Editor's note: this interview was conducted following the second public outreach meeting by MN Theater Awards. Recently they announced that the location for the event is at Aria in Minneapolis.
Only a few months after the Ivey Awards called it quits, Four Humors Theater, a small Minneapolis-based company, announced that they would be putting together a new awards show, not just for the Twin Cities, but the entire state. After attending the second of two town halls the group put together to get feedback from the community (you can view the first one in this Facebook video), I talked with Four Humors Artistic Director, Jason Ballweber, about how they plan to take tackle this project.
I'm here with Jason Ballweber from Four Humors Theater. Hi, Jason.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about this awards show that you guys are putting together.
The first question I have--and I know you already answered this at the town hall that I went to--how long have you guys been thinking about this, and how did you decide to actually go forward with it?
The idea came to mind a few years ago. We were kind of joking around. We were at the Iveys a few years ago. We went to the Iveys, we had a fine time, and we were kind of looking for a few of the people that we knew in the theater world, and we just couldn't track them down. We were going up and down the elevators, we were looking through the lobby, we just couldn't find anyone we knew, and then we ended up going to the Depot Restaurant and kind of sat around a table and talked to each other, and that kind of became our tradition. Then we realized that that was really against the point of the night. And then we joked around about having our own awards ceremony on the same night and invite the theater people that we wanted to see. And then that was, like, our joke for a while, and then Iveys, you know, folded. It was the day we got the news that we said, "Should we start a new one?" and we said, "Yeah, let's do it. It's a shame to have the celebration go away." So, we decided--not as an anti-Iveys--but it is awful that the theater community doesn't have an annual celebration anymore. So we just decided that day that we were going to start another celebration, and it made sense to make it an awards ceremony, just because we like how it's a resume booster for people. The acknowledgment of excellence was a big bonus for us. We liked pointing out to our peers who were doing really well. We decided the day that we got the news to really take it seriously and really start doing it.
If I'm hearing you right, you guys consider the celebration the more important aspect of it?
Yes. Definitely. That was the biggest part. And it still is as we're looking at it. That is the biggest part. Not that the awards are secondary, but to us it is important to remember that no matter what theater you are a part of is a collaborative art, and without the ability to mingle you don't get a chance to know other artists, and without that ability we become too insular without the chance to get to know each other as people.
That sounds like a really great thing for everybody to be able to mingle together as one big group; but just sitting at the town hall and hearing how many different groups wanted to be represented under the banner of one awards show, it felt to me like a really big effort to try to have... almost like trying to be all things to all people. Did you always want it to be that size, or did you initially start on a smaller scope than that?
The original idea was... so, we made the Indiegogo campaign, and that is pre-selling tickets. That was our way to gauge people's interest, and the big tagline--like, we didn't make a huge tagline out of it--but it was like, if twenty people buy tickets, we'll put on this awards show. If a thousand people buy tickets, we're going to put on this awards show. So, that's really what we're using as our gauge of interest. Now, the people who came to town hall were people who were representing various big theaters, and there were people who were representing various low-budget theaters. There's interest, but I think people are more interested in what the hell is going on, in what we are doing. I don't think we made our message as clear, that it really was we want to know what awards show you want. It's not our right to tell you what Minnesota theater is. That was our biggest question, like, we want this thing to happen. We really want to celebrate Minnesota theater, and we know what kind of theater we do, but we don't know what defines our community. So, these open houses and town halls are really all about gathering as many voices as we can and finding what the commonalities between all the types of theater that are going on in this state, and what sets us apart from other communities. Or what makes us the same.
I know that the number of people who can give up their evening on a Monday night is limited. How are you guys reaching out to other people or groups that were not able to physically be there at the town hall?
At the town halls, Minnesota Theater Alliance helped us out by setting up a Zoom, which was something I wasn't familiar with. It's used for large meetings, like a computer-to-computer kind of conversation. So, they set that up so that rural communities could--it's kind of like Skype or Google Hangouts, you know that kind of thing--so that they could join the conversation. So, they came to both town halls and set that up. And they also passed our initial email, which was mostly Twin Cities theaters that we knew, they extended it on to their list of emails, which was far greater than ours and reached into the rural communities. Then, as for these first two town halls, we made sure to get everyone's information, see which theaters were represented. We also just took a tally--you know, while the Four Humors people were talking, the other ones were just looking around the room and taking demographics of, like, "OK, that's another white person. OK, that's another white person. Oh, there's one person of color. OK, there's another white person." And, so, our next step is doing a targeted reach out to not only theaters that their main focus, their mission statement is servicing people of color, but also identifying artists of color that we feel are leaders in the community and reach out to them and talk to them, hoping that they will help guide us to talk to more artists of color. Basically, having a town hall discussion one-on-one with them.
