How One Twin Cities Improv Theater Pays Performers

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How One Twin Cities Improv Theater Pays Performers

HUGE Theater has been paying improvisors in the Twin Cities since 2013. Founded by a collective of five artists in 2005, the theater, located in Minneapolis, now serves a community of an estimated one thousand-plus improvisors. Unlike some improv theaters, HUGE is a nonprofit organization—it has been since 2009—which receives operational support from institutions including the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. It offers a modest, growing lineup of shows, with one or two performances each Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, priced $5 or $8 per ticket (Sunday is Pay What You Like), and three shows each Friday and Saturday, priced $10/ticket for the earlier shows and $8 for the later slots. (Two- or three-show bundles are available for savvy consumers.) The theater also offers a number of improv classes priced at $220 each, though students can apply for scholarships.

HUGE pays all performers in its weekend shows. The payment model, elucidated below, is roughly as follows: Performances that sell more than 70 seats receive $150 or $75, depending on the time slot. Shows that don’t meet the minimum ticket threshold receive a fee of $300 or $150 for a two-month run, depending on the time slot. “Which still isn’t a lot,” said Butch Roy, HUGE’s co-founder and Executive Director. “But it can make a big difference when groups are paying for marketing efforts. This helps the shows not cost artists money to put up, at the very least.”

I recently spoke to Roy about HUGE, its payment model, and how paying improvisors affects the work and community at large.

Paste: To start, can you just tell me about the history of HUGE?

Butch Roy: Sure. The short version is HUGE actually started as a group of performers. There were five of us initially. We got together because we wanted to perform long-form together and help other improv groups produce shows in the Twin Cities. We ended up producing more of our own shows and got less traction helping other groups, because they were doing their own thing, but the core of HUGE carried forward. So we were producing shows in the Twin Cities and other venues that we had relationships with, and after several years it became obvious that we would we would need a dedicated venue if we were hoping to take things to the next plateau. So three of us, of the original five, formed a nonprofit organization. The other two were actually hired to run the school at a theater in town, which was the only reason they didn’t come with us—they couldn’t help open a competitor!

We formed a nonprofit in 2009—the end of 2009—and started our fundraising in early 2010. We opened a building December 5th, 2010. That was our first show and we’ve been running here ever since.

How big is your staff, and your community of performers?

Our full time staff is two. We’ve got a part-time staff that are all improvisors, they’re artists as well, of about 15, seasonally. The community here is unbelievable. At any one time we’ll have 200-plus students. There’s a school at the Brave New Workshop in the Twin Cities that has 200-plus students at any given time, and a ComedySportz less than a mile away. At any given time there are between six and eight hundred current students in the community, plus all the previous graduates. I would easily put it in the thousand-plus improvisors.

Do you have house teams?

We do not. We have no main stage or house cast, and we actually keep an open proposal show proposal on our website at all times. HUGE produces about one-third of the shows that appear on our stage. The other two thirds are either proposed to us whole, and come to us already cast, or are proposed to us as an idea and we help with casting and production. But they come to us from outside the community.

Alright. Can you tell about your payment model?

I guess one key difference is, we’re a nonprofit that serves the improv community, rather than [one] that serves the general community by way of improv. So we exist as an artist support organization. When we opened, our first 18 months were 100% volunteer. Nobody got paid anything. Not me, not our managing director, nobody. And we tried to stay as absolutely transparent along the way as we could. Because one thing we didn’t want to do was fall into that—and we actually made a rule against—that trap of, “Boy, when things take off it’s going to be great for everyone!” carrot that is used to rip off artists all the time. You know, “Come volunteer now and then someday we’ll all get paid.” So we tried to be really transparent: “We cannot pay, here’s what we’re doing,” and we’ve maintained that along the way. So 18 months in we were able to start paying our two full-time staff members, one of which is me. We rolled out some limited payroll for our staff positions, to keep the theater staffed. And in February 2013 we were able to announce, two years in, that we were able to start paying shows.

And that’s gone through a couple of changes, but the basic framework has stayed pretty consistent. We knew we couldn’t offer a flat fee, because everything’s still so in flux, especially for a young nonprofit in a city where the general audiences don’t even understanding what improv is. We’re not Chicago, where there’s a broader understanding—yet. So we wanted to make sure that we were able to roll out a payment model to shows as soon as were able, as much as we were able, but without endangering the health of the stage long term. Because of course that doesn’t help anybody. So we based it on attendance thresholds that could reasonably consistently help us cover the operational cost of the theater and still distribute the surplus.

So there’s a threshold of 70 seats out of our 100. Once we sell the 71st ticket, the show gets paid a flat amount for that performance. And that’s how we’ve continued. Along the way we added a minimum, so there’s never—in springtime months in the Twin Cities it’s impossible to get people indoors, it became harder to hit that threshold. So we established a minimum so no show would ever go completely unpaid. And we try to make sure that we’re keeping it evenly distributed, so we’re acknowledging our role in marketing and selling tickets. It’s not just on the performers to sell tickets so they can make money. We have a large hand in the success and visibility of their shows as well.

