Bring on the Days of Wine & Roses…

This exchange took place via email on a recent afternoon between Bradley Machov and Butch Roy. It started as one thing, and expanded into a whole lot more. It’s presented much as it was written, with slight edits for public presentation.

 

Bradley:

I think you should seriously consider, every time you announce new show lineups, posting a paragraph or so description of why that show was selected–both for the run itself and for the timeslot chosen.

The August Happy Hour with the Board went a long way for me in elucidating the process of how shows are chosen, but for one thing, not everyone was at the happy hour. And as I’m sure you’ve noticed (based on questions asked at the happy hour, as well as that long blog post you published a few months back) you have a bit of a perception problem when it comes to lineups. I’m one of HUGE’s biggest fans and supporters, and even I’m sometimes baffled–and angry–by decisions made about shows. I think more upfront explanations would help dispel at least some of those negative feelings.

Really, the big issue is not about the shows themselves, but the people in the shows. HUGE makes such a big deal about it being “your theater” and a place for everyone. However, how many shows put up in 2014 had an audition process for that run? Zero, by my count. Granted, not every show needs auditions. Star Trek, for instance, would probably kill its momentum with brand new casts each year. But why doesn’t a show like Creature Feature and/or Survivors of the Undead Plague mix it up yearly? Or hold auditions to at least potentially mix it up? As it is, the only show that provides a consistent opportunity for “everyone” to be a part is Throwback Night. And while Throwback Night does a commendable job of getting some new faces on stage, it has also–for example–cast one of the board of directors for all three years running. (Again, a specific example of the larger point. That one thing alone does not justify this whole email.)

[In that last paragraph I had forgotten that Darjeeling Unscripted and The Improvisors held auditions. So the “Zero, by my count,” point isn’t completely valid, but 2 still isn’t that noteworthy. ~Bradley]

The more often you return the same cast/people to your stage, the less chances there are to discover new talent. Duh. But not only does that discourage said new talent, it also discourages anyone with a vested interest in seeing HUGE fulfill its mission: supporting the improv community in the Twin Cities. By definition, you’re only supporting the people you put on stage.

Granted, the community is way too big to give all deserving performers consistent stage time at HUGE. I totally get that you have to draw the line somewhere. But I wouldn’t be writing this email if I was the only one who felt this concern. I’ve talked with enough people about the issue of stage time (who gets it and who doesn’t) that it’s an issue possibly bubbling under the surface more than you realize. (Maybe you do fully realize it, but it’s then still an issue that you’re having trouble resolving.) I’m an advocate for finding more opportunities to hold auditions. But for now, an explanation of why the show was chosen for the run it got could at least be a step in fixing the problem.

Butch:

I think that is a fine idea, posting what exactly it is that got that show chosen for that time slot – might be a good, ongoing way to illustrate some of the thinking that goes into selecting shows

We really don’t have a terrific “announcement” process and that’s something that could really use some help as well, with this feature a part of it. Shows don’t really get announced when they are booked since we’re booking all over the calendar at all times but we could issue announcements along the way, yes.

To the second part, I do know and understand that it’s an issue, and it is something that we’ve tried to address – but a big part of the problem as I see it is that the perception around who gets into shows and how opportunities are counted is a bit off from the reality. By which I mean, the assumption that it’s something that HUGE neglected or failed to do.

Throwback Night may have been the only show we held auditions for but that accounts for 30% of the shows that HUGE produced in-house last year (given that the Throwgram shows are the same casts from Throwback night) which is much higher than zero, but I do get complaints that say the very same thing.  

Creature Feature held auditions last year as part of an effort to introduce auditions to the longer-standing shows and invite newer people to be part of them instead of just having them be something that happens every year that nobody knows how to get into. We didn’t hold auditions this year because that cast is still so new to doing that show that we wanted to push them further before changing it up.

HUGE produced: Creature Feature, Star Trek, Throwback Night, #hashtag, He/She/Them and Dr. Harold. That’s it.

