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No Screens with Ariel Fristoe of Out of Hand Theater

From the Ground Up Episode #13

From the Ground Up

“Were trying to bring the arts to people who may not have them otherwise.” Ariel Fristoe

Since 2001 Out of Hand has been creating immersive, game-based experiences and events for their community that have traveled internationally. They are nimble, they are flexible, and they are rooted in their planning, funding, and neighborhood.

actors on an outside stage

In 2010, Out of Hand partnered with The Lunatics, a Dutch spectacle theater company, to tour a large-scale, outdoor version of Hominid to five cities in Europe.

Jeffrey Mosser: 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 another installment of From the Ground Up. I am your host, Jeffrey Mosser. This week, we've got Ariel Fristoe, artistic director of Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. This podcast was recorded on 5 April 2018, which was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, so somewhere in the middle of this podcast, you'll hear me exclaim, "Wow," which is where the zeitgeist of everything just sort of hits me. These folks are doing some really inspiring and fun work in surprising and sustaining ways. They are immersive, interactive, and poignant. I really enjoy this conversation with Ariel, but I'll save the discoveries for the outro. Okay, let's get to it. I was flying through members of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, and I saw Out of Hand. I was like, "Wow, these folks look like fun. That's where I want to go. That's what I want to do," and so I wanted to reach out to you all. Thank you.

Ariel Fristoe: Sure, and I hope you'll come visit.

Jeffrey:  Oh my gosh, I totally hope so. I totally hope so. Can you give me the quick and dirty version of what Out of Hand is, and how you came into being?

Ariel: We are a seventeen year old company here in Atlanta. I started Out of Hand when I was in my mid twenties with some friends when we were too young to know better. Some of us went to college at Emory here in Atlanta together, and then we picked up some other friends shortly thereafter, and after getting out of college and looking around at the theatre scene in Atlanta, we realized that we really wanted to make our own work, and that we wanted to be able to work with people who we loved over and over again. I had thought I was going to be a regional theatre director, so I had not prepared to run a company.

Jeffrey: There's still time.

Ariel: Yeah, it's been trial by fire for the last seventeen years, but it's also been a lot of fun. We graduated from college in '98, and the Olympics were here in Atlanta in '96, while we were in college here, and as part of the cultural Olympics, the city company came and did their three week residency here at Emory, and some of us got to do it, so that was hugely influential in my life, and then you just mentioned Michael Rohd. He had a huge influence on my career and on this company as well. The TCG conference was in Atlanta in, oh gosh, I'm not sure. 2003, maybe? I went to hear him speak and was just blown away by him and his work, and been a fan ever since, and actually went and did Sojourn Theatre's Summer Institute this past summer.

We hired them as consultants on a project we did this year, so we've really taken a lot of inspiration and knowledge from them as well. We wanted to make work together, make original stuff, and we didn't want to make anything that you could see on any kind of screen. That was our driving impulse and really has remained so, because we realized really fast getting out of college that we would never able to compete with the budget or the star power or the technology of movies and TV. I mean, and I think that we are living in a golden age of television. It's never been better and it's just incredible.

I love that, but even in addition to that, there is still this strong desire and even this need for people to get together actual human bodies in the same room and have some kind of personal, intimate experiences together around the arts. That's what we do, so we create shows that are almost always interactive in some way, but a lot of the work that we do, it sort of borders between theatre and other kinds of social interactions, and you know, people argue over whether or not what we do is theatre. Sometimes we consider dropping the name Theater from the company and just calling ourselves Out of Hand, but what we really attempt to do, inspired by Michael Rohd, is to use our skills as artists to address community needs through arts driven projects.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Sort of in that same vein, have you ever had the sort of pushback that people say, "This is just a big social experiment. You're just trying to see what buttons of ours you can push"?