We added a minimum for our later time slots. We’ve actually lowered the threshold to address what we’ve learned along the way—you know, collecting a couple years of data which is that the same level of sales is really not reasonable to expect for what ends up being the same amount of hustle. So we’ve been able to lower that threshold. And then as we’ve received grants—a couple years ago we were brought into programs through the McKnight Foundation, which are specifically for our operational costs. So as we’ve been able to secure more consistent operational funding, we’ve been able to relieve some of that in our payment model. Since the payment model is set up to make sure we’re covering our expenses, we were able to adjust that along the way as well, to bring that down.

So what is that rate?

For the early shows on the weekends, it’s $150 for a performance. And the late shows, it’s $75.

And that’s distributed amongst a team?

Correct. And the theater provides all of the staff, so shows don’t have to pay. We pay for technicians, bartenders, house managers and musicians. So if a show wants to have a pianist, they don’t have to spend out of their own budget.

And you do provide rehearsal spaces?

Yes we do! Any show that is appearing on our stage gets free rehearsal space.

Did you have any experience with fundraising before all this?

No, not really. We learned as we went. Fundraising before we had an address was extremely difficult, and starting out as artists, none of us were experienced in nonprofit management. We started this as a collective of artists that wanted there to be a stage. None of us had ever set out with the goal to run a building. But there’s a there’s an upper limit to what people will give you for an imaginary someday-building. We hit that pretty quickly. But then once we signed the lease, the arts community actually kicked into high gear. It was incredibly responsive. So once you have a building—”give us money for a building someday” is different than “give us money for that building.” And we’ve been able to rely on a really energetic community. And we have one fundraiser event every year—we just had it on Thursday, we performed 28 consecutive hours of improv and we raised $60,000 in one day.

But we wanted to make sure that that stays—because we’re in a community that’s so new and we’re trying so hard just to bring new people in the door to introduce them to this art form, we don’t want it to also be paired with us having our hat in our hands asking for money. So we keep that out of the way. We keep it to one event every year.

What other challenges did you face in developing this model?

It’s been multiplex. Honestly, one of the challenges we faced was from artists themselves—getting them to accept payment. Because we’re a young nonprofit and we serve this community, so many of the performers, when they found out they were getting paid, tried to give either refuse payment or give us the money back. And we have to insist on it. Because when people when people call looking for free entertainment, if we say “no” and the next group says “yes,” you’re undermining that case for everyone. So we had to stress that we appreciate the goodwill, but it’s actually really important that they learn not only to get paid as artists, but that they should be paid as artists. And don’t expect any less.

That’s really interesting—that that was the reaction you got.

I don’t know that that would be the case in every community, but it was a very Minnesotan thing that we had to get past. And we made rules, internally, that anyone that contacts us looking for free entertainment, not only do we refuse to pass on any for-exposure opportunities, but we also send back a piece of language about why that practice is corrosive and destructive to artists. So we’re trying to get the word out.

How does your model compare to other theaters in the region that pay?

I think ours is still ours is still not where we would like it to be. We have not yet made “performing artist” a viable career option, by our efforts. And there are theaters that go the way of having people be employees, [which] we’ve been unable to do. We’re definitely on the smaller end, but the amount that we pay out to artists every year hovers just under a hundred thousand dollars—that we’re paying out to improvisors. So it’s not a small amount, but individually—per performer, per performance—it’s not a living wage yet.

Have you found that paying performers changes the type of work that they do, or that you can produce?

Yeah. It certainly changes the expectation. I think we’re seeing a clear example of this when it comes to performers of color, who are often over-employed by theaters in town. Paying performers means that shows looking at casting, or producers checking availability of artists, can actually be competitive and have more of an opportunity to make their shows a viable choice for busier, more constantly employed performers, instead of asking them to skip out on paying work to be part of a fun show that will cost them money. This is how an art form that doesn’t pay will always lose the most valuable players, when we can’t provide valuable and viable performing opportunities. And that is a drain on the entire community.

What’s the gender and racial breakdown of your performers?

Changing. We just brought on our diversity and inclusion officer a little over a year ago, and it’s been moving in the correct direction. But we’re still not to the level that reflects the population of the Twin Cities, which is about 14 to 15 percent, but we’re getting closer. The gender balance I’m actually really proud of—I mean, it’s still overwhelmingly white, but our productions are coming more into—50-50 is probably less common, but it’s skewing more towards 40-60, as opposed to one woman on each team. Which has been historically what we all came up watching.

What steps has your diversity officer taken to help change that?

The first thing that we established was a POC jam, the last Sunday of every month, to reach out to performers of color in other disciplines that have maybe taken a look at improv, or maybe even tried it and found it to be overwhelmingly white, or very often found themselves to be the only person of color in a class, to create a space where people of color can come and improvise together and be a little more free of the burden of being a representative of their race all the time. And through that we’ve seen a real movement toward more performers of color in classes, and much more consciousness about it from teachers and producers as well.

It’s been far too easy for producers for years to say, “Well, we had auditions and only one person of color showed up, so what are we supposed to do?” When there’s an event every month where several dozen performers of color show up and express interest, you no longer have that excuse.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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