I know that the Theater Alliance was there helping with spreading the message, but are you guys officially partnering with them or anybody else in putting this on?
No, as of right now, that was kind of the end of that relationship with Minnesota Theater Alliance. They are definitely like, "If you need anything else, give us a call." They really want to see it happen, and their services are open, because we are members and they really want to see the rural thing happen; but, quite honestly, I don't see many of the rural theaters coming this first year, because, in the calendar year, it's very close. And, you know, it's a hard sell for anybody. Even Duluth, which is only three hours away, it's, like, "Hey, it's a Monday night, and it's at seven pm. You wanna come on down and hang out for three hours?" Like, holy crap, that's asking a lot for somebody. So, we're talking about how to figure that out, too, in the long term and in the short term.
Have you gotten much feedback or interest from groups outside the metro?
The first one we had interest from was Daleko Arts, which is in New Prague. We have a relationship with them, Four Humors does. We've brought shows that we've done, and we've performed there. So, Ben Thietje, the Artist Director there did come to one of the town halls. I mean, that's not even that far away. That's only 45 minutes away. But it's enough that people in the Twin Cities don't go there regularly. And I'm definitely going to reach out to Yellow Tree. You know, they're in Osseo, which is not that far away, but they're on the edge of Twin Cities theater. But I'll talk to them, because that's at least starting to get into the suburbs, you know, just starting that little stretch out. Those are both theaters I've worked for and know the Artistic Directors, too. But the Daleko one, I feel that--because also they use Twin Cities actors all the time. Same with Yellow Tree. But Daleko I think was the furthest out, really. Although, Maggie's Farm, I don't know where it's actually located, but Maggie's Farm Theater did come to a town hall.
What's the most surprising thing that you guys learned or heard from the town halls that you've had so far?
There's two things that I want to say. One, my favorite thing, is that when we asked the question of "What does Minnesota theater mean to you?" and we had people brainstorm and write things on the wall. No one said anything about "spectacle" or "precision". Everything related to storytelling. And that has been my theory for so long, is that Minnesotans inherently do not care--I mean, they do care--but they just want to hear a good story, and they want to hear it told well. Whether it's in an abstract form or it's in a linear form, it doesn't matter, they just want a story. And that's been my belief for a very long time as a theater practitioner, as a theater watcher. The other one that was very, very surprising was that so many people, when we... so, at the end of the night, we did this kind of guided meditation, where I said things that were very vague, like "You're walking into the building. You go to where you are going to be during the festivities..." Most people said that they were at a standing table. They didn't say that they took a seat during the awards ceremony. It really sounded like people wanted to have more of a mingling party that's going to very quickly turn into a dance party. They really wanted a thing where they didn't have to sit through it, and they wanted to be able to leave and come back without interrupting anything. You know, it's like they didn't want a show. They just wanted a thing happening.
Yeah, I did notice that, too.
Yeah, and that was so surprising to us, because we were trying really hard to say, like, "Don't think of the Iveys as the starting place." Like, there were good things, and there were bad things, and our awards show is going to have good things an bad things, too; but let's not start at the Iveys. Let's start at square one. And that was a place that we, as Four Humors, started at, the Iveys. We started at a theater that had seats and was very traditional, and then when we started hearing all these people talking about standing tables and maybe even servers coming around and filling your drinks as the show's going on, we're like, "Holy shit, that's a great idea!" So, people said that, and that's not where we started, so that was a big surprise to us.
It sounds more like a cabaret than like a traditional show.
Exactly! And it's really interesting that a bunch of theater people said that, because, of course they don't want to just sit through a piece of theater. That's what they do all the time. We want to sparkle it up a little bit, like, be handed a martini while we're listening to a dumb sketch or someone just announcing something. It was nice. It was a really cool thing that was brought to the table we would have never come up with by ourselves. We just wouldn't even have thought of it.
