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Recently Flux began publishing its budget with its Open Book program. Then the company again broke ground by debuting a pay-what-you-can policy it calls Living Ticket.

Interview: Flux Theatre Ensemble’s August Schulenburg on Open Source Theatre

August Schulenburg Flux Theatre EnsembleFlux Theatre Ensemble, one of the most artistically accomplished and innovative theater companies on the downtown New York City scene, has been innovating on the business side too. Recently Flux began publishing its budget, an initiative it calls the Open Book program. Then, with its April 2015 production of Salvage, a post-apocalyptic comedy-drama by Flux’s Artistic Director August Schulenburg, the company again broke ground by debuting a pay-what-you-can policy it calls Living Ticket.

In these tough financial times for Off-Off-Broadway theater – and what times aren’t? – I asked Schulenburg about the thinking behind these unusual policies.

When and how did you conceive the idea of Open Book, laying out your operating budget in detail online and printed right in the program?

As with all things Flux, we arrived at the idea of Open Book through an ensemble process. At our Annual Retreat last summer we identified both audience accessibility and financial sustainability as two significant challenges for Flux. At the same time, we were feeling a dissonance between our core values and mission of building a creative home, and the more traditional tactics we were using to market our shows.

The “Aha!” moment was realizing that these seemingly separate issues were actually deeply interconnected, but we didn’t figure that out right away.

Sol Crespo and Mike Mihm in Flux Theatre Ensemble's 'Salvage.' Photo by Deborah Alexander
Sol Crespo and Mike Mihm in Flux Theatre Ensemble’s ‘Salvage’ by August Schulenburg. Photo by Deborah Alexander
On the accessibility front, we were having trouble expanding our community outside of the traditional theatre-going audience. We believed that was probably due to some combination of price and perception of value, as well as our reluctance to spend our limited resources on marketing. We examined free or pay-what-you-will theatre models to discover if they were more successful in reaching and keeping a non-traditional theatre audience.

As we were doing that research, we were also grappling with the challenge of paying our contributors a living wage. We began to realize that a free theatre model wouldn’t be enough, because it would hide the actual cost of creating theatre. With the free and discounted theatre models we explored, that true cost was often hidden through the generosity of foundations, corporations or major individual gifts, so that audience members had no idea what it took to pay artists a living wage.

We also knew that even at larger theatres, artists often struggled to cobble together enough work over the course of a year to maintain a living wage. The cost of a lack of transparency was often borne by the artists.

So we decided to present not only a detailed budget of our current expenses, but also what it would take to pay our contributors a minimum and then a living wage.

The Open Book program is a part of a larger Open Source Theatre approach that we’re taking, which is still very much in the early beta stage, but which you can read more about here.

While we arrived at this strategy with easy consensus, it was of course the details of how we presented those budgets that took a lot more discussion and sweat to get right. You can read more about the Open Book program – and take a look at those three budgets – here.

Do you know of any other theater companies or other organizations that are doing anything similar?

Shakespeare in the Park is our most notable and local inspiration, but we trace the lineage of the Living Ticket and Open Book programs further back than that. At our Retreat, we also looked at examples like the founding of the Barter Theatre during the Great Depression, where audience members brought milk from their cows in exchange for their tickets.

We looked at the inspiring example of El Teatro Campesino, which took theatre on the backs of trucks to mobilize migrant workers.

More recently, Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis has found great success with their Radical Hospitality program.

However, while there are a number of interesting free, pay-what-you-can and street theatre examples of addressing accessibility, there are very few examples of budget transparency. While the Foundry Theatre publishes their budget, it doesn’t go into detail about artist compensation nor link it to a living wage. As an ensemble, we also practice wage equity in which all of our contributors are paid the same, and sharing that publicly is a way of advancing those values – and holding ourselves accountable.

What do you hope, or have you found, to be the benefits of Living Ticket – for your supporters and fans and friends, or anybody else?

This first iteration of the Living Ticket has been mostly positive, with benefits including:

  • Accessibility: We had a number of community college students attend, bringing their friends and even coming back a second time to see Salvage. For many of these students, this was one of their first theatre experiences, and it was a joy to see how deeply they engaged with the work. No jaded NYC-theatre audience here!
  • Income: Our donations through the Living Ticket surpassed the ticket sale totals of our last two shows. While we didn’t reach any of our budget goals, we were pleased that some people did indeed choose to give at the highest Living Wage Budget amount. It was also fascinating to see the monetary diversity of the gifts given. Had we been able to extend the production, I think it likely that we could have reached our goals and even become a sustainable, living wage employer.
  • Community buy-in: There was a lot of excitement in the Flux community about the idea, and we were touched to see so many of our Friends of Flux (FoFs) (the 180+ people closest to Flux) proudly sharing the Living Ticket information on social media. It was really galvanizing to see the people who know us best say, “Yes, this feels like Flux.” Part of that stems from involving the Friends of Flux in the creation of the program – in fact it was at a regular FoF gathering we throw at SpeakEasy that Friend of Flux Stephanie Willing coined the name Living Ticket after a serious collaborative group brainstorm session! It’s exciting that the values of the Living Ticket and Open Book were so present – and indeed, necessary – to the process of creating them.
  • Wider impact: The Living Ticket has sparked interest from other theatre companies and journalists, and we hope the model will spread and be adapted by others, just as we adapted models that we admired in creating it. That approach is central to our Open Source Theatre approach, and, when we’re feeling ambitious, we hope the model may be of value beyond our theatre field – but one show at a time.

What have been your typical ticket prices in the past?

While the AEA Showcase Code requires a ticket ceiling of $18 to ensure predatory producers aren’t inequitably exploiting actors, our average price hovers in the $11-$13 range, because we have historically offered a fair number of discounts and comps.

A more general question: What are the prospects these days for a small NYC show to move on to bigger things, and do you have such aims and hopes for Flux shows in general? I’m thinking of Hand to God, which I loved in its original tiny production but never would have imagined it would go where it has.

It’s been beautiful to see the theatre community rally around Hand to God, and to see Broadway producing other adventurous plays like Fun Home and Hamilton. I don’t know how a Flux play would operate in a Broadway space – how we’d be able to keep our values and ensemble processes intact in such a high-pressure commercial space – but I think we’d be open to giving it a try!

However, we’re also really interested in building alternatives to what our culture considers success. Earlier this year, we staged an event called Breathe Free that drew from our immigrant rights work with the New Sanctuary Coalition and Judson Memorial Church. At the event, one of our community partners – who is himself under threat of deportation – addressed the audience after we shared a monologue based on an interview with an activist who had just barely escaped deportation after years of imprisonment without trial. With great emotion in his voice, he told the audience that this single story stood for the more than two million people deported during the Obama administration.

Now we’re continuing to bring that work to venues as diverse as church conferences and community gardens. To me, that kind of impact is just as important to celebrate as seeing a deserving play make it to Broadway.

I hope we’re moving toward a time where all these binary categories and seeming boundarie – commercial versus not-for-profit, Indie artists versus institutions, social justice work versus plays of aesthetic inquiry, entertainment versus purpose – can melt away, and work of beauty and impact can more easily find financial support, reach wider audiences and connect more deeply with diverse communities.

We’re really just at the beginning of figuring out how Flux might contribute to achieving those goals. But I do feel like we’ve really begun.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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