A Roadmap for the Ensemble-Regional Producing Model


Jeffrey Mosser: I want to go into how you found those works in progress a little bit more. I mean, some of them had national reputation around the time that this started. I know this was a process that started in 2009. How were opportunities identified? Because typically, the Without Walls Festival or Under The Radar, or some of those bigger ensemble presenting festival locations are typically, those are near finished products at that point, right?

Patricia Garza: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. But you named it. I mean, I think that’s part of it. I mean, we definitely would go to those festivals for sure. And that would maybe even just introduce the artists to us and then we’d be like, “Oh, let’s have another conversation with them and see what else they’re working on.” Also, Under The Radar did a wonderful thing where they would have this speed dating moment, where it wasn’t works that were finished. It was works that were looking to tour or works that were a little bit more needing some support. And we would go to those religious, like Diane and I would go to those religiously… Diane was very wise. The part of the budget that she had pitched to Mellon included travel. And so a big part of her role was going to international festival. So like me, the Mil festival in Chile, Santiago, Chile. Noorderzon festival, Edinburg, obviously, and then Under The Radar locally, and then Without Walls festival, also just really random.

I mean, like we would go like anywhere and everywhere to see something, just because you have to be hungry, right? You have to be curious and hungry and open to seeing all kinds of work. And we would just pack our schedules. So we would… Like say, for example, something like Under The Radar, we would see also things in the American Realness festival, our, the Prototype festival. And so we were like, like 10 shows a day kind of thing. REDCAT also has a new works festival here in Los Angeles. And we would really set up meetings with artists and just really follow up on again, either a project we seen that maybe was like a presentation, or if we liked their of work, we would say, “What else do you have going up?” I mean, Gob Squad was the perfect example.

So Gob Squad and Diane had a very long standing relationship. And so it really then became when they did have a new work, they came to us, right? First to say, “Can you help develop it? Can you give us either a commission or a completion commission.” We had different types of commissions. And then we would always kind of fully commit and then move it to production because Gob Squad is just amazing and does amazing work. And it was so delightful to work with them and see what they had in their creative brains, what they were working on. But like, say for example, Rimini Protokoll, which does more site specific immersive work, Diane saw them in a festival and she did their remote, I can’t remember if it was Remote Santiago or Remote Madrid, I can’t remember. And came back and was like, “We have to do Remote LA.” And was like, “Okay, what does that mean for those of us who didn’t get to experience it?”

And we put it on and it sold out in a day. So it was one of those amazing things where I think the audiences, particularly regional theatre audiences you would think would be scared or don’t want to do this type of like kind of funky, immersive, experimental work. And I found just the opposite. That our subscribers were like buying up all the tickets, because they were like, “What’s this? Something new? Like, yay.” And it was just such a wonderful example to remind you to not be afraid to program something a little risky and daring. That actually people want newness. They want to be challenged. They want to experiment with you, right? They want to experiment like with the artists. They want the go along that journey. And we got really great feedback about that.

Jeffrey Mosser: In my paper, I wrote win, win, win, because it was a win for the artists ensembles. It was a win for the theatres, for the presenting regional. And then it was a win for the audiences because it was such a deviation from something, but it was still theatre and it was exciting. But my question when I walked away was, do you think that Los Angeles audiences are more adventuresome than others?

Patricia Garza: Well, I don’t think so because it came from… So we learned a lot from Remote Houston. So Remote Houston was part of their, more of a festival setting and they did their own version of it. And that was very popular and widely received. Yes, LA has a very specific immersive culture in terms of an appetite for that type of work, but not necessarily the Taper subscribers or the Ahmanson subscribers. And so I think it’s really about distilling down what it is so it’s clear, right? I think we called it a pedestrian live art experience. So we’re like, you’re walking, et cetera. So getting that clarity, I think we can make it very audience-friendly and people will then take the risk and go with you.

Jeffrey Mosser: So that risk is almost how you build your audience.