Ariel: No, we haven't had that one, and I guess that's because we don't push people's buttons that often. I mean, like, you know, even, for example, in The Breakup, which is a project that sounds like it could really push people's buttons, it's this series of what we call Car Plays. We've got, I don't know, fifteen of them or something. We do them at festivals sometimes, or sometimes we get hired out to do them at events. One audience member, one performer. You get into a car with a performer, and you get dumped in about two minutes, sometimes less, but it's in a way that makes you feel great about yourself. This sounds like it could be a scary interaction. It sounds like it could be a bad excuse for a social experience, but people love doing it, and people will get dumped once, and then they'll get into three other cars and get dumped by three other people in three completely other ways, you know, men, women, whatever, because it's so much fun, and because we really make it a part of our mission to make our interactions with audience, and their interactions with each other positive and warm, and things that fuel your soul, and not make them scary.

Jeffrey: Oh my God. I'm feeling elevated just talking to you. This is so good.

Ariel: Or like, I remember, we took this show ... Oh my gosh. This was, I don't know, probably fifteen years ago. We took this one show to the New York Fringe Festival called Help that's an interactive spoof self-help seminar. The performers in it play the parts of four life coaches who take you, the audience, through this seminar, and there's breakout sessions, and you have to declare a problem, and wear a color-coded name tag that states your problem, and sit with other people with your problem, and there's, like, call and response and activities. I remember the first review we got in New York was like, they were shocked that New Yorkers liked this because they assumed that this was the last thing that a New Yorker would want to do, but they actually went like, "Oh yeah, it's fun, and they make it so easy to engage in, and nonthreatening," that we could get, like, even the New Yorkers to …

Jeffrey:  Yeah, yeah. What I'm seeing from your website and everything you've talked about is the relationship to your audience, and the relationship to your space seem to be the most paramount things in the work that you do. What work do you do to connect those things?

Ariel: Yeah, so we start by coming across, in one of a variety of ways, some kind of community issue that we feel that we can help address through our work as artists. We start with one or more community partners to begin with. We've done a number of collaborations with scientists over the years, so sometimes it's a scientist who comes to us. For instance, this one, we maintain a connection to Emory, and we've done a bunch of projects with various institutes and departments at Emory over the year, and Emory's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center came to us a few years ago.

They were sort of brought to us by the head of the Chemistry department, and asked if we could help them with this problem that they had that there was this huge stigma around Alzheimer's disease that actually stops people from getting diagnosed when they should be diagnosed, or from seeking treatment once they have been diagnosed, or from making plans for the future and setting up the kind of support networks that they need. It turns out, and this is so sad, because Alzheimer's disease is really common and becoming more common, but people who are dealing with it and their families feel very isolated and stigmatized.

They were wondering if artists could do a little bit to help change the conversation around Alzheimer's disease, so we met with researchers and professional caregivers, healthcare workers, and people with Alzheimer's disease, and people who are taking care of family members with Alzheimer's disease. We ended up working with a playwright on this one, our Playwright-in-Residence, Steve Yockey, and this really wonderful actress in Atlanta whose mother has Alzheimer's disease, and that's a major part of her life these days, and developed a play from the perspective of the adult child of someone with Alzheimer's disease. We created this play, and then we reached out to the Alzheimer's support groups here in Atlanta, to the Alzheimer's Association, and to Emory's center, and just invited as many of those people as we could to come and see the show.

We organized a bunch of, you know, talkbacks with experts about the science, or about caregiver options, or that kind of stuff, and basically just invited the audience to stay after every show and talk, and you know, "What do you guys need to talk about? What do you need to say?" and to share their stories around this. That's kind of typical of a model of like, there's something that we want to talk about. There's something that we want to address. We do a lot of research. We get partners in the community, and then we try to create an event that facilitates dialogue around something and story sharing and advocacy, basically.

Jeffrey: It feels like there's a constant conversation, like, with you and the community, and with you and the community partner, and how does the community respond to it? What do you hear after the show closes?

