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Talking Sustainability with Leda Hoffman of Strawdog Theatre Company

From the Ground Up Episode #7

From the Ground Up

Part two of two on Strawdog Theatre Company. Leda Hoffman, recently appointed Artistic Director in January 2019, explains everything as she sees it with new eyes on an old company. From strategic planning to exploring with the board, Leda offers up a strategic companion to part one.

“We have a large variety of people in the ensemble in terms of the specific ways they’ve chosen to make their life in the theatre.”—Leda Hoffman

an actor in a mask

Masque Macabre. Strawdog Theatre Company. Photo by Clark Bender.

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 and thanks for tuning in to From The Ground Up. I am your host, Jeffrey. Today I've got Part Two of my Strawdog Theatre Company podcast with Leda Hoffmann. You may recall Part One, where I interviewed Michaela Petro, long-time ensemble member there who brought us all kinds of great insight into Strawdog as an ensemble, the artistic process, the decision-making, etc. This conversation with Leda leans into more financials, organizational structure, conversations with the board, and her learning and transition period as the new Artistic Director, who, prior to her appointment, had never seen a Strawdog show before. I first met Leda at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre when she was directing A Christmas Carol. Leda was appointed in January and this interview took place on 25 February 2019. This is a great companion piece to the conversation with Michaela, and it really rounds out Strawdog as a classic example of ensemble-based storefront theatre in Chicago. And I hope you enjoy.


Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, how are you doing? How was your weekend?

Leda Hoffmann: It was good, yeah. Saw a lot of plays and interviewed some people to be the casting director at Strawdog, and yeah. Busy but good.

Jeffrey: Is there a lot more transition or turnover left to happen between, after the announcement of your artistic leadership?

Leda: No, this was the only one. A kind of concurrent would be liaison for the job, the casting director got offered the casting job at Victory Gardens.

Jeffrey: Oh wow. Yeah.

Leda: Yeah. So my first meeting with her was, "Hey, we really like each other and wanna work together, but you should call [inaudible 00:02:16]."

Jeffrey: Right?

Leda: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah yeah yeah. That's wild. It's funny how ... it just feels like the wheel keeps turning you know? Once you get to a place of feeling as though you're sustained and all of a sudden is, like, "Oh no, we gotta change again." But that's what keeps us alive, right, is knowing that things change?

Leda: Uh-huh.

Jeffrey: Let's start, maybe, if it isn't too big of a question ... let's start way back. You're the new Artistic Director of Strawdog Theatre Company as of—was it announced in January?

Leda: Yeah, the beginning of January.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And so I guess the big question is, what is it about this job that you were like, "Oh yeah, that's the job that I wanna apply to. That's the artistic leadership position that I want."

Leda: I applied for this job sometime in the fall, can't remember when it was. But, this job showed up, but Strawdog just has had a really amazing reputation, both in Chicago and I think on a broader Midwest and national scale, for being one of those storefront companies that takes risks, that's been around for almost thirty-two years now, that has this legacy and history of really, really strong work and a really strong ensemble.

Actually, when I applied for the job, I had never seen a show at Strawdog. I'd heard about them, they did things on my radar. But for various reasons, it was just a theatre company I'd never actually managed to get to. Which meant, going in, I had so many questions for the search committee, who was interviewing artistic director candidates, just about Strawdog's philosophy.

From the very beginning, it just felt more and more like the perfect match. The more we talked, the more I could just feel that my values and the theatre company's values really aligned ... and as I continued to meet people, I would meet more and more people and as I continue to see Strawdog's work this season, just feeling like "Yeah, these are people who do just the kind of work in the theatre that I'm really excited about." It's wonderful when that happens. There are lots of reasons that people take jobs, and this just felt like it happened for exactly the right reasons.

Jeffrey: With the new appointment, do you feel as though there's anything- you said you're interested in seeing what is coming up in the following season, but what are you really ... What are you looking forward to with your position? Are you hoping to make any changes to the existing programming yet?

Leda: Right away I officially started at the beginning of January, and I'm responsible for programming next season. The ensemble has already had a number of really strong shows in the hopper that they're interested in, and part of the search process was talking to me about some of those plays and getting my feedback on them. I'm also looking to add plays that I bring to the table, that I'm excited about, to that hopper as well. We're in the process right now of selecting what those shows are gonna be in our 32nd season. That's just been a very exciting conversation to "trial by fire", just figure out what this theatre company is, what will help us all move forward together, and then put those things into an articulation of our values as we go into a season announcement.

