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Invited to be Family with Michaela Petro of Strawdog Theatre Company

From the Ground Up Podcast Episode #5

five people onstage in costume

Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Photo courtesy of Strawdog Theatre Company. 

“Ensemble is bald faced honesty.”—Michaela Petro

Part one of two on Strawdog Theatre Company. Michaela Petro walks us down her path to becoming an ensemble member, and now, on the inside, how she contributes to  cultivating their artistic culture.

two actors onstage, one with a noose around his neck

Michaela Petro and John Henry Roberts in The Good Soul of Szechuan. Photo by Chris Ocken.

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Jeffrey Moser: From the Ground Up is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and howlround.com. Dear artists, welcome to From the Ground Up. My name is Jeffrey Mosser, your host for this adventure down the ensemble-based rabbit hole. How are you? I'm well. It is a long winter we're having. Yes, that groundhog lied, or at least it didn't say anything about the amount of snow that we're getting up here in the Midwest, so last time I trust a rodent.

Today we have an interview with Michaela Petro, company member of Strawdog Theatre Company, a storefront theatre in Chicago, Illinois. In fact, they just moved their storefront, and we'll hear all about that. This interview happened in March of 2018 and has had a lot of updates since then. In order to address that, I have connected with their new artistic director, Leda Hoffmann. So this is actually a two-part interview that you're about to listen to. We're going to get Michaela's take this round, and then in about a month or so, you're going to get a check-in with Leda, which is awesome.

I reached out to Leda and asked, "Would you like to come on and talk about this now that you're sitting in the director's chair?" and she said yes, so I'm really excited to give you all the Strawdog that you can eat. That was weird. Never mind. Wrong metaphor, I'm sorry. Strawdog is one of those companies that has been home to several artists, many of whom are Chicago legend and lore. You know, to the extent that metaphor that we talked about a while ago when we were talking to Emily K. Harrison and the challenge of challenging work, Michaela talks about being that person in the boat, how she earned her way into the boat of ensemble-based work. How do others, and how do they invite other people into the boat with them, as the boat grows, if we want to extend that metaphor further and further? So check out that other podcast if you want to extend that metaphor with me.

I do want to say that Strawdog is a theatre ensemble, in the sense that they make artistic project decisions with the ensemble of people. It's a whole cohort of individuals leading into the big idea. But it is the artistic director who sort of makes the final call, and we'll hear a little bit more about that from Leda here, but we'll hear about the process from Michaela today. They still cast the show with non-company members as necessary. They have a literary department. They have other administrators, which isn't to say that they don't collaborate in the room, in the rehearsal room, but I'll let her say the rest.

There are a few references in here, just so you are not surprised. She talks a little bit about Lifeline Theatre, which is another storefront theatre that does some really awesome work in Chicago. Michaela also mentions Taylor in here. She's referring to Taylor Myers, who performed in Punchdrunk's Sleep No More and is now a founder of Roll the Bones immersive theatre. They also do immersive workshops all over the place. Check out their website if you want to know a little bit more about breaking the fourth wall with them a little bit.

This interview was my first in-person recording, so it was great to have a human in front of me instead of just Skype. It happened at the Chicago Grind Coffee Shop, so you'll get to hear all kinds of those classic barista sounds, like hissing, grinding, apathy. Okay, here we go with Michaela Petro.

Thank you for joining us.

Michaela Petro: I am happy to be here.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah. And thanks to Sarah for getting us together.

Michaela: Yeah, she's a gem.

Jeffrey: Tell me who you are, and how did you get to Chicago, and how did you get to Strawdog?

Michaela: Oh boy. Okay, I'll try to give you the Reader's Digest version and have it not sound too cute. I am from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Brass City, if you're savvy. Probably not, it's fine. I was there and not really sure what I was doing. I did some community theatre and stuff when I was a kid, but really I just kind of like stories and storytelling, so I went to a community college, and then I went to UMass Amherst for one whopping semester. I was fucking miserable. By the way, can I swear?

Jeffrey: Yeah. Oh, totally.

Michaela: Great. I was fucking miserable.

Jeffrey: Wonderful. I mean, not wonderful, but yes, I get it.

Michaela: And so I left. I mean, I learned a lot, but the environment there was just not for me, and I felt really at sea and lost and wasn't able to do anything artistic. So I went back home and just kind of saved up a bunch of money and knew I wanted to make a big move away. The guy I was seeing at the time was interested in film, and so he was looking into Columbia College as an option. I started looking at Columbia College as an option for fiction writing, because theatre was just something I kind of played around with when I was a kid, but never really took seriously.