Patricia Garza: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s building the audience, but it’s also about pushing the audience that’s already there to say, “Hey, this is also theatre. This is also what theatre can be. And it doesn’t have to be sitting on your butt. Like you can actively be part of it.” And then I think even next level, right? In terms of like some of the community work that we did there, which isn’t necessarily in that paper, but is we did a lot of community initiatives as well. Diane, myself and the Community Partnerships Director, Jesus Reyes, where it was they were the show, they were the participants, they were the artists. And that became the next level of engagement.

Jeffrey Mosser: Was there ever an experience where an ensemble walked away feeling exploited?

Patricia Garza: I would say the feedback we received was really about scope and scale. So because Center Theatre Group had larger resources and had more people, right? The people power in terms of like, oh, we have a marketing team marketing it, we have the props team pulling your props, we have a whole audience engagement team developing lobby engagement. So then the ensemble was like, “Great, great, great.” And then after they left, they were like, “We can’t recreate this show.” Right? The show got so big that it wasn’t able to be toured or maybe it didn’t have all the thousand whistles that it had with us. And so that was a good lesson for us is that, sometimes you really need to honor that artist’s practice in terms of when they leave there, what is the show going to look like? Or if it’s a show for developing towards a tour, how can we leave it in the best place? So that way that ensemble can then take it and run with it.

I think with somebody like Gob squad who has done this for decades, they build it with that in mind, right? They’re like, “We know we’re going to tour or all over Germany, all over Europe, all over America.” So they don’t build pieces that are like, they’re not tourable. They go in with a razor focus in terms of like, okay, how can we make it unique to the area, but, like Remote LA, too, same thing, it’s called Remote X. And they know it’s going to need these five things in order to get mounted in that area. Versus I think some other ensembles who are maybe a little bit newer to touring or maybe just again, “Oh, okay, great. Let’s add that. Let’s add that. Let’s add that.” And then they’re left with something that maybe is it feasible in terms of remounting in that particular fashion.

And so I think that was something we had to learn and really grow from and then maybe articulate to artists like, “Hey, we could do it this way, but we could also do it this way. Where we give you the funds and then you go create it the way you can create that’s sustainable for you.” I think if anything, people want to see longevity and commitment to the artistic practice. So I think even though we have this very specific funding that was helping to integrate ensemble and collaborative practice into the regional model, I think folks wanted to see more, right? You want to be like, “I don’t want to be the only one in the season,” as we have seen, right? And this is the case with a lot of tokenization that happens within season selection.

So similarly with artistic aesthetics, right? It’s like you don’t want to be always couched as the experiment, because the work is valid and the work is true. So I think that’s something that, instead of always putting it in like a side season or a popup event or like a special offering, it’s like, how do we get it actually into the main season was a big conversation we had. So that way it can combat some of those feelings of like, “Oh, we’re not being fully integrated into the artistic world of that particular theatre.”

Jeffrey Mosser: I really love the micro tours. I just want to know if there was any growth that came out of that for the ensembles.

Patricia Garza: One, I think it helped the regional theatres too. I think it was a mutual, beneficial model in order to again, get the work out in a way that was helpful to the artists so that they weren’t trying to like build their own tour. Also, for us, again, sharing expenses, sharing even marketing materials, all that good stuff. I think what it did again, if an artist was wanting to tour, if that was the goal, I think it was just a great container for that to happen so that they were all like, “Oh, I already have three spots lined up. Fantastic.” Oh great. We have this set piece that I’m building and it could just, whatever it is, it could just move on down. And I think it gives them opportunities like maybe the first one, they learn something, either a scene isn’t working or the audience is not necessarily responding to a certain part in the piece.

And so they’re able to have the two other micro tour thoughts to kind of tweak or adjust, or now you also have the weight of the reviews, right? From the first stop to then help launch the other two stops. So that was also a big conversation. I mean, this was really the case for like How to be a Rock Critic. CTG really helped develop it and then also premier it, but we got amazing reviews. And so that was able to be really plastered all over when it moved around. And even when they did it in New York, I think they did it in one of the Under The Radar festivals. It was able to really have these amazing kind of pockets of reviews so that they can pull from that. And also they had learned, they had learned okay, even from something as simple as like wig design or the props that they were using and seeing what was too much, what was just right, maybe they could cut back on the design in the next couple iterations. So that was really helpful to them.

