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02 June 2011

AdviceFilter: Producers' Dilemma If you're in an advice-giving mood, we have an odd situation that's arisen regarding an event series we produce, and aren't quite sure how to think about it.[More:]Three years ago, LT and I decided to put together a live, first-person storytelling series, inspired by The Moth, in our small city.

We worked hard on structuring the series, thinking about our audience interests, selecting a venue and partners and lining up a media sponsor. We decided it would run only in the winter months, because it just fits the nature of the community - a tourist town that kind of dies back in the winter, allowing locals to go out more to enjoy their neighborhood places and events, free of the tourist crush.

Both of us did a lot of comparative research to determine how we wanted to operate, fund, and promote the series. LT did a lot of research into the spoken-word/storytelling scene in New England. We pooled our contacts and built lists of potential performers whom we invited to present. I wrote press releases and did press interviews and managed a FB page.

The whole thing has been a smashing success. We've run two series of three shows each over the past two winters, and we've packed the house each time, to the point of turning folks away at the door because of fire code. We've raised a couple thousand dollars for local charities, and people really just have found a true affection for the event - it brings people together in a lovely and personal way, it's fun and sociable, and the stories are amazing and inspiring.

So we've been planning to take it up a notch this year, perhaps playing in a couple of larger venues and adding some other show types to it. At this point we've invested a lot, we love doing it, and really consider it our baby, production-wise. We are on hiatus for summer but already planning for next season. People have asked us to run in the summer and initially we considered it, but it's just not what we want to do - the vibe is distinctly cozy, wintry, firesidey, and also, we'd rather do other things in summer ourselves.

The awkward bit: So one of our friends, more of a friendly around-town acquaintance really, has performed in the show during each season. He really loved it, and it inspired him to get back into his former practice of writing and doing spoken word, which is great. But he decided to pursue this passion by asking us if we mind if he hosts a summer version of the series, using the same venue we use and changing the title only slightly.

We thought about and finally said "well, great, we don't own storytelling as an idea, so feel free to go ahead and host a summer series, but please call it something different and be sure it is really distinct, because we've built a particular brand and operating style and want to maintain it as its own entity." We also cheered him on in general, because the town can always use more events, and offered to help him promote any series he got going.

We thought that had resolved it, and were OK with that arrangement. But yesterday, he sent us a FB mail asking us if we would share our performer roster and contacts, our themes from the past 2 years, explain how we handled audio, and offer other advice. We are reluctant to share all of that knowledge and information, which we built slowly through our own work in the service of our show. We're not inclined to just offer up a how-to manual for a readymade program; we aren't looking to 'franchise' our own program.

But refusing this may cause difficulty. I could picture, in our small city, some bad feelings and gossip arising over the idea that we didn't help in the way he'd like, and also some potential for negative talk/divided loyalties among the people who have performed in our show if he also invites the same people to perform in his show. I really don't want any kind of dynamic like that.

So we have asked to get together with him for a beer and talk it over. I guess it's obvious that that's the thing to do, but I'm just a little unclear how to handle it. He's a really nice guy with good intentions who wants the scene to grow, and probably doesn't realize how proprietary we feel about our own series. To him we might look like we're being unhelpful jerks about it. How do we communicate the idea that we want to retain the work we did without seeming like we're trying to sabotage his show? Do you think we should share the info? Are we being unreasonable?

Thanks for any thoughts...

It's tough when you feel like other people are piggy-backing on your hard work and success, but personally I have found that sharing always feels better than holding back in the end.

Are you afraid this guy won't do a good job? If so, that is an even better reason to help him rather than just let him struggle and besmirch the name of the series you created.

I think you could try to change your view of the situation- instead of seeing it as some guy encroaching on "your thing," think of it as a way to expand your great idea without having to do any of the work. You can attend and see people be happy with the summer series and not do the legwork.

Maybe the solution is to let him copy the format entirely but keep the name as the one you created or try to brand it as an offshoot of yours and add your names or signature to it, like "Miko and LT's Storytelling Series... new Summer edition!" So you can feel like you still have credit for it.
posted by rmless2 02 June | 08:42
We definitely don't want the name we use to be used for this series, and we really don't want it to be at all associated with what we're doing, which we are trying to grow in a specific direction rather than dilute. I like the "sharing" concept generally too, but we just don't want this series to be our series. We want to keep on doing our thing without preventing others from doing their thing.
posted by Miko 02 June | 08:44
Would it be helpful to frame it as "growing" rather than "sharing"?

Can you express enthusiasm for his plan to host a spoken-word storytelling event while simultaneously expressing a strong desire to keep your own event distinct? What if you tell him that you feel strongly connected to this specific title, but you'd be happy to talk to him about the process, including maybe a brainstorming session to come up with a new name?