Those are the six shows with casting under our control that we could hold auditions for, one of which we did hold auditions for and the people cast in that show were automatically the casts of the subsequent Throwgrams.

Survivors of the Undead Plague, Adventures of Tim, Troy and Damian, The Mess, The Improvisers, Family Dinner, Polar Bear Centric, Mayhem, Mustache Rangers, Speed Goat, Off Book, Yes Anderson, M4W, OMG, Positive TERI, This is Yay, Bearded Men, Secrets of the Twin Cities and Followers of Djibosh  (that’s all the rest of the weekend shows for the year 2014) are the eighteen shows came to us from outside with casting already done.

HUGE doesn’t produce those shows and can’t very well hold auditions for them.

[Touching on a legitimate legal issue that will be addressed further in a bit]

I think when people look at the big picture of what happened at HUGE for the year and opportunities that were given out, they often fail to count those shows as whole casts of improvisers that got an opportunity on our stage – it’s easy to choose to see “HUGE didn’t do anything to let us into those shows” but the reality is more like “HUGE did a lot of work to give all those shows an opportunity (in fact we took KaBaam!! (a HUGE show) off the calendar to give more opportunities to more shows) and those independently produced shows didn’t do anything to let you into them.”

Part of that problem is that the difference between “our shows” and “not our shows” is largely invisible. We want to give them all the same weight and stand behind them equally to our audiences; we don’t want to put our stamp on “our” shows and leave it off the others. When we first started I always jokingly used the tag line “This is a HUGE production” on our shows, but we quickly stopped because we never wanted there to be a “mainstage vs second-stage” feel to any of it, or make it seem like we were endorsing some shows but not others.

If the show is on our stage we put all the same weight and resources behind it, and calling out the difference felt like it took away from that; but it may have led to the confusion we’re having now as well.

And you are correct – almost none of those shows held auditions – but that isn’t HUGE’s failure, and I think we can help promote the general idea that people proposing shows should also hold auditions, and we’re happy to be the venue for those auditions any time we can.

But rather than people being upset at HUGE for what we could be doing, everyone should remember to ask their friends that produce shows the same question.

I know we’re never going to make everyone happy with the number of opportunities there are, because there are too many people and groups to fit into the schedule AND still give any of those shows enough of a run to call a fair amount of time to build any audience. But rather than seeing how few people we’re opening things up to, I see the open proposal process via our website submission form as a giant open door. And I’m proud of the fact that whole casts of improvisers from the community are getting chances – not just to come be part of something we create and tell them what kind of show to do, but also to put together a show they imagine and want to put on stage.

The problem you touched on isn’t as simple as it looks to those people that are inclined to be upset at HUGE. Could we work on communicating this in some way? Maybe so. I’ve always shied away from HUGE telling groups how they “should” run things, since we neither have nor seek any authority over how things are done outside our theater; and it’s hard to give simple advice from HUGE’s voice without that advice sounding like “rules.”

We ARE adding a line to the show proposal form about auditions, and using HUGE as the venue for auditions to further encourage them.

Thank you for bringing it to us – that’s a step that too few people take.

I’m always happy to explain (in far too much detail) why HUGE does things, but people seldom ask.

And yes, some of those shows include members of the Board of Directors – we’re an artist-led theater and I make no apologies about putting members of our Board in shows. If the inference is that they are in shows because of favoritism, that’s a very different conversation that speaks to whether or not the board can be trusted to make those decisions impartially.

I maintain that we can and do, but if people don’t believe it when I say it – and some do not – then really the issue is that they don’t trust what I say in the first place and nothing else I say will matter anyway.

 

Bradley:

Thanks for the reply. It went a long way towards answering many of my concerns not answered at the happy hour.

There’s still clearly that perception problem, though. I think inviting the public into your thought process will help. If the perception is that there’s favoritism, or impulsive decisions, or whatever; laying out the thought process should help dispel that. The explanation won’t be good enough for everyone, but if it’s a reasonable explanation it should be good enough for most people.

