One consequence of having friends for years is you get to see the changes that life brings. (Cue David Bowie ch-ch-ch-changes.) One of my best friends, playwright and performer Alexis Clements, is a lady who works hard, writes a ton, and explores widely. We met in 2000 while studying abroad in the Netherlands. We both liked to cook elaborate meals in hostel kitchens and traveled light. I was a poet and she was studying theater. In the time since then, she’s worked in museums & science institutions while exploring subjects as diverse as Ben Franklin, conversation, and pamphleteering in the greater New York area. In the mid-2000s, she moved to England and got a master’s in philosophy of science. Around the same time I went to grad school for poetry and dropped out after a year, afraid of the debt I was accruing.
After finishing graduate school, Alexis moved to New York City and has been making a living and hustling her passion projects like an all-star while I landed a job in a budget office, slayed my student loan debts, paid for a master’s degree in library and information science while working, and bought a house. Some part of me is always in awe of her willingness to take BIG risks and this summer she is driving cross-country to create a documentary film and also to present her play, Unknown, in a cross-section of lesbian spaces across the USA.
When I met her, she didn’t identify as gay and it wasn’t until just before her 30th birthday that she experienced her “gaywakening,” as she describes it. Part of exploring her sexuality involved volunteering at Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives—a repository for the personal papers and ephemera of lesbians from all over the country. Volunteering there, she became inspired by the ordinary stories of women who came from all walks of life, and that’s when she started writing her play Unknown. After presenting works in traditional theater spaces in New York, she decided to take a different approach with this new play and did a participatory reading of the play at the Archives. From there she decided to take the show on the road and also to document the trip along with the spaces she’s visit. At the present moment, she is crowdfunding to help support the journey.
Because I am curious about the finances behind everything, I asked her questions about money and how she’s going about asking for it. We also touched on language, checkbook balancing, and gay baked goods. Our conversation is condensed below:
Beth Anne Royer: First question: You’ve done a crowdfunded project before. Why do you choose to fund this way? Were you nervous about going for such a big money?
Alexis Clements: Yes, I have a crowdfunding campaign for a production of one of my plays, Conversation, in Philadelphia in 2010. I raised $2,500 through Kickstarter, just by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. It was intimidating then and it’s definitely still intimidating to ask for money this way. For me asking for $10,000 feels like an enormous amount of money. But there are certain fixed costs for this project that I can’t get around because the equipment we need for the documentary isn’t cheap and neither is gas. On some level because they are fixed costs that I can’t get around it’s made it a little more immediate and clear in my head. When I talk to people I can point to specific line items in the budget and say, I need help with this right here, would you be able to help with that, either with money or an in-kind donation. So that has helped.
Beth: Subtitle of your funding project: Gas: It Ain’t Cheap.
Alexis: Ha, totally!
Beth: How does Hatchfund compare to Kickstarter or GoFundMe? How did you decide to go with them?
Alexis: For my 2010 campaign I decided to use Kickstarter because that was still a somewhat new thing and there definitely was a big community attached to it, and some amount of buzz around it. I figured that maybe, just maybe, that might help me get some extra eyeballs and possible donors on the project. That proved true to a certain extent–I had some funders give to the project, and give a good amount because of both Kickstarter and also because of an interview that the Philly Live Arts and Fringe Festival blog did with me. That was a huge help.
This time it was a little harder to sort out because crowdfunding feels so entrenched in the arts culture now and there are constantly new projects being launched this way. All the sites charge fees that range from a little to a lot—somewhere in the 5-10% range. A friend of mine even did a campaign via PayPal to try to make sure that as much money as possible went to the project, which I thought was really smart and really fit with the work that she does but that wasn’t as good a fit for me because I needed the help of having a way to broadcast really clearly how things were going and I wanted donations to be tax deductible if possible.
Hatchfund, which used to be USA Artists, is something I learned about a couple of years back. But at that time it felt a little hard to figure out what their deal was and the fees were high. Plus you have to qualify to be part of their program. But after doing a residency at the Millay Colony I found out that I qualified and I also have supported a couple of fellow artists’ project on Hatchfund, so I took another look. I also reached out to an artist whose work I had supported on Hatchfund to get her take on it.
