Full Steam Ahead: Learning How to Tour as a Small Company

Marc Frost

A year and a half ago, I was sitting on a folding chair at my friend’s high-rise apartment in São Paulo, trying to determine the number of train stations in the U.S. My plan was to move back to Chicago, create a show about high-speed rail, and then tour it to every town with an active stop. Using Amtrak’s website, I counted the number of functioning stations, state by state, until I came up with the final tally: 530.

“Wow,” I said.

“What?” my Brazilian friend Joana asked.

“Amtrak has 530 stations,” I replied.

She snorted: “And you want to perform at all of them?”

I nodded, “Yep.”

She looked me in the eyes and smiled, “Que louco, gente!” Which, in Portuguese, roughly translates to “I think the asylum is missing a patient.”

A few months later, I said goodbye to my Brazilian Carnival and moved back to Chicago, all ambition. I applied for a six-month artistic residency at Links Hall. Then, I started calling and writing Amtrak incessantly. Finally, I was told to submit a proposal for sponsorship through their online application. I waited for a response, which did not come. I called them up again and again until, eventually, I was told that my proposal had officially been denied.

Luckily, around the same time I received this news, I had discovered an organization in Chicago called the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. I met with Richard Harnish, the Executive Director and told him about my idea (which by now had been scaled back from all 530 stations to the 200+ stations in the Midwestern states). He listened and said, “It sounds fun. Let me know when I can see it.” Nobody, I realized, was going to support a concept.

A few days later, my cell phone rang. The voice on the other line was Erica Mott from Links Hall, congratulating me on winning a 2010–2011 Lisa Dershin LinkUp residency. I now had six months to create something real.

I found a wonderfully energetic group of performers/collaborators to work with. Before we could start creating our piece, though, I had to teach them everything I knew about the style in which we were working. Created as an exercise by Jacques Lecoq, the “platform” requires seven actors to perform an entire story within the confines of a 21-square feet raised stage. My teachers at the Lecoq-based London International School of Performing Arts had told us the bigger, the better. Our group chose “Superman.” Back in Chicago, I decided to keep working with that most Midwestern of superheroes.

Fortunately, I was able to employ the help of two Lecoq school graduates: my mentor, Paola Coletto, and my colleague, Molly Feingold. Pretty soon, the cast was up and running with this tight-quarters style of theater. We embarked upon a beautiful journey of creating, as a group, something new. A few months later, we presented our show at Links Hall and then again at Donny’s Skybox Theater, part of the Second City Training Center. We received several strong reviews and, at last, I felt, we were ready for a tour.

The Brazilian dream of all 530 stations, which had dissipated to about 200 stations, had now dwindled to a list of just 10 cities. There were several reasons for the “downsizing.” First of all, I had always envisioned us traveling by train as a way to promote our show’s message. The story takes place in a future Midwest where bullet trains connect all the major cities. Unfortunately, Amtrak had refused my many inquiries for free or discounted tickets, so travel costs became a big issue. Not to mention the platform. Though smaller than most travelling sets, our little stage presented a logistical nightmare built as it was in nine wooden blocks, each weighing about 25 lbs. Traveling by train, we would either have to rent a van, get a taxi, or physically carry the pieces on handcarts to move our show around each city.

Next, the issue of scheduling put a damper on our plans. When we had finally coordinated the calendars of the seven performers, two tour managers, one documentarian, and the lone representative of the MHSRA, we had given ourselves almost no time to plan the tour. The 10-city count dropped to three—and one of those was Chicago!

Suddenly, we were rushing to book the venues, find accommodations, market the show, acquire permission to perform in train stations… At one point, I thought about calling the whole thing off. I did not want to invest in a tour halfway. I also did not want to end up with a group of disgruntled actors and crew members who felt they had been dragged through the mud simply to make my vision come to life. Slowly, Joana’s words were catching up to me.

But it was too late. We'd launched our Kickstarter fundraising page, and the momentum was already churning. We had a goal of reaching $5,000: an amount that would help us to pay for the train tickets, provide a stipend to the performers, cover the editing fee of our documentarian, and settle all the remaining tour expenses.

Despite some major setbacks, the tour went reasonably well. By touring to other cities and playing in different types of venues, the show got stronger and the ensemble tighter. The performers grew in ways that would not have been possible inside the comfort of a local, storefront audience. Moreover, while many of the logistics of the tour turned out to be extremely chaotic (e.g. all 11 people sleeping in one house, pushing the platforms through heat advisory conditions, waiting on an Amtrak delay for 13 hours, et al), we were able to learn a lot of lessons—and capture a lot of great images!

In the end, I think it’s important to recognize what are the limitations of live performance and, especially, a young company. While we cannot fill houses the size of the Goodman Theater or Broadway in Chicago yet, we can reach people on a more intimate basis with a more mobile set and an even smaller budget. Moreover, our forthcoming documentary will be broadcast on the web where it will reach many more viewers than we could have ever hoped to gain with our present means. I am proud of what we accomplished, humbled by our mistakes, and happy that there will be a video. Not only will it help us to market the project in the near future; it will also remind me, years from now, of this particular time...when I dreamt big enough to bring something very small to life.

Written in Summer 2011. This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.

Marc Frost is an actor, deviser, and educator. A native of Chicago, he has performed and produced work in Brazil, Ireland, Spain, the U.S. and U.K. Most recently, he toured the Midwest with Theater Un-Speak-Able’s original piece “Superman 2050.” Other collaboratively devised projects include: Backbone (Sketchbook Festival XI, Chicago), War and Peace: a dance-theater redux (Viaduct Theater, Chicago), Moon Far Ocean Deep (High Concept Laboratories, Chicago), Chariots of Fire (FestiClown, Spain), Superman the Show (Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland), and many more. He has taught workshops in various countries and currently works with the Lecoq-trained teacher Paola Coletto in Chicago. Marc graduated with his M.F.A. in Lecoq-Based Actor-Created Theater from Naropa University in cooperation with the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA).

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 08/11/2011 - 1:46pm
Updated on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 3:15pm