Have Show, Will Travel

Small companies are hitting the road—and playing by their own rules

By Eliza Bent

Traditional producing models don’t leave enough time for small groups to create revenue.

DIY tours on a shoestring budget.

What Worked
Recruiting on-site ambassadors and actors in each city; quick tech times and small cast sizes.

What Didn’t
Undependable stipends.

What’s Next
Creating an ongoing season of tourable work.

The notion of traveling theatre goes way back to the 16th century, when Italy saw the rise ofcommedia dell’arte. At the time, it was called commedia all’improvviso, because performers played outdoors on temporary stages and used props instead of extensive scenery. The improvisatory nature of these groups was reflected in how they were funded as well—troupes traveled for financial success, and towns would pony up so that anyone could see the show. Of course, the most successful troupes performed for kings and nobility, but this didn’t stop theatrical activity in smaller cities.

Today, well-known ensembles often tour to make working at home economically sustainable. But what do companies who haven’t caught the attention of presenters do? If you’re a small group hungry to tour, how do you do it without going broke?

For playwright/producer Candice Benge of San Francisco’s Transient Theater, the idea to tour was concurrent with her first production. After graduate school, Benge vowed to write a full-length play once a year for five years—but “instead of writing a fifth play, I decided to produce one myself,” she says. After speaking with mentor Jon Clancy, co-founder of the New York Fringe, Benge decided to bring The Egg Play to NYC once it had premiered in San Francisco.

Benge worked out some numbers and had a revelation. “I realized that we could do the show for a couple of weeks in San Francisco, then fly to NYC, and it’d be seen by a couple of hundred people in two cities. But for the same budget, we could rent a van and take the show all over the country. Friends and family who’d never be able to afford a trip to San Francisco or NYC would be able to see the work.”

Benge and Transient co-conspirator Elizabeth Haggard devised a method. They enlisted the help of “ambassadors” in cities across the U.S. The ambassador would essentially act as an on-site producer, securing a no-fee venue and receiving a cut of the box office. “We decided that we would perform anywhere that had two electrical outlets and chairs for people to sit in,” explains Benge, who, along with her technical director, ensured that the three-character play would have a 30-minute tech time. Among the performance sites in the 14 cities The Egg Play visited were art galleries, backyards, wine bars, barns, restaurants and even a few “real theatres.”

In choosing destinations, Benge and her partner set up a voting method. “Voters could either give $10 to Transient’s Kickstarter campaign or pledge an in-kind donation once we came to their city,” explains Benge. Last year a city needed 10 votes to see The Egg Play; those that made the cut included Dallas, Omaha and Los Angeles. This summer cities will need 20 votes to see Benge’s two-hander The Owners of Nothing. “What’s great about the voting method is that we then have a built-in audience,” the playwright observes.

Benge and co. don’t stay in hotels. “Our mission is to increase empathy in our culture, and producing...is only half that equation. By sleeping in people’s homes and asking them to share food with strangers, we hope that we’re strengthening that tendency toward empathy even more,” she says. A budgeted food allowance supplemented in-kind donations, and additional expenses were deducted from the box office. “We made a profit in every city except NYC,” reports Benge.

This summer, Transient intends to visit 20 cities. “More cities means that driving becomes less of a pain,” she notes. Also, ambassadors in different locales will be partnered and able to confer about logistics.

Looking further ahead, Benge hopes Transient can rely on a grassroots economic model: “Over the next 10 years we want to get to a point where we’re sustained by $10 and $25 contributions,” she says. Transient also aspires to have multiple touring shows. Benge anticipates that Transient ambassadors will begin to submit their own scripts as well. “I don’t want to be the only playwright in the group; we aim to be a collective. Our hope is to be a kind of open source model for local theatre on a national stage.”

For NYC–based Buran Theatre, touring affects a show’s artistic process. “Our intention is to premiere work in New York City, tour it around and then bring the work back to New York after the show has developed,” says Buran co-artistic director Adam Burnett. “We know that probably no one else is going to perform the work we create, so we’re interested in creating a show that is always remaking itself.”

Buran’s initial tour happened in 2010 with the company’s House of Fitzcarraldo, which premiered in Kansas City. The company was then invited to perform it in Las Vegas and at Albuquerque’sTricklock Performance Laboratory. But when Buran members arrived in Las Vegas, there was little time to tech, and high school students with scant experience were running the light board. Nevertheless, Burnett recalls the experience with great fondness. “Once we sorted some things out, a 14-year-old girl was saying, ‘I need more green light, not blue!’ It was incredible. I learned more in those two days than I did in years of training. It was about showing up and discovering what’s available and working with that.”

Like Benge, Burnett takes issue with traditional producing structures. “As theatremakers, we can’t really afford to work in the way that we’ve been trained to,” he observes. For Nightmares: A Demonstration of the Sublime, which premiered at the Brick Theatre in Brooklyn in January, Burnett and co-artistic director Jud Knudsen, who is based in Minneapolis, will be the sole traveling performers from Buran. They will send text in advance to five actors in each city, who will memorize it and perform with Burnett and Knudsen.

“For this tour, we’ve built in more time to rehearse—about 7-8 days for each city,” says Burnett. He allows that Buran’s touring model is perhaps more similar to the way a band might tour. The company requires only a few things—like 400 square feet of sod, which serves as the set and as an installation. “Beyond that, we’ll be able to fluctuate depending on the venue and who is there.”

For the New York premiere of Nightmares, the actors got paid and there was a split of the box office, but Burnett and Knudsen don’t take stipends. “The benefit is that we get to work exactly in the way we want to,” Burnett reasons. Unlike Transient Theatre, Buran does not have an organized approach to where they will premiere shows. Fundraising is also a bit free-flowing. “We approach donors in each city who have supported us in the past,” notes Burnett, who, like Benge, couch surfs and accepts food donations.

Both companies have strong ties to the cities they visit. “Jud and I are both Midwesterners, so we have a bit of a folksy attitude when it comes to how we approach people and communities.” Knudsen will meet Burnett in Lawrence, Kans., and they will travel in Knudsen’s car for their summer tour. They also plan on producing a September–June season of work, including a remount of House of Fitzcarraldo in NYC.

Burnett works as a freelance grant writer, which allows him the flexibility to work from the road. For this next tour, Knudsen will quit his day job. “We tell people what we’re doing and they think it’s crazy,” he says. “But we’re choosing to do these things. It’s not a sacrifice on our part. This is a model that may only work with that kind of attitude, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”