But there are some changes, that I think with any leadership change, just comes natural changes from the ways people like to do things. Actually at this moment, too, we have a relatively new managing director, Charlotte Thomas, who's been at the company probably only about a month longer than I have. So there's a lot of change in terms of systems, just figuring out the best ways to do things. But the really nice thing is that, with a company with such a long history, there are also things that are already in place, where we don't have to reinvent the wheel because peak board members and ensemble members and staff members know how things work. Charlotte and I can say, "Okay, great. Show us how this happens." And we can all work on that together and then continue to refine as we move forward.

Jeffrey: You talked about having a lot of questions for the board. Can you give us an example of any questions that sort of flew into your head, as someone who hadn't been a company member before?

Leda: One of the things that really drew me to Strawdog is that we don't have very specific, and easy to talk about, elevator pitch or mission statement, in that Strawdog really embraces a wide variety of theatrical styles, a wide variety of stories. When you just go through our website and look at Strawdog's production history, you see a lot of things all over the place, which means that in many ways when it comes to programming a season, the world is our oyster. And that's a thing that really drew me to this company, is that it's not a place where ... by working at Strawdog I'm limiting the work that I do artistically to a certain theatrical style or theme or anything like that.

At the same time it makes it very difficult. I think especially in a city like Chicago, where some companies choose to separate themselves from other companies by having very specific missions. Those ones are easy to define and easy to understand. So a lot of my initial questions were just, "What makes a Strawdog show?" And a lot of talking to both the board and ensemble members about ... We just know when a Strawdog show is a Strawdog show. We talk about things and you go, "Oh yeah, that's not a Strawdog show," or "It absolutely is." But there's not a list of rules. We have core values that define what a Strawdog show is, and so if there are no opportunities for ensemble members in that show, if we don't feel like it challenges us, if we don't feel like it provides a sense of connection between the audience and the artist, then we're not gonna do that play. But those are all big, broad ideas.

We just kind of kept refining this idea of what this company means. And as I was interviewing, we were doing our very first fully-immersive show, where the audience was moving around the full theatre. They converted the dressing room, and the scene shop, and the lobby, into a performance space that the audience was moving around. Which is a big departure for Strawdog from our typical style. And so to see that as my first Strawdog show, and hear about it as an outlier, but a thing that a lot of people were passionate about. Just getting excited about the fact that people could bring products to the table at Strawdog, where we maybe had never done that before, but we're gonna embrace it and move forward with that challenge.

Jeffrey: I remember from talking to Michaela, their selection process sort of comes from a group meeting, sort of retreat-type event, where they are conversing about the different opportunities, and the different passions around each project. What did you learn about that process as you came in?

Leda: I'm learning that Strawdog has a more open season selection process than some ensembles. Some ensembles, specifically in Chicago, vote on a season for example. At Strawdog we don't vote on the season. At the end of the day, as the Artistic Director, I'm responsible for announcing that season with the input of the ensemble. Right now our system works that either someone within the ensemble, somebody on staff, on the board, or just an artist that we're connected to in the community, will bring an idea to the table. We have a literary manager, Cara Beth Heath, who manages this process. After a select group of ensemble members help as script readers for ideas that come in, and then from that, if we're really interested in a project, we'll have a reading, at which ensemble members can come and listen to the play aloud. And if there's an attached director to the project, at that time the director will talk a little bit about what they're interesting in seeing in this production. I just had my first reading last week. So it was really useful to see how these operate. From there, as I'm making a decision of what a season looks like and how the pieces go together, I have this information about just what the feelings are of the general ensemble on this show.

Jeffrey: That's a really long game, though, isn't it? To have a reading and then do the decision-making process? You might go through months of readings.

Leda: Absolutely, yeah. The goal is to be having readings on a near-continuous basis, so that we have a list of plays where we have feedback on them, that we can go to when we're putting together a season.

Jeffrey: In the conversation, do you know if plays are pitched frequently? Say it didn't get picked up for last season, or the season before, or the season before, but someone is still pitching this one play that they are so passionate about.

