The Living Ticket Model with Heather Cohn and Corinna Schulenburg of Flux Theatre Ensemble
From the Ground Up Podcast Episode #11
"[T]he lack of transparency around pay in the theatre field disempowers artists."—Corinna Schulenburg
Flux Theatre Ensemble has been working together since 2006 to produce transformative theatre that explores and awakens capacity for change. Their Living Ticket model is a way to be transparent about what a living wage looks like, and how much it might take to get there. This episode was originally recorded at the 2019 TCG National Conference in Miami, Florida. You can view the original recording of the session here. Follow Flux Theatre Ensemble's work
- Flux Theatre Ensemble's operating systems budget, which breaks down their living ticket model and is referenced in the podcast episode.
- Center Theatre Group's Roadmap to Innovation
Jeffrey Mosser: Jeffrey: 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 back to the From the Ground Up podcast, I am your host Jeffrey Mosser. I am recently back from the Theatre Communications Group in Miami, Florida i just wanna say that there were so many fantastic sessions but please let me tell you about one that completely blew my mind and so directly pertains to our work. It was called the Roadmap to Innovation led by Diane Rodriguez of the Center theatre Group in LA. For ten years they've been doing a study led funded by the Mellon foundation which was reported out as a roadmap to innovation pushing the boundaries of making theatre. And it was mind blowing. Essentially, they've been doing what I said in my very first podcast introduction which is to invite ensembles or hyper-collaborative groups which, contains individual artists, under the big tent of the regional theatre model. These companies can learn from one another. These companies working together to expand what their audiences opinion of theatre is. These companies working together can work to solve the challenges set forth by he changing landscape of our not for profit model. We have a lot of work to do in our industry. The economic capitalistic structure is being challenges in the for profit world, and because the not for profit word is built on a similar foundation, we are all dealing with the tremors of this change. We need to see the benefit of working together while recognizing each organization as being essential art making institutes the road map to innovation which you can read for free online and I'll leave in the show notes, is digestible and brilliant and I encourage you to take a look. And I want to say so much more, but I had better get on with the show and save it for another time, or perhaps an entire podcast, dot dot dot... Stay tuned.
Okay, the episode you're about to hear was recorded live at the TCG annual conference, June 7th, 2019. My guests were Corinna Schulenburg and Heather Cohn, co-founders and creative partners of the Flux Theatre Ensemble. It was livestreamed via HowlRound, so if you want to see my guests or the slides, including the living ticket screenshot that I talk about, you can check it out there, or you can just follow the link in the show notes. Also, please note that at the top of this I accidentally call Heather Rachel, so do note that her name is Heather Cohn and not Rachel, and my deepest apologies. Okay folks, that's all I got for now. Enjoy.
Jeffrey Mosser: My name is Jeff Mosser, and welcome to the From the Ground Up live podcast. This is also the Sustaining Ensemble-Based Work session, so I'm here to talk to you a little bit about the work that I've been able to do with the From the Ground Up Podcast throughout this entire, for the past year or more. I'm gonna tell you a little bit about the genesis of the work, where it came from, how the podcast became. We also have a great opportunity to interview a group, Flux Theatre Ensemble from New York City. They are with us today, and we're gonna be interviewing Corinna Schulenburg and Rachel Cohn. We're gonna specifically talk about their Living Ticket model that I'm really excited to learn about.
I wanna say first of all, this is being livestreamed right now on howlround.com, so, hello, hi, how are you doing? Make some noise, woo! Yeah, theatre people, here we are, right? So we are being livestreamed right now, but if you do feel like you need to do anything to stay present, stand up, walk around, stretch a little bit, that's okay. I appreciate that. You have some Post-it Notes on or near your chair. As I walk, I invite you to, if you have any questions, any burning ideas, thoughts, questions, comments, concerns that we don't address in this, that you write them down. If there is a process that you would like the podcast to explore, how do you build a grant or how do you build a board, how do you apply for grants, things like that, write it down. I will have a couple of assistants here to collect those at the end of the day today. Also, if you can write down what does ensemble mean to you, because that's a big part of what this podcast is as well, asking that question.
So first, without getting too far away from it, I wanna talk a little bit about where this podcast came from. The Great Recession was a great time to take an internship. I was at Actors Theatre of Louisville and I got this 30,000-foot view of how new plays were being made, but what really got me excited was the Humana Festival of New American Plays, where they were commissioning ensembles to come in and do their work. People from Universes, people from The Rude Mechanicals, City Company, Dominique Serrand and the folks from the former Theatre de la Jeune Lune. These folks were all generating ensemble-based work, they were all commissioned, and they were all starting to do something, finalize something, continue a project, in and under the guise of Actors Theatre of Louisville's festival.
This process boggled my mind, especially as a Midwesterner who doesn't like to talk about money, and so the questions in my head were, how are they paying for this? How do these people who love each other, who wanna work together, who are committed to working with each other and committed to a creative process together, really able to continue this, even through one of the most challenging times in our financial history in America? Also, you have not lived until you see Anne Bogart look over at Chuck Mee and say, "Well, we're not gonna do it that way, Chuck," whew, which is really exciting in and of itself.
So throughout this entire process, I'm getting the chance to observe these things and really try to figure out how is it that these ensembles who are non-or-less-hierarchically structured or non-patriarchically structured, how are they working within this sort of bigger, top-down regional theatre system model? And this was a big question for me, even in 2008 and 2009. 2010, I move to Boston, I start my own theatre company called Project: Project Theatre Ensemble. We're asking these questions about audience immersion.
In 2010, Sleep No More had just transferred, there we go. Sleep No More had just transferred from A.R.T. to New York, but it had its development process in a site-specific location in Boston. Everyone was really excited about it. It was a big question, and so when I came to town, I found a core of people who had similar questions about audience participation, but also ensemble-based work, so we got together and started talking about, let's pretend we talked about these folks. There we go. So we got together and started talking about how do we move from just making the theatre participatory, or just from immersion, to something that's audience-integrated? What would happen if, at the end of the day, the audience got to decide what the end of the play was? How do we make a play like that? How do we get an audience through a space?
