Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tour Report: The PHX Fringe

This tour was risky, we pushed ourselves further than we had before, trying to find our limits and learn our boundaries. It was our longest tour yet, 18 days on the road, going further distances with longer drives than ever before. It was the first long trip without Peter J Woods’ musical accompaniment. It was also our second swing at the Fringe Festival circuit (after Systems at Minnesota Fringe). It was also the last run of Paint the Town.

Some of these risks were more manageable than others, some of the expenses harder to recover. Some surprises, both good and bad, and definitely good lessons learned. Overall this tour was better than the summer run, but not as good as the winter tour. No shows sucked completely, but none were as great as NOLA on New Years or St Augustine.

Here's pictures!
PHX Fringe Tour


Here’s a city by city breakdown.

March 25th Urbana, IL. Urbana is a college town with an amazing Independent Media Center in the middle of it. Last time we were there it was winter break and we played for a small but super interested group of locals. This time, we unwittingly booked the show during the college’s spring break, so we played for a larger group of locals, including a fun conceptual music ensemble. These people were great, one woman who clearly has a problem with bio-determinism emphatically painted over the Mendel cross diagram on the set. We went to a great restaurant with super cheap late night food and talked about community organizing, political action and radical theory for a couple hours. Next time we come to Urbana, we’ll make sure school is in.

March 26th Birmingham, AL. When we got to Green Cup Books the garage door leading to the fenced off alley out back was open. It was a beautiful day expecting a rainstorm in the middle of the night. Seemed like the perfect opportunity to have our second ever alley performance of the show, so we did, and it kicked ass. Definitely one of the best shows of the tour, complete with trains in the background providing a soundtrack. We played for a good sized crowd with Yakuza Dance Mob, who are a completely insane noise / absurd / jazz group fronted by a 7 foot tall, 250 pound wildman who threw himself around the alley and the audience with completely reckless abandon, and then brought us home to a large communal house for polite conversation about Birmingham’s history (coal mines, race riots) and greek and roman mythology.

March 27th New Orleans, LA. We were super pumped to be coming back to New Orleans, site of our best show from last tour. Urbana and Birmingham had both grown in terms of audience and excitement since last tour, if New Orleans followed suit we’d be in heaven. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. I’d heard rumors that New Orleans can be fickle and unreliable, and now I’ve got personal experience backing it up. Things started out great, we got to our venue, Sidearm Gallery, a shotgun house with a courtyard beside it which had been roofed and converted into a Chinese laundry long ago, and then painted bright green and converted to a performance space more recently. Scott Heron, the proprietor answered the door in a frilly grey dress and welcomed us into his front room, a space furnished primarily with a slack-rope set up. Juggling pins and high heeled shoes littered the floor. He showed us around, introduced us to the sweetest pitbull I’ve ever met and recommended a café a few blocks away where we could get cheap food.

Then things started going down hill. We first went to pick up Krista, a friend of John’s whose been hitching her way around the country and would be our tech in the fringe in exchange for a ride back to Denver. On this trip we took a frustrating accidental detour onto a freeway that forced us to drive over a long toll bridge out of the city and back again in rush hour traffic. Eventually, we got food and got back to Sidearm, where we set up and waited for the bands and audience to arrive. One band didn’t show, and not much audience did either. We ended up performing for a couple of Krista and John’s friends, one guy who saw us on New Years, The Self Help Tapes, and a few really cool theatre people who heard about the show from Scott. It was a good show, solid, but definitely less than we had been hoping for.

After the show we went to a party at a bar a few blocks away featuring two European techno DJs and a 40 piece marching band. This was a good time, with dancing and a crowd of the uniquely New Orleans style of hipsters, who somehow seemed much less friendly than the ones we met back on New Years, but that’s probably based on our subjective position. Next morning, Scott made us a wonderful breakfast and sent us on our way.