Leda: I mean, that's something that I really wanna make sure that we do, going forward. I haven't heard stories about a show in the past that took four years of people talking about it to make it happen. More frequently I'm hearing stories about, somebody had a great idea, everybody got on board, and the turnaround was kind of amazingly fast. But I'm really excited. I keep talking to the literary manager about just having a really well-documented hopper of plays. The main challenge this year for me is coming in and being less than two months into the job and being right in the middle of season planning. I unfortunately wasn't at a lot of the readings for the shows that are in the hopper this year. I have notes from them, but I didn't hear them aloud myself. Trying to develop that body of work that we're interested in doing, being really aware of whether those rights are available.

There are some projects right now that we're all real excited about, and the rights aren't available at the moment in Chicago. Those are all on the list, and we're waiting til the moment that we get to tell that story in our company.

Jeffrey: With ensemble-based work, the conversation that I keep having with people is, How do we make this sort of practice sustainable, and whether that's financially or just a standpoint of not burning out your company members. Do you have any insight or plans as to how keep Strawdog sustainable, and making it a practice for the ensemble that's stable and satisfying?

Leda: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's really the big question. And coming into a thirty-two year-old company, there's a lot to think about in terms of sustainability. It's a very different conversation than if you're looking at a five year-old company. I've done some work myself on starting a new company when I was living in Milwaukee, and we really just existed to do projects when the people who were involved in this company were free to do projects and we had a good idea. There was no mandate to have a season. There was no mandate to exist five years later. We very intentionally were not talking about this plan. Here at Strawdog, we wanna be here thirty-two years from now, and we wanna continue to exist.

As a non-equity storefront company with a very small budget and a history of having a small budget, we have to just continue to talk about what sustainability looks like. One of the really unique things about Strawdog is that we have our own performance space. I'm sure when you talked to Michaela, that you talked about the importance of having a space to Strawdog's identity. For the first twenty-eight, twenty-nine years of Strawdog's life, they had a space, and the space and the company went hand-in-hand. And all of a sudden, that building was being sold to I think create a new block of condos, and Strawdog had to figure out, okay, who are we? What are we gonna do? Are we more than this building? The answer was a resounding yes.

We spent a year itinerant, working out of factory theatre space, learned a lot of things and learned that we really wanted a building. And now we're in a building, a new space, that I really really like. We're in a neighborhood called North Center, which is a fantastic neighborhood with a history of theatre, but it doesn't feel like there's so much theatre that there's a- there's just a real need for some quality work in that area. And here we are, making our shows in that space.

And space costs money. How do we make sure that we pay our rent every year? Charlotte and I are looking at a lot of ways to just make sure that we are financially sustainable going forward. And then as well, I think it's really important that we talk about ensemble sustainability, and especially as a non-equity company. There's always that big conversation of, if a ensemble member turns equity, if as an actor they're not going to be in Strawdog shows anymore under our current model, and what does that mean? And there are some people who have stuck around the company after they've joined Equity and contribute in ways that are not acting onstage.

Also I think Strawdog's an exciting place, because we have a large variety of people in the ensemble in terms of the specific ways they've chosen to make their life in the theatre. There are people in the ensemble who absolutely have the dream, if they're not doing it already, on building their entire living around working in the theatre. And then there are other people who have been long-time ensemble members, who have really leaned into other careers or families or choices that allow them to do the work that they love at Strawdog continue to be incredible artists. But there's not pressure on them to make their entire living from creating theatre, and so they're coming to the company with a different perspective on what sustainability looks like. Sustainability looks like a place where they feel really artistically engaged.

Everyone who works at Strawdog is paid a small stipend. And that's really important to people, I think, regardless of what their line of work is. It's exciting to me to be having conversations with people who are just that passionate about being artists that, regardless of all the other things that have happened in their lives, they've stood by this company and they've made these things happen.

Jeffrey: I just feel like every company I talk to has the desire to make it sustainable and find a way to be artistically satisfying. What I hear from Strawdog is this really mature sense of knowing oneself really well, that the idea of family and ensemble and company are all really sewn into the fabric. I guess my big question here though, is- and this is a totally silly thing. I know this sort of on a larger scale, but ... when it comes to a company of Strawdog's scale, of Strawdog's age, you know how you say, "Don't take an apartment that is more than 25 percent of your income," or something like that? You know what I mean? Is there any sort of operating costs/overhead formula that Strawdog uses?

Leda: Yeah, absolutely. You asked a while back about questions I had for the company coming in, and interviewing, and thinking about taking this job. And I had a lot of financial questions from the start up, too, right? You need to know in what financial framework are we making choices? Are we in a place where we're gonna be around to be here? Or is this a theatre deathbed? I mean these are just things you gotta go into with open eyes.

