Monkey Business at Monkey Town: When Tour Dates Go Awry

By Kate Law Hoflich


Going on tour is like a dream come true, or so I thought when I’ve imagined the splendor of the road countless times. When it actually happens it is another story altogether. For fairness sake, I must admit that much of my tour this Fall with Bow & Sparrow was a wonderfully fulfilling endeavor. Some of it, however, left me feeling like a CIA torture victim.

It all began with an ambitious goal spurred into reality by a looming birthday milestone for my co-Artistic Director of Bow & Sparrow, Alayna Stroud. We decided that we wanted to create a new evening-length show and then tour it around the country for six weeks. We actually accomplished this goal, which amazes me still.

After opening the show, NeverAfter, in San Francisco with our cast of five performers—including myself and Alayna—we flew to Salt Lake for our first tour date. In Salt Lake we had the funny-in-hindsight-nightmare-at-the-moment experience of having an electrical fire at our venue shortly before our arrival. This resulted in a complete power loss for our week there. Long story short, it was cold and I learned a lot about power generators and extension cords. Luckily this problem didn’t dampen our audience attendance and we had three successful shows.

From Salt Lake we all piled into a tiny RV. We also loaded our set, costumes and six weeks of luggage. Then we struck off for Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We had three days to get there and we made it in 56-hours by driving in shifts around the clock. In Winston-Salem we had a warm welcome: the venue shared some famous Southern hospitality, we got great press coverage, and the shows were well attended. What a relief that Winston-Salem was relatively stress free, because if it had been difficult our next stop would have totally broken my fortitude. We were New York bound, and although we anticipated stress, we got more than we bargained for.

We timed our entrance into New York so that it would be late at night and we could avoid the press of traffic in our difficult to maneuver RV. We were thwarted immediately, apparently you can’t go through the Holland Tunnel, or the Lincoln Tunnel in an RV. We tried both. Then we drove all the way uptown to the Washington Bridge, and all the way back down to Brooklyn.

Everyone scattered to the apartments of various friends we were staying with, and planned to meet at the venue in two days for load-in. Friday morning rolled around and we converged on Monkey Town. We met at noon, we had 4 hours to load-in, then we were doing two shows at the small dinner theater for two seatings of dinner, then we were to load out the same night.

The day was bad right from the start. The company arrived with hangovers of various severities. Everyone but me was about 20 minutes late, but it didn’t matter because we waited for another 30 minutes for the owner to show up and let us in. Alayna courteously introduced us as Bow & Sparrow from San Francisco. In lieu of a traditional greeting, the owner of Monkey Town, Cliff, hissed scathingly, “Your presales suck!” as he brushed past us and went straight up to his office without another word. Well hello to you too! Thanks for showing us around. We’ll just make ourselves comfortable.

We found our way through a small dining room into a back dining room/theater in the round. We immediately noticed some things that were different from what was described to us. First off the actual performance space was smaller, second there were fewer seats—which made our presales look just great to me—and third, there were no dressing rooms. We began to adjust and problem-solve. We made everything more compact, cut pieces that simply would not work, and got permission to use one of the unisex bathrooms as a dressing room. The bathroom was a stretch for five people but we were trying to keep a good attitude.

The positivity was about to get more difficult. Enter Jon, a friend of Alayna’s who lives in Brooklyn. He is a talented musician and composer. He had “helped” us book this warm and friendly venue, because it is apparently a hipster cool spot, and was also going to play music for our two short intermissions. Well the joke was on us, because since his invitation to join us he had decided that instead of just playing music, he wanted to premiere a mulit-media play about love in the afterlife. It was 20 minutes long and had its own cast of six actors. Oh and, it would be cool if they shared the five by five “dressing room” too, right?

But we shouldn’t worry because Jon had also gone to the trouble of booking a separate musical act to play for the intermissions. This musical act, a blond subway performer who sang to a recorded medley of horrible pop-music and would have been a real hit at a high school talent show, had also gone to the trouble of booking two break-dancers. It would be cool if they used the dressing room too, right? Oh, and I know that you wanted short intermissions for diners to get up and use the bathroom and get drinks, but these medleys are choreographed so we can’t make them shorter.