At the same time, I had this awesome opportunity where TCG was in Boston, and it was my first TCG, and I was invited to be there, and I was so lucky to be there. I met some really awesome people who were also exploring this question through ensemble, through immersive practices. Rachel Grossman of dog & pony dc and Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre, both of them really putting audience at the center of the play, but still ensemble-based. And so I spent a lot of time talking to them and trying to connect with them, but the person who really is the reason why I'm here today is Jerry Stropnicky from Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Yeah, thank you, yeah. Jerry! Jerry, if it wasn't for Jerry, I wouldn't be in this room, I wouldn't be having this conversation, and he said, "What are you doing for breakfast tomorrow? You should come to this meeting." And so I went to this meeting for the Network of Ensemble Theatres and I was in an entire room full of ensemble-based theatremakers. Like these are my people, right?
And so I finally realized, yes, the way I wanna make theatre is also the way other people wanna make theatre, and I was so jazzed and so interested in that. So I pitched to HowlRound a bunch of ideas of things I wanted to do, things I wanted to write to explore these opportunities and this immersion and this ensemble-based work, so I got to some interview some really awesome people. I got to interview Rachel Chavkin of The TEAM, and Laurie McCants of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Oh my gosh, the list goes on and on. Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour of PearlDamour, just people all over the map who were doing things that I was so fascinated and so curious in. So this is all of the groundwork for this podcast.
So it's 2015, last like little journey, I promise. It's 2015, and I find that I am, I'm entering grad school, and in my final year, I'm still grappling with the idea of what is ensemble, what does it mean, and how do we continue to make it and how do we continue to break down the fourth wall. It's my final year of grad school and I decide that I'm gonna do an independent study trying to find collaboratively created companies who were also doing work that is important to their community and that is also sustainable, and those things aren't necessarily on paper. Those things aren't reported necessarily on the website. They are mentioned, right? But I wanna get deeper into these things, so I started compiling a list. That list turned into a bunch of voice calls, phone calls, voice calls, a lot of calls, and what ended up happening was this podcast.
Almost ten years to the day of hearing Chuck Mee get yelled at by Anne Bogart, I have the chance to interview Michael Fields from Commedia Dell'Arte. And so it was a fantastic journey, and here we are. One full year later, I started publishing, HowlRound picked me up and started producing the podcast. So in short, those are like the takeaways, the journey that I have been on in leading up to the From the Ground Up Podcast and where we are now.
These are just a few of the guests that we've had on our podcast—“our”, as in there is a collective “our”, the podcast. Rachel Grossman and Colin K. Bills of dog & pony dc. I'm just gonna share with you a few takeaways from these folks. As I mentioned, they're really interested in audience-integrated work, and so what they are interested in doing is, they're interested in multiple things, but audience integrated, as in the audience makes the decisions, helps the story get to some sort of fruition by the end of the play.
And what they talk about principally is what is the difference between participation and integration, and beyond that, immersion. What does immersion mean as well? So they had a really great handle on that. Also, the way they title themselves. Rachel is the ringleader, which is, and co-founder. Ringleader is sort of in lieu of another title such as artistic director or otherwise. One of the things we talk about as well is that that title is difficult to transfer from grant to grant, to application to application, but as long as you're working within a strata, as long as you're explaining yourself well in your grant, it's not a problem. It's just a method of working. It's an individual fingerprint to how you make the work that you make, your creative aesthetic, and it defines how they work together by calling herself a ringleader and ensemble director.
Quita Sullivan of the New England Foundation for the Arts talks about the process of the National Theater Project. The National Theater Project takes 100, gets around 100 applicants, they whittle it down to twenty-four. From those twenty-four, they get it down to twelve, and those twelve participants not only get the awarded amount, but they also get something called a thought partner. This thought partner is along with them every step of the way to help them ask questions that they weren't thinking about, that they may not have known that they wanted to know.
So how do you, I might not know how to... As ensembles, we tend to think we know everything or we have all these different perspectives from the group, but at the same time, sometimes we get into this congruous idea of like we all agree with things or we start to all say yes to each other, yes, yes, yes, but it takes a thought partner outside of that to be incongruous and say, but have you thought about this? How are you gonna market that? Where are you gonna go? So they start to ask the big questions about how they actually plan to tour their show or beyond. So just that thought partner is an extra person in the room with them.
Coya Paz of Free Street Theater works with nearly an entirely contributed income. Their entire operating budget is almost entirely contributed, and they're entering their fiftieth year. So all along that time, it's always been contributed. They pioneered one of the first pay-what-you-can processes in Chicago, and they continue to find new ways of finding the opportunity to make the theatre in the neighborhoods while also actually making it, building the sets, buying the paint, buying the lumber, buying the print materials, doing everything within the community that the work is gonna be seen by, so doing as much in the community as possible to bring it to them. She also explores the idea of knowing that we do not, sometimes the people who need to see theatre aren't the people who can afford to see theatre or can travel to see theatre, so making it in the communities that need to see it and that pay-what-you-can model also allows someone to say this dollar is what I can give, but also giving a value to the work that is happening really important to her.
Stephanie McKee of Junebug Productions in New Orleans talks about the blue sky, and I love this. “Blue sky” really means to me and to her this idea of the abundance mentality, not the scarcity mentality. So often we're thinking, "Oh, we need to get that grant. "We need this money. "If we don't get this, we can't do that." But she really talks about what is that blue sky? What is way out there? What can we do and how can we get there, and somewhere we're gonna do the show, but it's that blue-sky idea of what the project might actually be that I took away from it.