Then I fly out here for my orientation, and I missed it by like two days. To this day, I don't know how I did that, but I missed it. I was just wandering around the city and wandering around the Columbia campus and found myself by the theatre building and went inside. There was one kid working there. His name was Ben, total quiet kind of ... he was a tech guy, so he was working in the office for summer work study or whatever, and he just very kind of, "Would you like a tour?" "Yeah, sure, why not? Got nothing but time." He showed me around to each of the theatre spaces, and the last space we looked at was the Getz Theater, which is Columbia College's main stage. It's a classic proscenium theatre, had the red velvet seats and the lush curtains and this beautiful ghost light on the stage. The whole picture was just too magical to deny, and so I immediately changed my major to theatre and studied for a full year.

Ran out of money. Worked a bunch and knew I could have one more semester under my belt. Knew I wouldn't be able to graduate, but did exactly that, took every course I wanted for one more semester and left. And then one week after I was done with school, one of my professors had dropped my name to a friend of his, who was looking for a young actress to play Juliet in her summer stock Shakespeare company. I got cast and then met people, and they passed my name forward, and met some more people, and they passed my name forward. Along the way I met Nick Diamond, the former artistic director of Strawdog Theatre Company, because he directed us one year.

I started working at Strawdog, and that was ... good God, that was 2005, and I worked there for a couple, two, three years and became an ensemble member in 2008. So this past January was my ten-year anniversary, and I just about blew my own mind. Where the time goes, I don't know. And now that you have a baby, I think, that's just going to vanish.

Jeffrey: Oh, time has sped up. It is absolutely true.

Michaela: I think so.

Jeffrey: That's awesome how one thing leads to another, just like the magic of theatre and the magic of people and generous people who can connect you to other folks. That's so awesome.

Michaela: Well, I think that speaks to the theatre community at large in Chicago. You don't just do plays to build up your resume, you are networking every moment you are working. You are networking when you're hanging out after the show. I mean, it's kind of effortless. There are a lot of good people here and a lot of really talented artists. I was very lucky to find an artistic home and like-minded artists at Strawdog. I was very honored to be asked.

Jeffrey: Yeah. So they invited you in to become an ensemble member in 2005 or after the ...

Michaela: No, in 2008.

Jeffrey: In 2008, okay.

Michaela: Yeah. I started, my first show was in 2005, and then there were a couple of shows over the next two, three years that I was a part of, but the artistic ensemble of Strawdog is about twenty-something people, and it's a unanimous vote to get you in. One person says no, and you want to believe it's not because they have some personal grudge against you or something. And you never really know. I mean, I don't know how often my name was brought up, if ever, before I was actually asked. Frankly, I don't care. But yeah, it's a bit like earning your stripes. Can this person hang? Does this person show up and work? How's their attitude? What's their level of investment, and what is their unique bring to the ensemble?

Jeffrey: You touched on it a little bit, but I think what you just mentioned, the voting process, what is it like on the inside of this ensemble? Is it egalitarian? Is it democratic? Is it a mix of all things?

Michaela: It's a mix of all things. I mean, because you have ... while, as I said, it's family of like-minded individuals, in that we are all dedicated to this beast, we are all unique snowflakes who argue or debate and challenge each other. Our ensemble, our company is governed by four values: ensemble, challenge, genuine connection, and community. These are the hallmarks by which, like I said, we govern ourselves, operate, choose shows, choose ensemble members. We want to know that those pillars are important to the individual that will then contribute to the whole.

As far as decision-making process, in the past two years we have gone through an enormous amount of change. For twenty-six years we were located at 3829 North Broadway, and our then landlord, who is a complete real estate mogul and your classic douchebag landlord-

Jeffrey: Fantastic.

Michaela: Oh yeah. Owned the entire block, and he sold the entire block and so we had one year to kind of ... not kind of, we had one year to get the fuck out. What I have come to liken it to is that family home that you grew up with and spent all those years, you now have to clear all of that out, only it's a theatre company, so the amount of garbage and costumes and props and dumb shit that's just been around, we had to get rid of it.

Jeffrey: We're going to use that someday.

