consume too many resources. I will share our process with you.
We began by convening a virtual meeting of key stakeholders. Ensemble members, creators, administrators, and generally valued persons helped create a broad vision of who we should talk to and what was important to record.
Following the meeting, we created a list of sixty-eight potential interviewees. This was unwieldy! We knew we had two months at the most, so we needed to narrow our list. We initially created a rubric but ended up using a much simpler priority metric:
- “Priority One,” which meant a company member with multiple roles in the company and/or significant roles of status/power
- “Priority Two,” which meant board members, playwrights, and/or those who worked only on one project
- “Priority Three,” which meant people who offered their expertise/teaching to the company but were not involved in leadership or artistic projects
We also evaluated our lists with an eye on demographics and company function. As interviewer Angela Santillo later put it,
“Diversity of voices, not only in the way that we think of DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], but when you think about what it takes to put on a show. Don't forget about the people who aren't on stage and who aren't leadership; they often have really special insight into what's working and what's not working with a process. Because I've been a producer, I'm always keenly aware of designers and stage managers and how they see so much, but they're rarely asked for their opinion on the process.”
This gave us a group of thirty-nine people to initially reach out to, followed by sixteen in Priority Two, and thirteen in Priority Three.
The pandemic, as well as time and budget, left us with an obvious choice for format: Zoom. Zoom allowed folks to share their stories from the safety and convenience of their own homes. It also allowed us to draw on the international cohort of foolsFURY stakeholders. Face-to-face interviews may have been warmer, but Zoom did not interfere with the enjoyment of the process. Dr. Jenkins described,
“It was a little awkward at first being in Zoom. I'm not a technological whiz. But I just love it. I love to hear people talk about their experience. I'm a good listener, and I just find it fascinating. I didn't realize that I would enjoy it as much as I did.”
We settled on an interview length of one hour for most folks, and two hours for the founder and for the artistic director. One hour was the sweet spot: enough time for a meaty interview, but not long enough to become fatigued. We also made the decision to not listen to or share any interviews during the process. We wanted to minimize worries folks might have about how they looked or sounded, and this turned out to be an ongoing and complex task!
One of the things that worked the best when I was being interviewed was that the interviewer would listen intently and latch on to specific things that I had said to bring up later.
We realized our little team of three would not be able to conduct all the interviews on our own. In fact, we made the decision that due to power dynamics Eliezer, the artistic director, should not conduct any of the interviews. So, we needed to find personable folks who were interested in short-term flexible work. After an earnest discussion we settled on $75 per interview, a rate that encompassed interview time, preparation, and wrap up (and also that foolsFURY was in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the United States). We ended up finding company contacts who had extensive interviewing experience (podcaster Angela Santillo, who is also a playwright and former company member), who were dramaturgs (Emily Dedakis and Scott Horstein), and those who had both recent and past experience with foolsFURY’s method of ensemble and devised work (Julius Rea and Jillian Jetton, respectively).
The tight timeline and virtual format necessitated creating a clear onboarding packet for interviewers. Dr. Jenkins was our oral history expert, having collected oral histories for plays she wrote. She drafted a list of possible questions and shared her guide to conducting oral history interviews and a sample release form. We built on this foundation to create a seven-item digital “packet.” It included a process checklist, detailed guide for interviewers, list of possible questions, notes form, instructions for using auto transcription on Zoom, information about release forms, and a short summary of the Legacy Project itself. Links to these materials are also included at the end of this essay.
We asked interviewers to look through the packet and then provided a thirty- to sixty-minute on-boarding meeting via Zoom. We had intended to do a single group meeting for efficiency, but the need to complete these steps quickly meant it was actually easier to schedule one-on-one sessions. We also gave each person their initial list of interviewees.
