NET/TEN Shareback: ArtSpot Productions - Sea of Common Catastrophe at The Irondale

Fall 2017 Travel Grant Recipient

Designer/ Director Jeff Becker and Composer Sean LaRocca from ArtSpot Productions (New Orleans, LA) travelled to Irondale Ensemble (Brooklyn, NY) in February 2018 to meet with community partners, offer workshops, and identify local performers and musicians to be part of ArtSpot’s production of Sea of Common Catastrophe at Irondale in June 2018.


Sea of Common Catastrophe at The Irondale

ArtSpot Productions is a New Orleans-based ensemble theater company that has been devising original work for more than 20 years.  We have toured the U.S. and abroad, working in traditional and nontraditional spaces.  Since 2005, we have worked primarily outdoors.  This June, we presented a three-week engagement of our newest work, SEA OF COMMON CATASTROPHE, at The Irondale in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn (NY). 

Our preferred practice as a touring company is to invest significant advance time with our presenting partner to connect to their community, in order to build audience, to build agency, and to create deeper relevance and impact for our work.  This process was even more important for SEA OF COMMON CATASTROPHE because the piece is about displacement and gentrification; it was vital that we try to understand the communities in which we would be sharing our work. We were fortunate to receive a NET/TEN Travel Grant to help fund our efforts to deepen our connection with the Irondale Ensemble and their community.  For our shareback we would like to share our best practices for touring work to other cities, with a focus on our experiences at The Irondale.

Where do you want to go?

Choose a place and venue for which you feel you work would be a good fit. Research the venue, its history, its season and past programing.  Know your venue well before approaching them so you can clearly explain why you would like to have them present your work.  And take advantage of your NET membership!  With The Irondale, we were already connected through NET, and we found that we shared many characteristics.

Like Irondale, we are an ensemble that runs its own space.  Like Irondale, we make our space available to other organizations doing community-based work.  Like The Irondale, our space is located in a rapidly changing neighborhood from which people who have lived there for generations are being displaced.  And like theirs, our space serves as a laboratory for others working in an ensemble-based devising process.

Invite your potential presenting partner to come and see your work

Again, look for likely presenters within the Network.  Have them see a performance or have them sit in on a rehearsal process.  Be a good host: provide travel funds, lodging, food and a chance to meet the local community.  Allow them to get a feel for where you are coming from. In our case, Terry Griess, the executive director of The Irondale, was unable to come and see our show in New Orleans but was able to see it when we presented it at 7 Stages in Atlanta.  With funding assistance from NEFA, we were able to cover his travel costs.

During his visit, Terry met with 7 Stages’ artistic director Heidi Howard and got her perspective on our residency in her space.  Terry was able not only to see the piece for himself, but could also begin to anticipate any touring challenges for our show in his space.

Don’t be in a rush

Take your time laying the ground work: review logistics, contracts, budget, accommodations, community engagement activities and schedule with your presenter; not having all your ducks in a row can cause significant problems down the line. Be mindful of all the other responsibilities and obligations your presenter wrestles with that may take time and focus away from your own engagement with them.  After several conversations with Terry, we agreed that the best window for our run at The Irondale would be June of 2018, a full year and a half after our shows in Atlanta.  This gave us ample time to make those advance visits to The Irondale, during which we examined the details of their space and its technical capacities, and – more importantly – began to get familiar with their artistic and social communities, which in turn allowed us to build and incorporate new, place-based material into the show.

Be clear with what your presenter is providing

In our case The Irondale would be providing the space—which already had most of the sound and lighting equipment we would need—as well as a lighting op/technical director and stage hands to help load-in, set-up, strike and load-out the show.  We were responsible for arranging the transportation of our set, additional equipment and personnel.  Two areas that weren't as clear as they should have been were accommodations and promotions. For the most part, our artists tend to prefer home-style accommodations rather than hotels, and Irondale offered an apartment for one of our artists.  This was, however, an unusual arrangement for them, and there were some communication hiccups along the way because of it.

As for promotions, keep in mind that promoting a show in a city where your work is largely unknown is completely different from what you may be used to in your hometown.  Make sure to allocate a good bit of resources to this task, make sure you can control the images and narrative that goes out about your work, and lean into the presenter to really take the lion’s share because they know their own community best.  However, it’s also important to remember that promoting a show that is not their own might be an unfamiliar process for them as well.  Stay in touch with your presenter and try to keep tabs on any progress they’re making (or not making!) in publicizing your show.  Are they announcing it as an upcoming event to their regular audiences?  Are they flyering/postering/emailing and/or doing radio ads?  Have you provided the marketing assets (photos, text, etc) that they may need?