Beth: You heard good things?
Alexis: Yes, she had good things to say.
Beth: It seems so strange that these sites designed to benefit makers are making money off of our charity. But I totally gave Hatchfund money, as well fees, since I was feeling particularly generous on that day.
Alexis: Yes, I feel a little odd about that relationship, that crowdfunders are making money from artists, and I don’t think Hatchfunds’ way of dealing with fees is perfect. However, the fact is that they have built a technology platform and infrastructure that I don’t have access to and when you wash it all out, they basically all charge pretty similar fees, even PayPal takes a cut. And I didn’t want to have to handle the money myself. You’re paying for some level of service in any of these situations.
Beth: Yep. It all costs $$.
Alexis: Ultimately I decided on Hatchfund because they are a non-profit, they make matching funds available to many of their projects, and they basically assigned me a caseworker who is helping and cheerleading the whole way and that has been a HUGE help.
Beth: Tell me about this cheerleader!? Does she have pom poms?
Alexis: I wish she had pom poms!
Beth: If you get fully funded, I will send her some.
Alexis: Ha, you should totally send her that!
But, basically, as soon as I started the draft for my project I got an email from her, which totally surprised me because I didn’t know that would happen. Then right after that she gave me a call, introduced herself and we immediately started talking shop. She’s been sending me emails with tips and tricks and suggestions throughout. She reads the email newsletters that I send out before they go to help suggest tweaks that might be helpful. We’ve already had one phone call since I launched the campaign and we’ve got another scheduled next week. She’s already given me a nudge during a crisis of confidence once. I have a feeling I’ll need another nudge soon!
Beth: I am nervous on your behalf! Is that stupid?
Alexis: No, I soooo appreciate it! It’s sort of terrifying!
Beth: I know you can do it but it still seems like a big amount! Do you have to raise a minimum amount to get total funding? I am with you in your terror (and excitement)!
Alexis: There is a little bit of flexibility with Hatchfund, which is another reason that I went with them. So still intimidated by a lot of it.
Beth: I’ve noticed the way that you are linking donations to rad lesbian photos on Facebook—that is good social media strategy. Pics get clicks. How many hours of mental energy per week are you devoting to this?
Alexis: Pics totally get clicks, and it’s also really fun for me because the project is about revealing a hidden history. But this project is basically taking up ALL my mental energy, ALL the time right now!!
Beth: Personal question: When you approached your initial funders, the ones you wanted to get the ball rolling (including me) what was your secret hope? Did I give you enough money? More or less than you’d hoped? (I would never have the guts to ask this question in person! but I’m dying to know.)
Alexis: I honestly didn’t have any expectations because I know how much crowdfunding goes around these days and how much people are asked for cash, and I know that sometimes I just can’t. So I was really blown away when you gave that much, I didn’t expect it at all and really appreciated it. It was awesome to have such a big ball to get rolling! I mean, I figured you would give, but my expectations with money are never high because I know I have a tough relationship with money.
Beth: I think spending thousands on my dog’s back surgery has helped me realize sometimes shooting the roll is worth it.
Beth: But having a tough relationship with money: Is that because of student loans and being an artist in NYC? Or because of some other source of historic or personal broke-ness?
Alexis: Definitely all of those things, but the biggest fears around money come from student loans. As a kid I was taught to balance my checkbook (and still love reconciling my accounts each month—omg, it really makes me feel at peace, even if I have a negative balance, just to know what’s going on). And I was also taught to pay off my credit cards. I’m not sure that my parents necessarily taught me that in specific terms, but it was somehow transmitted to me. So, then, leaving college with debt right off the bat was really scary. To me that felt like, okay, I can never fuck up, I can never just skate along, I have to make sure I’m always making enough money to pay my bills. It has changed my relationship to the work I do and the jobs I take. It has influenced the decisions I make about vacations, about spending time with friends and lovers. My debt isn’t as bad as some other people’s debt, but it has been a constant and will remain a constant in my life for some time.
Just out of curiosity one time a few years back I called up a bank to see what kind of mortgage I could qualify and they were basically like, your debt-to-income ratio means that you will basically not qualify for a loan that can actually buy any time in the foreseeable future.