Mikaela Petra and Leda Hoffmann of Strawdog Theatre Company. Mikaela talks about the opportunity of being invited to be an ensemble member. Strawdog is a company that's been around for about thirty years. Some of the biggest names in Chicago have gone through Strawdog, and they continually renew their membership. They are constantly bringing in new ensemble members, and so when Mikaela was invited to be a member, she was elated, and that feeling of like, I'm committed to a company, my company is my family, and I can continue to do the artistic awesome work that I wanna be making really hits her hard.
And Leda Hoffmann, who is their new artistic director, speaks to the fact that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. So, hiring a development officer, having someone there who is gonna be conscientious of like, “I'm gonna write a grant for this, we're gonna make this money, we're gonna employ these folks.” She also talks about they own their space, they own a new space in Chicago, and they rent it out to different companies. So the challenge of being sort of, not necessarily a landlord, but having the challenge of working with selling out spaces is a big problem. It also means who's manning the space—who's in the space, pardon me.
And finally, I'll end with Ova Saopeng of TeAda Productions. Ova really opened our eyes with the idea of the “cultural ambassador”: always having someone in the room to talk about the experience of the bodies on stage. They've been around for twenty years, and the principal work that they do is with immigrant communities, themselves as immigrants as well, the idea being that they are generating work in the communities for the communities, but also trying to find folks who are, if they can't cast the show with the right person on stage, they either don't do the show or they decide that they're gonna go out into the community and find that person. The added dedication to finding the right person to put into the show to tell that story is really key to that.
So that brings us up to today and our podcast. And I've got a really awesome, fantastic team with me today to interview, Flux Theatre Ensemble. They've been exploring work since 2006. Their mission is to produce transformative theatre that explores and awakens capacity for change. They believe that long-term collaboration and rigorous development can unite artists and audience to build a creative home in New York. They were presented with a Caffe Cino Fellowship Award for Consistent Outstanding Work, and in 2015, Backstage named them one of "Eight Young and Mighty New York Theatre Companies". Dear artists, please join me in welcoming co-founders and creative partners, Heather Cohn and Corinna Schulenburg. Hello.
Heather Cohn: Yes, hi.
Jeffrey: Hi. So for questions and beyond, we'll have a little bit of time at the end for questions, but do let us know. Because of the live podcasting nature of this, we all have to use the microphone in some capacity, so I will probably repeat your question back into the mic, okay? Uh, hi. Welcome, thanks for being here even though we've been here all week, right?
Corinna Schulenburg: All week.
Jeffrey: Some of us longer, yes. So I just really wanna start, just tell us about Flux Theatre Ensemble. How did you come about to begin with?
Corinna: You wanna start?
Heather: No, I want you to start.
Corinna: All right. Well, I think the interesting thing about origin stories for ensembles, or at least how I feel about ensembles, is that they are continually renewed. Each time a new person joins an ensemble where a person is more than just the role they're being hired for, the ensemble changes fundamentally, and so I feel like we have multiple origin stories. It is true that the original origin story had to do with a playwriting opportunity that I had that grew into Flux, but that's really just one origin story, and if there were different creative partners here, they would share those different origins stories for themselves. And all of those stories in our totally non-hierarchical ensemble are equal and beloved.
Heather: I can add to that. A term that Corinna just used is “creative partner”. That is what we call our ensemble members, so we are a community of creative partners. We are each a creative partner. So again, it's a non-hierarchical structure that we have. We are all artists, we are all administrators. We all wear many, many hats. And I will just add, yes, I agree with that multiple origin, but also that original team who put together the first production before Flux was actually Flux, we faced many, many obstacles from the venue that was hosting us. There were some very unique challenges, and of course, in a difficult situation where you have to bond together to overcome these challenges, including in the middle of our tech being told we had to clear out of the space for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, which then grew into an ongoing tradition of showing up sometime in the middle of our tech with a spaghetti dinner for the creative team because that's what you do in the middle of a tech. Yeah.
Jeffrey: Cool. You said the term right off the bat, artist-administrators or something. You're all the artists, you're all the administrators. Is there anyone who is full-time admin or do you all sort of spread that admin work across the board in some capacity?
Heather: Yes, I should say we all have other, we all have jobs, day jobs, so we don't have a salaried staff, and no, there is not a single administrator person. It really is spread based on, again, who in the current creative partnership, both skills and interest-based. So the people who have certain skills, we do encourage them to contribute in that way, but also respond to everyone's interests, so if there's something that they want to do and actually don't have a lot of experience with, Flux is a space to learn and grow.
Corinna: Yeah, I also wanna add that, while we do share things totally equitably, Heather does a ton of work, and it's always really important to name that. Even if you imagine ensemble as a gift you give to each other, if you notice that certain people are giving a lot more of that gift to each other, the very least you can do is name it, right? And then look to figure out ways to share it a little bit more equitably. And I think one of the things that's really cool about how leadership manifests in an ensemble where we are really giving this as a gift to each other is that people do move back and move forward, and particularly, when new people join the creative partnership, it takes them a while to acclimate to the idea that they are the leaders of the ensemble. There's usually an expectation that there's a hierarchy, and there is, but it's one based on relationship that we're constantly navigating and naming. But then eventually, there is an awareness that, oh, yeah, I can lead this organization, and I feel like we're in a really beautiful moment now where folks who have been in the ensemble for a few years are really now fully stepping into their leadership, and it's like, whew, it's exciting.
Jeffrey: Cool. You said you'd found your way there by a playwriting opportunity, but you'd both co-founded it. Did you create it for the playwriting opportunities or for creative expression amongst yourselves and with the team, or like... Yeah, yeah, anything to explore that a little more?