We did not provide interviewers the opportunity to practice beforehand, but it would have been useful. Jetton who (like Santillo and Dedakis) was interviewed as well as being an interviewer, said,
“The person who interviewed me was wonderfully casual. It felt much more like a conversation than a formal interview. And I realized, ‘Oh, that's what you have to do. You just have to have a conversation.” One of the things that worked the best when I was being interviewed was that the interviewer would listen intently and latch on to specific things that I had said to bring up later. I'm a big talker. So, I would finish a long answer and she'd say, ‘Let's go all the way back to this one thing that you mentioned, can you tell me more about that?’ It made me feel like she was really listening and that she cared about what I had to say. So, I tried to carry that approach into all of the interviews that I did from then on.”
We began to send out emails to prospective interviewees. We created a form letter that briefly described the project, and provided the next step of signing a release form.
In retrospect, we introduced the release forms too early in the process. Moving this step to post-interview would have reassured folks that they were in control of their own stories.
Our intent with the release forms was to ensure that interviewees felt comfortable and in control of their own stories. Inspired by the essay Who Owns Oral History? A Creative Commons Solution by Jack Dougherty and Candace Simpson, we wanted to keep the rights in the hands of the interviewee while facilitating access for archive users. The University of Michigan’s copyright office has a guide to copyright and oral history interviews that includes options for release forms that use Creative Commons, which we repurposed with their permission.
In retrospect, we introduced the release forms too early in the process. Moving this step to post-interview would have reassured folks that they were in control of their own stories. Jetton said, “after I finished being interviewed, I had a brief moment of wondering, ‘Did I say anything that I shouldn't have said?’ And I had the question, ‘Who is going to see this?’” The initial email should have been about creating excitement for the project. Instead, we generated confusion and some concerns about the use of the interviews. The best course would have been to have the interviewer explain the release form and their rights after the interview had been completed and people understood what they had revealed. This would have generated confidence and a sense of ownership, rather than uncertainty.
We sent our initial emails to thirty-one prospective interviewees and got positive replies from seven people. Everyone else required follow-up via email or phone. A personal email from the artistic director was more effective than a form email or even a phone call from me, the unknown archivist. Only one person gave us a direct no. Some of our contact information was uncertain, especially for interviewees from early in the company’s history. It is difficult to know who did not want to participate, who was simply too busy, and who never got the email.
Interviewee and Interviewer worked directly with each other to schedule their interview on the company Zoom account. We created a Google Calendar to help avoid double bookings. We were not entirely without mishap, but we were able to mobilize other Zoom accounts when necessary.
When we had about three weeks left in the process, we had completed four interviews, had ten interviews scheduled, and eight interviews were in discussion or pre-scheduling. At this point we began to tap our Priority Two list and sent out emails to an additional seven people. While we had initially chosen specific subjects for each interviewer, the sporadic nature of responses meant we needed to exercise more flexibility in pairing to accommodate scheduling.
We created transcriptions of each interview using Zoom’s auto transcribe feature. It is debatable whether or not this is useful; the transcription is not good quality and often absurd. Zoom does not distinguish between voices, so text is only delineated by timestamp, rather than speaker. It also quite hilariously mistranscribed key names. For example, foolsFURY was variously transcribed as “false fury,” “full sphereing,” and “force fury”; founder Ben Yalom was transcribed as both “Benny alum” and “Danielle”; and artistic director Debórah Eliezer was once transcribed, quite spectacularly, as “debating laser.” Human transcription would have been more reliable.
We also provided a form for interviewers to record notes. The idea was that they would jot down key terms along with the timestamp to help those using the interviews find the subjects they were looking for. While we meant this to be simple, it ended up being a bigger burden than expected. As Jetton described,
“Since there was no timestamp on Zoom, I needed to start a timer on my phone as soon as I hit record so that my notes would match up with the recording time. I also learned that I had to watch the interview again at the end to clean up my notes… which took an extra thirty to forty-five minutes.”
For some, it was difficult to record notes on the computer, so in addition to clean-up there was the burden of transcribing handwritten notes to digital format.
We provided a list of suggested questions. However, interviewers were instructed to use their own discretion to guide the conversation. As Dr. Jenkins describes,
“We told the interviewers at that first training, ‘they're just there for your guidance and don't be too worried about it.’ But when you're doing something like an archive, you do want to have some regularity of what you're asking about...This spans a lot of time. So a lot of it wouldn't be relevant to everybody. But sometimes those are triggers. It's amazing what people don't remember in terms of time or place so it is useful to have a timeline so that you can place things on.”