Another time, one lonely and quiet afternoon at one of my jobs in DC I was trolling the real estate listings in the city to see if there was anything out there that I could even come close to buying and I found this listing for something that cost only $80,000. I knew enough to know that something must be wrong with it, but the photos were really nice—shots from the street, there was a tiny lawn but it was green. I had to find out. So I filled out the little online form and a lady called me right back. She immediately started talking up the property and went on for a couple of minutes and then she sort of paused for a second and was like, “You know it’s a parking spot, right?” I pretty much understood then that buying was never going to be an option for me, at least not any of the places that I’ve ever lived.
Beth: That is super disheartening–to feel like debt is a thing that prevents you from engaging in some of the milestones of adulthood.
Alexis: Debt has been a part of my entire adult life. Everyone reacts to it differently, some people I know seem to have a much more laissez faire attitude about it, but for me, I feel an intense obligation to pay it and manage it.
Beth: I wish I could have a laissez faire attitude about money. I have money and I still worry about it. Growing up, we were on WIC at some point. And school lunches. I was always aware of skating near the edge of poverty and so I am always trying to build up my lifeboat.
I was similarly raised, and I remember freaking the hell out after college when I was carrying a balance on my credit card while looking for a job after college. That scared me. Now I have a mortgage and I still want to slay that debt!
Alexis: Debt definitely stands in the way of the traditional middle class life for me, the one we’re told we should all want. And I have a decent job right now so I hate to think what it does for others.
Beth: You could park a nice van or pickup truck (lesbian joke?) in that parking spot you thought was a house listing!
Alexis: I totally have pickup truck dreams!
Beth: I want to call this article “asking for it: terrifying!!?”
Alexis: That’s the perfect title!
Beth: Tell me a bit about your big gay documentary project.
Alexis: Okay, big gay doc. The story actually has to do with money and funding as well.
I wrote a play, Unknown, inspired by the Lesbian Herstory Archives not long after coming off a period of burn out with my writing. And for a variety of reasons I was looking for alternative ways of sharing the work. So after doing a really informal reading of the play at the Archives that went really well, I was like, wow, this feels totally do-able. I could just print a bunch of copies of the play and drive around the country doing informal readings in other community spaces. It was totally feasible, fun, appealed to my artist sensibility that often wants to work outside of traditional theater and arts spaces, and was AFFORDABLE—that was actually really important to me when I started thinking about it. I could maybe even fund that trip myself.
BUT, because I’m me, and because that journalist/researcher brain in me won’t quit, I was like, these spaces are really important, many are teetering on the brink for a variety of reasons, I have to document this trip somehow. It felt really important to do that and do it well. Which means the formerly affordable project became something quite different very quickly. Documentaries aren’t cheap. But, spaces where lesbians and queer women gather have been off the radar in the larger culture for so long, if they aren’t documented they disappear completely. There seems to be a huge interest from a lot of different people doing a lot of different projects attempting to capture some of this history before it disappears, and this project is definitely part of that growing chorus saying, hey, this is REALLY important, not just for queer people, this is important for everyone–these spaces and the people in them are important and have had major impacts well beyond the “gay community.”
Beth: In my head, I was kind of contrasting your approach and funding total with this big, gay dude documentary (which maybe isn’t a fair comparison…because it is approaching being a gay male dude from one particular angle. But then I was like…jeez, he’s raised like $100,000…lesbians, allies & Alexis fans must at least be able to raise $10,000. And then I was like, is this indicative of the finances of gay men vs. lesbians?) But I’m like, come on queer women, we can do this!!! Right? And then my doubt voice says, “Can we?”
Alexis: In some ways it relates a bit to the subject of the documentary. There are a ton of reasons why these spaces are experiencing difficulties. I don’t know all the answers yet, and I don’t think there are a ton of clear cut answers, but definitely it’s partly economic—these spaces have always relied a lot on community support, and women and queer folks often earn a lot less than men, which means that they have less ready cash to buy things or to give away. It’s also a fact that women, as well as trans folks, remain hugely marginalized in the larger culture, and so the spaces they manage to create are often hugely marginalized. Two white males without kids, for instance, have far greater earning potential in today’s world than two women of any race, add person of color or trans to that and you can easily see how it goes.