Michaela: Yeah. No, and then it's like we never use that, let's just toss it. We had one year of itinerancy. Also, when we lost the building, our artistic director was stepping down, our board president was stepping down, and our managing director had said, "Hey, I'm going to be leaving soon too." In that first year of itinerancy, we went from posting eight shows, four on our main stage, four in our cabaret, to three shows at the Factory Theatre on Howard Street up in Rogers Park.

Our managing director at the time stayed on for the first show of that season, and then we hired this incredible, incredible lady, Leah Barish. She has done such amazing work for our company in the short amount of time that she's been with us, but we still were kind of in this temporary hold as far as artistic directorship. Our board treasurer, Meaghan Clayton, stepped up as board president, another total badass lady at the helm. But our artistic director structure reverted to something that was in practice years ago. It became the AVC, the artistic vision committee, and that is a three-headed beast, currently headed by three ensemble members. Again, much like the rest of the ensemble, there is a similarity amongst them, but they are all very different people. They are also three dudes, but they all made sense at the time in this period of itinerancy to get us through this in between.

That is still in effect, but what essentially the process is, as far as choosing a play, for example, we have a literary manager, who brings us shows. We have a reading committee, and again, this is comprised of ensemble members. We read a play, we fill out a survey, do we want to host a reading of it? Yes, no, maybe something else by the playwright. If it's a yes, we host the reading. After the reading, we essentially go with our guts. Does it hold true to the values and the standards by which we measure ourselves and our art? Are there places for our ensemble members, our ensemble artists within this piece? And would this provide an opportunity for diversity and inclusion, working with a new playwright, working with a new director?

As much as we do anchor ourselves to our artistic ensemble, we know that we cannot exist in a vacuum, and we need to reach outward and bring ourselves and others into the fold. Otherwise, it's just a clubhouse, and nobody wants that. In this next year, we have some really, really exciting works coming up. One of the members of our artistic vision committee, Anderson Lawfer, he started getting really excited about immersive theatre. I mean, a lot of people are excited about immersive theatre. Everybody knows about Sleep No More, and don't get me wrong, I would love to go, but that's like my rent.

We are going to be doing something in the fall that is an immersive show. Our head writer is, again, another ensemble member, who actually lives out of state and still remains an active ensemble member. Her name is Aly Greaves Amidei. She's a member of Lifeline Theatre as well. She is a doer. She's just incredible. I can't say enough glorious things about her. And then we have three other members of the ensemble, John Henry Roberts, Cat McDonnell, I believe Shannon Hoag, and then our literary manager, who is also a writer in her own right, Cara Beth Heath, who are all contributing and designing the framework and embellishing on the stories within.

So it's a huge beast, but it's very exciting and important to us to create this kind of new work in this new art form, or new to us art form. We're doing a kid's show, which is something that we haven't really done before, which again speaks to the value of community and challenge, because we don't know how well we'll actually do that. We typically play for our peers, and our peers are not children. They are scrappy storefront folks.

We have yet to announce it, but there's a very exciting play that we're going to be doing called The Revolutionists, and that is going to be all ensemble all day for the ladies. It is so exciting. And then finally a new musical, which we have done in the past, to varying degrees of success. New musicals, new works are always challenging, but Jon Langford, who is a Chicago guy and just ... It's all very new and fresh and exciting and so much work. But essentially, all that to say, when we have retreats and we come up with these like think big five-year plan or think big plan period, what do we want to give back? What do we want to get? Because while to be an artist is an important thing, you can't sacrifice yourself on the altar of your art constantly, because you're going to bleed out, and that's no good.

So what do we want to get out of this, and what do we want to give back to our community and to our ensemble? The ensemble does weigh in. We do promote and champion what we want to work on. At the end of the day, it does come down to the decision-making of the BVC in this case, but it would, if we had an artistic director, that would be the final say-so. Of course, being that those three dudes are ensemble, they must listen to their greater body and champion us as well as themselves.

Jeffrey: How do you sort of give folks those initial invites?

Michaela: A lot of times, because our ensemble does work outside of our own company, we will say, "Hey, I was just in a show with so-and-so, and they were great. We should get them in for this." For example, I met a young lady who we actually just recently invited into our ensemble, Daniella Pereira, and we worked together for the Chicago Athletic Clubs. We met and started chatting, and she mentioned she was an actor. This was before we were doing Cymbeline, and I was like, "You'd be a great Imogen. You'd be great. Go ahead and send me your headshot and resume." And she did, and I looked at her resume, and I'm like, "Yeah, this is great." So I passed that forward, and sure enough, she got called in, and sure enough, she got cast.