March 28th, Houston, TX. After getting dead ends and silence from venues and contacts between NOLA and Austin, I resorted to cold-calling anarchist bookstores. Last time we played such a show (in Boston last August) we performed for one woman, so I wasn’t terribly hopeful about this show. But Sedition Books exceeded these low expectations. A small, but engaged group of people came out, donated generously, and enjoyed the show.

March 29th, Austin, TX. The Salvage Vangaurd Theatre is now on my top five list of theatre companies / venues in the world. In fact, it’s the only place other than Bedlam where I’ve been that makes me think the future of theatre won't be the utter collapse of the regional theatre system followed by punks and individual artists sifting through the rubble, but rather, a smooth and easy transition where companies and venues like these simply replace the obsolete institutions one at a time. This is a smart organization, diversified, hip, well put together and super approachable and friendly. I can’t wait to get back to Austin and spend more time at this place.

The show was great too, a mid-size enthusiastic audience, and some amazing noise bands including one remarkably self-indulgent guy dressed like a 70’s era Michael Jackson, who thinks that by hopping around and poking himself in the nuts with a stick he'll save his mom from cancer. His absolute commitment to this public display of grief and new age mysticism made for exquisitely uncomfortable viewing: you can’t take him seriously, but you get the impression laughing or walking out might like, kill his mom or something.
Spending the day in Austin was also a good time, we crashed with a friend who lives near campus so most of what we encountered was college-life, but it was mostly independently-owned-and-operated college life. Wish we’d been able to explore the city more, cuz it definitely gives off a vibe of being incredibly culturally diverse and exciting. We spent the afternoon in a park working out kinks and improving the second-to-last scene in the play and arguing about the hypocrisy of privileged kids like us getting food from Food Not Bombs.

March 31st Bisbee, AZ. This is one of those little counter-culture utopia cities. It’s precariously floating somewhere between the dangerous cliffs of hippy monoculture and bourgeois tourist destination, but navigating those waters well enough for us to enjoy our time there. We stayed with John’s sister and her adorable children and played at a new café establishment for a good sized crowd of locals.

This was one of my favorite audiences. We had a good house, probably the oldest and yet one of the most enthusiastic audiences we've had. The "lets get out of frankfurt, okay?" line got uproarious laughter, and some of the audience members talked about Big Reds that they've known (others, who looked big-reddish themselves were conspicuously silent). It was great performing with Eric Bang! and Gypsy Geoff and exchanging stories at the end of the night. Familiar Milwaukee faces were a welcome sight.

April 1st – 5th PHX Fringe. This was our second attempt at a Fringe Festival, and it turned out not much better than the first. I’m about to go on a little tangent about Fringe Fests for a second, some of what I say isn’t going to apply to PHX Fringe, and surely won’t apply to other festivals I haven’t experienced. So bear with me as I try to get my words around my thoughts on this subject.

The first thing I should say is that everyone we’ve ever met at either fringe festivals have been incredibly nice, well organized, professional and accommodating. These people are all clearly committed to making accessible and exciting theatre in their cities, and they should be applauded for their efforts. My complaints are not in anyway personal. It might just be that the fringe festival model can’t do what I think it oughta do, that the very idea of “fringe theatre” has been Adorno-style co-opted by mainstream capitalist culture.

Anyway, we’d swung and missed at the Minnesota Fringe Fest with “Systems” last summer. We came away with the conclusion that “Fringe Fest” is mostly a misnomer, as most of those shows were far from “Fringe”. With a few exceptions (Deviants, Boom) the shows that seemed to walk away with the most audience and the most money from Minnesota were also the most conventional. Meanwhile the most amazing experimental work in the fest (Depth of a Moment) were clearly even more frustrated than us with their lack of audience.

For us, Minnesota Fringe ended up being an opportunity to lose hundreds of dollars competing with hundreds of other shows who have a number of significant logistical advantages (local audience, crowd pleasing content, no day jobs) for an audience that was mostly uninterested in what we were trying to do. The festival made doing theatre feel like a zero sum game, like poker, where groups like us were dead money, feeding the pot for others to take home. I generally hate than analogy, cuz I think arts production is a lifts-all-boats sort of thing, not a zero-sum thing, but the festival made zero-sum feel (unfortunately) more accurate.