Beth: TRUTH! As a lady making a fair amount of scratch, I felt committed to helping to fund this because THESE VOICES MATTER. And I have some means. Breadwinnin’!
Alexis: Breadwinner!!!!! I love it!
Beth: That’s me! I buy my loaves from a woman owned bakery with a trans general manager, so I think I get some cred of some kind? For supporting female loaves? I’m hopelessly devoted to Scratch Bakery [in Connecticut]!
Alexis: You totally get cred, you have always been a huge supporter of the ladies! If I lived by Scratch, I would make daily pilgrimages.
Beth: It is dangerous.
Alexis: Baked goods are totally a threat to society.
Beth: Queer and trans friendly baked goods are a double-threat. So delicious.
Anyway: I think this about covers my questions. Everyone should fund this. (Duh.)
I don’t think I have anything else. I mean, I could go on forever…oh, one thing. This project is about spaces where lesbians and queer women gather, but the story is asking questions about how any group that faces challenges both internally and externally can create and maintain space for itself. So, it is applicable for all feminists, those interested in social justice, those interested in society in general, etc., etc.
Beth: So worst case scenario…cause as a fearful breadwinnin’ womyn (har) I gotta play this game (capricorn raised in part by depression-era grandparents) IF THE PROJECT DOESN’T GET TOTALLY FUNDED…will you go into MORE DEBT to make it? I gotta ask the dark questions!!! (sorry, or sorry not sorry!)
Alexis: There’s no turning back on this project at this point. There has been such a strong interest in the subject, the organizations that I’ve reached out to have already done a lot of work to help make it happen. I’m going forward, coming what may. But I am also doing a lot of work to try to make sure I don’t have to incur a lot of personal debt to make it happen as I don’t want that and can’t really sustain it. So, I’m pursuing grants, looking into other funding options, and more. Because the truth is, as most artists know, that the money from the crowdfunding campaign is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real and total costs of pulling this project off.
Beth: You keep mentioning “lesbians and queer women.” I sometimes take issue with the extreme inclusiveness/pickiness of lesbian and queer language because it feels so mannered that I can’t abide. I like to poke fun at it. This probably infuriates some portion of the population.
Alexis: Language should be fun! I often find the essentialism around language on the interwebs these days a little frustrating.
Beth: It is hard to read tone in the internet.
Alexis: I love claiming lesbian as an identity, because it acknowledges a history and also the way people perceive my gender. I know people take issue with it, but that has a lot to do with a certain set of assumptions and perceptions they bring to the table. I’m interested in challenging those assumptions a little, messing with them. There’s no one way to be anything, there hasn’t ever been one kind of lesbian and there never will be. That said, I really like some aspects of the word queer too, and some of the ideas I associate with it. I want to be able to play around with both, because neither one is a perfect fit, they’re only weird approximations. It’s a warts and all kind of thing—words are wonderful and deeply flawed, like humans.
Beth: There is a Malvina Reynolds song or eight I could relate to the subject of feminist discourse and the words we choose to use. I used to have this AHMAZING tape from the Michigan Womyns Music Festival that included so many queer songs that simultaneously cringed me out and warmed my uterus. One included these lyrics “Get your speculum at your neighborhood clinic / learn about your cervix and what’s in it / there’s a new day comin’ when you got the bloods again…”
Alexis: That is soooo lesbian and/or feminist – to be totally cringed out and uterus-warmed at the same time!!!!
Beth: That song ROCKS. I hope I didn’t throw out that tape. Malvina has two nice ones that I hope I can find on youtube right now. Bury me in my overalls & the judge said:
Alexis: Thank you sooooooo much for helping out in this way! And for being a generally awesome human being and one of my best friends!
Beth: Thank you for being inspiring and sharing your enthusiasms with the world. Preserving voices that aren’t represented in popular culture is important to me, and you are being a radical ambassador to these voices…so thank you!!
You can read more about The Unknown Play Project here.
Beth Anne Royer’s summer uniform is a floppy hat. She reads voraciously and considers herself part of a long tradition of day job working poets. She works in a budget office and thinks learning new things is one of the best things about being alive. She’s on tumblr and Twitter.