And then she made such an impression, just as a team player and a really hard worker and someone who's driven by their heart, it simply made sense to ask her to be a part of the ensemble. But when it comes to directors, because of the heavy hitting ensemble that we have, directors come to us and say, "Hey, I found this great script that would be great for your ensemble. Can we do a reading of it? I have a pitch for you." We'll organize a reading, and they'll deliver the pitch, and we read it, and we all discuss it, and we kick them out of the room. And then we really discuss it.

Designers, same kind of thing. It's a lot of word of mouth. It's a lot of, like I said earlier, you're networking when you work. How do you conduct yourself during tech? Are you on time? All of these things play a big factor. But in this time in Chicago, in a world with this mission to make sure we are telling stories to, with, and for everyone, we have been making a very concerted effort to not just work with the people we work with all the time, to again reach outside our own little sandbox and say, "I don't know you, but let's bring you in." It can sometimes feel a little weird, and I don't know what it is for people of color or for people outside the demographic that Strawdog is mostly comprised of, to feel like, "Are you asking me just because I fit in a box that you don't already have?"

But I mean, again, I can only speak for Strawdog, but it's only because we recognize that we've not been doing a good job at this. We're not sure why. We don't know how we got this far and this hasn't happened, but we need to rectify it in order to grow and move forward.

Jeffrey: Are there any other ways that your new space is going to open up opportunities or growth for you, or things that you hope for?

Michaela: Yeah, yeah. One thing right off the bat, which has been very exciting for me personally, is I host a self-defense and rape prevention workshop. I was certified last May through AWSDA, the American Women's Self Defense Association. When I was certified, it was when ... what prompted the certification was being itinerant, I was hanging out in Rogers Park late at night, hanging out at this wonderful cocktail bar, Ward Eight, having Sazeracs and leaving alone. And I'm like, "It's late at night, and I have had three Sazeracs, which is really one too many," and thinking, "Well, how many other women like to imbibe? Just about every woman I know. And it became very important for me to arm myself and arm other women with just knowledge.

When I got certified, my initial goal was to bring it to my theatre community, and having the space at Strawdog, I can now say, "Here is the space where I can do this." We've hosted two so far. I teach with two other women. One is a personal trainer, and one is a certified therapist, and so we kind of cover every aspect of what it means to be prepared and confident and strong in the face of every day. Just having that physical tangible space to do that is huge.

Hosting ... oh my God, I'm going to forget his name, and he was so lovely. He's one of the founders of Roll The Bones Theatre, one of the guys behind Sleep No More, Taylor. Taylor Sweetheart, I'm just going to call him Taylor Sweetheart. He's from Wheaton, Illinois, and he was in town for Thanksgiving. Andy Lawfer tracked him down, was like, "Hey, would be interested? We're getting into immersive theatre. Would you come in and do a workshop?" Just having the space and making a call, we got him in days later, and he hosted a workshop. It was nothing. So that tangible space, something that I think, I don't want to say had been taken for granted, but the tangible space at 3829 was always such a given for so many years.

Losing that for that one year of itinerancy and then gaining it with 1802 West Berenice, we are doubling down on how to utilize our space. We open it up to renters. Akvavit Theatre is in there right now, building. I just left them. Red Theater has rented from us before as well. And people host their own workshops and their own one-night events and fundraisers and things. So it's being able to offer that to our community as well is huge. Again, we want to give back and kind of keep churning in and out as a hub.

Jeffrey: How do you keep your ensemble members invested in the process? Meaning, I notice there is a little overlap between who is an ensemble member ... based on your website, I notice that your active company members, there are maybe a handful that are also staff members. Going into the realm of administration, is it a rotating role? Are those folks who are staff leaning more into the staff roles or the administrative roles than they are into the acting-directing-artistic roles?

Michaela: We don't ask the ensemble just to contribute their art. We want them to help foster the culture of keeping the thing alive. I mean, it's kind of a tough question to answer. It's a great question, because it isn't easy. I mean, people do butt heads, and it does get kind of fraught from time to time when you know, well this is my job, and I need to get this done. I need to get the schedule out, so my bartenders know when they're working, but I'm in tech, and I don't know if I'm going to have the time for that. Also, this is not the only thing any of us are doing. I work my crazy hours at the gym, and I need to find another part-time gig.