It was really great to hear from both board and ensemble at Strawdog that we're in strong financial shape at this moment. There were some really tough financial challenges, especially that came with losing our long-time home. I felt really respected in that the president of the board was able to have really honest conversations with me about what those challenging financial times looked like. And then what the company learned from those moments.

At this point, due to the work of a relatively new board member who's an accountant by trade, who was able to come in and just put in some really detailed financial systems, that now I feel good in terms of choosing a season, thinking about programming as it relates to the larger financial future of the company. When we're choosing a production, we're gonna talk about what that show's gonna cost in terms of numbers of actors. Does it have an intermission so that we can make money at the bar? How do we think it's going to sell? What does a set of this scale cost us, the way that we're currently building things? I feel a great responsibility to not put forward a season that's going to cost us so much money, or not make us enough money, that we're gonna be in the red at the end of the season.

I think half the opportunity at a place like Strawdog, to really lean in to what we're excited about artistically, there's not a moment I forget about what this does to the bottom line, and what this budget is gonna look like at the end of the day.

Jeffrey: But you get to share this responsibility with your managing director, right, so you can-

Leda: Yes.

Jeffrey: Do you have those conversations with her?

Leda: Yeah, we're talking about that all the time. The two of us being new, too, it's great. We have two different perspectives and lots of questions for people about, "Well why is this, this way?" And "Okay, we've got our goal here that we're either gonna raise this much money, or a goal of making sure that we have this much rental income," which is a huge way to helping us pay our rent for the building. And then we can also start to talk about sustainable ways to make sure that all of those goals are met.

Jeffrey: Yeah. One of the things I remember Michaela talking about was that, now that you own this new space, there's been more opportunities for rentals and letting other people in and out. Do you plan on continuing that process of renting the space?

Leda: Yeah, absolutely. So right now we rent our space from the building's owner, but then we have the ability to then sublease basically the space to other theatre companies. One of the really exciting things about that, I actually was at an opening night in our space from a company called Promethean here in Chicago. I've known their artistic director for a little while now, but this was all obviously arranged long before I came on board.

I was just at their opening night, and what an amazing way to see, I think, a really high-caliber show in our space, to know that Strawdog's existence is supporting this company in doing this work, and telling these important stories onstage. Not only does that generate the necessary revenue for us, that allows us to turn around and pay our rent and produce our own shows, but I think it's an important service to the community as well.

Jeffrey: I remember hearing about a company in San Francisco though. And they were renting their space and it suddenly became that they were only renting their space and they suddenly became landlords. And it totally just crushed the will of the company. And I remember them talking about how they sort of just collapsed. I guess what I'm saying is I'm glad to hear you feel as though it's incumbent upon you to share the space, that companies smaller than yourself are unable to own their space are able to still make the work and that you make it available, too. I think that's a fantastic thing.

Leda: Yeah, absolutely. We have that conversation all the time about, what does it mean to be a landlord, and how do we watch that slippery slope? Because I mean, we could. There's certainly a need that we could be renting our space to other companies almost every single day of the year. And so one of the things that the managing director, Charlotte, and I continue to talk about is getting our season locked down, picking our dates, and then renting around those things.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and that's a luxury. It's like, "hey listen, we can fill it all in, because this is our space. We're gonna make the decisions." So that's great.

Leda: Yeah but we have to be on a timeline that works with everybody else, and that's just a thing we're continually trying to figure out, because if we said yes to everybody who, even looking to the 19/20 season, if we said yes to everybody who's asked us so far, we'd be full.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah.

Leda: And then we'd have no more shows to go.

Jeffrey: Of course, of course. Do you see you expanding your season at all?

Leda: That's something that, as a new artistic director, I'm going, "Let's pause. Let's do this the way we've done this before. And let's have that conversation down the line." When we were at our long-time space, we actually had two performance spaces: a smaller kind of cabaret space, and then a more traditional black box. That afforded us the opportunity to do sometimes eight to nine shows a year. And right now we're looking at about three to four shows a year. That's where we are right now, that's what our current financial model has built to sustain. Until I have at least a season, if not more, under my belt, and understanding of how the finances, and then all the time it takes to put a production together ... until I understand how all those things go together, then we'll talk about the sustainability of what it would mean to add more shows to our season.

Jeffrey: I wanna take it back to, you made a statement about how each sort of company or ensemble in Chicago has sort of their flavor. What I guess I wanna know is, who is Strawdog's audience? And maybe this is something you've gleaned from your ensemble and from your board. Do you have a sense of who Strawdog's audience might be?