As the load-in and tech went on it became apparent that our supporting acts were incredibly demanding. It also became pretty obvious that, although we were booked for hour and a half shows, so that people could eat at reasonable times, we were looking at about two and a half hours of material. Alayna and I put our heads together and began to edit, because although this was our gig and we had promoted it, the other acts that we didn’t really even want to begin with were refusing to make theirs shorter.

We got through the load-in and went to grab dinner before rushing back to Monkey Town to get ready for the first show. When we got to our “dressing room” it was so crammed with the junk of the fourteen people who were sharing it, that it was almost impossible to open the door. If we squeezed, and one person sat on the toilet, we could fit three people inside. However, starting at 6pm sharp the bathroom soundtrack turned on and the real torture began. I suppose it is some clever hipster thing designed to make patrons feel slightly uncomfortable for the 45 seconds they need to rush in and out of the harshly lit, tiny chamber. But we soon found that the blaringly loud recordings of first, a Rodney Dangerfield stand-up act, and then a detailed medical description of various urinary problems from bed-wetting to infection of the urethra, was much closer to what it must have been like at Abu Ghraib then anything I’ve experienced in my life.

I had heard that some torture techniques included blaring heavy metal music non-stop into prisoners’ cells. Now, as I tried to center myself after an awful day and brace myself for what I was anticipating to be an awful showcase, I felt very empathetic for people who had been forced to endure the torture of loud obnoxious sounds.

The show began with the afterlife play. It went over-time. When we entered the space I was pleased to see that at least every seat was full. We did a great job, then broke into the first intermission with blondie and friends. They were really bad. It hurt my soul both to hear her high off-key voice and to look around at the audience and realize that everyone thought that she was part of us. She killed fifteen minutes, of her allotted seven. I was quite distraught during the next section of the show. The next intermission was equally bad. The audience was getting restless. There was no clear break for them to get up and move around. Bow & Sparrow valiantly finished up the show, I think on a high note, but who could tell in a room full of people who were to cool to have fun in the first place, and had they been subjected to the kind of performance that makes you want to gouge your eyes out. And this was our New York debut!

Our sections stayed in our time limit but the show ended by the time the second show was supposed to be beginning. The quick turn around the restaurant staff had to pull off did not warm our relations with the management.

The second show of the night was sold-out as well. Take that Cliff, you big hipster jerk. However it started on an even tenser note thanks to the joint scolding that Alayna and I laid on Jon. Jon, in an effort to take some sort of action, immediately and vigorously cried. He then finally and reluctantly agreed to tighten his piece. We also moved our subway diva to the end of the show.

The second time around we made sure to clearly announce that she was separate from us, which while maybe a trifle petty, made me feel way better. We also cut her material in half. She gave us ultra attitude about it, but whatever, if we were in New York it was our turn to be big jerks like everyone else right? And while we were on a roll, we went to the bartender and told her to turn off the torturous bathroom soundtrack or suffer the consequences. I don’t know why we didn’t think to demand that right off the bat, but it was like a magic cure for most of our edginess.

We started late but didn’t end as far overtime as the first show. It was still too long and the audience still got kind of bored. People left during the musical medley at the end, and I certainly couldn’t blame them, I wanted to leave too. We finally finished, had to give the bartenders grief about skimping on our agreed upon allotment of drinks tickets and loaded out. Everything was back in the RV by 3am. All in all, it was a pretty terrible fifteen-hour day. When we went inside to settle up, Cliff had dodged us. He left us some cash, lower than what was in our contract for the number of people we had at the shows. His audience count was lower than ours, and was quite blatantly dishonest. It was the cherry on top.

We still had two venues to go, one in New York and one in Michigan, then a very long drive home. Everything else went pretty beautifully in comparison and we had plenty of time to reflect on the experience. It’s funny because I think that what I learned was to be less trusting and less nice. I realized that dance has an abusive relationship with me. All my life I have strived to treat people as I’d like to be treated and I think that San Francisco has kept me soft and kind. The support and camaraderie that exists in the Bay Area dance community didn’t prepare me very well for being hard-nosed and making sure that my company’s needs were met. So I guess the best thing about Monkey Town was that it forced me find my spine.

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community.,