Ariel: Yeah, I mean, and it kind of depends on the project, because sometimes people are more moved to talk about the subject matter than they are the artistic treatment of it, which is great. We don't have any problem with that at all. I mean, we loved the feedback that we got on that show that was about the acting and the writing and the direction, but we also loved that people just talked about what was happening with them in their own lives around Alzheimer's disease. You don't have to talk about the production at all. The production can be just an opening to the conversation. There's this one project that we had been doing for like ten years that's called Group Intelligence. This is another collaboration with scientists. It was a collaboration with the Center for Chemical Evolution, which is an international group of scientists that studies the origins behind how life starts, origins of life chemistry.

Jeffrey:  Okay.

Ariel: I can describe the project to you. It's not a show. It happens outside, and from the outside it looks like a flash mob because the participants actually create the event based on audio files that they downloaded and they're playing on their phones, or on MP3 players. They all start at the same time, and they get these instructions that allow them to play the part of molecules in a sort of reenactment of how molecules self-assemble to create the very basic building blocks of life, while you sort of learn about origins of life chemistry. There's no set. I mean, there are actors in that there are scientist characters who are sort of leading you through the experiment, but they don't talk except at the beginning when they tell you to start your MP3 player.

But at that one, we serve tea afterwards in this sort of like ritual, and we would invite the audience to stay and talk about it, and maybe half of what people talked about was the science, was like, "Whoa, I didn't know, like, what is this molecular self-assembly thing and like, how does this work?" But definitely half of what people talk about then is just the experience of like, "That was so wild when like, we had to get together with as many people as we could find with the same color eyes as us," or like, "We all managed to make that shape in under a minute," or, "We were all told to start singing, and how long would it take for us to all be singing the same song, you know, can you do that in less than a minute, and why did everyone choose 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' this time?" or whatever it was.

Jeffrey:  That's so funny. I automatically thought "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I don't know why.

Ariel: It only is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" maybe a quarter of the time, but it is one of the obvious choices.

Jeffrey:  No, sure, sure, sure.

Ariel: We try to provide structured ways for people to talk to each other after our events as often as possible, just so that they can like, kind of decompress and have a chance to reflect on what just happened to them, since it's unusual, since it's not most people's normal expectation for what's going to happen when they go to the theatre.

Jeffrey: Right, but you're making space for them regardless, because I think I read ... I'm going to get this wrong. It's I-A-M-O-4-W? Or 0-4?

Ariel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. O4W is the Atlanta recognized abbreviation for Old 4th Ward, which is the neighborhood that we reside in.

Jeffrey: Okay, okay, okay.

Ariel: So it's I Am Old 4th Ward.

Jeffrey: Dig it. You know, sometimes you just got to be from the place. I get it.

Ariel: Exactly.

Jeffrey: It makes total sense now. I knew, I was like, "This is clear to somebody. Not me." My thought on that is that it looks like you were providing free meals and just community interaction. Can you talk about that, and how you sort of facilitate those kinds of audiences? How do you bring them in? How do they hear about it? How do you get them there?

Ariel: Yeah, well, that one was more of an experiment than usual for us, and we loved the results of it so much. We will do it again as soon as possible. We wanted to really focus on our own neighborhood rather than thinking in terms of the whole Atlanta Metropolitan area, or even larger. Some of the history of our company, we've been focused more nationally, and we've taken a few shows to Europe, too, and so sometimes we've even been focused on international collaborations, or national, but we thought, "Let's go really micro. Like, let's focus on our neighborhood." Part of the reason is that our neighborhood is changing really fast, and it's kind of scary. It's great, but it's just, it's really fast. We live in Old 4th Ward. This is where Martin Luther King was born. His birth home is right around the corner from our house, and it's where his church is, and the King Center. So all of it is right there.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Ariel: Yeah, so our neighborhood, so we've got all of this incredibly rich history in this small neighborhood, right in the middle of Atlanta. It is also probably Atlanta's trendiest neighborhood. It is gentrifying super fast. I mean, it's always been a tourist destination because of the King Center, and those landmarks, you know, it's a national park at the end of my street, but it's suddenly like, all these tourists who come to the bars and the BeltLine, which is like our High Line, and you know, all these new restaurants. This neighborhood is also home to the largest Section 8 public housing development in the entire southeastern United States, so the house prices in this neighborhood just, like, quadrupled or more in the past five years, and suddenly we've got million dollar homes, and they're right smack next to the largest public housing.

