Audience engagement and the FURY Factory

by Ben Yalom

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

FoolsFURY is a small San Francisco-based ensemble. For sixteen years we have been developing new works, presenting the works of other ensembles, and attempting to influence the field in ways small and large. Pretty ambitious on a $125,000 budget.

Our FURY Factory festival is an ongoing experiment in audience and artist engagement. Every other year or so – whenever we can raise enough money to make it viable – we produce a two-week festival of ensemble theater from around the country. The folks we present range from established companies of some renown, to dozens of ensembles, young and established, trying out new works in progress.

A main goal of this festival is to show contemporary performance in a forum that contextualizes the work for audiences – placing it within traditions and current movements in the field. The initial impulse to do so came out of reactions to our own work: often foolsFURY audience members say that they have never seen theater like the shows we make before or “I never knew I enjoyed theater before!” These gratifying comments are less a testament to some revolutionary nature of our work than they are an insight into low levels of familiarity with the contemporary performance field on the part of our audiences. This is no surprise, nor is it a knock on the audiences. Rather it is ongoing legacy of the gutting of arts programs in US schools in 80’s that the vast majority of Americans under the age of 50 or so encountered very little theater growing up. To many the Theatre implies something potentially unpleasant that is supposed to be good for you – eat your broccoli, take your medicine, go to theater. Yet for many artists working today, theater is alive and electric, rich with elements of spectacle, of slam poetry, of dance party. So how do we bridge, or even understand, this divide?

The first step for us has been to get audiences who come see one FURY Factory show to see other works at the festival. Did you like that raunchy buffoon Hunchback(s) of Notre Dame from Under the Table Theater? Well come check out the “live cartoon” clown act of The Submarine Show. Even better for this kind of audience cross-pollination are the Raw Materials evenings in which three excerpts of works in progress are shown on the same bill. So in 2014 you may have come to see excerpts of Estella Garcia’s gorgeous one-woman show (with puppets) on Mexican surrealist painter Remedios Varos – and you also got a biting acrobatic send up of circus animal acts from Antic in a Drain, and Illuminated Theater’s mediation on the complexities of maleness in contemporary America. This year we teamed with LMDA to provide dramaturge-led conversations between the artists and audience members, which was hugely beneficial in drawing the connections between works. When this type of programming is successful, each single piece begins to take on different significance.

I’m not describing anything revolutionary here. We are simply being intentional in a way that will open up audience, and artist, awareness. While our work in the studio is often insular, foolsFURY doesn’t create in a vacuum. Rather we do so sharing techniques and ideas with many theater makers across the country who are taking the field in interesting directions – peers like Pig Iron, The Team, Hand2Mouth – as well as our teachers and the traditions we’ve learned studied – Viewpoints, LeCoq, Grotowski, etc. We know this simply from looking outward, training with other artists, making a point of seeing their work, and constantly striving to build dialogue with other ensemble theater makers.

Stepping back to get perspective reveals connections between different artists, and different traditions. We can see the threads connecting the dancetheater anarchy of Witness Relocation to Theater Movement Bazaar’s physical-theater-dance renditions of Checkhov, or those between Double Edge’s Grotowski and Odin tinged techniques to the Suzuki method that the SITI Company has disseminated through the country. Not all theater makers, and certainly not all audiences, have this perspective. In programming the festival, we are trying to provide context.

As noted above, making connections between works is not a new idea. It is what curators of museums, film festivals, and performing arts centers do all the time. While many American theater festivals have a bit less intentionality in this regard, many do, and the others will have interesting juxtaposition between shows by chance, if nothing else.

The second aspect of our engagement efforts is working with the individual companies, helping them reach out to communities that seem primed for their works – for instance linking Teatro Luna, a Latina company from Chicago, to Bay Area Latino cultural and youth groups. The key here is that our small company serves our audiences and artists best be being a hub and a connecter, rather than trying to develop a large audience for “our” festival. This is a relatively new focus for us, and requires us to branch out beyond our familiar models of marketing. This approach proved successful in our last go round, and we aim to put more energy and attention to empowering the various artists to do outreach to their own communities and other local groups that will be receptive to their works.

We will expand on this, borrowing a powerful strategy put forth by the Network of Ensemble Theaters, whose NET/TEN touring and exchange network specifically pairs ensembles together, and requires that proposals include at least one community engagement opportunity. What exactly that opportunity might be is loosely defined, but the requirement forces collaborators to think beyond standard presenting models, and figure out how a touring company might interact in more complex fashion with the community they are visiting – be it open conversations, theater training programs, civic-focused dialogue, or what have you. Providing this challenge to our visiting artists will, hopefully, cause reflection about what sort of relationship each company wants to have with audiences. This is a powerful question for all theater makers, and especially for a festival that brings artists together from all over the country.

In some ways these are small steps. In others they are significant reorientations in the way we envision ourselves within the theater landscape and, in fact, our very idea of who we are as a company. I look forward to the day when festivals – ours and others – will make this engagement a central factor in rich festivals that go beyond simply presenting plays to building community, creating artistic cross-pollination, and bringing the best of ensemble theater practice outside of the black box into the larger lives of audience members and participants alike.


ben23Ben Yalom  is the founder and Co-Artistic Director of foolsFURY Theater, for whom he has directed many productions including the world premieres of Sheila Callaghan’s PORT OUT, STARBOARD HOME, and Doug Dorst’s MONSTER IN THE DARK (both created collaboratively with the foolsFURY ensemble), the US premiere of Fabrice Melquiot’s THE DEVIL ON ALL SIDES (which he also translated), and many more. Ben has also worked with A.C.T., the Playwrights Foundation, the Magic Theatre, Playground, Aurora Theatre, and Encore Theatre (SF); Inverse Theater, The Cell (NY); Playwrights’ Arena and EST LA (LA); and Théâtre Ange Magnétique (Paris).

Ben has taught at UC Riverside, California College of the Arts, Stanford University, the Lee Strasberg Institute (NYU/Tisch), the La Mama Umbria Director’s Symposium, the National Theater Institute, Vassar College, Berkeley Rep School of Theater, and elsewhere. He is currently developing a new theater program at the United Nations International School in New York. 

Ben holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his fiction, essays and translations of plays have appeared in magazines nationwide. He proudly serves on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.