Heather: Yeah, I mean, I would love to say we all came together, had a brilliant mission and started a company that had a vision and values and all these things, but that wouldn't really be the full truth. It really was there was a group of us that came together to produce a play of Corinna's, and we really enjoyed working with each other and we really didn't enjoy every other aspect of that because of the particulars of the venue and producing entity, and so we said, "We really wanna do this again together," but maybe without them. "How do we do that?" And we said, "Oh, we'll start a company." I mean, it was really that, kind of that simple.
Corinna: It was pretty hilarious as you were like reading our mission and stuff, and like, both Heather and I were like, "Oh no, that's not." But no, I mean, because like I just feel like we're evolving so constantly all the time, and it's so relational, relational to us as an ensemble and relational to the communities of which were a part that like, you were like, "Oh, right we have to go back and update that 'mission and all of that stuff,'" 'cause in some ways it is for us, but in other ways it's not for us. It's for other people. But like that's a whole thing we could talk about longer only if it's useful.
Jeffrey: The big thing that I am so curious about, and so since we're on this world of admin and world of like creative opportunities within, connected to admin, the thing that I think is on all of our minds, or at least mine, is this Living Ticket model that I am so enthused by. I took a screenshot over here.
Heather: Oh, did you?
Jeffrey: Yeah. So just so we can take a look, and if anyone wants to see, you can also find this on Flux's website. Yeah, can you walk us through a little bit? I know I could probably bring it up and scroll through it if you'd like, but is there anything, what are we looking at, and who gets to see this? I mean, it's on the internet, but where else—how else is it distributed?
Heather: Yeah. So our Living Ticket, can I explain a little bit what the Living Ticket is and...
Jeffrey: Back it up a bit.
Heather: Okay, great. Unless you wanna do that.
Corinna: No, it's like exciting when you see a budget. You're like, hmm? We should provide that.
Heather: Yeah, so we'll explain what this is doing there. So I think it was in 2015 where we, for those who are familiar with the New York theatre scene, we operated under the Showcase Code, which is with the Actors' Equity, which at that time set a ticket maximum at $18 was the maximum you could charge for a ticket, and we were finding ourselves that sort of two things were happening. One, we felt like we were not growing in terms of earned income, we were sort of plateauing in terms of audience growth and ticket income, and also that our values as an ensemble, really our core values, were not at all reflective of this sort of transactional thing that was $18, but actually if you had a discount code, it was $15 or maybe you could get in for $12, and like it was kind of meaningless and it didn't feel good in terms of our values around equity and wanting anybody really to be able to come to see a Flux show who wanted to. So we sort of had a—we do an annual retreat every August. One year it was in July 'cause I was super pregnant and was gonna not be able to do it in August, but where we really dig into like the bigger questions, the planning, the hard conversations. We have the hard conversations every, all the time, but really dig into them, and we'd sort of dedicated that particular retreat to tackling this and what we were gonna do about where we were, and I'm gonna pass it off to you 'cause I feel like I've been talking, to explain what came out of it.
Corrina: Yeah. I think there were, in addition to what Heather shared, a few core things that we were trying to address, and the first was that the lack of transparency around pay in the theatre field disempowers artists. People often go to a show, they feel like they're giving out, they're paying a lot, but they have no idea that that is actually nowhere near enough for the artists to get a living wage, right? And so part of what we wanted to do is to just make it all very transparent. Here's how much we pay, it is not a living wage. It's not even a minimum wage, and to get it to a living wage, here's how much it would cost, right? So the idea of it being a living ticket was to try to make transparent what a living wage would look like. At the same time though, we live in a country with profound income inequality that is racialized, that is gendered, and we did not want to be in a place where getting to that living wage happened in an inequitable fashion, so taking inspiration from a pay-what-you-can model, the idea was you don't have to have a financial transaction to see one of our shows. You can just come. However, if you do come, and you do value the work on stage, you have some accountability to support it, to support the artists so that the artists, the people making the work, the people administrating the work, who for us are the same people, can live, and the idea would be that some people would give a lot more because they had more, and then other people would be giving of their time and attention, which was also really deeply valuable to us. And so it was from conversations around those problems that we arrived at the Living Ticket. Do you wanna talk us through the three budget columns, or do you want me to?
Heather: Whatever. Go.
Heather: You're on a roll.
Corinna: So you'll see that there are three here. Basically the current budget, that is like, that's our actual budget. Then there's a minimum wage budget, and then there's a living wage budget. And so the minimum wage budget is based on New York City's living wage, which has increased over the past couple years, which is great. The living wage is actually based on, there's a calculator that looks at the actual cost of living in an area and what it would actually cost and what it would actually take to live and not just barely survive in a city, and so that's the living wage column. And it goes all the way down for all the different areas that we have. It's also important to note that within those artist and technical fees, there's a commitment to equity there as well. Except in unusual circumstances, everybody makes the same, regardless of what they are doing for the play. And again, that's... [loud music begins playing in the background] I feel like I'm getting inspired. Everyone will be paid equitably! Feel the music!
Jeffrey: The music swells!
Corinna: I mean, yeah. I will say though, that this is what equity feels like to me. It feels beautiful, it feels like a harmony. It actually feels very dissonant when I'm in spaces where that's not the priority. I mean, we didn't plan this. Down with you, inequity! So like those are the commitments that you see in this budget, and the goal was, I mean, I feel like for me, and one of the things is like we're an ensemble that does not agree with each other a lot of the time, and like actually don't feel like agreement is necessarily necessary for consensus process. It's about like, do I need to stand in the way of this decision or do I not, right? But my perspective of this is that primarily this was about us being right with ourselves. What do we believe? What is the relationship we want with our community? And then if there are additional benefits, good, and if it totally collapses, then we need to radically rethink things. But thankfully, it did not.
Heather: Yeah. I'm not sure if you said it exactly, but where we sort of landed was the idea of being transparent with our budgets and showing the goal, like where we would like to be, and then that gray section at the top where it says Average Living Ticket Gift to Get There was calculated for each show depending on capacity, number of seats in the house, number of performances, sort of based at a calculation of if each seat were filled by somebody donating X amount, we could reach a minimum wage, we could reach a living wage. So that's sort of how it, what that means up there, and we found... Oh, I might be already launching into your next question.