Emphasize that it's good for the community, and also for the performers, to have more, distinct programs going on in a smallish target area, and that a different name will help to clarify that distinctness.

You can also specify that, at least for now, you want [Your Project Title] to remain an off-season event: that's part of its nature, and you don't want to dilute that by extending it. And that you think it's great that he wants to create his own performance event for the summer!

In your place, I'd keep hitting the note of "creating": you didn't just organize an event, you created it in an organic process, and he will have a different adventure creating his own. You're glad to offer some ideas or brainstorm, but you don't want to stand in the way of his creation by giving a template.

Rather than handing over your roster, would you be comfortable offering to send his contact info to your performers? That's generally my own policy: I won't give out someone else's [ph #/email/address], but I'll gladly pass on your [ph #/email/address] to them. That way, everyone gets some choice and some agency.

Is there anyone in the program/associated with the venue who helped with the technical aspects? How would you feel about pointing him in their direction, and maybe sharing one or two small things you discovered that are specific to the venue?

Another thought: would it be reasonable to speak to your chief contact at the venue and express your thoughts about the title? They can encourage him to come up with his own title, to keep it distinct from yours.

I could picture, in our small city, some bad feelings and gossip arising over the idea that we didn't help in the way he'd like, and also some potential for negative talk/divided loyalties among the people who have performed in our show if he also invites the same people to perform in his show.

Having lived in that same small city, I understand this concern. I think it's quite likely, to a small extent. But I also think that's a characteristic of the town, not of you or your interactions with your acquaintance: there's a small local contingent who like drama more than they like anything else, including cooperation or community. But I also think that the majority of people will understand that any drama is blown out of proportion, and will remember that you and LT are good, enthusiastic, hardworking people who want to create something for the community.

It seems like this would be a time to be supportive, but without becoming support staff.
posted by Elsa 02 June | 09:28
This sounds like an AWESOME thing y'all have put together. Wow. But yeah, this is a really difficult thing you've run into now.

Here's an idea that may be absolutely not what you're looking for, but I'll throw it out there anyway. How about bringing this guy into the fold, kind of as your first "employee," instead of having him out there doing his own thing. Let him produce a summer version of your series, with your input and some veto power over ideas you don't like.

I know you said y'all like the idea of keeping it as a winter-only vibe, but there seems to be demand for this summer thing, and here's a way you could have that without having to give up your own summertime to do it. Also, like I said, by working with him a little bit, you'd keep creative control.

If it were me, I'd want to keep my hand in it somehow, rather than let hoping someone else does it right and doesn't screw up what I'd built so far.

(On preview, it looks like this may be a repeat of what others are saying...)
posted by BoringPostcards 02 June | 09:33
and lining up a media sponsor.

Oops, I missed this part. That both complicates and simplifies things: you have a sponsor who signed on to support a project helmed by you, not by someone else. That's easy: you aren't captaining this project, so it is not a [Your Title] event. He should understand that, in addition to your right to authorship, you have certain duties to your sponsor that mean you can't franchise this thing by sharing the title.

It may be that your acquaintance hopes to ease into this, sponsor and performers all lined up. But he's about to learn that it's a lot of work to build a performance event from the ground up. And you can be the enthusiastic people who cheer him on without being the people whose creation he took over, lock, stock, and barrel.

In your shoes (and assuming you don't want to franchise the event, as BoPo kinda suggests), I would sit down with this acquaintance and explain that the idea is up for grabs, but that it's his baby, not yours, so it's a separate event. And obviously a separate event will need a separate title.

Also speak to your sponsor and venue, just to reiterate that you and LT will be the contact people for future [Your Title] events, that you aren't designating anyone else to use your title, that you are still in the driver's seat, and (with enthusiasm!) that [acquaintance] is organizing a completely separate event with which you are not involved, and you're so excited for him!
posted by Elsa 02 June | 09:48
Wow, could I have used more cliches?
posted by Elsa 02 June | 09:52
would you be comfortable offering to send his contact info to your performers? That's generally my own policy: I won't give out someone else's [ph #/email/address], but I'll gladly pass on your [ph #/email/address] to them. That way, everyone gets some choice and some agency.

That is a great idea that makes a lot of sense. I feel comfortable offering to do that.

I do like the way people are thinking about "hey, let him do his event under your flag as a 'franchise' style thing" and normally I'm all for that sort of expansion and efficiency. But for various reasons, including this person's really different personal style, I would not feel so comfortable running it under our title with our names on it. His event could be really awesome, but without having control over the presenter quality and content direction, communications, visuals, etc., I would not want our names on it. He wants to make the decisions, and having accountability but no authority is always a worst case scenario in projects, in my experience. If it fails to hit the mark, it's your reputation that suffers, and yet without the decisionmaking authority you don't have the power to fix it.

