How We Wild Plan

The Wild Plan was founded in the summer of 2011 by Eric Powell Holm and myself. From the very beginning, when Eric and I set out to devise our next round of projects, we often conceptualized possibilities designed to occupy the middle of the Venn diagram between “freedom for artists” and “access for audiences.” We’ve found that there are many different aspects of freedom. You can free artists by paying them enough that they can liberate their time and attention from day jobs or part-time work. You can free artists by providing them unique or surprising opportunities for developing and/or performing their work. Often the limits to an artist’s freedom are imposed by whomever is responsible for funding their work, either up front (“The state arts board says they won’t fund work about abortion”) or on the back end (usually projected, like “I don’t think our subscribers will like that design/character/seating arrangement”). So, you can free artists by arranging the responsibility for support in different ways, by crowdfunding a project so that the sponsors are a dispersed group who won’t or can’t dictate a single set of limitations or demands, or by articulating your work as an experiment in which the audience is taking part, thereby reframing their relationship to the experience and (we find) making them both more likely to “go with it” and to offer insightful feedback.

 

Access for audiences is likewise a layered proposition. There’s the “wide” approach: making performances accessible for more people. As a small (make that “micro”) organization, Eric and I don’t have a chance at playing the numbers game à la a LORT that can bus in kids from across a state. So one way that we’ve tried to make a difference is by targeting specific people and communities that might not get a chance to experience the kind of progressive, contemporary theatre that we aim to create, and bringing the performances to them.

Escaping Theatre Buildings
In the summer of 2011, Eric and I, along with four other theatre artists and a boutique mixologist, traveled to backyards in South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Massachusetts, presenting three original pieces of theatre in repertory. Our backyard audiences were families, friends, and neighbors. Each performance was an event where food was gathered from neighborhood kitchens, deluxe libations flowed, and conversations went on into the night. There was a special feeling brought on by the sense that everyone in the audience seemed to know each other (or at least they did by the end of the evening), yet had probably never before shared an experience like this one. While most audience members had attended a play at some point in their lives, for many The Wild Plan was their first meaningful exposure to site-specific theatre, puppetry, music theatre with live music, rhyming verse, and/or other tactics deployed in our work.

 

So, you can free artists by arranging the responsibility for support in different ways, by crowdfunding a project so that the sponsors are a dispersed group who won’t or can’t dictate a single set of limitations or demands, or by articulating your work as an experiment in which the audience is taking part, thereby reframing their relationship to the experience and (we find) making them both more likely to “go with it” and to offer insightful feedback.

 

Man laughing
Ben Gansky. Photo by Ben Gansky.

Audiences whose access to theatre is generally limited to large touring productions of musicals, college productions of mid-century classics, and community theatre stagings of chestnuts were invited to experience original work created by an ensemble of young artists with something to say, passion to burn, and tight technique (our 2011 cadre was composed of recent grads of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, one of the best training programs in the countrythough I suppose Eric and I are biased, as both of us count the Guthrie Program as alma mater as well).

The Expanded Experience
Another way that we focus on audience access is by framing performances within unusual circumstances, partly as a way to connect with audiences who might be disinclined to visit a theatre, and partly as a way to reinvigorate the experience of a performance with fresh possibilities (see our last installment, Why We Plan Wild). In 2011 we framed our activities as “performance-based events,” implying that while the evening would be structured around (often multiple) performances, these were events that would extend beyond “lights up” and “lights down.”

Our events were devised with one of our Wild Plan “self-evident truths” in mind: the audience’s experience begins when they first hear about the performance. It extends through their experiences finding out more, including logistical details about timing, location, and pricing. It continues between the point when they commit to attending and the point when they arrive. On arrival, the space they encounter is a part of their experience; the seating arrangement, the aesthetics of the environment, their welcome—all important parts of their encounter. Attending to each of these aspects of an audience’s experience wakes up possibilities that would otherwise go unconsidered, creating opportunities for us to deepen and specify audiences’ experiences by carefully setting up or disrupting expectations for what the audience member is looking forward to as the “actual event.” Little do they know that the “actual event” has already begun, is ongoing, and will hopefully persist for some time after the lights go down and they go home.

With all this in mind, we take seriously our means of communication, and the information that we release (or don’t release) before the event.

Man standing
Eric Powell Holm. Photo by Michael Block.