Jeffrey: Oh no, keep going.
Jeffrey: Don't let me ask. Go for it.
Heather: And what we found was there were committed Flux audience members who'd been coming to our shows for years and paying $18 plus the service charge or whatever who suddenly would give $75, $80, which was very moving. And then we also found we were able to bring in student groups, bring in other groups, people who, and say, yes, we want you here and it's not like, “oh, yeah, I guess we can give you some comps.” It was like, “No, this is the point of this, like please come.” And I remember we have a group now that's been to several of our shows from Hostos Community College in the Bronx, and we have a relationship with a theatre teacher there—theatre professor there—and I remember they came to see a show that we did. Was it only in 2018? Am I Dead?
Corinna: Which one?
Heather: Am I Dead?
Corinna: Am I Dead? In 2018.
Heather: Yeah. A show by Kevin R. Free called Am I Dead? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave, and these students came and they were like, "We heard about this. “Can we give a dollar? "Can I put in $2 somewhere?" It was really incredible that they wanted to give something.
Corinna: Yeah, just to add to that, I feel like there's like a lot of ticket discounting programs where it feels like they're doing you a favor, like “Aren't you lucky that we're gonna discount this so that you can be in our audience?” And that dynamic is a weird dynamic, particularly when you're making work for communities who definitely don't have that money. The last show we did, I was really grateful as a trans person that we had a lot of trans and non-binary people coming to see the show, and it was really meaningful to me that they didn't have to sweat it, 'cause transition is super expensive and trans people are really facing significant economic challenges. So what's important is you don't make it like, you don't have to make somebody feel bad about coming to see your show and not having money. They should feel good about coming to see your show and not having money, because them being in your theatre is, that is the gift, right?
Jeffrey: Have you found there to be any disadvantages of putting this out there?
Heather: Disadvantage, no. Challenges, yes. Should I?
Corinna: Yeah, go.
Heather: I mean, two very specific challenges is we do see a higher no-show rate because people will... So we still invite people to reserve their Living Ticket in advance even if there is no financial transaction so that we hopefully have a sense of how many people are gonna be in the room, and we did find a higher no-show rate, which is a challenge, 'cause then we wanna make sure anyone who wants to come that there's space and then if you find, we thought we were “sold out” quote-unquote, and there was actually open seats, that's difficult. So we send pre-show emails now that are very clear where it's like, even though this maybe didn't cost you anything, the value of this seat is important, and like please let us know if your plans have changed, and that's been semi-effective.
And I would say the other like very specific challenge is we, so we don't have our own theatre venue, obviously by this budget. We rent spaces for each production, and watching venues who, part of their contract is you're using our ticketing system, trying to like work with us and navigate like, what do we do with you? What is this Living Ticket thing? This doesn't work at all with our system, has been interesting, and I think we've had opportunity to educate and learn together. And I will say the two that I'm thinking of where it was a challenge, and ultimately maybe it wasn't exactly what we wanted it to be. They were willing to work with us, they listened, and I think that it opened their eyes a little bit to things that they just sort of assumed and took for granted, and like “This is just how we always do it.” But it was interesting with our most recent venue actually. They were all about it, they were like, "Yes, so we wanna do this for you. We'll set it up in our thing," and then it was the legal hand that came in at some point and was like, "Well, but you can't collect donations for another organization," so it became, that became the problem. They were like, 'cause whoever it was, their legal counsel was saying, if you're using the venue's ticketing system and then collecting donations, as they saw it, for a different company, that was a problem.
Corinna: Yeah, the only other challenge that I would add is related to the commitment to equity in pay. So we had for a long time worked with a press agent that we really loved, and they did a great job for us, but we paid them much more than we paid anybody else in the company, significantly more. And so we stopped doing that and we stopped having a press agent. We continue to do our best in a landscape that's already pretty challenging from a press perspective, and we're definitely doing less well than we had done when we had a press agent, which really isn't a surprise, but there is a sense of like, even though we know what we're about and we know what our values are, then when you really hit that place of, “oh, we're getting less exposure”, you feel it. You do. That's where your values get really interesting in a consensus model where not everyone agrees that that sacrifice is worth it.
Jeffrey: I failed to find out whether or not, you are incorporated, you're a 501 , so you must have a board, correct?
Heather: Well, legally are required to.
Jeffrey: Legally required to, yes. I am curious how your board feels about this and what did they say when you said, "Hey, we'd like to expose our checkbook?"
Heather: We have kept the board intentionally very small. It has been on the planning to-do list to grow the board for many years, and we haven't. So they didn't say anything. That's one of the short, the short, very vague response to that. But I think that we... I don't wanna speak for you, but we both have experience working for much larger not-for-profit theatres in the model that we are all used to and the challenges of working with boards. And I think because we sort of felt like the creative partnership provided similar sort of checks and balances, and we all, the creative partners all vote on the budget in the way that a board would—and we recognize how it's somewhat problematic—but other decisions that normally you think of a board making, the creative partners kind of work on that level as well. So I think we really have maintained the board as the like, the legal requirement's necessary minimum, and haven't really dedicated the time to growing it. Do you wanna say anything else on that?