It's all right here in this very tiny neighborhood in the middle of the city, and so we thought, like, "Let's focus on our neighborhood." It's incredibly diverse. It's incredibly historic and trendy, and it's also one of the most segregated neighborhoods in the city, so you've got this wealth and poverty and black and white right across the street from each other, and not talking to each other. What we did is we chose this central and really beautiful and inviting brand new recreation center, the new Martin Luther King Recreation Center that's just opened, that's just like this gorgeous facility, to host these events, so they would kind of be welcoming to everyone, hopefully, or to as large a segment of the neighborhood as possible, and we literally invited every person who lives or works in the Old Fourth Ward through a direct door-to-door mailing, the way that pamphlets and political campaigns do mailings to every single address.

We had a group of ten artists who designed this experience together that's a combination of community building and data gathering, but all designed by artists, so some of it is visual methods of data gathering, some of it is physical, on your feet interactive methods, and then you sit down with nine strangers at a table and you share a meal together, and there are activities that happen at the table, including a Mad Libs style poem that gets filled out by each table about the neighborhood that then gets read aloud by one volunteer community member from each table at the end of the evening. It's sort of like a closing ceremony. So, it was really like, "Let's get people who live next door to each other but never talk to each other in the same room together, interacting, and becoming friends, and let's gather as much information as we can about what our neighbors are worried about and what they're excited about and what they're thinking about so that we can make arts driven projects for and with them, basically, for the next few years.

Jeffrey: That's awesome. That's fantastic. Holy cats. Okay, so wow, fantastic. How is ensemble a part of the way that you work? You and Adam are artistic directors. Erin is your managing director, and do you have a core of folks that you work with beyond that? Do you have actors? Or maybe you don't call them actors. Do you have a core of people that you bring in to facilitate the creation?

Ariel: Yeah, so we would, you know, in the vein of there are as many definitions of ensemble as there are ensembles, we absolutely consider ourselves an ensemble in that pretty much every project that we make is an original piece of art that is designed by a group of artists working together as an ensemble, rather than written by a playwright, and then produced by that group of artists in some form. In terms of an ensemble of performers, or an ensemble, over time, of creators, that has changed as we've gone on. We started this company when we were in our mid-twenties. We had this really wonderful group of artists who fluctuated a little bit, but mostly worked together for the first ten, twelve years of the company, and of course, you know, there was a little bit of attrition.

Somebody moved away, somebody went to graduate school, somebody had kids and realized they couldn't do it anymore, or whatever, but mostly, we were a cohesive group, and we trained together either once a week or twice a month, for years, for like ten years, which was really amazing. That was kind of how we developed all of our theatremaking and project-making skills, was we had this amazing laboratory where we worked together constantly. Then we had kids. Like, then life changed, and we realized that we could not keep up that schedule, that we did not have the kind of free time, like, once we got into our mid-thirties, that we'd had in the first decade of the company. We still have a core group of artists who we love and feel very loyal to, and who we hire as often as possible, but we don't train together all the time like we used to.

We have now realized that depending on the project, it's also really beneficial to us to also go after the absolute best talent that we can find, either regionally or nationally, you know, if we have to bring somebody in, and that sometimes that's what a project needs rather than getting comfortable with the same group and not looking outside of that group. It's been kind of a hard growing up for us process in that, but a lot of it was that after ten years of making work together and training together, we have all these skills that we can now apply much faster than we used to be able to, so give us somebody really talented, we can teach them what they need to know and kind of bring them into the fold and get them working really fast, and we do that a lot now too.

Jeffrey: How did you fight that burnout? I mean, how did you get through that sort of attrition?