While it’s not a good idea to provide the questions in advance, it might prove useful to create and share a company timeline. The interview is about stories, not dates, so it might remove the struggle to place events.
Our expectation of what we would collect was slightly different than the result.
Initially we thought we would find personal stories that perhaps included company drama or gossip. Instead, the interviews were reflective. Dr. Jenkins, whose dissertation was on personal narrative, offered this analysis:
“I realized that they were the kind of personal history stories told in the way that women tend to tell stories. It wasn't like, ‘let me tell you a story. Here's the beginning, middle, and end.’ It was like ‘here is the experience that happened.’ For example, one of my interviewees talked about how she had ended up writing this play about divorce. And it turned out that many of the people working on it had all had divorces at the same time. It was really an interesting confluence of their personal experience and what they were working on. That was really a big moment for her to have her play developed. And it was part of a grant. And then it was part of a FURY Factory. And then she got this special recognition from Mary Overlie, who spoke about it in a workshop. So it is sort of a story, but it's really just narrating what happened. It was all kind of woven together like that.”
The passage of time also allowed for a more nuanced perspective. In describing her experience as an interviewer who had also been a deeply involved company member, Santillo said,
“It was kind of surprising either way, because I really didn't know where people were going to focus on… The duration of time, that's what was really fascinating, because so much time had passed for people, and how they were relating to the experience was very different than how I would have assumed. With one person in particular, we had collaborated together and there was a lot of tension around their perception of the process and the directors. I thought that was going to be a lot of the focus, but instead they were like, ‘Oh, I should have just not been so serious back then.’”
We had hoped that in addition to capturing personal stories, the interviews would create a sense of closure.
Common themes did emerge. Interviewees consistently referenced the company as an artistic home. Jetton said,
“The idea of foolsFURY as a web came up for me, and for other people as well… There were multiple iterations of what that web, or community, was and who was at the center of it, but the fact of it seemed consistent. My last interviewee told a very heartwarming story about how he met his wife through the company. Several people expressed that this was a kind of family.”
Interviewees also spoke about “glory days,” and remembered the sense of being scrappy and learning hard lessons. It is a hard and common question to wrestle with: how can theatre support theatremakers in the hard landscape of capitalism?
Finally, we had hoped that in addition to capturing personal stories, the interviews would create a sense of closure. Santillo said, “When I heard that [foolsFURY] was closing, and I saw my name in American Theatre magazine, it was really eerie. It made me think a lot about my journey. It's odd to be mentioned for the first time in American Theatre as part of a company that's closing.” For many, the process did provide this closure—not just through telling their stories, but also through this final interaction with the company. Interviewees connected with other artists, asked for copies of their work, and even received a commemorative shirt.
We ultimately archived twenty-nine interviews of twenty-seven individuals, along with notes and transcripts, at the Museum of Performance and Design, along with the following archival materials:
- Full video recordings or clips from eighteen fully produced shows
- Video recordings and clips from seven FURY Factory festivals
- Selected presentation videos and documentation from two BUILD digital conferences
- Video recordings of some rehearsals and devising processes
- Documentation of operations
- Miscellaneous digitized ephemera, including programs and posters
- Selected digital photos and slideshows
- An overview and finding aid
This archive preserves not just the work but some of the ways ensemble members experienced creating this work.
As DeDakis put it,
“The more time I spent on it, the more important it felt to do this oral history harvest from across the life of the company. We think of all things that end or close as failures; that is simply not it. I think oral histories and archives that reflect with joy and realism on what has happened (and inevitably start to point toward what’s next) could lead to a more fluid, inclusive, sustainable industry. I hope so anyway.”
Resources: Materials We Created
- Draft Rubric for Selecting Interviewees
- Email Template: You’ve Been Selected!
- Interviewer Job Description
- Interviewer Packet: process checklist, detailed guide for interviewers, list of possible questions, Notes form, instructions for using auto transcription on Zoom, information about release forms, and Legacy Project Summary