Corinna: I wanna say something that's like kind of related, but also not, which speaks to, I think, the pressures that you face working in theatre to conform to a corporate model. And one of the things that I think is a challenge there is there is this expectation that power operates most efficiently within a hierarchy. And so that ensemble work is seen as perhaps ethically superior, but ultimately inefficient in our capitalist society, and therefore less good. I have often witnessed people I really respect going, "Oh, yeah, but if we're collaborative, it's gonna take too long”, right? And what I really believe, what I really believe, and I've witnessed it as we've gotten better at it, 'cause it was true maybe for a little while but we've gotten better at it, that when you have a really functioning collective, it is actually more efficient, and the reason why is I feel like with decisions, you either pay before or you pay after, right? So you can pay before, which is doing the work of involving everyone who has a stake in the decision, and then everyone has ownership of that decision and understanding on how to act on that decision, or you can pay after, when your super hierarchical decision meets the realities that it was totally uninformed, and that nobody actually wants to do any of that, you know? So I would rather pay before, and I feel like we have an opportunity as ensemble artists or people who like to work collaboratively to really change that totally faulty assumption about efficiency, that problematic word, as it relates to ensemble practice.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I like that a lot. One of the things that we're trying to explore is sustainability through this podcast, not just economically, but artistically and personally and emotionally. I have one more question, then I sort of wanna change our conversation to your process a little bit more, but I'm wondering if you can give me a percentage, or if you feel free giving me the amount, what is your earned versus contributed income, and... Flip the page. And I suppose that dramatically alters how this is looked at then.
Heather: Yeah. So it definitely shifted after we implemented the Living Ticket, and now, so I'm just gonna give you the last two fiscal years. FY17, we were, 17 percent was earned and the rest was contributed, and then FY18, it was actually twelve percent earned, so predominantly contributed income.
Jeffrey: Yeah, great, great, great, great. Thank you. You talk a little bit about how—so I wanna get into process a little bit and of, ensembles don't always devise. Some ensembles bring in playwrights or have the sort of submission process of some nature, or some just use the insular, like an ensemble member's gonna pitch a project that they are really interested in. You seek out playwrights very frequently. Is that, yes?
Corinna: Oh, sure. Yeah, so I would say the bulk of the work that we do is in a traditional playwright model, although there are exceptions that have been deeply meaningful to us. We have had devised processes around responding to migrant justice that led to some work for us, devised processes around responding to racialized violence after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, that was deeply important for us. So we do use devised work, and in particular, I think when the community feels like it needs a whole bunch of voices to process things. And we do a lot of work in a traditional playwright model. However, one of the places where we're really struggling, I think, is that I am a playwright, and a lot of the plays that Flux has done are my plays. I don't know how many. I don't know if it's more than half or less than, maybe. It's probably less than, but it's close to fifty. I don't know.
Heather: It's less, I think—
Corinna: It's less than. And so I am very, very comfortable with writing for specific actors and having those actors deeply inform and change their character arcs, which is particularly important for me as a white playwright when I am writing for my creative partners of color. I don't know a responsible way to do it in a traditional playwright hierarchy where the playwright's words are valued more than the actor's body, which is what we are usually dealing with. In this environment, I do believe you can create that way ethically, however, most playwrights are not used to that kind of collaborative environment, and so there's always a process for us where we try to figure out how are we going to get playwrights that we really wanna write for the ensemble? Use two rooms where people are going to speak with some agency about crafting the narratives that their bodies are asked to perform? And so we've actually created some programs around that, programs that are specifically designed to make a more substantive relationship between a playwright and an ensemble. The most recent was called the Flux Forward Program, and we commissioned four playwrights to write for the ensemble. Of them, we have done or about to do, we've done three of those four. So Adam Szymkowicz's Marian, Kevin R. Free's Am I Dead?
Heather: Or The True Tale of Robin—
Corinna: Do you wanna do the full one? The full title?
Heather: It's just, Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood.
Corinna: Yeah, it's an awesome play. Or Kevin R. Free's play, Am I Dead? And we're about to do Nandita Shenoy's Rage Play in the near future. That play is going to be produced. And in each of those relationships, there was some things that went well and some things that didn't go well in terms of that playwright-actor-director-ensemble relationship, but I think the thing that we really, really need is, or I'm hoping for, is to have more playwrights join the creative partnership who share those values of collective creation that is still maybe playwright-driven overall, but deeply responsive to, and in co-creation with the actors and directors and designers.
Heather: I have nothing to add to that.
Jeffrey: Great, great, great. And also I wanna lean into, you had mentioned the idea that when you have new company members come in, when you have new, the revitalization of the group and how it changes. Can you talk a little bit about how your company has changed over time and how... A little bit, maybe, maybe too a misnomer, but yeah, anything about relating to how ensemble has changed over time for you and what maybe your titles have meant over time.
Jeffrey: As creative partners.
Heather: No, absolutely. So creative partner is not what we started with thirteen—was it thirteen years ago? We had a very, I think, well-intentioned but severely misguided sort of two-tier structure of ensemble membership. So there was, what was it? It was like “full” and “associate” or something so ridiculous. We were figuring it out. So we sorta had this two-tier thing which, as you can imagine, revealed to be more and more problematic, and so eventually it sort of imploded and we, there was a sort of period of attrition and regeneration, and this, I think, goes back to the multiple origin stories, and we came to the, that if you don't have full ownership of something, how can you put your full self into it? That's where we sort of came to the creative partner structure, which I think is much, much better in terms of really being non-hierarchical and consensus-based as much as possible. What was the second part of the question? I think I lost track? [loud music swells in the background]
Jeffrey: Oh, just how it's changed over time, and have the titles changed their meaning as well?
Heather: Great, titles, yeah. [music continues] I know, don't you all wanna be in that room? What's happening?
Corinna: It sounds really cool.
Heather: It does sound cool. Yeah, and then we did have, I mean, we did sort of have titles, sort of more traditional titles previously as well that we have been able to remove, but I think the two of us being co-founders like that, that title, it still holds a lot of weight. And fortunately, the current creative partnership, I think, everybody feels very much like that is their ensemble too, and even if all the folks who are not co-founders, but I find myself wondering, like especially I think when you're at an event like this, being reminded of like that founder syndrome thing, and I'm like, "Well, that's us," and so we are actually thinking about like, well, what is the next, what is the next step for Flux, what is the next phase of Flux, where we live in that journey. So I think it is constantly evolving and I think it's constantly evolving because, well, yes, that's our mission statement, like what we are as the people who are in the ensemble. I mean, and that is what, yeah. The people are more important than the role.
