Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Little Guy

I don't think it's possible to escape online fundraising appeals these days.  There are may different ways to do these drives and they all have their success stories.  The Chicago Fringe Festival will be launching our own Membership Campaign later this month so keep your eyes peeled for more information.  In the meantime though...

I've been reading and discussing a lot lately about celebrities and their Kickstarter campaigns.  Crowd-funding and social media programs have become the easiest way to launch a fundraiser and celebrities who have zillions* of followers can quickly meet their extremely large goals.  But what about the smaller projects?  A number of artists who have performed or will perform in the Chicago Fringe Festival have used Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Razoo and a number of other platforms to fund their entry in our festival.  We have even had two successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns as well.  Our goals have always been much smaller than some projects you'll find on those sites but we still feel that we struggle for every dollar.  So here is what I will ask everyone who cares about Fringe to do.  Go on one of the crowd-funding websites.  Pick one.  I'm not fussy which one.  Find a small artistic project that tugs at your heartstrings.  There are lots of search options so get creative in how you find it.  Give them $5.  Tell them Chicago Fringe sent you.  Then ask your crowd to do the same thing.  I'm not saying you shouldn't donate to the celebrity projects (I certainly have projects I would love to see happen), I'm just asking you to give a little bit of love to the little guys.

*Give or take a few million

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Now That's Connection

Last blog post, Adrienne talked about giving birth to a Fringe baby. Well, if this baby was just born, the little bugger is sure growing up fast.

Why so fast, I thought to myself today? Why do things feel like they are coming to fruition faster and more furious this year than ever before?

It's a good question, and I think it comes down to the concept of CONNECTION.

I have not hid the fact that the last 6 months I have treated Fringe as a second job. I've been hightailing it everywhere to get things done. And, unlike, say, coding a new computer program, or generating pages of manuscript, most of my "things done" have to do with meeting and talking with people: staff at the Alderman's office, friends and acquaintances in Jefferson Park, artistic associates, potential board members, my professional mentor, independent contractors, new staff....I'm not even sure that list is exhaustive, were I to give it more thought.

See, connecting people is not only something I've worked hard at over the past 6 months, but also something that just, well, happens. It's natural. I guess I could say I'm good at it. It may just been my only real gift :) For more on connectors and their importance in the world, see Malcolm Gladwell's complete treatment on the topic: I recommend most of his writing.

Now, I know I am often connecting. But the enormity of it--and the speed at which things are now happening--is something that does not always occur to me. But that's exactly what happened just over this weekend when I met with Fringe's board president, Justin. Now, our board of directors does not officially meet more than quarterly, and so I typically see the Board less than I even see the staff (which is not nearly enough). This meeting was supposed to be with a potential recruit for the board, and unfortunately Justin and I got stood up. So what do two fine gentlemen do when they get stood up? They have tea, of course. And as we began catching up, something funny happened. My mind started to race telling Justin about the things I had been doing over the last 6 months. Interestingly, though, it was racing not because it was just a lot for me, but because I began to see what it meant for him. I started making connections. Connections everywhere! I had so many introductions to make--so many meetings that had happened and information that needed communicating. I had this feeling that I was simultaneously ahead of schedule and far behind! I had to take those connections apart one by one and decide which were important to share with Justin and which could be left out.

It was an enlightening experience for me, reflecting back. Like the plot line of a movie that starts in disparate places but ultimately ties together, I was starting to see (or maybe better stated: oversee) how all of these pieces that I've set into motion are coming to a head.

I've said before and I will say again that Fringe's tremendous power is made possible by our ability to work together. I'm really proud of who we are in that regard. I'd never be able to set things into motion if I didn't have capable folks within Fringe that I could trust to take the reigns. I connect outside of the Fringe circle, loop those connections into our board and staff, and hope the connection takes on a life of its own.

Connection, connection. It all starts with connection.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I have three babies.  Two of them are flesh and blood people with definite personalities.  The other is this Fringe Festival that I helped found.  I love all three.  I worry about all three.  I care about how all three are growing up.  I want all three to be in the best hands at all times.