Ariel: Yeah, well, one way is that we've remained small enough, because we don't run our own venue, and that's by design, because we're trying to bring the arts to people and places that might not have them otherwise, so we don't want to charge people to come to our events most of the time, and we want to bring them to places where people are already gathered, most of the time, rather than asking people to make room in their schedules for us. Because we don't run a venue, and we're small and nimble, and because we have this amazing managing director, Erin, who's been with us for ten years now, we are in the incredibly fortunate position of having money, so we don't have stress from trying to pay bills, and that has made life really nice for us, and made it pretty easy for us to keep going. We actually weathered the entire economic downturn without going into any debt at all.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Ariel: We now have cash reserves of something like $60,000 just so that, you know, if we ever need it, like if something happens, we've got the cash in the bank. I mean, Erin is just a wizard. It makes it so that going to work is pretty fun and not too stressful, and like, part of the way that we've done that is that we have, and this is partly because we want to give away a lot of our stuff for free, and we had to figure out how to do that. You know, and of course, we get public funding and some foundation funding, and donations like other companies, but that's never going to pay for it, so what we figured out how to do is how to use exactly the same skills that we're using to make free work to make commissioned work for businesses and schools and civic groups that want to hire us to make stuff for them. That's actually where a lot of our income comes from, and it makes us a little bit more stable, and makes our year easier to plan, and makes it so that it's actually, you know, so that we can make a living, and so that we don't feel like running for the hills, I guess.

Jeffrey: Awesome. You're a great segue into like, how do you pay for things? How do you make it all work?

Ariel: Okay, good.

Jeffrey:  Do you have an administrative office, or are you all sort of working remotely?

Ariel: We have an incredibly wonderful board member who has donated an office space to us, a small one, pretty much since we started. I used to go there every day. For, I don't know, ten years or something, that was what I did, and then Adam and I built this house ten years ago, and I realized that when you have a whole house, you can just work from the kitchen counter and you don't have to go anywhere, so honestly, I don't go there. Adam and I also both teach part-time at Emory, and so we have an office there, you know, so we'll go there as well. But mostly, we all work from home. We meet on Google Hangouts for staff meeting once a week, and we meet in person once or twice a month, and everybody's kind of working in their pajamas or in the park, or wherever they want to be.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah.

Ariel: We have four staff members, so we're pretty small.

Jeffrey: Does everybody get paid in some capacity?

Ariel: Yeah, so all four of us get paid. We have our managing director, and then Adam and I as the co-artistic directors, but he's also in charge of marketing, and I'm also in charge of development, so we're each, you know, kind of doing a job and a half, and then a couple years ago, we brought on an education and games director, which has been incredibly helpful. Our free programs for kids, a few years ago, became a major part of what our company does, and it just got really hard for me to ... And then games, as well. We do these puzzle hunts, and we do one of those, a new one every year, for the public. It's coming up in just a couple of weeks, but we also do them for businesses, or for anybody who hires us to do them, and that had gotten to be so big that I couldn't handle all of that at once, so it's really helpful to have the fourth person.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and then do you pay your artists as they come on board.

Ariel: Yeah, we do. We actually probably pay our artists better than we pay ourselves, I think, but that's kind of been a back-and-forth shift over the history of the company, and I think right now we're in a place where like, "Hm, if anything, we're probably paying them better than we're paying the staff, if you look at the sort of national standards," so we probably need to adjust that, but yeah, we pay people pretty well, even our after school teachers, and our in school teachers, and all of the school programs that we do, we are giving away for free, so we are raising all of the money for those.

Jeffrey: Got it. Got it. You mentioned your board members are giving generous office space and whatnot. When did you have a board, and when did you find yourself incorporating, and those parts and pieces?

Ariel: Yeah, we actually did all of that right away.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Ariel: That might have been a nice perk of going to a school like Emory and then setting up shop next door is that we knew people from Emory who had gone to law school and then gotten jobs in firms in Atlanta that did pro bono work, so you know, those kind of skills, and that's where some of our first board members came from too. I think we incorporated in 2001, and our first show was in 2001, and we became a nonprofit immediately thereafter.