Jeffrey Mosser: And it didn’t water down the audience at all.

Patricia Garza: No, because what we’re seeing, and what we saw in LA was LA, Orange County, and San Diego were very different audiences. People do not come past freeways, right? In LA there’s this like big line of like “no.” Orange County audiences or San Diego audiences were like, “Oh great, it’s coming to my hometown so I don’t need to run up there.” And so it didn’t really cannibalize audiences at all because the audiences are really about proximity and particularly in Los Angeles where traffic and freeways are just in the distance between those three cities is pretty wide. So it really does help when you can kind of localize and then focus on the audience right around your area versus trying to capture everybody to come up to LA.

Jeffrey Mosser: I’m going to jump into something from the Roadmap. A note from Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director and Program Director, Diane Rodriguez. She writes, this is relating to the directors circle that was created. And it says “the goal of the directors circle was to further explore the development of professional and trusting relationships between presenters and producers.” I guess my question there has always been, what was the level of distrust perhaps?

Patricia Garza: Well, I think like any art form, right? Is grounded in trust and relationships. And we know theatre, a hundred fold. I feel like every time I run into somebody, it’s like, “Do you know so and so?” It’s like a Kevin Bacon game. So I think it’s very fun and I that’s what’s the beauty of theatre and that’s also the challenge of theatre, right? Because again, we become very insular. What she was referring to there, if you’re a curator, right? A curator of work, you’re going to get bazillion pitches. You just are, I mean, that’s the reality. And so, but that’s not really relationship building, right? Like you can pick up a show because you saw it or you got a good pitch deck, and then you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to move this forward because of XYZ reason, money, maybe it appeals to an audience, you like the themes or aesthetic, but with the directors circle, what they were hoping to accomplish is to really challenge themselves to have these really robust conversations around curation and programming and trust building and relationship building with themselves, right?

So to say, “Hey, did you know about this artist?” Or like, “Hey, I had with this amazing artist. I really think you all in the U.S. would benefit from it or in LA specifically.” And to know that you have a colleague that you can trust that you’ve been having these really, really in depth conversations around art, aesthetics, intentionality with the work. So that was one thing that I think was a wow, that she pulled from a lot. And then I think it’s also with the artists, to feel like they know these presenters, these producers are trustworthy and will really hold their work in a responsible kind of very careful way, that they weren’t going to splash it on the stage and then not understand what the work needed to be fostered under, because I think that’s also part of when you’re talking about ensemble or devised work, they may need six years. Yeah. I mean, some, honestly, some people need a lot of time and they need 13 people in the room because that’s how they work.

And so how do we create flexible models that are not the typical, right? Oh, playwright director, designer. Okay, good. We’re done. It’s like, no, actually they need 15 people and they all do different things and they all wear different hats and they all play music and to be okay with that. And so I think that’s part of it too, is to, by traveling together, by experiencing new work, they were able to expand their aperture to be like, “Wow, I need to think differently about art making.” Or, “I need to think differently about what artists need.” And so then when you’re able to meet with a local artist or somebody that’s doing the work maybe nationally, you have that vocabulary to offer to the conversation and that understanding, so you’re not trying to squash them into the typical developmental model. You’re able to be more expansive in terms of how you’re approaching the work.

And so I think that’s what that was referring to in terms of trying to build joint accountability within their own practices of curation and producing and presenting, trusting each other, giving each other recommendations and feedback, and then also to say the artist, “I know how to hold this work in a way that maybe other folks don’t because I’ve been doing this homework.” Right? “I’ve been doing this deep, intentional reflection.”

Jeffrey Mosser: I like how the completion commission could go so many different ways, but especially how some companies had the option to develop on their own turf, which eliminated so much unnecessary travel and housing costs that could have been incurred to bring 15 people to LA. How often would they bring that finished or near-finished product to CTG?