Corinna: Yeah, and I would just say that what I think has been really beautiful for me to witness is the deepening commitment to collective care being at the heart of the ensemble. When we were in the early going, and often when a new wave enters into the ensemble, there is absolutely a scarcity model that is the norm, where I'm gonna use the ensemble to get mine, right? And that's natural, right? We live in, as much as we would like to believe, a place of abundance, it can often not feel that way. But what happens is, over time, I think each of us has felt ever more committed to the care of the other, so that season discussions, which used to be about, “When am I gonna get my awesome role”, are now you don't actually need to ever say that because your other creative partners absolutely know you weren't in the last two shows, and so they're never going to choose a show that wouldn't have an amazing role for you in it. It's taken a long time to get to that place where there's that long-term trust in each other, and I think what's also really beautiful is that from the ensemble, there have been a lot of marriages, a lot of children that are a result of the ensemble, both within the creative partners and people that we have collaborated with for an extended period of time, and I just wonder what kind of a world would it be where on a grant application that was valued? Do you know what I mean? That like this ensemble has been a driver of love and family and the continuation of relationship in a deeply meaningful way. That would be fun to put on a grant application. I know that people would be like, would actually be like, “wow, that's amazing, 'cause I feel like it's amazing”. I feel like it's what matters.
Jeffrey: Oh, that's awesome. Yeah, what a great expression. I have plenty of more questions, but I wanna toss the ball back out into the audience. Does anyone at this point in time have a question? Yeah, you can feel free to ask it now.
Audience member: Oh, okay.
Jeffrey: It's just to occupy your hands while you're thinking.
Corinna: She needs the mic.
Jeffrey: Oh, I'll repeat it back, yeah.
Audience member: Did you set a deadline for the evaluation of the Living Ticket? Like how long did you say, agreed to try it out?
Jeffrey: Did you set a deadline for the Living Ticket, and how long did you agree to give it a trial period, if any?
Heather: We did. It was like one show at first, right? I think.
Heather: Yeah, I think we decided we were gonna try it for a show and see what happened, and for that first show, we didn't lose money. I mean in that, we lost money, but, but we didn't, I guess, make less in the end than we had been, so we were like, "All right, there's something here." And so then we continued it for the next show, and then I think then it was like, well, now... Yeah, it's... We would never go back, even though there are things that have not, I mean, we are not at a point where we're able to pay a living wage, and I think are, secretly we're like, "Oh, maybe that'll just happen," and that was, I think, naive.
Heather: Anything to add?
Jeffrey: Cool, thank you. Yes?
Audience member: Have you been able to get to the minimum wage?
Jeffrey: Have you been able to get to the minimum wage?
Corinna: No, but I think that the way we can has to do with length of run and/or size of space, because we are in ninety-nine-seater-under theatres, and because we're prescribed a certain length of run, it's difficult to like make enough so that you've also covered the cost of the actual development process. However, I think that probably that is the next act for us, is to find a play or find some support to allow us to take that risk, where we know we're gonna run a longer time, 'cause usually what, I mean, I'm sure this is true for all of you who are like us. It's by the end of the run that all of a sudden the word of mouth is hot, hot, hot. You're full up, and you absolutely could run for an extended period of time, but by then it's like too late, so I think that's what's next for us.
Audience member: Who'd dictate how long you can run?
Heather: I mean, because we rent spaces, yeah, so we, I mean, we actually, the last show we did, it was exactly this situation, and we said, "Hey, can we extend?" and they said, "No, we have somebody else "loading in on Monday." I mean, it's that, yeah.
Jeffrey: Yeah, great. Any other questions? Yeah?
Audience member: How many projects are you developing at one time and how far out do you plan?
Jeffrey: How many projects are you developing at one time and how far out do you plan on those?
Corinna: When we're doing awesome, we're like two or three years out. We are often not doing awesome. We are very often in a place where we're, and part of it I think is that we are not immune from the perfectionism that is at the heart of white supremacy culture, so we're like, "Can't this play just be perfect "and meet all our needs?" But no, of course not, right? And so I do think that the places where we've been really strong are places where we have had like a number of pieces in development that we knew we were gonna land, but then we kind of run out of them, and we haven't yet gotten to a place where the renewal of those projects is the same all the time, but I do think that that is a goal that we're gonna be talking about at our next retreat.
Heather: Yeah, I'll just add that a program we used to have, which, yeah, which we have, it has been dormant, let's say dormant. Hopefully it will come back someday, but it is a program called Flux Sundays, where we really were meeting almost every Sunday when we were in production with playwrights who are in our Friends of Flux circle, so we kind of think of the ensemble as concentric circles where the creative partner's at the core center, and then this sort of Friends of Flux circle of collaborators and donors and audience members where there's often overlap surrounding, and we would get together for three hours on a Sunday afternoon. Playwrights that we'd been working with would bring in new pages that they were developing. We would put it on its feet immediately. There was no sit around and read it. It was just like go, make choices, be bold. There were probably three or four different groups of people working on different scripts at a time, and that really was our pipeline for a long time, and we developed entire shows through this Flux Sunday process, and we, for just life reasons and space reasons, that's not an active program right now, and so we sort of, the Flux Forward was kind of the next phase where we really were committed to these four writers and whatever length of time that process would take for them and really wanting to, or intending to produce those plays once they were finished, and each of them has taken its own sort of length of time. Yeah.
Jeffrey: Okay, great. Yeah?
Audience member: I wanna know like as an ensemble, what's the most ambitious project you've taken on, and how of an aspect that working as an ensemble has been for you? What are some challenges of that?