Intentional Friction
This past summer, 2012, The Wild Plan went bicoastal. Wild Plan East: Sunset Rooftops presented an eight-week series of “parties with performances” on New York City rooftops, curated by Eric in collaboration with a diverse team of advisers and coproducers. Wild Plan West: MYNDWYRM was an extended collaboration with Minneapolis-based collective MYNDWYRM exploring a form they term “autotheatre”; a number of autotheatre performances were developed and presented in Minneapolis before a two-week residency at RECESS gallery in Portland, Oregon. (Eric and I will discuss our experiences with the complementary halves of The Wild Plan’s summer more specifically in our next installment, “The What of Wild Plan.”)

To return to the idea of broadening the scope of our domain when we share performances: one of the pieces I made in collaboration with performance-collective MYNDWYRM in Minneapolis (Happy Adventure, commissioned by the lovely and wacky Happy Minnesota) was marketed through email lists, fliers, and a positive preview write up. Pointedly not included in any of the promotional material was the location of the performance. This isn’t original by any means, but it isn’t standard, either. By making a choice about withholding certain practical information about the performance (“Hidden Location disclosed with reservation 24 hours before the performance,” etc.) expectations are created that affect the experience of the performance itself. Further intrigue was created by the note that “Participants will be emailed a link to download several audio files, which they are requested to upload to a portable audio player and bring with them to the performance.” This somewhat unusual request, beyond being pragmatically efficient for our purposes (otherwise we would have had to distribute dozens of preloaded MP3 players, which we didn’t have) created a sense of investment and participation for audiences before the piece had even begun.

One of the issues with relying on a template for creating and sharing performances is that it leaves too much unconsidered, prefigured out. In conversations with Eric about Sunset Rooftops, he would often focus the dialogue by framing the question as “What kind of performance does a rooftop want?” This line of thought led to a greater proportion of musical performances than we had at first anticipated. Eric ended up working with experimental cellists, yodelers on loops pedals, game-show hosts, and beat poets. You could ask, is it theatre? My answer is 1, yes, and 2, who really gives a shit? Given the unique, exciting, and sexy frame of parties, on rooftops, with live performances, Wild Plan East took site as a point of departure from which to make choices about content. As a result, the lineup of performances over the eight weeks was remarkably diverse, encompassing dance, text-based theatre, devised work, literary readings, experimental classical music, participatory game-based performance, and beer. Because as Uncle Bertolt preached it, “Theatre without beer is just a museum.”

Given that Sunset Rooftops took place weekly over a two-month period, audiences were also invited to engage over time, coming back to multiple installations (each week was a different lineup of performances). The locations changed week to week; similarly to the autotheatre piece I mentioned above (Happy Adventure), audience members were given location and timing information only through email.

There’s something to be said for creating a little bit of resistance in the performance experience (the experience that begins the moment someone first finds out that the performance event exists and that continues through and beyond lights down). I don’t mean ignoring email inquiries, or creating promotional materials with bizarro syntax or obscene imagery (though that does sound kind of exciting). I mean not giving out all of the information right up front. If someone is interested enough in what you’re doing to look up the information, chances are good that she or he will be intrigued if they read “Title by Artist, Thurs-Sun, 8 p.m., Location is secret (revealed to attendees by SMS 24 hours before the performance)” or “Title by Artist, Friday, begins 30 minutes prior to moonrise.” Looking up moonrise/set times or emailing a theatre company are trivially easy tasks for anyone with an Internet connection, but that moment, when potential audience members are called upon to communicate, investigate, and speculate, is the real beginning of their relationship to the performance.

Inviting Audience Investment
Perhaps it’s because both Eric and myself are deeply interested in exploring theatre’s relationship to the audience in our work as directors/performance-makers, but for whatever reason, freeing ourselves and our collaborators to do the work that most fires our engines has tended to result in structures that deepen, extend, and complicate audiences’ connections to Wild Plan performances.

This includes conflating the roles of audience member and supporter. The vast majority of our financial resources come from the individuals who compose our audiences. (I should note here that we don’t do tickets, because all Wild Plan events are free. Sometimes when we do low-capacity events, we’ll offer reservations for a price, but that’s only happened rarely.) The first Wild Plan, in 2011, was funded primarily by a Kickstarter campaign; some of our backers, strangers to us at the time, ended up in our audiences; they had heard about The Wild Plan through our Kickstarter.

Apart from our Kickstarter campaign that first year, we crowdfunded by other, more low-tech means. The majority of communities that we visited appeared on our touring itinerary in the first place because of some personal connection from within our ensemble. If this noble individual was interested in the idea of backyard hosting The Wild Plan, we would send them a packet including information about the shows (and the cocktails) we would bring, the ensemble members, The Wild Plan’s mission, etc., along with the proposal: if the community could raise $500, The Wild Plan would come to town, with the stipulation that the performance would be open to the public and free to all comers.

