Apr 042007

Marc Ngui's PMR iconThe 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.
East coast circuit

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.

West coast circuit5. 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.

  32 Responses to “Ten Lessons from the Roadshow”

  1. wow. very glad to have been a part of something so awesome. thanks jim, and everyone involved ever.

  2. I’m sorry to hear of the PMR’s off-shuffling, but I’m glad I got to do it before it went. It was toughening, enlightening, and loads of fun. Thanks for making it happen.

  3. wow. i’m quite sad that the Roadshow is ending, but i can see where the organization would be insane and the audience not consistent. possibly in a few years it could ride again, maybe every other month or something.

    the two Roadshows i went on were highlights of my performing career so far. seriously.

    thank you for that.

  4. Congratulations for keeping it going for so long, and for providing such a great platform for all of us to share. I had an amazing time in sept ’05 in the northeast, with two brilliant writers, and still cherish the memories. You’re an amazing person for what you’ve done–thank you!

  5. I saw the Roadshow once in LA, and followed the adventures from afar–sorry to hear it’s over, but what an amazing project!

  6. I was on the last tour in March, 2007 with JoAnn Reidl and Peter Haskell. Family problems caused Peter to back out at the last minute, but JoAnn and i marched on and had a great time. We met so many wonderful, bizzare, wacky, amazing people on the trip and we performed to some full houses and to some empty ones. The most important thing was that we got out on the road and performed in different cities. This was an opportunity that is not always possible for independent artists.

    I will always be eternally grateful for this tour as the memories will last the rest of my live, and the commraderie with the other Roadshow people will be something that we can always talk about.

    Travelling down the road along the West coast and performing in places I never thought I’d ever visit was surely a taste of freedom.

  7. My little jaunt with Hadassah Hill and Cort Bulloch is one of my favourite things that I have had happen in my life ever. We were so fortunate to find ourselves so compatible as friends, never having heard of one another even a little bit prior to the roadshow.

    It’s a little sad to know the exact same thing isn’t continuing to happen for three new artists all the time as we speak, but of course these things are ephemeral. I’m glad it ever happened at all.

  8. It’s still hard to believe that I actually went on one of the first tours of the PMR. . .and that it three and a half years ago, now.

    Because of the Roadshow and all the amazing people involved, I made some good connections and close friends that are still with me to this day.

    Thank you.

  9. Oh Roadshow! how we will miss thee! Good to witness first-hand the birth of an institution, Jim — best of all, it taught us all a fair piece of wisdom about how much one could rely on good folks, if one can find them. The Roadshow helped me find them. -TD

  10. I went on the PMR last December and had an absolutely slambang time. One of those times where life feels less like reality and more like a decent movie.

    Very sorry to see it go, but I agree: what a great testament to the power of good-hearted people. This was a ride to be proud of.


  11. This is a sad day, indeed. I enjoyed my East Coast tour with Ocho and Dave Fried immensely. If anyone’s interested, you can read my write-up of the tour here.

    I also learned a lot during my short stint as a local agent. I’m already looking for more things to help organize in SF.

    To me, PMR represents a different model for artistic community than anything I knew about before. A type of community that’s more about putting on a good show than getting a cusy teaching job, more about who’s sleeping on your couch than who’s reading your blog.

  12. Thanks for creating this tour, Jim.
    As others have already said, the Roadshow was a wonderful opportunity to travel and get exposure to new audiences. It was also a great way to make new contacts and friends. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through the Roadshow over the last two years — some of whom I’ve stayed in contact with.

    It was a pleasure to act both as an agent and as the driver, as frustrating as those jobs could be at times. The whole thing was an amazing learning experience, full of highs and lows. Since I did the west-coast tour in March ’05, I’ve been booking my own out-of-town gigs and mini-tours on a regular basis, with ease.

    I’m particularly sorry to see the east-coast tours finish, as that circuit was still going relatively well near the end. But as it was getting more and more difficult to put crews together in recent months, I can understand shutting the Roadshow down now. The best of luck with all your future projects.