Of course, we don’t give up easily, and we like to blame ourselves when things don’t work out. We focused on how it didn’t help that Systems turned out much less funny than we’d thought it would when reading the script. We figured next time we’d put up a different show, applying lessons learned in Minneapolis, and maybe trying at a different festival would work out better. PHX Fringe seemed like a different festival, and it was, and Paint the Town is certainly a different show, but we still ran into some of the same problems, on a smaller scale.

There are three things I like about the PHX Fringe. First that it’s a juried festival. This means that works are selected based on being experimental, challenging or somehow different. One of the organizers explained this to me using the Edinburgh festival (the first and biggest fringe fest in the world) as an example, apparently that has the same problem MN has, lots of crowd pleasers and sketch comedy crowding out the truly “fringey” work. MN Fringe and Edinburgh are random lottery based, an idea that, on the surface is appealing, but in practice seems to not produce or benefit “fringe” work.

Second, Phoenix Fringe is newer and smaller. There were only 30 groups, and this was only their 2nd year in existence. We figured this would mean fewer cardsharps at the metaphorical poker table. Unfortunately, it seems it also means much less audience at the festival in general. We saw as many other shows as we could and only two had more than half their seats filled.

Third, PHX Fringe is cheaper both for audience and for artists, and a larger cut of ticket sales go to the artists. Everything added up to make us think we might be able to at least break even, or make something to recover some of the cost of traveling down here.

Long story short, we played for houses of less than ten every show, half of whom were other artists (ie not paying) and almost all of whom loved the show and promised to tell their friends. If generating word of mouth is the way to succeed at a Fringe Festival, we shoulda been golden. Our wonderful amazing venue manager took our promotion materials to his classes, and called everyone he could think of, we hit the streets during First Fridays, we seem to have impressed our small audiences, we were in many ways the most exceptional and unusual show in the festival (being a traveling DIY group, with a large set, a longer play, radical political themes, and an audience participation painting finale) and still, momentum never caught on, the houses never got bigger, and we ended up losing at least a couple hundred bucks.

Of course, we don’t do theatre for money, so this isn’t the end of the world, but we can’t afford to regularly lose as much as we did here. Economic sustainability is a requirement of our success, and if instead of the festival we’d done 5 more shows in the style of the rest of the tour we’d have made more, spread the driving out more evenly (or just not gone so far) and spent less. We probably still wouldn’t have made a profit, but we surely would’ve lost a lot less.

We also had trouble finding things to do in the city of Phoenix itself. I know it takes a while to get to know a place, to find the most interesting neighborhoods populated by the most interesting people, but, after 5 days of driving around Phoenix with a map of hotspots and galleries, we left with the impression that the city is mostly an endless strip mall with very little unique independent local culture or neighborhoods, or space for people to wander and loiter in public, this impression was reinforced by many of the people living there. It sure made Milwaukee, Riverwest, and Bayview look good.

We definitely had some good times in spite of these frustrations. We got to spend time with Tracy’s old friends and get to know them better. Saw some great interesting shows (Los Torresnos) We got to do the play in the same place a few nights in a row, which allowed us to work on it in ways we can’t when we’re preoccupied with traveling, loading in and out and meeting new people. Also, meeting and working with people like Steve and Matt is always a great experience. We’re willing to spend money on these types of experiences, but simply can’t afford to do so without eventually running out. We’re also more willing to lose money if it’s in the name of bringing theatre to non-theatre audiences, which doesn’t seem to happen at fringe shows as much as our other shows.

April 7th, Salt Lake City, UT. This was a strange show. After a long night drive through some beautiful mountains we got to another city even more bereft of my favorite the DIY culture than Phoenix. There’s something about driving on precarious cliffs, through narrow passes and across wide dark valleys by moonlight that’s exhilarating and romantic, but there’s also something about the lack of poverty, or even much working-class environment in SLC that makes this shiny well-organized Mormon idyll feel more than a little creepy and constraining.