Jeffrey: Okay. Wow.

Ariel: We did not pay ourselves. When we started out, more of what we were doing was in theatres and was a little more in like, a traditional theatre schedule in the beginning, and the kind of standard, when we started out, was that it was $1,000 per person per production, so all the work of making a show and rehearsing it, and all the performances, you would get paid $1,000, and at the very beginning, the staff got paid nothing. We were working for free for the first few years, but then we realized that that was not sustainable, and we fixed it.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A big part of your income, then, are the corporate events. Can you talk a little bit about all of that?

Ariel: There are a few different things we do for businesses. One of them is, if a business has a problem with customers that we can help them with, they will hire us to do that, so our biggest client has been the World of Coca-Cola for the past, I don't know, like, six or seven years or something. We do a couple of things for them. We do basically queue line entertainment, so on all of their busiest days of the year, we have performers there who are doing often very tiny interactions with individuals, or small family groups, while they're standing in line waiting for things. There are a lot of lines that you can wait in on busy days in the World of Coke, so we're just giving them these tiny little moments of happiness where somebody comes and sings a song for you, or makes a tiny little origami gift for you, or does a magic trick, or a little piece of clowning on lot C for you.

Jeffrey: Oh, fun.

Ariel: Or like, balancing, juggling sort of acts, and sometimes they get together and do things in larger groups, and for larger groups, but it's often these little personal interactions. Then we also have done a few different consulting projects with them, one of which we designed little interactions like the ones that our performers do for lots of different segments of the regular staff who works at the World of Coke, so even people in the retail shop, you know, what can they do to make someone's visit extra special, like, to give them this little extra moment of happiness as they're checking out and leaving the World of Coke? Or what can the people do who are just in charge of letting people into one of the exhibits?

We came up with this, I don't know, it was like 100 different little interactions that they could have that they implemented over a few years. Then we also do creativity training with their staff. On the management level, it's more strategic planning stuff, but then on the guest interactions level, for them, you know, the people who are there day in, day out, working there, for them to think of what can they do and what can they come up with and implement to make people's visits more enjoyable, to alleviate problems that happen, you know, to create new programs. Sometimes they come up with new characters and new ideas for stuff to happen at Coke. That's the kind of thing, and then we do a lot of these games, which are like puzzle hunts.

Yeah, so it's like a scavenger hunt, but instead of looking for stuff, you are looking for clues that you then have to solve. Our biggest client for those is law firms, and we do them in two different ways for law firms, but the one that is the most fun for me, and it works for consulting firms and technology firms as well, you know, these big firms will hire a new group of employees straight out of school, like, straight out of law school or graduate school, every year, and they will bring all the finalist candidates in for a weekend so that they can interview them and decide which ones they want to hire, but also so that they can wine and dine them and try to impress them so that they will take their job offer rather than somebody else's.

We create these really competitive puzzle hunts that are designed to ... You're there as a job candidate for the weekend at this firm. They've flown you in, and you have an hour and a half to try to solve all of the puzzles in this game, and you're on a team with other people, but you're actually being watched by somebody who works in the firm, and they are grading you, like, on how respectful you are, how creative you are, how good your problem solving skills are, but particularly, like, how good your interpersonal skills are, because if you are horrible to your teammates in a situation like that, well, then, you may be horrible to our teammates as an employee, and that's something that they're going to want to know.

Jeffrey: Oh, totally, and I mean, you give them a time limit, and everyone's stress level goes way up, so yes.

Ariel: Yeah, and I mean, the clues are really hard. It's wild, and people get so into it. They're like, you know, running through the halls of these office buildings, and tearing their hair out trying to figure out that all of the little dots on this piece of paper are Morse code, and if they step into the elevator, the Morse code is there on the wall, and they can decode it, or like, whatever it is.