The Creature Feature/Survivors of the Undead Plague (SOTUP) example perfectly captures that point. I’m sitting here thinking, “Why couldn’t Creature Feature have held auditions again? Why did the same cast have to return?” Regardless of whether I’m happy with that explanation, I feel like I at least now understand why.

And I know intellectually that SOTUP is Damian’s thing. But from the outside it feels very much like a HUGE show. Maybe just because of how well it fits with Creature Feature, maybe something else. But again, I’m sitting here thinking that it’s a show that could easily hold auditions every year. If I saw something from HUGE like, “We love SOTUP and love the job Damian does with it. We love how perfectly it complements CF in our fall lineup. So we’re more than happy giving our 9:30 slot to those guys…etc etc…” That would probably at least help me understand the rationale more. Just putting a show on your stage is standing by it in a big way. I don’t think there’s too much harm in making it clear that it’s an outside producer, but one that you trust completely to produce a great show. But I definitely could be wrong.

There’s clearly a fine line here. A duo like Polar Bear Centric, or even a group like my own Positive T.E.R.I., is clearly not HUGE’s doing–that’s a group that developed on its own and approached HUGE with a show. But again, perception–SOTUP (again, as just one example) seems different in a way I can’t put my finger on.

Butch:

There are so many levels at play in the relationship you described – it almost entirely has to do with creative control and intellectual property – but they are real, legal concerns that we have to answer around shows.

SOTUP created their own show long before HUGE existed and it has evolved over time, over which HUGE has no input and doesn’t seek any either. They created the “improvised zombie movie,” and that was such a great fit for our show that we built a longer relationship with Creature Feature around that understanding.

This past year Damian came back and said he was thinking about doing something different with the show, and I had to tell him that the 9:30 Halloween show is based on it being an improvised zombie movie – we had an agreement for a zombie movie show and if it wasn’t going to be an improvised zombie movie we’d have to evaluate the new idea as a brand new proposal.

This year, I was asked to direct SOTUP (which further muddies the water over whose show it is from the outside, I’m sure) but I was only the director of that show this year – Damian still owns it just as much as HUGE still owns the 9:30 show slot. HUGE could decide to put up a different show in that spot just like Damian could ask someone else to direct the show next year.

If HUGE told Damian how to do his show or reached out and tapped Damian to “come up with an improvised zombie movie for our lineup,” then it would be a commissioned work and we’d have to parse out who owned the end result because of how the laws around intellectual property work in Minnesota. We are purposely not a “work for hire” stage; we want to give groups the utmost freedom to take their shows anywhere they want without worrying if HUGE needs to give them permission or have any credit.

The example of the flipside is probably The Score. HUGE cast the group Crab Hands as a whole group to do our show called The Score. If they go elsewhere to perform it, they are called Crab Hands and so is their show, even if they perform the same structure with iPods from the audience, etc. If we remount The Score at HUGE they know there is no promise that they will be the cast, etc etc. All of which is an understanding we had to learn along the way to be clear about with the casts themselves, but we have left it out of things the public needs to know or worry about in regards to the shows.

Likewise with Family Dinner and Neutrino – Family Dinner was created by Michael at ComedySportz a long time ago. HUGE did not put the show on until it was resolved that Michael could bring it to our stage. And if Michael chose to take Family Dinner elsewhere next year, we’d have no way to stop him (nor would we seek to). But while it is on our stage we promote just as hard as any show that we produced. We love it and we’re proud that it’s on our stage and, more than anything, that is the message we want to communicate to the public.

Neutrino was still in the hands of the last group that ran it, even though it hasn’t run in the Twin Cities in 7 years – we still had to wait for the rights to the show to be officially transferred to me before HUGE would even discuss doing it ourselves – and that’s an even deeper level since it gets into the rights to do a show that neither group involved came up with.