Everyone in SLC was incredibly nice and accommodating, the whole city gives off a vibe of, “hey, there’s nothing to worry about, let’s be happy and c’mon, look at this big beautiful park! Or these wide clean streets with small buckets of bright orange flags on the corners to help children and pedestrians cross without being run over. Pet the bunnies and have some coffee!” The venue even accommodated their next door neighbors (a fancy restaurant) by promising not making any noise louder than soft “indoor” voices until 9 when the restaurant closed. Unfortunately, our show was scheduled to start at 6:30.

We managed to push the start time back a few hours and only had to do the first half of the show at low volume, which was completely strange and energy-sapping. Somehow the audience loved the show in spite of the lack of projection or realistic speaking volume levels. They bought a bunch of merch and encouraged us to come back soon.

April 8th Denver, CO. This was my personal favorite show of the tour. We played the Blast-o-mat, a punk rock garage in the warehouse district with a skate park out back. Dun Bin Had and 10-4 Elenor, a couple of great pop-punk bands played with us, for an audience of 40-50 of the counter-culture lifestyle types we’d been achingly missing since Bisbee. I realize this fashion-based assessment is going to make me sound superfiscial, but dreads and black denim seem to go well with insurgent theatre.

The Blast-O-Mat is great. It’s a legal-enough punk venue, run by a collective, hosting shows of all kinds: noise, metal, punk, folk, with a tiny indie record store and art gallery inside. They’re looking to host more events that expand beyond standard music and parties, and responded enthusiastically to an email from a perfect stranger asking about doing a theatre show there. They also had a warm meal waiting for us, and accommodated our every request and question. I woulda liked to spend more time here, but we left for Boulder shortly after the show ended so that we’d have a whole day with no driving.

April 9th, Boulder, CO. John spent the day hanging out with old friends while Kate and I climbed a mountain. We’d been working on Ulysses’ Crewmen (doing a last-revision / first read / table work) whenever we had down time on tour. We finished this process on top of the mountain, infusing the project with the spiritual energy of the beauty and majesty of nature, or some such romantic bullshit.

The show was at Naropa University, a Buddhist College founded by Alan Ginsburg and a couple monks. John’s friend set it up, and wasn’t able to make it an official show in the performing space, so we played a class room, which was probably more appropriate and exciting. The first classroom we’ve performed in! We played for a dozen or so people who mostly knew each other along with a couple of great experimental music sets. This audience was one of those dead silent groups that make me nervous, no laughter, no reactions, makes me feel like we’re boring them or completely fucking up, but then when you steal a glance or talk to them after the show you find out they are (for the most part) silent because they’re completely absorbed in the show, contemplative, I guess like Buddhists’ oughta be.

After the show we hung out in Boulder (a fairly sad future vision of Bisbee after it’s crashed into the bourgeois tourist destination cliff) and talked about the play and art and ethical lifestyles with people for a couple hours.

April 11th, Chicago, IL. The last performance of Paint the Town came after an 18 hour drive and a short nap on a fold-out couch in Todd and Marrakesh’s apartment above Room’s Gallery. Due to unforeseen circumstances out of our control (our Chicago crash pad’s cell phone malfunction) we had to ask the Room’s people to give us more than they’d bargained for. Rooms is where I’ve seen some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen (Bunbury Me, 7 Jewish Children). I respect these people a ton, and I think we’re the first out-of-town group they’ve hosted, or at least after 18 days on the road we’re certainly the dirtiest and most out-of-it. Having to call them and ask if we could show up 8 hours early and sleep in their house somewhere sucked. But they were totally gracious, in spite of having had an event and a long night the night before and feeling under the weather.