I know that one of the provisos that you had at the top of the town hall that I was at was, "This is not the Iveys," but, of course, a lot of people's feedback started with, "Well, at the Iveys, this happened..."
That's probably always going to be people's first frame of reference, because that's what we've known. I know that you encourage people to think beyond the Iveys, but have you guys looked at other successful models of awards shows in other regions. I think of, like, the Jeff Awards in Chicago, the Helen Hayes Awards in D.C., the Barrymores in Philadelphia. These are all award shows that have been long-running, have been very successful, the local people love them and support them. Have you looked at those at all?
That's another part of our next step, actually. We wanted to go into our brainstorming session with a clean slate. That was actually a very purposeful thing on our part. We didn't want to be too influenced by other cities' successes yet. We only knew of one, which was Cincinnati, because we have a close bond with Cincinnati. So, we know of their awards ceremony. That one has actually been gone for a couple years now, but we knew what awards show they used to have. And then both Joanna [Schnedler, Executive Director] from the Minnesota Theater Alliance and Jay [Gilman], the new Artistic Director at Fringe, he also offered to connect me with--he personally knows a couple Artistic Directors from theaters that run the awards shows in other towns. So that's going to be one of my next steps, just asking them, "So, how do you run it? How do you run the nominations? How do you run the awards? What's the buy-in?" That kind of thing. That's part of my next step before the next town hall.
So, there's going to be more town halls?
There will be one more. We feel like we need to get more information and more data from people of color, more non-white men.
Based on your own perceptions and the feedback that you've gotten thus far, what would make an awards show distinctly ours, distinctly Minnesotan?
What I really feel like--and Four Humors has talked about it a bit, and it isn't our final decision--just from the brainstorming we've done and talking about the two town halls that we've had, the things that kept coming up were a very short show, not a big number of awards, the idea of "excellence" as opposed to "best of", it more being a mingling thing, the idea that it be in a big warehouse so that everyone can stay in the same spot and there's no moving around so that you don't have to go to different places to hang out and possibly find someone if you want to, and that there's reasonably priced drinks. You know, the vibe was also that people could wear whatever they wanted. There was also that idea, that if you want to glam it up, you go right ahead. If you want to wear casual wear, you go right ahead. There's no agenda. So, it really kind of felt like just a really welcoming, collaborative place. That's really what it felt like, like a little bit more of a party than an awards show.
It sounds like you're describing some that's not less glamorous, but less formal and less rigid in its structure.
It's like I said, when we were signing up gmail accounts, we signed up MNtheaterawards@gmail.com, and I signed up email@example.com, just in case. And it's sounding like I should have stuck with "theater prom", because that's what it feels like people kind of want. They want to go out. They want to mingle. They want to have a crazy night with everyone when usually they have to sit in class with them all day. And they want somebody to spike the punch. And every once in a while, someone stands up and goes, "You know who I love?! I love this guy! Get up here!"
I know this next question is going to be kind of a nasty "What If?", so I hope you just roll with it. I was thinking about this, and I envisioned a scenario where Scott Mayer [founder of the Ivey Awards] gets annoyed that his creation fumbled after he left, and he decides to rescue it and resurrect it. What happens to you guys if the Iveys suddenly, miraculously comes back?
I can let you know, because I don't think this is going to be a secret, but Joanna at the Minnesota Theater Alliance has already talked to Scott Mayer, and he's actually very excited that this is happening, and she's setting me up with a coffee date with him very soon. So, I will be talking with him. He is pleased as punch that someone is going to continue it this quickly. He's just a big, huge supporter of the arts. He's, of course, very sad that the Iveys went, but he's super happy that a celebration in some way is happening.
I've had a meeting with Scott before to talk about the Iveys, and that's always the impression I've gotten from him, too.
Yep. He was just super excited it about it.
That's good to hear.
To be honest, it's one of those things where we talked about contacting him. We were like, "Oh god, we just can't. We can't. We can't be the one." You know, oh god, that would feel awful, like, "Dude, you wanna come and talk about this thing that failed?" Then Joanna came up to me at that second town hall, and she was like, "Have you talked to Scott Mayer yet?" and I was like, "No, I can't," and she was like, "Oh, you have to! He thinks this is a great idea." And then I was like, "Oh, shit, absolutely I will!"