And we really don't have the time in summer to actually manage it, even if we wanted to. That's when my job heats up, we have a lot of travel booked, and any downtime we get becomes extra valuable for personal needs instead of being available for projects.

But I really appreciate your suggestions and the range of thoughts you are all offering on this. It's good to remember that this is a good problem to have and that there are lots of ways of handling it.
posted by Miko 02 June | 10:01
My spidey-sense is tingling. I almost feel like I know who it is --- but it doesn't really matter, except that the person I'm thinking of does have a very different sensibility and style, and if you shared the name, [Project Title] would no longer be so distinctly yours.

And that's one more way to approach him, whoever he is: by pointing out that he's great, and he's great in a different way than you, which means the events will have distinctly different flavors. You want him to express his own sensibility, not try to extend yours, and you want your own event to remain very distinctly yours.

You might also compare it to bands: if one of your friends wanted to start a band, you'd be excited for them! And you'd be happy to sit down and talk, in a general way, about venues and audio and planning. But you obviously wouldn't want to share your entire repertoire or your name.
posted by Elsa 02 June | 10:15
Yeah, and the sponsorship arrangements and the many donations we secured - for graphic design and the like - could not readily transfer to another producer.
posted by Miko 02 June | 10:20
Great calls there, Elsa.
posted by Miko 02 June | 10:22
Explain all the work that went into your project so he can get some idea of what he has to do, what kind of thing he is getting into. It's all well and good to want to put on a show but it takes effort. You should be proud of what you've accomplished and it stands to reason you want to protect it. Pass on his info, give him pointers, but if it's his project he's got to put in the hard work to build it himself.
posted by ethylene 02 June | 13:19
I don't have any advice. I wanted to tell you how neat this is. You and LT should be very proud. Good luck.
posted by LoriFLA 02 June | 13:23
Glad if anything is helpful!

I run into similar-but-different requests both academically and (in the past) in my retail and other work. My general feeling is that I'm happy to point someone toward resources I found useful (in this case, that might mean identifying people or texts that helped me with audio equipment, offering them samples of the press releases, and being willing to pass on their contact info to performers, and even pass on some specific tips I learned in the process) but not to do the groundwork for them (by giving a technical how-to or handing over rosters).

In academic terms, which I know will speak to you, too, Miko: I'll cheerfully give you a copy of the finished paper and the bibliography. I'll brainstorm ideas with you. If you mention a specific idea and I can point you toward something helpful, I will, and if I know that [author] wrote something relevant, I'll pipe up. But you can't come to my house and take my books and scribbled notes, I won't type your paper, and I don't want you to use mine as a rough draft. Anyone should understand that.
posted by Elsa 02 June | 13:29
It sounds like he wants some significant specialist help. That sort of help would take a lot of your time and then charge a lot to your contacts' goodwill as well, both things that are valuable. That's the sort of thing that you *pay* for. I think I'd go back to this guy and say something like, "Oh, for [your thing that isn't my thing], I wasn't aware you were looking for consultants to help you out. My fee would be $XXX and if you want help from someone else I could maybe find you a recommendation."
posted by galadriel 02 June | 16:16
Yeah this is good boundaries time. This is where my boundaries would be

- advice about sound
- advice about what worked and didn't
- list of themes you've used
- venue contacts if he needs them

Not Okay
- performer roster
- FB page access [this would be a good opportunity to announce his thing as "hey our friend is doing a SIMILAR thing" way which makes your non-affiliation clear]
- title that is too close to your title that it would suggest affiliation
- sponsor contacts, or attempts to get your sponsors to sponsor him
- you doing any actual extra work for him to do his thing [i.e. this is his thing, not your thing, outside of a friendly beer you should not be doing work for him any more than he'd do work for you at your thing

And honestly, I think a good thing is to either trust that if he's a weird encroacher other people see it even if they're too politic to really say anything about it, so if you have good boundaries, it's totally okay to enforce them gently as a matter of etiquette [no we can't give people's contact information to you, we told them we wouldn't share it] and you may be doing other people a favor.

So while you're not in competition, I'd think of it like "new coffeehouse owner asks existing coffeehouse owner for suggestions" while most people would be fine with the idea of two coffeehouses in town, the new owner shouldn't expect the old owner to give out their recipes, but maybe the address of their water supplier would be okay.
posted by jessamyn 02 June | 16:20
You have all helped us get a better handle on thinking about this and I think the outcome will be all the better. I'm so glad I asked you. It's amazing to have a reservoir of smart, sane people in life to run things by, and we're really appreciative of the thoughts and recommendations. Will keep you posted!
posted by Miko 02 June | 22:00
Good luck!
posted by galadriel 02 June | 23:13
Well...that went meh.
posted by Miko 04 June | 20:14
posted by gaspode 04 June | 21:05
posted by galadriel 05 June | 22:28
Oh, hell.
posted by Elsa 11 June | 19:44
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