Now the Chicago Fringe Festival is moving to Jefferson Park.  Every year right around the time of the lottery, it feels like taking a pregnancy test (when you’re trying to have a baby, not when you had a drunken one-night-stand with that guy you only met the one time at the dive bar).  There’s the anticipation, nervousness, fear, excitement.  And then you see that plus sign and the fun really begins.  Each year is a different experience.  A different pregnancy, a different birth and a different baby.  And this year, Jefferson Park is our midwife.  When I tell people that I had midwives deliver my kids, 90% of the time I’m asked if I had a home birth.  My answer is usually a variation on this: No, I had both kids in hospitals; midwife care really means just having more options.  Home birth can be one of those options, but there are so many others.  A midwife is a partner with the family.  She provides guidance and a nurturing environment.  She acts as cheerleader, tour guide and mentor and ultimately, she gives the mother a list of choices and lets the mother decide how she would like the birth to be.  Midwives work to ensure that the mother has the best possible birth experience and the happiest, healthiest baby possible. 

So, when I say that Jefferson Park is our midwife, that’s not something to be taken lightly.  We have placed our unborn fourth year in the hands of a new neighborhood.  We are trusting in the guidance provided by this community.  We are looking to them for our options.  And we are excited that we have them in our corner, cheering us on.  We fully anticipate that this year will be an easy delivery based on the encouragement we’re already getting from them.  And on August 29, when the fourth Chicago Fringe Festival opens, we know we will have had an easy labor and a perfect baby.  

With a mother's love,
Adrienne Guldin
Business Manager and Staffer most likely to answer when calling for "Mommy"

Monday, March 4, 2013

Quick and Dirty Lottery Results!

Local Artists*:

  1.  (re)discover theatre
  2. The League of Miscreants
  3. Jonathan Baude
  4. Jennifer Olson
  5. HartLife NFP
  6. Blueshift Theatre Company
  7. Sea Beast Puppet Company
  8. Spartan Theatre Company
  9. Troupe Strozzi
  10. Jonathan Kitt
  11. Lynn Royale
  12. Jason P. kelleher
  13. Teatro Luna
  14. Abraham Werewolf
  15. Rebecca Kling
  16. Genesis Ensemble
  17. Christine Hands Choreography
  18. Stephanie Weber
  19. Lee Benjamin Huttner
  20. Cock and Bull Theatre
  21. Laura Force
  22. Adam Seidel/ Lone Wolf
  23. William Goblirsch Jr.
  24. Kristin Davis
Non Local Artists:

  1. Robert Chionis/ Daniel Wolfsbauer Productions
  2. Smart Comedy
  3. MamLuft&Co. Dance
  4. Spoken Life Productions
  5. Neelima Raju
  6. Schedule C Productions
  7. NOCO, fresNO dance COllective
  8. Randy Noojin
  9. DaVida Chanel Productions
  10. Barbara K. Asare-Bediako/Keoni Gurrl Productions
  11. The Neverland Players
  12. The Adventures of Les Kurkendaal
  13. In Bocca Al Lupo Productions
  14. Schex & Galeetz
  15. Circadelix
  16. Nell Weatherwax
  18. Judy Lombardo
  19. Rati Gupta
  20. Nobody's Sweetheart Productions
  21. Astonishing Productions
  22. R. Jim Stahl
  23. Valerie Hager
  24. The Theatre Elusive
  25. Howard Timms
*There is a local entry that is under review

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Good (possibly the best) Problem to Have

As a startup arts organization, the signs of victory are few and far between. That isn't meant to sound negative. Startups and entrepreneurs know what lies ahead. The work is long and front-loaded when you create something from scratch that did not exist before. Nor are there clear markers that you've "made it."

So you can imagine my excitement when I got the call last November that Chicago Fringe would be the recipient of a grant from the MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. A milestone! A recognition of the legitimacy of our 4 years of planning and producing! Break out the champagne! (We can't afford champagne).

It also created an interesting new twist. Chicago Fringe would have a little extra breathing room in an otherwise shoe-string budget. Not a lot of room, but a little. So here's the rub: what do you do with it?

It's an intriguing question to ask. If you asked me to spend a million dollars producing the Chicago Fringe Festival, I could do it. No doubt in my mind. This was a substantial amount of money, but not enough to accomplish everything we want (nor is any grant supposed to be, I reckon.) So where do you put your first substantial dollars? In the bank? Marketing? PR? Staff stipends? New technology? Board building? Improved services at the Fest itself?