The musicians showed up on time and set up quickly and everything was ready to go, except for audience. When we left Milwaukee almost a month earlier I’d predicted that New Orleans and Chicago would be our best shows. We’d had good shows in both cities in the past, good musicians were playing with us, we were playing great venues, on weekend evenings. Instead, they were both some of the lowest turn outs of the trip. I’m trying to figure out why. Both shows had some return audience, one or two people who’d seen it before coming back for more, so it’s not that we’re delusional about our previous shows in these cities. I think the problem is the day of the week. Big cities like Chicago and New Orleans have tons of stuff going on Friday and Saturday nights, things that a small out of town troupe with a weird show like ours can’t compete with. This conclusion is supported by previous experiences in other places. From now on, I’m going to avoid playing big cities on weekend nights unless we’re sharing a bill with very popular local acts.

At any rate, our Chicago performance was totally weird, we were out of it, uncomfortable, low energy, confused and disappointed. I felt worse after this show than any since at least August.


SUMMARY. All in all, we had no terrible shows, but also none as good as the best shows of our winter tour. Being on the road 18 days didn’t take a very serious toll on us, no strained relations, no fights, we did a lot of good work, continued to modify the play up until the very end (this is becoming my favorite thing about theatre, you’re never finished creating a piece). Financially, we more than covered the cost of gas and food, but between renting the van, repairs, two flat tires, and what we lost on the fringe fest we’re down over $800 which is totally unsustainable. Specific numbers can be found below.

The future of touring: Kate and I are starting work on Ulysses’ Crewmen and planning the next tour. The current plan is to be on the road for the entire month of September. To tour with Peter’s new one-man performance piece about suicide called “Pity”. To focus on the east coast and try to spend more than one day in some cities. We’ll also be taking our third strike-out swing at a fringe festival. This time in Philly, which is organized completely differently, it costs much less, but also provides much less. This is exciting because it gives performers more freedom, we’ll book our own venue, choose our own dates and prices, so the experience is likely to be closer to DIY touring than festivaling. If any kind of festival will work for us, this should be it.

ECONOMIC TRANSPARENCY:

Clearly we've got a ways to go before we make either touring or fringe festivaling economically successful or even sustainable. We've learned a lot of lessons and have some tricks up our sleeve for future efforts. Merch and donations provide significant earnings and can be expanded. Promotion can also be improved and expanded and should get easier over time. Ulysses' Crewmen is a much tighter smaller show that should travel far less expensively. It is also shorter, less challenging, more emotionally intense and, well, should end up being just plain better.

Here's the specific information about this tour:

Income: $703.5
Door $481
Donations $108.5
Merch $114

Expenses: -$1276.06
Gas and Oil -$560.98
Food -$94.51
Hardware -$25.75
Car Rental -$400
Car Repairs -$194.82

Balance sans Fringe Fest: -$572.56

Cost of Fringe Fest -$335
Expected earnings at fringe fest: maybe $75
Estimated Fringe Fest loss: -$260

Estimated Final Balance: -$832.56

Here's a comparison with previous efforts:

Systems at MN Fringe: loss $871.94
Paint August 2008 (14 days) loss $790.34
Paint October (4 days) loss $120.23
Paint Winter (8 days) gain$152.30
Paint Bedlam (3 days) gain $19.30
Paint at PHX Fringe: loss $832.56

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Welcome back and congratulations on the tour...were just talking about you up in Sheboygan the other day with some curators at the JMKAC...people are watching.

Ben Turk (formerly known as Rex Winsome) said...

Really? What's the JMKAC? We're hitting the road with a new show in September, is this a possible venue?

Anonymous said...

Yes. I'll email.

Cody said...

If you come to the show drunk or stoned it is soooo much better!!! That is how all theatre should be viewed wasted to no end. I've viewed a many shows that way and have been kick-out of many shows that way too. Dam theatre folks don't like someone yelling at the fucking actors! fuck them! fuck theatre!
fuck it all!!

fuck you!

Mary Dally-Muenzmaier said...

Ben,

Sorry I'm late on this but thank you so much for posting this rundown of the tour. It really speaks volumes about independent art.

I of course gave ya a big shout-out on CricketToes:

http://www.crickettoes.com/blog/2009/05/dispatches-from-the-artistic-fringe.html

All the best,

Mary