Jeffrey: What's the biggest project that you've taken on and how has working on an ensemble benefited you?
Audience member: In taking on that project.
Jeffrey: In taking on that project. Thank you.
Heather: Do you wanna do the project?
Corinna: How did you know that's what I was gonna say?
Heather: But that's not what you were gonna say, right?
Corinna: I'll do a different one.
Heather: A different one, yeah. Sure. So right during the 2009 financial crisis, we decided to produce a trilogy in rep. Why? I don't have to say anything else, right? But Johnna Adams, yeah, was the writer.
Jeffrey: The pain of the crisis—
Heather: I know, was the writer. And yeah, we did a trilogy in rep, and I think, oh, gosh.
Corinna: That's it.
Heather: How did the ensemble sort of get us through that? Was that kind of the question? That's a really good question. I think it taught us a lot, I mean, besides just being insane to do, I think it taught us a lot about what kind of collaborators we wanted to be working with, and even within the trilogy, we actually had three, we had three different directors, right? Yeah, so we had three different directors, one for each of the shows, but the same design team, and sort of watching each of those directors work differently with the same design team, I think really shed light on the things that we wanted to keep and the ways of working that we didn't wanna hold on to, and then we never did a trilogy again, but then we did two shows in rep still later. I don't know.
Corinna: That's good.
Heather: Really? What were you gonna say?
Corinna: Oh, no, there might be another question.
Jeffrey: Yeah. We have time for maybe one more question and then I'll enter our final round. Yeah?
Audience Member: Has your Living Ticket model affected anything in the way of individual donations or other funding that you've received?
Jeffrey: Has it adjusted other funding that you've received? Has the Living Ticket model adjusted any other funding that you've received?
Audience Member: Specifically in like donations or gifts.
Jeffrey: Specifically donations or gifts.
Heather: I think that as far as like bottom line, that maybe we've gotten a few foundation grants that maybe we wouldn't have gotten, but like who really knows if that's true? I mean, nothing that was so specific. Well, that's not exactly true. We did apply for one grant that was kind of a, can you help sort of subsidize this program. But I think in terms of, yeah, in terms of the individual donations, it really put it sort of back on people to really ask themselves like, well, what can I give, instead of on us like, hey, can you give us $50? Can you give us $25, right? It makes the donor kind of have to, I don't know, really take ownership of that in a new way. Is that, you wanna just?
Corinna: I don't feel, and I think we actually did the math on this a couple years back, but I don't think that it has impacted our individual donors giving, say, at an end-of-year campaign. My memory of that is that they continue to give at much the same levels, and now, also did. Those who had resources to do so gave more to see the shows, but that's my memory of it. It's been a couple years since we've run an analysis on it, but I remember it being good news 'cause we kept going.
Jeffrey: Great, thanks. We've just entered the lightning round, so I'm gonna ask these folks some questions that hopefully they don't have to think too hard about to bring us back to wrap us up this afternoon. So first I wanna know, what is your favorite salutation?
Heather: Can I be transparent in the spirit of Living Ticket transparency?
Heather: So this lightning round, we don't have to think, but we actually got these questions in advance. I thought Jeff meant like what I like to be called, like in terms of, yeah, salutation, but now understanding that's not actually what the intention was. I guess mine would be, I mean, something I use as sort of like, hey team.
Corinna: Yeah, whenever we're emailing other creative partners, it's CPs, comma.
Jeffrey: Favorite exclamation.
Heather: Hoo, boy.
Corinna: I think, yeah, I have a loud laugh. That's my exclamation.
Jeffrey: Favorite transportation.
Heather: My feet. I get motion sick in most any other form of transportation, so I like my feet.
Corinna: I'm a weirdo who loves, loves, loves the New York City subway system.
Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not theatre?
Heather: I think some kind of international relations, conflict resolution work.
Jeffrey: Something light, yeah.
Corinna: I regret it.
Corinna: It was great.
Jeffrey: What does ensemble mean to you?
Heather: I really think the collective care, that like we just have to remember that we're people, and like that's actually the most important piece of all of it.
Corinna: Love, love, love, love, love.
Jeffrey: Thank you. Your favorite ice cream. And this has been a dividing line on ensembles in the world, I'm telling you right now.
Heather: I think coconut.
Corinna: Don't hate me, but I don't like ice cream.
Jeffrey: That's okay. Do you have a favorite frosty treat?
Corinna: I don't like sweet things. I'm a spicy person. I like things spicy and bitter.
Heather: Ooh, wow.
Jeffrey: Awesome. We learn a lot about each other, don't we, in these moments? Hey folks, to our audience and to Heather and Corinna, I wanna say thank you so much for your time today. Thanks for joining us. I wanna say some really quick thank yous to HowlRound and my producer JD Stokely. All the conference wizards here at TCG, thank you so much. And I wanna say also, Lily and Colette for being here from our Milwaukee Rep Teen Council and giving me a hand this week. That's been so helpful, so thank you. That's all I've got for now. We'll be here to mingle for a little bit, so please, we'll see you next time on From the Ground Up. Thank you.
Jeffrey: Let me end by saying that at the end of this interview, someone from a relatively large theatre company came up afterward and said to Corinna and Heather that they were taking Flux's living ticket model back to their board. Which is music to this podcaster's ears I'm here to send information out into the world and we just did in real time, in real life, and I hope there are some of you out there who find this helpful as well. I just want to say that I appreciate how generous of spirit these people were this was a great experience to have had with them. A big thank you to Devon Berkshire of TCG who connected me with Corinna and Heather, thank you so much. Finally let me end with the usual, please follow us on Facebook, on Twitter using the handle @FTGUpod and if you have any questions or ideas for show topics, or maybe you want to be a show topic, hit me up at [email protected]. Thanks all, and we'll see you again on From The Ground Up.
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