For my money (yeah, yeah, I know), I think the priority is reinvesting this money into what the nonprofit sector calls "Development." In short: raising money. I am not plugged into the world of nonprofit fundraising enough to know if many nonprofits take this route, but for us it is an important one. With a founding principle to return 100% of ticket sales back to the artists, the Fringe has done a whole heck of a lot with very little cash to produce the Festival for 3 years now. But long term sustainability demands income to continue the noble mission. Volunteers burn out, so staff needs to be hired. You are no longer the new kid on the scene, so marketing dollars must be spent to get noticed. And on and on.

So, we are NOT going to bury this money underground like that one guy in the Bible. We are hopefully going to turn it into more money to benefit the growth of our company. It's a slow moving, slightly unsexy, but ultimately worthy cause for Chicago Fringe.

Oh, and one more thing: the flexibility to use our grant money as we see fit should not be underestimated. It's so crucial. If this were, say, a grant directed at a particular program or limited to producing the Fest, we would not be able to put it in the Development pot. So three cheers for general operating grants and grantors like Driehaus and MacArthur for recognizing the importance of that flexibility.

All about the Fringe Benjamins,
Vincent Lacey
Executive Director

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Love Letter to Chicago Fringe Artists from "Your Main Squeeze"

Chicago Fringe Artists are so dreamy. On this Valentine's Day, I find myself reflecting on them, and the last three years of CFF.

I don't think it's something that I necessarily thought about - that I would have this annual experience where I meet so many new friends. That's simply put, but it's profound for me. I know that the rest of the staff feels the same. Every year, I handle artist relations - and that really puts me in a privileged position to get to know them. In my opening email to the participants, I refer to myself as their "main squeeze" - to encourage them to write me with questions. Every year, many of them refer to me as that, which amuses me greatly. Some artists come in, and I don't end up having a lot of contact with them. Some, I manage to see their show, but never get to talk to them, just admiring them from afar. Some come in from far flung locales and want to soak up as much Fringe as possible. They come out with us every night. They Facebook friend us. They wish us happy birthday.

Almost to a person though, Fringe Artists are kind. They give us great feedback - they want us to succeed. They are professional; they care about their work. I could wax lovingly about theatre people in general, but I think there might be something special about Fringers. They live with a sense of adventure. They roll with the punches. They like meeting strangers.

They inspire me, and I love them.

XOXO Fringe Cuties.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Builders and Managers

I am at it again. After an inspiring podcast courtesy of Dean Dwyer, I became acquainted with Michael Hyatt, a gentleman who is one of the most popular bloggers in the world! Michael had something very interesting to say that led me right back into thinking about Fringe and artistic work in general.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Hyatt has been a busy man over the years: finding his own publishing company, experiencing a bankruptcy, rising the corporate ranks to become a CEO, and most recently going back to the purely entrepreneurial realm of writing, speaking, and inspiring for a living.

What struck me was when Michael explained how he made the decision to leave his (admittedly, admirable) role as head of a major publishing company. As CEO he ended up doing more management than he really felt a passion for, and as he put it in the show, "I am a Builder, not a Manager."

Two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. I am like that: a Builder, not a Manager
  2. Everyone in Chicago Fringe is, to one degree or another, a Builder like that
Let me explain.

What was really exciting to me, when we began thinking about Fringe as a reality, was that we were creating something from nothing. Brand new opportunities for performers, brand new opportunities for patrons to see new works--and we had set a date when 50 acts were going to descend on Pilsen to perform, whether we were ready or not. (Don't worry, we were ready!) All the preparation and scouting and dealing it took to get buy-in and create that thing from scratch was incredibly motivating. And very much aligned with my "Builder" skill set. What we didn't know, we made up along the way, and that was ok.

On the other hand, my more egregious mistakes with Fringe have usually been in the "Manager" category. Need me to run a meeting? Watch me blow up communication and get frustrated. Want to see me full of anxiety? Ask me to think about keeping everyone's jobs and tasks on track. Looking at me to keep the paperwork in one place and the spreadsheets balanced--what are you smokin'?!

Point 1: I am a Builder.