Leda: I'm really excited to meet them. Since I became the artistic director, we had just closed of Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists, that was running at the same time as a new children's show. It was a programming thing that we'd just gotten into, it was really successful, called Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I was able to see those shows during the interview process, but those shows closed right around when I was offered the job. We don't open our next show until May. In that way, I can be told a lot of things about the kind of people who come to Strawdog shows, and yet I feel like until I get a chance to really meet audiences, I'm not gonna have a really strong sense of that.

Certainly the things that I've been told at this point, is that I think we have a very varied audience. We have some people who are really committed to who we are at Strawdog, and will come because it's a Strawdog show. That's really what you hope to build. But right now we have a very small subscriber base, in terms of people who will just buy their tickets for the entire season. And then almost all of our ticket sales are single ticket sales, which means that there are people just switching in and out depending on the type of show it is, depending on the content of the show.

Starting children's programming, obviously, brought in an entirely new group of people who had never been to Strawdog before to see shows. And we're gonna learn, moving forward, if the parents who brought their kids to see Hershel and Hanukkah Goblins are coming back, especially those who are in our neighborhood, to see other shows that are for adults and take place in the evening.

We're really learning about who those people are, but I think one thing that we're doing well is reaching out to individuals who are really excited about specific shows. I think that our goal in the future is to continue to capitalize on that interest in those specific shows, and then from that be able to talk to people about, "Yes, if you like them, if you came because you were really into a show about that topic or in that style, that really a Strawdog show will continue to tie some of those interests together. So come on back and see another show here."

Jeffrey: Yeah. You touched a little bit on single ticket sales. Do you have a sense of what your earned-versus-contributed income is?

Leda: Yeah, we're at about 70 percent contributed and 30 percent earned, which means ... To me, I look at those numbers and I say, "Okay great, there's a lot of potential for growth here in terms of earned revenue." But also I think it's exciting that there's enough contributed income and support that we are able to take artistic risks. Where I'm not looking at programming and thinking about ... if it was flipped, for example, and we were 70 percent earned, one show that's a box office risk could kill the company forever. I'm excited that the board's got enough into this financial position where we are reliant more heavily on donations.

Jeffrey: Do you have any sense of what the board was hoping you would bring to this equation?

Leda: Yeah, I wanna say that I think it takes a lot for an ensemble-based company like Strawdog to pick an outsider to be their artistic leader. I think it takes a lot of courage, and it takes a lot of trust. I feel really empowered by just how difficult I know that decision was for them. It wasn't just a board decision, there was both formal and informal input from the ensemble and by everybody in a big town hall before they made their choices. So we have this decision to trust an outsider to the company. There's a lot of faith there, and a lot of excitement about new energy, and not out-and-out huge, giant change. I'm asked every day, "This is the way we've been doing it, but if you have another way of doing it, let's talk about it." Great. Excellent.

I think there is a desire to just break free from, "Yeah, well we know how to do this, this way, and we're gonna do this this way for the rest of time." Our producing model conversations happening right now about, "Well how much tech time and preview time does a show need to be successful? Is that a show-by-show situation, is that just a blank, Strawdog does it this way situation?" All those conversations are invigorated and renewed because I'm new, and I have lots of questions about why we do things the way we do them. Although I think really, people are just looking for me to bring that energy and those questions in, as we move forward.

Jeffrey: You have a gala coming up.

Leda: Yes.

Jeffrey: Which, by the way, it sounds like the most fun I've never had. It's black tie, blue jeans.

Leda: Uh-huh.

Jeffrey: Does this mean either-or, or what does that mean?

Leda: Yeah, it means either-or. I had that question right away.

Jeffrey: Great.

Leda: It means either-or. It's great "come as you are", or if dressing up is fun for you, go for it. If you just wanna spruce up your blue jeans, you're super welcome. This has been the name of our fundraiser for ... this is probably its third or fourth year. This year it's on St. Patrick's Day weekend, so it's also a St. Patrick's Day alternative or add-on, depending on how you feel about St. Patrick's Day. We have kind of the fun, kind of, green-and-gold idea that St. Patrick's Day which led us to this art deco theme, so this fun kind of classy affair that also allows you to be yourself. It feels very Strawdog in that way, in that the whole goal of this fundraiser is to be welcoming, and then to also just have a whole lot of fun.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah. That's great. Principally, do you know what the fundraiser typically goes to support?