We're also in a kind of weird age demographic, a majority of us anyway, where people have families, where they're starting families. Or going to grad school. All of these different facets of life that yes, I'm committed to this artistic body and this company that I am emotionally invested in; however, I have a whole separate life outside of this that also needs my tender loving care and, frankly, attention. So it's easy to lose yourself in that. But we do mostly manage it, I think.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Does every ensemble member have some sort of staff role or assignment of sorts?

Michaela: No. Once upon a time, that was the case, where it was like, "You're on a committee for whatever." Yeah, that doesn't work, because again, we get bogged down in the things that are outside, and not all of us have that skillset. When this committee structure existed, maybe one person was the head of the marketing committee, and that person really had all of the marketing experience. And then the other people were like, "I'd love to learn and help," but teaching along the way sometimes slowed the process. So that, for example, didn't exactly work out, which is why, all right, cool. We have staff positions and/or we just hire someone outside. But we do want our voice and our brands to remain us, and that can really only happen when it's coming from within.

Jeffrey: Do you pay your staff? Do you pay your administrators? Do you pay your artists some amount?

Michaela: Yes, some amount. We do have a stipend for our artists. As a staff member, I get my minimum wage, yada yada. I mentioned Nick Diamond earlier. When he steps down as artistic director, was interviewed, I want to say in the Reader, or maybe it was Time Out, but he said, "We do this for the love of the game." And as trite as that sounds, it is nonetheless very true. We all recognize that we are not going to get famous from Strawdog Theatre. We are not going to get rich and famous, rather, from Strawdog Theatre. So it is about the investment in the ensemble and the community that really pays us, as opposed to any kind of livable wage, which we for years have been working towards.

I mean, the investment of time alone, there is nothing more valuable to an actor or an artist of any kind than their time. I say an actor specifically, not only because I am one, but with designers and directors, they do their job and they split. An actor is there for at least three months, from the beginning of the process to closing night. That's three months of your life. But if we weren't getting back artistically, then I think the whole structure would cave. That is how we are paid. That is how we are paid most, let's put it that way.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah. Do you have anyone on staff who is full-time dedicated administrator of any sort?

Michaela: Leah Barish, our managing director. Our literary manager, Cara Beth Heath. Neither of them are ... excuse me ... ensemble members. We actually just, our production manager, Becca Levy, we recently asked her to become an ensemble member, because it was one of those like, "We can't let you go, girl. Don't leave us, girl." But yeah, I feel like those are the only staff I can think of. And then, of course, I have my front of house crew, and they are just wonderful people, two of which have been with us for, I think this is their fourth season. Even in our itinerant season, they were around. They're great. They're really great.

Jeffrey: When did you see the need to bring someone on, we just need someone to be administrator, running the show from the paper standpoint?

Michaela: Well, I mean, any art institution that thinks they can get away without that, is a folly. That's just stupid. I mean, I'm sure there are lovely artists and things that are like, "No, I can do this," and I'm sure they do okay, but I don't know, I look at what Leah does, and I'm amazed at how much she can accomplish, because her brain just works differently. She functions at a different level than an artist, and it's vital. At our original space, we had a managing director, a general manager, and an artistic director. The general manager and managing director kind of got looped in together. And then even the artistic director and the managing director position were kind of getting looped in together.

So that three became two, and then the two, there was bleed-over, and that was not great. It got messy, which I think resulted in people stepping down from those positions, because the lines got blurry, and they're like, "Well, what am I actually doing?" One of those people is still with the company, within the ensemble, actually. I mean, it wasn't like burning bridges, peace and out, but it does get to a point where you're like, "Now I'm just confused about what I'm doing here." That is not healthy nor something that you want. You don't want that. You don't want people to question why they're a part of this thing that's supposed to just bring them joy.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Then it becomes toxic, right? Because then you have someone who's putting time into a thing and expecting-

Michaela: Yeah, that they're not getting back.

Jeffrey: Right, and you're not getting anything out of it beyond ... I mean, yes, you're not getting anything back. That's really hard. You know, one of the things I find really fascinating is, do you have any idea of what your earned versus your contributed income is in the world?

Michaela: Geez, I should know more of this. What I will say is, we apply for grants, we apply for grants, we apply for grants. And we get a good amount, but we do rely, I think in a healthy way, on our community. I mean, in every post-show speech I have ever been a part of in ten years, part of that speech is, "If you liked what you saw, please spread the word," because word of mouth really is our best form of advertisement. We want people to talk about us. We need people to talk about us. We are nothing without our community.