Patricia Garza: Sometimes. Yeah. So I think the intentionality behind the completion commission was always, yeah. We have you an option to produce within that completion commission contract, but ideally it would be, yeah. If it was ready, right? Like, say for example, if like the one thing they needed was maybe another workshop or the one thing they needed was a set piece that they were trying to get the money for. So we were able to put funds behind that and see it in full completion and then decide for ourselves if it was fitting in the season. So it just really depended. It was very case by case. We only have so many spots in the season. And again, we were trying not to always put them into like a one week showcase. It was like, “No, we should honor this piece and we either find a partner to co-present or if they were going to do it anyway, maybe we put some funds behind that production.”

There was a whole initiative called off center, which was really about funding projects that we had already developed. Like either through a completion commission or a different commission. We weren’t going to put it in our season for whatever reason, but they were already ready to go. And so we were like, “Well, why don’t we co-present in that way where it’s XYZ company, but presented in partnership with Center Theatre Group?” And we were able to push tickets, we would like co-market together. And so that was a really successful model because again, it’s like we should be out in the community. We should be supporting this work getting done. Period. End of statement. And so I think that was really successful. So, I mean, Straight White Men is the perfect example. I mean, Diane was such a huge advocate of Young Jean Lee’s work.

And premier to New York, we did it here. We did co-pro with CAT UCLA, and then it went on Broadway. So it was just this beautiful circular growth and expansion for that piece that, and it changed. Like, Diane and I went to the Broadway premier and we were like, “Oh!” There was just some very small introductory moments that really made the piece sing. And I was like, “Wow!” Like, I could see where Young Jean was really tracking it from all those different spaces. And so it was great that that piece got so much opportunity to shift and breathe and to change. And so that’s I think the beauty of the completion commission or any commission, is that you can… It may not be that you are the best home for it at that particular time, maybe we can find it a home for it later if it fits the intentionality of the season, but it may all also just be that we want to support this artistic project and then it influences the field in a really beautiful way.

Jeffrey Mosser: You touched on the idea of having a wig well-suited for this space, but maybe not for this space. Even in the paper, I think it’s mentioned that production departments at regional theatres are typically very hierarchical creatures. And so this sort of ensemble-based work or hyper-collaborative work often requires a lot of moving parts. And I’m wondering if there are any big discoveries that you realize for production department in terms of what they need in order to be as flexible as they a need for the ensembles or hyper-collaborative creators.

Patricia Garza: Oh, how much time do we have Jeffrey? Because that’s such a good question. And I want to honor like the work of my colleagues that did that with us because it’s not an easy task to ask folks to try something new. And I think the beauty, and I’m talking every department, I think you’re mentioning production, but we challenged our general management department. We challenge our casting team, our PR team, everybody. And I think first and foremost, you have to ground it in the why. Why am I working on this weird, funky thing? Why are we doing this? What is the value in this? And that’s really grounded. And I think what the beauty of the initiative is is that we were so clear what we were trying to accomplish. It’s like, this is about hyper-collaborative work. This is about innovation. This is about pushing ourselves, pushing the art making, the aesthetic making.

And so really trying to get co-conspirator is in that vein that are like, oh, okay. So that means I’m not going to have a roadmap, right? I’m not going to have a game plan that I can just fall back on, like. So the expectation is set from the beginning. That is going to be something new. It’s going to be something different. So that way you’re not springing surprises left and right. So that’s first and foremost, I think as the artistic staff, that’s your job to do, I think, is to articulate the why. And sometimes that doesn’t happen. So I think that’s really important. And then I would say second, once you do have your colleagues and collaborators kind of, “Okay, I’m ready. I’m prepared.” Then it’s really inviting them to be in all aspects of the process. Like, so for example, for Remote LA, we had never really done that type of show before.

And so Diane and I were really open to being like, “We’re learning. New idea, anything you think of.” “Okay, that spot you picked there seems really not okay. This is why.” Okay, great. Let’s cut it. Let’s talk to the artist. Let’s work on something new.” Or, “Oh, have we thought about safety protocols? Have we thought about security?” So they were very pragmatic in their approach and I think that’s helpful to the artist. It’s helpful to the artistic team to say, okay, yeah, let’s logistic this, right? Together. I mean, I remember distinctly the artist wanted some kind of very specific ending to that piece. And we were already really far down the road. And the production team was like, “Hey, this is the reason why we can’t do it.” And I think it took us to say, “Okay, we hear you.”