In our case, The Irondale suggested that we offer an additional fee to their press agent (someone they already had on monthly retainer) to promote our show.  After a phone meeting with their agent, we decided instead to go with another, highly recommended publicist who we liked a lot in an initial interview.  We were hopeful that this would actually be the best strategy, with Irondale’s publicist doing their regular promotion, and our publicist providing additional publicity focused specifically on our show.  Since The Irondale would be keeping all ticket proceeds, we felt that they would have sufficient incentive to be proactive with their agent and with their own promotional activities.  As it turned out, however, The Irondale appears to have relied solely on our agent’s publicity, which for unrelated reasons developed problems of its own and, as a result, The Irondale’s community was largely unaware of our show’s arrival until almost the last moment.  Lessons learned, again!

Plan a site visit

Nothing can take the place of face-to-face conversations with your presenter and their staff, or of seeing their venue with your own eyes.  Build a personal relationship with the people you’ll be working with.  Often the AD or ED will turn you over to his/her staff and may not have much to do with the actual production of the show.

If your show is at all site-responsive, drawings and photographs can’t relay the potential of the space, nor the creative and logistical challenges it might present.  After our site-visit, we ended up cutting down portions of our set that would not have fit through the loading door.  This is not something you want to find out when you unload your truck!

A site-visit also provides you with an opportunity to offer workshops to the community, to resident artists, or in conjunction with existing programs already going on in the venue.  The Irondale has two youth theater companies with regularly scheduled classes, and thanks to the support of the NET/TEN Travel Grant, two members of our company were able to spend ten days in Brooklyn, during which we offered workshops in set design, performance and music.

Try to offer at least one workshop that is free, open to the public and for people of all ages and skill levels.  You may need to really lean into the presenter to help organize this and other community workshops, especially if they are outside of the presenter’s regularly scheduled programming, but you will find that the effort is worth it for building an audience, deepening your engagement, and getting meaningful feedback on your work.

Meet with community groups and other artists and individuals who have knowledge of or connection to the themes of your work

Spread the word, introduce yourself to people and let them know what you are doing.  After Hurricane Katrina, artists from around the country and the world, inspired by the devastation and drama, descended on our city and largely ignored the artists who were already here. Thanks in part to this first-hand lesson, when we tour we seek out local artists who are already working with similar themes.  In Brooklyn, we connected with artist-run  organizations like JACK, a performance venue in Clinton Hill that presents work that is deeply relevant in their community and whose very existence is in question because of the rising rents brought on by rapid development in the neighborhood.  With help from The Irondale, we were introduced to and met with Beth Allen, Executive Director of the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance, and Phillip Kellogg, Director of Fulton Area Business Alliance, with whom we had a lengthy conversation about the history and challenges of change in the neighborhood.  They connected us with a long list of organizations and individuals who would be helpful in our research, and offered to send out e-introductions on our behalf.

Follow up

After your site-visit, follow up through emails and phone calls with the people you met.  Ask them more detailed questions. Have them e-connect you with other people they think you should meet.  Don’t overwhelm them; just engage them in conversation about the issues your work explores and how it connects to any relevant work they may be doing. In our case, we wanted to organize post-show discussions around the issues in our show, so we spent a good bit of time speaking with people, getting them to refer more people, and developing all those relationships.  This became a good way to include locals in the work and to build agency within the community. By the time we arrived in June for our show, we had spoken with a long list of community leaders and stakeholders who agreed to take part in post-show discussions.

Include community in the creative process

For SEA OF COMMON CATASTROPHE, we cast four local performers and two children for small but significant roles.  We also needed a choir!  Fortuitously, The Irondale shares a building with Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and their world-renowned Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble, whose performances added a beautiful new layer to our work, rooted the experience in the community, and drew in audience members from the church congregation.

Get the word out

Lean into local friends and new acquaintances to help get the word out.  Offer comps and discounted tickets to your first few shows; have a preview or invited dress rehearsal; offer a discounted community night, and, if appropriate, contact local schools to offer a student show. Work with your publicist to get reviewers to see the work early and to write about it, and make sure you are listed in the calendar sections of local papers.  Try to get a radio or press interview, and try to get other potential presenters to see the work.  If you are presenting outdoor work in public spaces, take time to answer questions from people who pass by. And don’t stop when the show opens; your efforts need to continue until closing night.


Documentation will be instrumental as you move forward with your work and career.  Don’t forget to document workshops, post-show discussions and any other relevant activities.

After it is all over

Don’t let your relationship with your presenter end there.  Schedule a post-mortem to discuss the successes and challenges of the show, and to learn how could you improve.  Approach this engagement as a relationship that you plan to continue to build; look to the future with a plan to bring another show down the line.  Keep the presenter aware of what you are up to, and stay in tune with what they are presenting.  Ask them who else might be interested in your work. And stay connected to the community you built; you never know when you might be back.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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