Jeffrey: Wow. Oh, that's great. That's great. This is a part of your earned income. Since I'm talking to the development director as artistic director here, can you just give me a number, a percentage of like, what your earned versus contributed income might be? How much do you-

Ariel: Oh God. Yeah, you should really be asking Erin and not me. Our earned income is well over half of our annual budget. I think it's like 70 percent of our income, which is crazy, partly when you think about it, because ticket sales are only like 10 percent of our annual income, because almost all of our events are un-ticketed.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Holy cats, so that means that 30 percent you're finding grants and fellowships and other monies elsewhere, wow.

Ariel: Yeah.

Jeffrey: What does that mean for you when it comes time to write a grant?

Ariel: I have done a good job. I have been successful in getting the local government grants, so the Georgia Council for the Arts, unfortunately, has very, very little money even compared to most other state arts agencies, and they have so little money that they now give out very, very few grants, so unfortunately, more than half, probably, of the theatre companies in Atlanta don't get any money at all from Georgia Council for the Arts. We do, and that is a great thing because I know I can count on it from year to year, and then they also separately fund our education programs. Then we have our city and our county arts councils have been great sources of us, and all three of those have sort of steadily grown over the past fifteen years.

Those are the only ones that I can really count on from year to year besides, of course, individual donations, and donations from the board. We also have the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which is a private foundation that sort of aggregates family foundation money and private foundation money and gives it away for people who'd rather give their money to the Community Foundation and have them deal with it, and they've been one of our biggest funders over the years as well. At the moment, the IAMO4W was funded by the Arthur Blank Foundation. Arthur Blank is the co-founder of Home Depot and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, so he's here in Atlanta. That was a major grant for us, but we don't have any other corporate or family foundations that fund us on a regular basis. We try to find something new every year, because there's nothing that we can depend on.

Jeffrey: How do you decide a season?

Ariel: That's an easy one for me.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Ariel: Some years ago, we realized that we wanted to get more life out of our original creations, and we wanted them to grow in popularity over time, so that rather than always making something new and then throwing away each one of our new creations, and only doing it once and then never doing it again, we started focusing on having a good chunk of our season be annual events, that we might make a new iteration of it every year, but we know what it is and when it happens in the year, so that's a major part of what we do. We always do a new game for the public that's free in the spring. This one is called the Dogwood Quest, and it's at Atlanta's biggest outdoor spring festival, which is called the Dogwood Festival.

If we like this, which we think we will, it's going really well so far, we will probably do the Dogwood Quest for some years to come, but it will be a new game, a new version, so you can play every year. Then in the spring, the Atlanta Science Festival happens in the spring, and because we do so many collaborations with scientists, we usually have at least one offering there. We work with this artist who comes in every year to do guerrilla haiku, so we work with her to cover the Atlanta Science Festival in original poetry about science in the form of haiku with sidewalk chalk. We have a booth at the festival, but then we also have a street team who goes out with buckets of sidewalk chalk and instructions. They invite the tens of thousands of people who attend this festival to compose an original poem about science and write it somewhere on the festival in sidewalk chalk, and then it lasts until it rains.

Then usually, once a year, often at the Atlanta Science Festival, but this year we're actually doing it a different time of year, we do an event called the Zombie Outbreak Game, in which you have to save the world from a zombie virus invasion by using six areas of public health that are actually involved in fighting infectious disease. This originally was a collaboration with the Atlanta Science Festival and also with Emory health scientists and the CDC. Yeah, that's a fun combination. We've got zombies in zombie makeup roaming Atlanta, but then you also have to go into a laboratory and do a lab test, and you have to crawl down into a stream and find a mosquito, and identify it to see if it might be a vector for the disease.

Jeffrey: Wow. I'm sure being near and dear to The Walking Dead, down there, I'm sure people are all about it.

Ariel: Absolutely. My husband was a character on The Walking Dead this season, so it's near and dear to our hearts.

Jeffrey: Oh my gosh, that's so funny. That's awesome.