Point 2: Some of our most valuable movers and shakers within CFF operate on this "Builder" mentality. It's everywhere in our organization. I also try to make this exceedingly clear with anyone who expresses interest in working with us. 95% of the time, there is no management--you dream the dream, do the work, and find the necessary resources to make it happen. In fact, that is how many people have come to work with CFF. They see a hole in the organization or take on a project thinking, "Yes, I am interested in this and can make it happen successfully. I can own it, I can build it." Maybe all small organizations are like this--too small and cash-strapped to operate otherwise.

All in all, that "Builder" mentality makes the Chicago Fringe Festival a unique working environment. Instead of top-down management, we operate more like a think tank*: A group of people with a like-minded goal who are still quite independent and disperate. We get together from time to time, but so much of our collective accomplishments are done in a "what-am-I-working-on-now" sort of framework. It's worth mentioning that this has led to some disparity inside Fringe, because some parts of our organization have outpaced others--we have not necessarily worked in logical "order." But that is ok, too, and we are young.

All of this is not to say that Fringe jobs are devoid of management either. We all have things to manage, my job as Executive Director included. Maybe even more so. I am also not saying good Managers are not important--they are SO IMPORTANT. But at Fringe, we are first and foremost builders. 

There is much more to unpack in this Builder and Manager breakdown, but that's more than enough to chew on for now.

Peace and Fringe,
Executive Director
Chicago Fringe Festival

*To give credit, my friend Scott Barsotti put this "think tank" idea into my head after he was doing some research around the aptitudes of actors. Turns out that actors working together in a play often operate in a similar mode. And then Fringe came to mind for me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fringers Solve Their Own Problems

I'm drawn to the self-help section of the library. Nerdy?


I also just really like to learn. I get a lot out of motivation out of the prospect that I can teach myself new things or more effective behaviors. That's why I like entrepreneur, author, and podcast guru Dean Dwyer. He's all about looking for unconventional answers to life's problems.

Recently I was doing a bit of extra reading around one of Dean's pivot points, "Solve Your Own Problems" (it's first in big, bold letters at the top of his website). Dean had made a personal breakthrough when, frustrated with not suddenly discovering his life passion, he began to look at problems he wanted to solve about himself. Only then was he able to take that knowledge and begin sharing it with others.

Dutifully, I sat down and thought, "What problems could I solve for myself?" I raised my pen, began my list, and then a revelation hit me: Unbeknownst to me, Chicago Fringe Festival's history had followed this very "solve your own problem" model.

Let me explain.

In 2004, I moved to Chicago with a flimsy dream about being an actor. Several awful jobs and many an improv gig later, I found myself not exactly frustrated, but not exactly bursting with success either. Things were going--I still acted--but I was also stuck with a smaller pool of opportunities than I wanted. And I certainly was not acting for a living. That's when I contacted my friend Natalie Sullivan about creating a new show, which eventually became our two-person comedy Hopelessly Devoted. That show went on to have two successful runs in Chicago and at the Capital Fringe Festival. Experiencing the Fringe in DC was the springboard to returning to Chicago with a vision. (In fact, Sarah Mikayla Brown had that same vision and had already incorporated the Fringe name. It was good to join forces. Great minds...) The rest is history, as Chicago Fringe now enters its 4th year.

Do you see what happened? I started with solving my own problem: creating more performance opportunities for myself, and ended in a place where I could share that knowledge with others: creating the Chicago Fringe Festival. Now more paid performance opportunities exist for others.

Of course, I still believe in the other noble goals behind the Fringe (returning healthy ticket sales directly to artists, serving under-represented communities, ensuring small artists get seen). And a Festival of this size was NEVER A SOLO ENDEAVOR--a lot of people are responsible for what you see today. But if it weren't for that impetus to solve my own problem, I would have never have sought to co-found Chicago Fringe.

In just over a month, we will select the 50 performing groups (historically out of 150) who will be the artists of the 2013 Chicago Fringe Festival. It can be overwhelming to think about all those shows happening at once. At the same time, it's exhilarating to consider how many of those artists submitted their application with the thought, "Today is the day I solve my own problem."

Peace and Fringe,

Vincent Lacey
Executive Director
Chicago Fringe Festival