Leda: Yeah. The fundraiser, at its core, goes to support the general operating budget. But one thing that I brought to the table when we first starting talking was, making sure that our paddle raise goes for something specific. Every year we are going to choose a new, you know, whatever is important to us at that moment will be articulated through our paddle raise and raise money for a specific initiative. This year we're going to be raising money and talking to people about the importance of increasing artist stipends and artist fees for people who work with us.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And by paddle raise, you mean like a live auction, right?

Leda: After the live auction, where you're bidding on specific things, just a general ask for money.

Jeffrey: Oh, okay. Got it, got it.

Leda: Right. That comes from, "Does anyone have anything else that they can add to what they've already spent, you know, buying their ticket, showing up, bidding on items?" It's something I've seen really successful at other places I've worked. If you can get people to understand what that money really goes for, then people are happy to open their hearts and their wallets to support what you're doing.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Great, great. The idea of fundraising is such a challenging thing as well for companies, I've noticed. Something about the idea of spending money to make money, and that you have to have enough money to spend the money to make the money. Do you have any opinions or thoughts on that?

Leda: Yeah. I think that, in some ways, if you're sure of the return, it's easier to make those decisions. But when you're a really small company and you don't know if that risk is gonna pay off, that's when those decisions are really really difficult. One of the things I was really excited about, taking the job, actually, is that Strawdog does have a part-time development associate. Right there is a commitment to the understanding that you do have to spend money to make money. If paying a part-time development associate is able to bring in enough fundraising dollars to pay that person and then a significant amount on top of that, then absolutely that's a really worthwhile investment that the company's made.

Jeffrey: It sounds as though your board is really supportive and interested in that cause as well.

Leda: Yeah, absolutely. I think that they all are well aware of just the need to have a robust company, to keep our sustainability for the future, that we're going to need to have a really strong fundraising effort. I also think that talking about our contributed-versus-earned revenue, at the rate we're at, contributed revenue is really really important to our company. Knowing that, we have to resource it properly. Strawdog's also a company that does have a number of part-time staff positions, so the development associate isn't the only person who has a part-time role in the company. We also have a facilities manager, a production manager, a casting director, and a literary manager.

As a small company, everyone's on very small stipends for these positions, but I'm really encouraged by the fact that there's a financial model already that says that, "Yes, it does take the time and resource different that what a volunteer position would look like, to make sure that all of these jobs are done the way they need to be done."

Jeffrey: Thinking about contributed income, can you sort of break that out in terms of what is sort of grant funding or other donation-based?

Leda: Yeah. I don't have the numbers in front of me. This is something that Charlotte's been looking at a little bit closer than I have. I know that there's a really, I think, healthy funding community in Chicago. The tradition of storefront theatre in Chicago really helps to be able to explain to foundations why it's important that Chicago has this robust storefront community, and that Strawdog is seen as an important player within that. I'm just opening something right now so that I can look at this. Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah, totally. I mean, not-

Leda: I'm serious too. Right now, in kind of very big terms, we're at about fifty/fifty individual donations and grants.

Jeffrey: Okay. And the grants, where do they come from?

Leda: Almost all of the grants that we're applying for are for general operating funds.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Leda: But they are coming from both government grants and foundations.

Jeffrey: Leda, you've been so eloquent and answered all my questions so well that you've left me checking them off left and right here as I go through, so thank you. What is the hurdle that you wish you could remove? What's the one big thing, that if you could take it out of the equation it would make life so much easier in terms of running Strawdog?

Leda: That's a great question. I think just having the day-to-day be simpler would be the absolute best thing to happen right now. I think based on the company's size, there's just a lot of administrative burden on Charlotte and myself to keep the day-to-day of this company moving forward. That's what comes with having a small staff, and then on top of that being new and having to learn everything quickly. I would say that's kind of one of the number one things that she and I are focused on right now, is making sure that we have systems in place, so that we have the time to focus on the big picture.

I have something I hear from friends I'm talking to, who have been running storefront companies for thirty plus years. Just buying yourself that time to be able to look at the big picture. At organizations large and small, those moments get interrupted by somebody ... the ceiling leaking, and somebody needing an answer so that the grant can go out, and that's something that happens I think at theatres across the country and across the world, but more and more and more ... I'm two months in, but I'm just making sure that I'm carving out time to spend an entire day reading plays to add shows to our hopper, and not getting caught up in meetings and just the logistics of the projects. The less we're reinventing the wheel every time we do a show, the more and more we're gonna have opportunities open up to think big picture about the future.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I like that you're using the word "system" as something to overcome structural administrative challenges. I feel like we all sort of ... I think we all benefit from having a Leslie Knope Contingency Plan binder in our back pocket, right?