Once this first one is all said and done, how would you guys define for yourselves that it was successful? What does success look like for you?
The first year, we have a few different ways to define success, to be honest, because we're giving ourselves some slack, because it is a short timeline. It's an idea that's new to us. It's an idea that's new to the community. We feel like there's one level of success, which would be when everyone leaves the building, they've had a good time. We would all feel good if that's what happened. There's another level of success, which is that when everyone leaves, no one is angry at us, and we have a little nest egg to make the next year's show better. And the financial part of it is really hard, because we're not in it to make money. That was never our intention. But, you know, there's the reality that we can't count on people to pre-buy tickets months in advance every year. We need to have at least some money in the coffers to just rent the venue and say, "This is the venue. Buy tickets when you can." You know, just have a reasonable idea of how many people are going to show up every year. But we want to keep it a low-budget idea. Like, with our work, we've always said we've done a successful show when people heads are up, and they're talking to the person next to them. So, if that's what people are doing when they leave, then that's a success to us. It'd be really cool if Four Humors didn't have to declare bankruptcy when it was done.
I know that you guys are pre-selling tickets, but is money from Four Humors itself going into this as well?
That's tough to say. We do have some people who have emailed the Minnesota Theater Awards address and said, "I'm interested in giving this amount of money, because this sounds like a great idea," and are just kind of asking questions and are just general donors, people who love theater. And, so, we're just in talks with them. They're very friendly people, but they just want to be assured that the money is going toward the right thing and it's not a scam, because we're first-year and they don't know who Four Humors is. It looks like there's going to be some money coming in from not just ticket sales, which is good. Four Humors would put money into it. We would rather not. We'd rather just use from pre-sales. We're also asking venues--because it's on a Monday night, which a lot of venues don't use often, and because it's for a theater event--we're hoping some places would give us a little bit of a discount. We're hoping to leverage that a little bit. And, also, because it's the first year, we're being smart about the money, but if Four Humors has to, we will put money in it, because we're really treating it like it's one of our shows of the season. This first year, we're going to be writing the script and hosting it, basically. We'll get other people to help us with that, but we'll be the main drive, artistically, behind it.
Do you envision, if it goes forward past this first year, you guys continuing in that role? Or do you envision handing it off?
Hopefully, we will have enough money so that we can hire other people to do it. We're strong believers that we don't ask anyone to work for free. For this year, right now, where we see it going is that we won't have enough money to hire people, so right now we're just saying it's going to be us. If we get enough money and people donate outside of ticket sales, then, for sure we're going to be hiring people. I know we're going to have to raise enough money for someone to do music, because that's not in any of our skill sets, so we will hire someone to do music, but right now that's about it. Other than, like, the bartenders and front-of-house staff and all that stuff. But also, it doesn't sound like people want sketches or anything. They just want to hearing the fucking awards and start drinking again, so it might be very, very easy.
You might even announce the awards ahead of time and just have everyone come and have a party.
Exactly. Like, "Here's the awards from earlier today, written on the wall. Have fun!" Or, like, "Here's a video of it. Dance away!"
That's all the questions that I have, Jason. Is there anything else you want to add that I haven't covered?
Just that this week and next week are really when we're going to try to find some venues that will pencil us in so that we can announce what our audience goals are for that Indiegogo. You know, "If we sell 300 tickets, this is what the venue's going to be. If we sell 500 tickets, this is what the venue's going to be." So, if people keep their eyes on that Indiegogo, and something really excites them, then it will start to be something a little more real, as opposed to this imaginary "a venue". It will start being a very concrete idea. So, I think we will have an exciting announcement within a week or two. We're asking people to check out the Four Humors Facebook page to check out for that Indiegogo link. And they can look for updates on that, and the new announcements will happen soon, and that's also a place that they know they're going to go, then they can just buy tickets on that. And also MNTheaterAwards@gmail.com is how you can reach us, and we will get back with you as soon as we can if you have questions or comments or anything.
And that's "theater" with an "-er" or an "-re"?
That is "-er". And I can't please everyone all the time.
That's the populist version of it. I prefer that.
I prefer it also.
Well thank you for making some time for me, Jason.
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