But grants are huge, and we do try to capitalize on them. With this continuing to break down the wall between our audience and ourselves, and that immersive vibe, not just in the sale of theatre, but in the delivery of story.

Jeffrey: When you are a new theatre company, you are sort of thinking year to year, but Strawdog now is in a great place where you can think whether the five-year or ten-year retreat plan is ... What are the bullet points that happen at these five-year retreats or planning sessions that you can talk about?

Michaela: Well, again, we're company. We are an artistic body, absolutely, but we're a company, and we have bottom lines to hit, we have budgets that we need to meet, budgets we can't exceed. The numbers thing is very real. When we get together for retreats, or when we have for the past couple, few years, it's reflecting on our values and trying to kind of forget the numbers for a good minute and just think about what we can do next, how we can evolve. And frankly, that's how both the children's show and the immersive project got going. The immersive project really kind of started as a, well we could do a fun holiday thing, but what fun holiday thing? Well, we could do a crazy haunted house thing. You know, just spit-balling, throwing stuff out there.

And then it became, well how do we make that artistic? How do we fine tune that to speak to our values? And then it was immersive theatre, and then it was well we'll host it in October, so we'll have a kind of horror catch, but it's not what we're actually doing. It is really about million dollar ideas, dream big, think big, don't stifle yourself and your thoughts by bottom lines. Let's just, what do you want to do? And there were so many ideas that we came up with last July when we had our little retreat, kind of five-year dream session. And to see two of them being enacted in this coming season, I think is really encouraging personally, because it worked. But also to know moving forward that well, if we've got the drive behind it, actually doesn't matter what the cost will be, if we can get people invested, if we can get people interested, people being ensemble members. Then we will be able to make them come to fruition.

That's a lot of what we talk about, but it is a time of reflection, and what did we fuck up? Did we? I'm sure we did. I'm sure we did. Of course we did. You know, there's no growth without mistakes. But yeah, again, we're in this for the joy of it, and if we lose the joy, then we've lost something larger, and that's a problem. Luckily, we've not ... I've been around for ten years at this point, and I don't see myself going anywhere any time soon, so this place clearly still brings me joy, even though it is an incredible amount of work.

Jeffrey: What have you learned as a member over ten years? What's the big takeaway from ten years?

Michaela: Oh man, what have I learned? Oh, I've learned a lot. Jokingly and not jokingly, I have learned how to temper my tone, which has always been an issue with me. I have learned to listen. I have the great joy and benefit of working with some of my favorite actors, and just listening to them and watching them figure it out. I have learned a lot by just getting out of my own head, getting out of my own way and just listening to the person across the way.

I have learned to be vulnerable in a way I never saw coming, personally and professionally, frankly. Again, I've learned how truly important your community is. These are the people that they're not just going to come see you at Strawdog in a play, they're coming to see you give them a story. Forgive me, I'm getting a little misty about it. There is no greater gift than that, to get that from a peer especially. So those things, I think I've learned those things, and I'm still learning. IF I ever stop learning, just put me out to pasture. Get me out of here. Put me behind a desk somewhere. But I'm terrible with numbers, so nothing that involves that.

Jeffrey: It sounds like this is an ensemble that really understands each other's limits and pushes each other to its limits, in the best possible way. Just from talking to you for the past hour, I'm starting to get that sense that these are family members of sorts. Do you know what I mean?

Michaela: Good Lord, without question, in every sense of family. The way people know how to push your buttons, the way people know how to prop you up, challenge you. There's an ingrained respect. I never thought I would be a member of a company ever, and when I was asked to be a member of the Strawdog ensemble, I didn't think twice about it. I was even told by the people who were asking me, to take a minute and think about it. I'm like, "No, why? Yes, of course yes."

Just in this past month and a half, we brought on six new ensemble members. They had the same reactions. That was mind-boggling to me, because then I was on the other side of the table, going, "No, you actually should maybe just think about this, because it's a time commitment, and there are things that you need to ..." "No. No, I don't want to think about it." One of the people that we asked said, "I went home for Christmas and said to my parents, 'I've been working with this company, and I really hope that one day they ask me to be a part of the company.'" That blew my mind. That was Gage Wallace.