Leda: Yes.

Jeffrey: I would like to ask you some silly questions that I hope don't ... some of them are actually pretty serious. I always say "silly questions", but I think that they're varied, a couple are very deep. I want you to just let these come off the cuff. Whatever comes to mind when I first say them. What is your favorite salutation?

Leda: Greetings.

Jeffrey: What is your favorite transportation?

Leda: Bicycle.

Jeffrey: What is your favorite exclamation?

Leda: Oy.

Jeffrey: Yes, good. What would you be doing if not theatre?

Leda: Probably teaching history.

Jeffrey: Yeah?

Leda: Yeah.

Jeffrey: That's great. Do you have teachers in your family?

Leda: Yeah, my grandparents were teachers.

Jeffrey: Oh cool. Great, great, great. What is the opposite of Strawdog?

Leda: Broadway in Chicago.

Jeffrey: Fantastic. And finally, what is your favorite kind of ice cream?

Leda: Mint chocolate chip.

Jeffrey: Yes! Sorry, that was louder than it had to be.

Leda: Yes.

Jeffrey: But it was exactly as loud as it needed to be for me.

Leda: Yes.

Jeffrey: This is crazy. You are not the only one. There have been multiple, multiple ensemble leaders who have said that mint chocolate chip is their favorite ice cream. It is my personal ice cream.

Leda: There's an interesting thing to dig into there, I'm sure.

Jeffrey: It is a very specific thing, and I'm very curious about this. I love this. It's like, "oh chocolate chip ice cream, okay got it, yeah yeah, okay. But mint, yeah, that's the extra bit that I need. That's what I need." Leda, it has been so great to talk to you. Thank you for taking time out of your day to connect.

Leda: Yeah, thank you. This has been really fun.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Awesome. I look forward to seeing you here in Milwaukee again.

Leda: I'm coming to visit very soon, many times.

Jeffrey: Awesome, awesome. Sounds good, well then-

Leda: You sent me something to listen to on the drive between [crosstalk 00:41:54]

Jeffrey: Yeah, there we go, there we go. Well please allow me to buy you a cup of coffee or something for your time …


Jeffrey: Part-time devo position. Really very surprising to me and, as I said before, a bold statement that yes, to make money we need to spend money. The discussion about the gala reminds me of the conversation we had with Free Street Theatre once again, with Coya Paz. Strawdog has this really interesting model for a small company: ensemble-based, their artistic decisions, and hierarchical-based administrative work. It's not unlike Dell'Arte or the other companies we've talked with, but it's really interesting to hear on a small scale. One of the things that I think makes this work is the fact that Strawdog is so reputable and they're known for the quality of their work. They have just so many ensemble members who are committed to the company, so I think that's one part that really makes this small theatre model click for them.

A really interesting formula here that I'm starting to put together: if you have a semi- to mostly-consistent audience, your company can grow because you're not worried about gathering them, which isn't to say that you're not constantly looking. It's just that you're not actively seeking them, right? It doesn't take as much of your brain power. Your revenue is likely heavier in your earned-income area therein, and eventually you want that revenue to go less toward your production costs and eventually toward your administrative assistance in this sort of model. While this is happening, your ... hold on. Not necessarily. Because you want your artistic quality to go up as well, but you also understand that there are positions that are going to serve the administrative end of things better. They're going to allow you to make the art better. So it's just a balancing act as you continue to go forward, right?

While all this is happening, of course, you're building your board and your track record, and if these things go well then you can start thinking about applying for grants, and for operational and project-based support. And if these go well, then the artists are doing less of the admin and more of the art, right? Here is where we see many companies make the leap from being purely egalitarian to hierarchical. So I guess what I'm interested in finding out, is if there are any companies who stay absolutely true to the artist-as-administrator role, despite the growth in budget and size? Or, once your budget and size start to grow, do the artists start to peel away and ... is that a constant? How often does that happen? Do you know anyone out there who does this? Please hit me up, [email protected] or on Twitter, @ftgupod. That's all for now, folks. Thanks and hope you're having a great week. 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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