This strategy was remarkably successful. The communities we proposed to visit were sufficiently intrigued and excited that a handful of individuals contributed in each town to make up the $500, knowing that they were funding a community event that would be open to all.

As I mentioned, the backyard events in 2011 were all free. In fact, all Wild Plan events are free, and always will be. Partly, this is a question of access—price is only part of the equation that keeps some people from becoming audience members, but it’s the part of the equation that is most simply solved. In addition, as most readers of HowlRound likely know all too well, ticket sales make up a paltry proportion of most theatres’ incomes. And some theatres have started to respond to that in bold ways; in Minneapolis, for instance, I’ll cite two cases to illustrate my point. One is maverick Artistic Director Jack Reuler, whose Mixed Blood Theatre affirmed its pioneer stripes in 2011 by making every one of its performances free. That’s right, the ticket price for a show at Mixed Blood—a theatre that’s won its share of national awards and citations, that has been around for thirty-six years, and that continues to produce work of national significance—is always zero. (If you want to reserve a ticket in advance, it’ll cost you $20, but all the seating is open.) Jack calls it Radical Hospitality.

I should mention that Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality model is underwritten by six-figure grant support, but a) given that they’ve seen an uptick in contributions from individual supporters, it seems to have touched a nerve to further activate secondary, grass-level support structures; and b) the fact that MBT and their sponsors invested in this program in the first place indicates a consensus that the ticketing model wasn’t working—better that they try something new, not knowing if or how it might be sustained in the long-term, than persist with a strategy that isn’t working and won’t yield sustainability.

The second case is a demonstration that the Radiohead model can work in a theatre context. What I refer to as the Radiohead model, which was debuted with the self-release of the album In Rainbows (2007), is very straightforward: Name your price. Anyone could go to Radiohead’s website, input a dollar value (even $0.00) and in exchange receive a download of the album. Radiohead’s resultant success and profit jolted the music industry; many bands now use this model to self-release their work. Alan Berks, playwright and Communications Director for Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis:

We did our first all “Pay What You Will” model (we call it “pick your price”) for the show Broke-ology in Winter of 2011. We increased attendance over the previous show by 40 percent and made more money than the previous three shows. We repeated the model again in the winter of 2012 with the world premiere play Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson and increased our attendance another 500 ticket buyers. That show actually sold at 95 percent capacity of the available seats. We intend to continue to offer at least one pick your price show per year into the future and may even convert to an entirely pick your price model. We are a professional theatre located inside a community center and we are also a part of one of the largest human services organizations in state. We think Pick Your Price ticketing is wonderful and has been a wild success for us. In two years, we’ve increased our overall attendance 86 percent. Revenue has increased significantly as well.

I’d like to take a moment to note that The Wild Plan isn’t even a small theatre company; we’re micro. This is pretty cool by us (and we’re not opposed to the idea of scaling up or out); we’re not making much money on our projects, but we stay well in the black, proportionally speaking. There are certain limitations imposed by our micro size (we fall short of paying artists a living wage, emails and phone calls to larger organizations and companies go unanswered, we can’t afford traditional advertising, etc.) but along with those limitations come opportunities. Art and business are not, generally speaking, subject to the rules of fractal geometry—what works for us, at our size, won’t necessarily yield the same results, proportionally scaled, at a larger company. Part of the reason that we’re writing these essays (and, we suspect, that HowlRound supported The Wild Plan through the Microfund) is that we think that some of our lessons learned in the field could yield relevant insights for theatremakers across scale.

What the above success stories point to is that alternative approaches to relating to audiences aren’t just for micro-organizations like The Wild Plan. Reconsidering how to treat audience members is a smart move for theatre companies of any size; and not just in terms of retooling revenue. By providing a considered and intentional context that helps shape the experience of a performance from marketing to ticket sales to hospitality and environment, theatres can open up new possibilities for artists to create resonant, relevant experiences for individuals and communities. Pardon the sloganeering, but it’s time to start creating performances with audiences, rather than for audiences.

By critically examining the structures that we utilize to make our work, we can begin to determine how those structures describe the limits of the experiences we can offer to artists and audiences. To experiment with those structures is risky—it demands the same levels of courage and creativity from administrators that we ask of artists. But if we’re serious about making work as active agents in our cultural sphere, we’ve got to free ourselves to make work within structures that we don’t recognize as the behavior of “theatre companies” in order to make performances that we don’t necessarily recognize as “theatre.”

Next time: “The What of Wild Plan.”

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