Ariel: Then in the fall, we always do a show in people's living rooms, so we're in a new home every night. It runs for three months because we pretty much only do Friday and Saturday nights, because those are the only good times to perform in people's living rooms. It's usually a one man show. This fall, we're doing a show that is, in large part, music. It's this woman, Minka Wiltz, who has written this play about growing up the child of a street preacher in Atlanta in the '80s, and she is now an actor and a professional singer, and she sings opera and blues, and musical theatre style and gospel, and she sings in all these different styles in people's living rooms.

Yeah, so when we're thinking about a season, we have all these pieces. We do one new thing that we never have any idea what it's going to be every spring, but then we know there's going to be a show in people's homes in the fall. We know these other things are going to happen. We know that our programs in elementary and middle schools runs throughout the school year, so that's a major piece, and then we know we're going to be at the World of Coke. There's games that we make for the same firms every year, so we kind of know when those happen in the calendar, so a lot of it, these days, luckily, is like, "Okay, you can kind of cut and paste from one year to another and then fill in the blanks for the season."

Jeffrey: But all those decisions are basically made between the four paid staff, for the most part, right?

Ariel: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah, okay, cool. No, no, no, I just wanted to know sort of hierarchically how that sort of pans out. What is one hurdle that you would like to eliminate that would make your life easier with the company?

Ariel: It seems like these days, to get the go-ahead, or to give ourselves the go-ahead to make a new project, we have to have both the funding and the audience firmly in place ahead of time, and I really wish we could just have one or the other and be able to make something.

Jeffrey: Yeah. People don't start things because they think they need it all at once, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

Ariel: Yeah, and you know, we are lucky in that we have this kind of slush fund. If we want to try something out, we have some money to do that, and then it can fail, and that has actually happened, you know, where we go, "Okay, let's spend some seed money and see if we can develop this thing," and then like, "Oh, no, that's not going to work," but we feel like we have to be so careful, and because we don't run a venue and we don't have subscribers, sometimes it feels like we're going after completely new audiences all the time, and so like, having the need to go, "We have a built in audience and built in funding," and like, even if it's something that you feel like would be really valuable to the world or really exciting artistically, it's so hard to do anything without having both of those secured.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I'm looking at the time, and I'm going to hit the lightning round with you right now.

Ariel: Yes.

Jeffrey: Okay. I need to know the following things without much thought, all right?

Ariel: Okay.

Jeffrey: Your favorite form of transportation.

Ariel: Bike.

Jeffrey: Your favorite salutation.

Ariel: Good day.

Jeffrey: Your favorite exclamation.

Ariel: Wowza.

Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Out of Hand Theater?

Ariel: That one stumped me. Sitcoms on your TV at home.

Jeffrey: If you weren't doing theatre, what would you be doing?

Ariel: Traveling the world.

Jeffrey: Nice. What does ensemble mean to you?

Ariel: Created by many minds.

Jeffrey: What is your favorite kind of ice cream?

Ariel: Mint chocolate chip.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah. Good one. Fantastic. Ariel, thank you so much for your time. It means so much that you took time to connect with me today.

Ariel: Thanks, Jeff. Nice to meet you over the internet.

Jeffrey: Yeah, here we are. The magic of-

Ariel: Come and visit.

Jeffrey: Yeah. You too. Take care. Thank you.

Ariel: Bye.

Jeffrey: We continue to come back to the idea that ensembles are dedicated to their community first, but with Out of Hand's national and international touring, we see that their appeal is broad. They are really doing some cool stuff where the arts lead the conversation in their community. It's also great to hear about a company that has survived various life changes, including kids and grad school, et cetera. Also, the fact that their sustainability is linked to strong season planning, where certain events are replicated annually, is huge. This nimble but rooted process is really interesting, and I'm sure is linked to fatigue prevention, stable financial planning, and so much more.

Finally, I really admire that they've trained together and created a sort of shorthand to get people up to speed when they bring new people in, and the fact that the way in which they work to create material for free events is the same as what they use for their corporate events is amazing. Community based, community funded, internationally traveled, and sustainable to let them live their lives. Okay, that's it for now, folks. Remember, hit me up at [email protected], or on Facebook and Twitter @ftgupod. That's all for now, 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.

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