Onward and Upward with Forward Flux

Left to Right: Andy Buffelen, Rachel Delmar, Catherine Roach, Kiki Abba, Pilar O'Connell, Wesley Frugé, Benjamin Benne, J Reese, Nate Omdal. Photo by Joe Moore

Wesley Frugé is intent on making theatre fun again. And not just fun but social. At a recent arts-salon evening held by his company Forward Flux at Café Nordo in Pioneer Square, Frugé waited at the door to say hello to everyone who came in, ready to chat as they found a seat and ordered a drink and to introduce them to the folks sitting nearby before settling in for a play reading and live music. Frugé moved from New York to Seattle nearly three years ago with a zeal for new plays (no theatrical chestnuts here) and a fresh perspective on how young artsgoers actually want to spend their time. He brought Forward Flux with him, and what began alone now has a board and a team of 10 talented theatre makers and other artists—the more diverse points of view, the better. On the heels of a successful first season last year, Frugé quit his job three months ago and went full-time on Forward Flux. We talked about why Forward Flux isn’t really a theatre company and why all theatre should feel like living room theatre.

What made you finally go all-in on this company?
It was a combination of a lot of things, but it was time for me to devote the time that the company actually needs. If it’s ever going to take off in the way that I think it can and I think it will, I have to invest in it, and that includes much more than money and energy. It includes time. And it’s to the point now with the board and the team that I couldn’t do everything and work a full-time job.

It’s like what they say about a start-up—you can’t trust someone who’s launching a start-up and keeping their day job.
That’s the thing: Forward Flux is a nonprofit but I really am thinking about this as a start-up—in how we’re rapidly growing, in how we think about fundraising, how we think about audience, how we think about messaging. We have a lot of ambition and we’re keen to change the conversation and the dynamic of what it means to be an arts company. Who’s coming through our door? Who’s on our stages and who’s in our audience? Whose voices are being heard? That’s what I’m interested in changing, and I don’t think that we would be able to do that if we were just saying, “Let’s produce a show.” We’re growing with an eye on sustainability and audience-building.

Tell me how and why this company got started.
The company came out of an extreme frustration I was having, finding myself on stages around the country and seeing the same thing everywhere—that we were performing for an audience that was not going to be there in 20 years. I found myself deeply unsettled and unfulfilled. You go to acting school and you think this is what I’m going to do, yay I made it! And instead I just found myself going wow, this is not what I wanna do. I want to contribute art that’s engaging people who are my age and younger. Where is that sweet spot of companies and people that are dedicated to developing the classics of tomorrow? So I decided to quit acting and write a show, and Forward Flux was formed around this multi-disciplinary show about a YouTube star who becomes a viral sensation overnight. It took us about two years to develop it; it involved movement and a lot of technology and live video feeds.

Who was working with you at this point?
It was myself, Rafael Lendiero, who was in charge of all the technology, and Karesia Batan, who has a strong dance background. I’m interested in creating theatre with people who aren’t inside theatre, because often they’ll look at you like what are you doing? If I can surround myself with people who will always tell me no, that is so much more valuable to me than having a yes echo chamber.

After we did the show, it was like, we have this company, what are we going to do next? So our next project was collaborate:create, an artist’s residency series that we developed over one summer. We bring together artists of all disciplines and give them a theme, and then they have 21 days to create brand-new works of art that center on the theme. At the end of that period they show their work in an open exhibition. We’ve now done it seven times, twice in Seattle.

What brought you to Seattle?
My husband J Reese is an actor, and we fell in love with Seattle when he was here performing at Village Theatre. In New York you can scream at the top of your lungs and like two people will hear you. I really want to create community. I really want to impact whose voices are being heard, and Seattle was the right choice for a lot of reasons. The art scene here is amazing. There’s a lot of money to be had—though we can do a better job of welcoming the tech and philanthropy communities into our circles and into our theatres. Whe’ve found with our audience that people are thrilled to be in rooms that are not homogenous.

How did you start making relationships in the city?
I basically knew no one, but what I said was, how do I make the impact in Seattle that I want to make, and how do I introduce myself to a community that has literally no idea who I am? This is when I developed the Flux Salon. I had the first one in 2014, within four months of moving here. The Salon is an evening of art that centers around a reading of a new play. There’s often live music or other types of performance, or we’ll have a visual artist come in and showcase their work, so it’s really a whole evening of art.  We started with that in my house; I think 25 people came. It’s grown from there and it moves location every time. The idea is, come into my living room, you are part of what we’re building, and your voice is important and I want to hear it. It’s a combination of incredible art and incredible people surrounding this idea which is so much bigger than me, and saying yes I believe in it, yes I want to be a part of it. 

How is your second season different from your first, last year?
Our 2016 season, which runs from March to October, involves a lot of different types of productions. Some of them are the Flux Salon; we’re doing five this year, and they’re all in consideration for a full production in 2017. Our two full productions this year—we say they’re a double feature, because you can see both in one night this fall—are The Wedding Gift by Chisa Hutchinson and the world premiere of The Summer House by Sarah Bernstein, which was part of our salon series last year.

Then tied to the Flux Salon is our new podcast which features interviews from the Salon playwright and a scene from their play as performed by the actors from the Salon. We also have our silent disco dance party What the Float, which is coming up on June 24. A lot of what we do is audience engagement, which I think about pretty much constantly. I’ll imagine walking into the space, or finding out about a show on Snapchat and then going to the website. What is my experience like? How am I feeling welcomed into the creative process at every step? I’m really interested in engaging 25-35 year olds, and part of that is picking good material and having casts that are truly reflective of the dynamic city we live in. But it’s also about the full experience, about going into places where people maybe traditionally don’t go to the theatre, throwing events and then inviting people to come back for more. We learn and grow every day and we don’t always hit it out of the park, but part of it is just listening to people and learning from their experience.

What are you looking for in a play?
We’re looking for a unique sense of theatricality and voice that’s modern and can compete in today’s entertainment landscape. I look at our competition as the shows on HBO and Netflix. If our show can’t compete with that, then we’re competing for the theatre-going audience that already exists, and that is not what I’m trying to do. We’re trying to create a new audience and tell stories that are relevant to them.

How do you make newcomers feel welcome in a potentially clubhouse-y field like theatre?
I’m in a unique position to do that because I’m not really an insider. As the years move on and as the team grows and I meet more people, that’ll quickly change, but I still have the perspective of an outsider that formed this company, and it’s one I am committed to keeping in the long run. Part of that is, how are you welcoming people into your space? Do you even have a welcoming space? Are you playing music? It’s the basics of community-building. I’m always there and welcoming people that come through the door. If I don’t know who you are I’m going to say hello and shake your hand and introduce you to other people.

What are your goals for the next couple of seasons?
I think we want to continue to see our audience grow. Right now we’re focused on the early stages of getting the word out and getting people through the door. It’s exciting to see our numbers increase so drastically year over year, and we want to see that continue. I would like to produce more than two shows a year and I think we’ll see that soon.

Forward Flux isn’t a theatre company, it’s a producer of experiences. Story is an experience, and how you watch that story is a gigantic part of that experience. I’m interested in expanding on this come into my living room and watch a story concept. It’s powerful, and it’s the future—it’s how most people are getting their stories these days, in their living rooms. What I want to say is, come into the Forward Flux living room! Not only will you see a great story with live people, you’ll meet people. When was the last time you met a dear friend who you never knew before at the theatre? It doesn’t happen nearly enough, and it’s one of the few things we can offer in the live arts that television and film can never compete with.