These are lines that may seem fuzzy and/or invisible from the outside, but they are lines that we actually have to maintain very clear definitions for in order to protect ourselves from disputes and problems down the line – and to make sure that groups that want to create a show and mount it on our stage know that we’re not going to try and assume ownership of their show in any way. So I assure you that those things are very deliberately treated the way they are in order to make sure that our door is open to everyone with as few hurdles and snares as possible. That is part of how we support artists – we make it as easy as we can on them, even though it means more work on our end sometimes.

Sometimes, as you may have noticed, we have to scramble and insert a show into the lineup. That’s a great example of HUGE being responsible for when people outside of our control drop the ball, or expectations aren’t communicated clearly by me when booking shows. Sometimes communication around show end dates, absences so groups can do a festival elsewhere, etc., get fumbled and mistakes are made and we get caught less than prepared.  I’ve had groups forget about shows after the Fringe, or I’ve not clearly confirmed the run dates that change because of holidays, etc and then we’re in a position of telling shows they’re expected to put something up they might not have been planning or ready for.

But if they say, “Well we can’t,” then we would be the ones left holding the ball and scrambling to fill the schedule, which happens far more than it should (even though it doesn’t happen very often at all). But we don’t have any way to compel people to do what we say (which is funny when people claim that we “control” things) and I don’t think anyone does it intentionally or maliciously but there is a point when people find it easier to say, “Well I give up;” because they have tried all they can think of but they also know we HAVE to do something to fix it. HUGE can’t just shrug and tell the audience, “Well there was supposed to be a show now, but they didn’t show up.”

So that’s the downside of not producing all the shows ourselves – when we scramble and put up Solomon Kane for three weeks of Wednesdays, it’s not because we saw a chance to sneak in one of Nels’ projects for more stage time, we did that because we emailed everyone with a submitted Wednesday show proposal and couldn’t get any takers. The buck stops with us, so I had to turn to Nels and basically force him to put something up with no notice, just to fulfil the promise of our Wednesday show. That’s not something I want do to someone outside of HUGE if I can avoid it.

When it comes time to screw someone by asking them to do something we know sucks, I will always see if I can do it myself before asking someone else to take a deal that sucks. People do too much for us for me to feel OK asking them to do the things that suck.  If there’s a scheduling error and a group needs to be cut, my groups get cut first. Some people might choose to see greed that I put our shows in first, but that is why the Board of Directors shows are 2-3 weeks over odd dates – we fill in the weird gaps in the calendar because offering another show 3 weeks in the middle of June is bullshit. I would be insulted if someone offered me 3 random weeks but expected me to do all the marketing and everything just as seriously as a full run. So rather than insult someone else, we will just take it and do it since we have to market all the shows anyway.

If we did produce all the shows, we could hold auditions, schedule everyone and just worry about hiring and firing actors and directors – but that wouldn’t serve the overall mission nearly as well. And I think giving shows the chance to step up as producers is a valuable one that teaches lots of people what that means and all that goes into it. The occasional scramble is the price of doing things that way, when people find out it’s harder than they thought. And then we learn along the way as well.

 

Bradley:

Man, if only there was a clear and concise way to get that out there.

To button things (at least for now), I haven’t seen anything to convince me that my original idea isn’t a good idea. If anything, I think it’s an even better idea. But ultimately it’s up to you, and I’ll obviously continue to support and stand by HUGE regardless of whether it’s implemented or not.

 

Butch:

Oh yeah – I’m on board with that part all the way back from the first email

I always attach my usual caveat to things that I hope will help people feel better about what we’re doing: That no matter what or how much you say, there are always people that either don’t believe us or assume there’s something “more” that we’re leaving out or hiding.  

All of which is me saying that, at some point, people will decide what they believe about what and why goes on here – and no amount of talking makes that any different. But it makes it so much better when someone actually does come forward and ask questions, make suggestions, or tell us something that bothers them.

So thanks for doing that.