The Perpetual Motion Roadshow was a project I started four years ago and has since sent a hundred people on tour. Three indie artists, usually strangers, would bring their vaudevillian-inspired variety show acts to seven cities in eight days, sharing costs, crashspaces, and camaraderie. Two circuits, both going to Canada and the US, meant that people could tour each month of the year.
Last month, the final tour took place. To be honest, I expected it to finish years ago after I decided to stop coordinating it, but a succession of previous tourmembers took over the coordinating duties and kept it going for two more years.
While it’s fresh, I figure now’s a good time to compile some of the things it’s taught me.
10. Dependency can be a good thing. None of this would have happened if I’d learned how to drive. I can be indie to a fault, and if it wasn’t for having to team up with a driver I wouldn’t have discovered that it’s way more fun — and more practical — to tour with a group. It was on tour with Joe Meno and Todd Dills that the power of mutual aid and the potential for the Roadshow started to coalesce.
9. Variety is the spice of life. A mix of genders, nationalities and mediums kept the variety show feeling alive and gave everyone their little patch of territory. On first glance, it may have seemed to make sense promotionally to have a full show consisting of Vancouver political poets — but before long you’d have the lyrical Marxist screaming at the poststructuralist Libertarian at the side of the road (see: narcissism of small differences). On a more practical level, the Vancouver show would be packed, but the San Francisco show would be empty.
8. A tour is a conference on wheels. As varied as we tried to make it, the group of people more often than not had a lot in common: they were indie artists focused enough to take their show on the road by getting in a car with two relative strangers. Just by virtue of being in a car for a week solid, they shared experiences and ideas and many ended up collaborating after the tour was over.
7. Three is the magic number. Two is too few: people can easily start to grate on each other. Four is too many: the car is too crowded for such a long haul, and with that amount of people things devolve into herd mentality with everyone assuming someone else is doing the stuff that needs to be done. With three, there’s camaraderie possibilities without it being stifling. The musketeers knew what they were doing.
6. Different strokes for different folks. I found it stressful to be the local agent (the person in each city who promotes the shows and handles crashspace) for more than three months — but some people didn’t. Faith and Brad were Cincinnati and San Jose agents for the entire four years. So many coordinators got burnt out after three months that I thought I had made coordination too customized to my skill set, but then Jeff Cottrill came along and rocked it for a year. There’s a person for every job, so don’t assume they’re impacted in the same way you are.
5. There is a spectrum of flakiness. A lot of great artists and performers are severely organizationally-challenged, so it’s a case of managing this. While I was sympathetic, I also had a responsibility to other people involved — if they pulled out at the last minute it increased the cost for the other tour members… if they cancelled the tour as a result then the volunteers time had been wasted. To avoid this I…
4. Set up milestones. By breaking up the large tasks into smaller ones you are giving people a structure — and if they cannot send a 100 word bio in on time they are not going to be able to do the other things they need to do to be on tour for a week. Extending deadlines does not do anyone any favours, I discovered: when I did, something else would go wrong, and left the coordinator with less time to, say, find another person to go on tour. It helps to have a third-party “heavy” (real or imagined) who is setting the deadlines: it makes people take them more seriously.
3. Martyrdom sucks. I’ve always hated the way that guilt and pressure tactics creep into activist projects, so I resolved to never resort to them. I approached suitable people about ways they could get involved, but never sent out the typical “THE PROJECT WILL DIE WITHOUT YOUR HELP!” email. My ego would like it to continue into eternity and consume the world with sold-out stadiums, naturally, but my heart knows that it will (and already has) spawned projects and a model that will continue to inspire people.
2. Managing stress gets easier. It’s all about caring enough to get the job done, but not caring so much you lie awake nights hoping they get to Chicago in time and have a fun tour and don’t hate you for putting them with so-and-so… My stress managing muscles were considerably larger at the end of the project compared to the beginning. Heck, it’s let me be able to produce a movie with seven directors and a cast/crew of 50 without breaking a sweat.
1. Volunteer power is like solar power. We were able to run the Roadshow without any regular funding while people’s enthusiasm was shining bright, but it’s a tricky business to keep going when the sun’s set. I knew this would be the case from the beginning, hence the romantic doom of naming it after the perpetual motion machine — but I do feel it’s important to experiment with different forms of cultural energy just as it’s important to keep working on alternate forms of fuel.
In the end, some ideas worked, and some didn’t. Didn’t work: Despite each show passing out handbills for the following show, and an email list reminder, it felt like the Roadshow never had a regular audience. Whether that was because it happened too often, or the performances were too eclectic, I’m not sure. And while media was good at the beginning, it tapered off after the first year or two after the project was a known quantity.
Did work: Making the shows pay-what-you-can (rather than free, which is how they started) meant that the performers could pay for gas by passing the hat. Having the performers call in their Pay Phone Tour Diary every day meant that the coordinator had a sense of what was going right and wrong and could adjust accordingly — and had an emotional connection to the project that made it worthwhile. (And now we have a archive of past roadshow stories as well!)
Thanks to everyone who had the moxy to take part, and especially those who participated after their tours as local agents and especially especially to Sean Carswell, Liisa Ladouceur, Megan Butcher and Jeff Cottrill, who took a spin at the coordination of the Roadshow. The artists who donated their designs (Marc Ngui did 2003′s template, Matt Blackett did 2004, Kent Matheson did 2005, and Stef Lenk did 2006) made us look sharp — and made making the handbills month after month much less of a grind. Thanks also to the sole funders: The Belle Foundation sent us a $1000 cheque out of the blue, Harbourfront also gave us $1000 for putting on a show, and Coach House Books contributed $200.
Add your perspective on what worked and what didn’t with the Roadshow in the comments below, whether you were a crewmember or a audience member. If you’re considering a similar project, you might like to check out the guidebooks I wrote for the coordinator (the “Driver” guidebook) or the local promoters in each city (the “Agent” guidebook) — or ask a question in the comments below.