  13. Thanks to Jim and everyone else who helped on the PMR. The time I went (Sept. 2003) was a blast! It was a great idea and a good experience, and I’m sure the connections forged through the Roadshow will continue to grow as years go on. A lot of crazy artists met a lot of other crazy artists across North America thanks to the PMR!

  14. Thanks, Jim, for all you’ve done to inspire indie culture and connect people with each other!

    I only managed a small perp. mot. roadshow jaunt, in the south a few years ago, though Abram Himmelstein and I did some very road-show like teaming up and touring in 2001.

    My lessons learned from such things — eventually, after age 30, I got burnt out by the small audiences and small returns on time and energy invested. I have moved on to other endeavors. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences of selling zines on the street, and reading to audiences of varying sizes all over the country for anything. It’s incredibly empowering to create your own culture, and a great reminder that there is room in this huge world for all kinds of us. You can find artistic communion, and a sympathetic audience, even if your material isn’t suited to mass publication and the mainstream market!! Also it’s been an inspiring way to discover some of the cool people and colorful characters who inhabit nooks and crannies everywhere.

    Good luck with all your future projects!

  15. Wow. I have mixed feelings. I’ve loved the Roadshow from the begining. Sometimes it was frustrating and I felt there was nothing I could do to generate decent attendance. However, I hate to see it end. I have so many people bugging me right now in anticipation of the Roadshow’s return in May. I will have to break it to them.

    At the same time, I am happy to report that in the past 8 months I have been involved in supporting three literary tours that sprang from contacts generated by The Perpetual Motion Roadshow. I can only hope that this sort of independent action will continue.

    If it happens often enough, maybe I’ll be able to fool the locals into thinking that the Roadshow is still happening . . .

  16. We had already been driving for about 10 hours, from Manhattan, when we took a wrong turn somewhere in Cleveland en route to the bookstore. Stupid Mapquest and round-abouts. We arrived just in time to find the place, for me to put eyeliner and fishnets on and make our grand entrance into a basement. For four people. Two friends. A local reader. And the local’s friend. He read from his lousy comic, then grabbed his pal and promptly split without even a nod. We read for two people. This, was one of the best nights I’ve ever had. Not because those two people took us out to an amazing dinner and let us bunk in their comfy beds. But because I got to do the one thing I love most in the world, read poetry. Alongside the kind of people I love most in the world: talented, funny writers. Much later, I saw redwood trees and Mount St. Helen’s on a cursed West Coast roadtrip that ended up inspiring me for months.

    Thanks Jim! When I wasn’t thrilling to the senation of feeling like a rock star poet, I learned a lot about volunteer logistics, community action, and collective spirit that I’ve applied to many good causes.

    Thanks also to Gavin, Geoffrey, Todd, Faith, Quimbys, the fisherwoman poet in Portland. No thanks to Ryan K.

    We’ll be doing it again, I’m sure.

  17. Thanks to everyone involved for all the good years. I went to a few of the San Francisco shows and always had a good time. The show will be missed.

    * I admit I went to the first one out of a debt of gratitude for Jim tracking me down at my job to tell me he liked my zine. But I came back because they were good!

  18. I’m so sad to hear that The Roadshow is over. I was just remembering recently that Jeff Cottrill and I had spoken about bringing the Roadshow back to Pittsburgh (my new homebase) this spring.

    I read as the local talent in a Fall 2005 Roadshow in Manhattan, and I’d have to say, it was one of the very best readings I ever had. The audience was alive and attentive, and the other readers were talented and generous.

    I saw another Roadshow production that Fall, and I about fell out of my chair laughing at Ryan Robert Mullen’s piece about office parties, “Have a Sh*tty Food Day.”

    Thank you to Jim Munroe for starting this, to Tim Hall for organizing those New York readings, to all the readers, and all the folks behind the scenes, believing in “Indie” and making this happen.

    Also, any PMR alumn who are looking for a reading in Pittsburgh, look me up on Myspace….

  19. Thanks for all the good vibes, everyone. To me, touring was a revelation. I knew I wanted to do it — I loved travel and I loved art and I loved meeting new people. But when I actually had the experience I realized there was an almost magical, alchemical reaction when the three things mixed, and I wanted more folks to try it. (I mean, when touring was great it was awesome, and even when it was awful it was still interesting.) Now a hundred people have had a taste of this recipe I chanced upon, and now, if the craving or need strikes them, they have an idea of what to do — and why to do it.