Because they had been through the journey. It wasn’t that they were just coming in at the last hour and they were like, “No, we don’t want to do that.” It was like, “No, you’re a team member. You are a part of this team. We hear you. We hear those concerns. Let’s cut it. Let’s go with this option instead.” Or like, “How can we compromise and get a little bit of both?” So that was really helpful. So I think it’s really about expanding the practice even if, like I said this before, but just to reiterate, it’s not just about the art making, it’s actually how we make the art. It has to be a collaborative environment internally to produce this type of work well. Because I think sometimes we still continue to want to do the regional way, right? Of like, okay, this is the script and you do your thing, you do your thing.

And yes, we’re all collaborative and having meetings, but it’s really about no, everybody is equal, every voice is important, everybody has their own expertise they’re bringing to this project and the artists are one, but so is the production manager, right? So I think it’s really about open yourself up to different ways of working, trying to compromise, and also just really being a team player in a really beautiful way. And I think this really manifested itself, not even with the hyper-collaborative initiative through the Mellon, but when we partnered with the Irvine Foundation to give us again, I mentioned this before, but the community as creators funding, which was really about two new artistic aesthetics, which were community-driven aesthetics, and that again, production had to be like, oh, we’re working with artists that work very differently? They don’t have a script. The script is going to be created as we go, as we move through the process, or we need to like build the show with the community.

So we don’t have a list of all the supplies we need from the get go, right? It’s going to organically emerge. I would hope, I’m not speaking out of turn, but what I’ve heard from my colleagues was actually it rejuvenated them in their own artistic practice as like a props person or as a tech director or as a production manager, because they were able, again, to be in the co-creation model of, oh, we’re all doing this together. It’s when you see community members speaking the words, singing, doing the puppets, or speaking their truth on stage and it was created by all of us. It was a shared experience. It just has a different power, I think. And it’s just such a beautiful way of working that it then can fuel you to do some of the other stuff that maybe isn’t that way, which is fine, because that’s a different way to produce. That’s a different way. That’s a different model.

So I think having the mix and the marriage of like both of those models in a season really helps, I think, people stay alive, stay on their toes, stay challenged and really do what we’re here to do, right? Be creative workers be creative colleagues and artists. So I think that’s what was so beautiful about seeing that, that different way of working, that different way of being and approaching the work.

Jeffrey Mosser: Fantastic. Thank you so much for that. That leads really well into one of my last question here, which is, so now what, how do we keep the momentum going on this model, this paper? I’m not sure what order in which I’ll broadcast these, but one thing that Olga mentioned to me was the inspiration that was taken from dance presenting models in how dancers typically tour in this fashion and creating the creation of a festival atmosphere or like a touring circuit type of situation for ensemble-based practices. And I got to say, my heart went pitter-pat when she said something like that, because I was like, that feels very possible, but do you think that there are steps on the path to that? I mean, let’s look at ensemble crystal balls. What’s next?

Patricia Garza: I mean, it’s like let’s dream, right? Like let’s dream what’s next and let’s create it together. I think that’s the beauty of collaborative work is like, if you have an idea let’s do it. I love that. I love that we can dream of a festival model that potentially upholds ensemble practice. I know with Los Angeles Performance Practice, we have a festival called LAX festival every year that features contemporary practice, contemporary dance and performance and LA needs it. LA needs a festival for our new work and contemporary work, ensemble-based work or hyper-collaborative work, dance theatre, performance art, work that again is saying, “Is this theatre?” “Yeah, it is. What is theatre?” I do think that as we see this funding conversation shift and we see the equity conversation. So I think it’s parallel tracks, right? That are going to be intersecting soon.

I do see again, the model for ensembles to be hosting these conversations, to be hosting workshops, to be hosting field-wide thinking around collaborative work, non-hierarchical models. And hopefully I think we’ll also, like I said, I’ve already started seeing it in the regional theatres or in small intimate theatres, just thinking differently, right? Stopping, pausing. Why has it been this way? Why are we working this way? And so hopefully what’s next is really that, is folks again, looking internally to say, “What am I personally doing? How can I challenge my own practices, my own collaborations, my own ways of doing things, so then that way it ripples into the field?” Because the field is us. It’s right up above us. And so hopefully we will see more and more localized funding that is going towards collaborative work and contemporary work and individual artists, specifically.