Another fellow we asked, Michael Reyes, had this incredible story of twenty-five years ago, coming to Chicago and seeing a show at Strawdog and going, "Oh man, this company," and never auditioning for it. I'm sorry, that's not true. He auditioned for us once. Once. But never working with us. And then last year he was in Cymbeline, and then right after that he was in The Night Season. We all kind of had this, where have you been? He's like, "I've been here. I've been here. I love you guys." And I was lucky enough, I got to ask Michael or have that meeting with him. We got all misty over buckwheat pancakes, and it was amazing. It's just incredible. It's an incredible thing to be a part of.

Jeffrey: We are now entering the lightning round, or what I'm calling the lightning round.

Michaela: Holy shit, let me get some more coffee. Let's do this. I'm ready. Oh, God help me.

Jeffrey: This is just like off the top of your head kind of answers. What is ensemble? What is ensemble, question mark?

Michaela: What is ensemble? It is ... oh, fuck. It is family. It is bald-faced honesty. Oh God, it is vulnerability. It is ... God, what have I said? I said family and I said ... Oh shit, lightning, lightning, lightning.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it's striking over and over again.

Michaela: Over and over. It is group storytelling. It is not just a large cast, it is a group of people telling the same story. It's not these people are in this one scene, and then these are ... It is really one massive talking head, without that sounding like a negative. Yeah, I think that's it.

Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Strawdog Theatre?

Michaela: What is the opposite of Strawdog Theatre? Talking heads, talking fucking heads, and selfishness.

Jeffrey: What would you be doing if you weren't doing theatre?

Michaela: I would be doing one of two things. I would be probably some sort of English teacher or writer, or I would be a baker. It is the only science I understand, because I get to eat.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that's a reward for it. I have a killer banana bread recipe that I am perfecting that science every time.

Michaela: Nice, yeah. I'm with you. Oh yeah.

Jeffrey: Favorite salutation?

Michaela: Heya.

Jeffrey: Favorite exclamation?

Michaela: Fuckin' A.

Jeffrey: Favorite transportation?

Michaela: Bicycle.

Jeffrey: What's your favorite type of ice cream?

Michaela: God, you might as well just ask me to choose favorite star in the sky. Oh fuck, I'm going to go with a chocolate malt.

Jeffrey: Ooh, yeah.

Michaela: Yeah, fuck yeah.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah, that's solid. Michaela, thank you so much for your time today. This has been so delightful, and I've had so much fun talking to you. I was like, "This is a person I don't know. I have no idea. How do I break the ice? I don't know what we're going to do." But it's so good to talk to you, and thank you for being so open and warm and so exciting.

Michaela: Oh, my goodness.

Jeffrey: I'm excited to be in the same room with you, at the same coffee table with you, so thank you so much.

Michaela: Yeah, fuckin' A. Thank you. Thank you. My pleasure, really. Awesome. Whenever you want to see a Strawdog show, hit me up.

Jeffrey: Oh, my God.

First of all, a very special thanks to Sarah Gitenstein for connecting me with Michaela. The great thing about Chicago artists is that they are all so generous, and so many have been happy to connect me to one another in the city. That is super generous, and I really appreciate it. I just have to say that. So thank you all, and thank you Sarah.

Michaela really lays it out there, right? Their old space, their new space, the process, season selection. I don't know how else to say it, but ensemble family maintenance. So good. The ensemble comes from within. It's the investment that you put into ensemble, right? Also, just the lifespan of a theatre is always really fascinating and great to hear. Thirty-one years. Wow, right? I mean, artists are paid artistically. It really says something about the value an artist puts on the ensemble and being a part of that sort of family.

Which begs the question, when is it not worth it anymore? Michaela talked a little bit about that, about how people have drifted off or taken other opportunities or gone into other fields and whatnot, but when is the value of time no longer paid back with artistically valuable experiences? I ask that rhetorically, but I also think it just relates to our lifespan as humans and our desire to be wholly satisfied in life, in art, and beyond. We artists are in a very unique place, where we sometimes have to divide these things, which means we have to keep each part satisfied.

It reminds me of Ova's interview last time when he talked about how passion only takes us so far. We, as artists, have these different cups. We have a creative cup, and we have a life cup. What fills your cup? More importantly sometimes, what drains one cup, and what fills the other cup? Maybe our day jobs drain our creative cup a little bit more than we want, and our creative cups don't get filled by the life cup. It's a balance, right? All right, folks. I'm outta here. Have a great week, and we'll see you next time on From the Ground Up.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

From the Ground Up Podcast


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