    Touring is hard work, both in setting it up and being on it. I find it follows the law of thirds — a third of the shows are crappy, a third are OK, and a third are fantastic. (And this is influenced by turnout, but not defined by it… as people have mentioned, some small shows can be super-intimate — and huge ones can sometimes be cold and weird.) For some people, the law of the thirds is a fair deal. For other people, it’s not enough. And for other people, it’s fine for a time but burnout sets in. But everyone who participated now has real data and life experience to draw on. And it’s exciting for me to hear that people are building on the recipe to make their own shit happen.

  20. Those were wild whirl wind tours. thank-you so much to everyone involved. All of those cozy nights on kitchen floors will be long remembered.
    Viva Siempre PMR!!!!

  21. Wow, sorry to hear that. The Roadshow was something I always wanted to join up with, but never had the right timing, or got my life together enough to take part. Always followed the news you guys sent out about it though. Hope everyone moves on to bigger and better things. Maybe someday someone will revive it and I’ll able to hitch in.

  22. I’m sorry to see it go, but I’m so greatful for the opportunities, inspirations, connections and experiences with which the roadshow has provided me.

    All the best in the future!

  23. I was one of the volunteers that helped run Flor y Canto (www.florycanto.org) which was the LA stop for awhile. I got to see lots of performers, some better than others, but it was always interesting to see your project come thru. We lasted for 4 years before deciding to end it, which turned out to be a really good decision. Endings are good, as they precede new beginnings. Other people were inspired by our project, remember it, and some have gone on to do something with that inspiration. Surely the same will happen with the energy of PMR.

    Saludos desde Los Angeles! Tib.

  24. […] I’ve always fantasized about “going on tour” myself. Mastermind Jim Munroe shares Ten Lessons from the Roadshow. (Allow me to highly recommend Munroe’s novel Everyone In […]

  25. I liked the idea of the Roadshow so much I resolved to pledge it whatever strengths + talents I had. Unfortunately these talents were not always enough and it was not clear where the remainder was supposed to come from 8)

    Despite occasional low returns I think pretty much everyone involved realised that they were still getting much more than they paid for… hope there weren’t any big regrets about Roadshow participation. I wish I could have done more, but really organizing one stop at a time was almost too much for me at times 8)

  26. As above, thanks Jim. And Liisa, for coordinating in October 05. It was fucking great.

    Thing is, it’ll echo for years. There’s going to be a whole gen of daft lit bastards with stories about running the borders with stashed merch, and sucking back kegs in Cincinnati. And, all that windshield time with fellow writers and poets, unforgettable. Good times.

  27. The Roadshow put a lot of things in motion for me, including ideas for readings and some still-strong friendships. In fact, a tour just came through town with three great writers I met on the Roadshow, and we all had a blast. They crashed at my apartment, and it was like the Roadshow never ended. Thanks again for all your work Jim.

  28. While I never had a chance to go on the roadshow, I was able to benefit from many a strong performance by Roadshow participants in Chicago. Jim, while I don’t know you, I feel like I can say I do. The Roadshow opened my eyes to touring, and what throwing a great reading is all about.



  29. Great work guys. I was booked to go one time last year, though ultimately, was unable to make it out west. I think it’s a fabulous idea. thanks for starting it Jim old boy!

  30. […] also helped found and run various arts organizations, notably the North American touring circuit The Perpetual Motion Roadshow and The Hand Eye Society, an incorporated videogame culture not-for-profit. He lives in Toronto’s […]

  31. […] also helped found and run various arts organizations, notably the North American touring circuit The Perpetual Motion Roadshow and The Hand Eye Society, an incorporated videogame culture not-for-profit. He lives in Toronto’s […]

  32. […] many ways, the idea behind the WCO tour reminded me of the Perpetual Motion Roadshow (2003-2007), an indie-press tour circuit that had an east coast loop of North America in the […]

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