And I also hope that the funding is really prioritizing this type of work because I again, think that it’s going to be pushing the field forward in terms of what is ensemble practice, what is contemporary practice and performance and all of that, the more we fund it, the more we see it, the more audiences engage with it. It pushes us forward. It pushes us, it challenges our aesthetics, it challenges our notions of theatre. And that it only creates more room and more opportunity for artists to grow, artists and audiences alike to grow and to gain a new understanding of what is the now? What am I into now? So I’m excited for that.

Jeffrey Mosser: Me too. That’s fantastic. Anything else that you’d like to say out loud that I haven’t given you a chance to say in our past few moments together?

Patricia Garza: I mean, I would offer… My work is really grounded in equity, and so I do a lot of work with artEquity, which is a national organization that is really rooted in social justice and practice and collective liberation through the arts. And I think you cannot do this work anymore, right? You cannot do this work anymore. You couldn’t even do it back then, but people got away with it without being super, super self-aware and learning and growing daily about your equity practices. And so, just really reflecting on how that influences your programming, how that influences the way you work internally with staff, how that influences how you take meetings, how you market. I just think that people need to be super aware and conscious of how your work is informed by your equity values. So that’s what I would offer my kind of last thing that I always try to say is again, what do you value and how can you center that in all your work?

Jeffrey Mosser: Yeah. Thank you. Patricia, thank you so much for your time. Truly, this has been a delight. And just to sort of put me back in Miami with you and remember why we’re doing in this work and just looking out and forward into the next steps with you has been such a pleasure today. So thank you so much for your time.

Patricia Garza: Well, thank you. This is great, and I’m so glad we got to reconnect after all these years.

Jeffrey Mosser: I know. Really, it’s only been a couple, but I mean, the past-

Patricia Garza: Yeah, but it feels like a decade.

Jeffrey Mosser: I know. I know. Did you catch all that? They think the ensemble-based work is the missing artistic aesthetic of contemporary performance within a regional model. Hold onto that one. It really opens up if this work should be held as a contemporary process that can contain a multiplicity of voices as creators that speaks to an audience. I also love that Patricia talked about how audiences who are used to a particular thing were excited to try something new. What if regional theatres did mix it up? There shouldn’t be only one artistic aesthetic featured in any sort of program, right? Audiences are smart you all. They’ll play along.

“The Roadmap to Innovation” is a public document and you can find a link to it on this show’s description page howlround.com, as well as a link to the other resources from the Network of Ensemble Theaters that Patricia mentions. If you enjoy this conversation, I think you’ll really like next week’s interview with Olga Garay-English. She’s going to talk us through her work with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and her hot takes on regional theatres and her work funding partnerships between them and collaboratively creative theatres. Thanks, Artists. We’ll catch you next time. And now, our sound check lightning round.

Great. And can you tell me your favorite salutation.

Patricia Garza: Friends? Hey friends.

Jeffrey Mosser: Can you give me your favorite exclamation?

Patricia Garza: Probably like, wow.

Jeffrey Mosser: Your favorite mode of transportation.

Patricia Garza: Walking.

Jeffrey Mosser: What’s your favorite ice cream?

Patricia Garza: Probably chocolate chip.

Jeffrey Mosser: What would you be doing if not theatre?

Patricia Garza: Oh Lord. That’s the question. Probably working in a social justice organization.

Jeffrey Mosser: And what’s the opposite of the Network of Ensemble Theaters?

Patricia Garza: Probably regional theatre.

Jeffrey Mosser: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Band Camp, and flutesatdawn.org. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts, and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the comments.

Links:

The Roadmap to Innovation: https://issuu.com/centertheatregroup/docs/f-mellonfound-roadmap-lores

Network of Ensemble Theatres Grants: https://www.ensembletheaters.net/grants/view/net-grants