“This Is Weird. I Like it.” An interview with The Funhouse Family

It’s hard to describe the special sauce of theater, humor, emotion, and oddity that is The Funhouse Family. A visit to their Facebook page will show their vision is, “An expansive network of artists forging theatrical performance for a nontraditional audience.” After attending many Funhouse Family events including Funhouse II and III, Now That’s What I Call Funhouse, and a recording of the Funhouse Family Podcast, I definitely agree with their vision.

I invited the Funhouse Family to the Lonely Arts Club so they could describe their artistry and productions themselves and asked them how they find the time to be creative while paying rent and having social lives.

Welcome to the Lonely Arts Club! How did each of you come to be involved with The Funhouse Family?

BRIAN: Thanks for taking the time to interview us! I created what is now The Funhouse Family in the summer of 2016 with the collaboration of a handful of other artists. As we’ve moved forward, we’ve developed a family of more than a hundred collaborators. Some of whom I know from college, some are childhood friends, and a lot are folx who joined us because they heard about the project and expressed interest. We all believe in the mission, vision, and values of the company.

Brian Toews, Creator and Artistic Director, Read more about Brian Here. Image used with permission.

MAUREEN: Brian asked me to manage The Funhouse Family’s social media accounts after “Funhouse I” in the summer of 2017. I have a background in writing and editing, and I’m (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with Twitter, so it was a natural fit. Since then, my role has expanded to include all internal and outgoing communications for the company.

ZOE: I moved to Seattle in August 2017 and was looking at auditions literally every day online to find some theatre folks out here. I stumbled upon an audition for The Funhouse Family, probably on Facebook, and thought the show sounded wacky and weird and just what I was looking for. I became an ensemble member in Funhouse II and then again for Funhouse IV. I liked the group so much I decided to take on more and interview for the Managing Director position, and now I get to handle all the numbers!

ALEX: My introduction was a bit more buck wild. I was riding the bus home from a video game conference in full cosplay, and I saw someone I used to do theatre with in college. She was living her best business lady life and asked me if I kept up with theatre. When I mentioned I wasn’t but was looking for something creative, she invited me to Funhouse’s auditions through Facebook because her husband choreographed for them. I went in to audition for Funhouse IV, was able to make it through some amazingly ridiculous text without laughing, and became an ensemble member. Brian invited me to apply to be on staff and to direct for Funhouse V, so now I am the Community Outreach & Education Manager for The Funhouse Family, and I couldn’t be happier.

MIKEY: I met Brian back in college when The Funhouse Family hadn’t yet germinated in his mind, and we were fast friends. Years after college, I came on board as a director for Funhouse III, and then shortly after, I switched roles to act in Funhouse IV and begin working on The Funhouse Family’s website. When a role opened up to become Marketing Liaison, I jumped at the chance.

The Funhouse Family. Image by Tommy Calderon

How do you make time for creative pursuits on top of day jobs, family commitments, and sleep?

BRIAN: It’s a balancing act for sure. One of the positives of the internet is all the tools that are at our disposal. We organize our priorities with programs like Google calendar/drive, Slack, and Doodle. These tools allow for a lot of mobility and allow us to hold one another accountable. One of our Slack threads is a dumping ground for Doodle memes. I send out a lot of Doodles.

MAUREEN: Retaining strong boundaries and work/life balance is important to me. I’m constantly checking in with myself to see if I’m exerting too much energy into one aspect of my life to the extent that the other aspects are suffering. It’s all about mindfulness, baby. And Doodle. It’s all about mindfulness and Doodle, baby.

Maureen Armstrong, Producer, Communications and Marketing Manager. Read more about Maureen here. Image used with permission.

ZOE: I feel like I’ve always had a good understanding of when I’m in work mode and when I’m not in work mode. When I’m caffeinated and in the zone, I can work for hours. I like to make notes and checklists for myself–goals for the week. Usually, on a Monday, I’ll write out what I need to get done by Friday and pace myself accordingly. Self-care is important though; if I get to a place where my mind feels like jello, I make myself stop, do some yoga, run around with my cat, go outside, journal, whatever. Understanding how I’m feeling and not judging myself if I can’t get everything done at once is key…. also Doodle.

ALEX: I make the Doodle memes. I feel like that’s my true creative pursuit, so it goes hand in hand with this job.

MIKEY: I’m a cyborg – don’t need sleep. I love this work so much that packing my schedule and even sacrificing my beloved lazy TV-watching days is worth it. It’s all about scheduling my week in advance, and scheduling empty spaces of time where I know I’ll need to do said TV-watching or connect with loved ones.

How do you incorporate the influence of your favorite art and pop culture into your work with The Funhouse Family?

BRIAN: I like anything that’s weird, irreverent, satirical, absurd, and surreal. I grew up watching a lot of Adult Swim and Twilight Zone. The first playwrights I really got into were Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter. In terms of incorporating those influences, it’s about standing on the shoulders of those giants and creating a platform to experiment and expand on the work. I see these influences as opportunities to build-upon the aesthetic that has been established.

Throughout the last few years, I’ve come to realize that a lot of my influences for The Funhouse Family come from cis-hetero white dudes. That’s not an inherently bad thing, but it’s definitely good to be aware of it and to take steps to broaden those influences. It’s about figuring out how I can take those inspirations from cis-het white dudes and work with more diverse, like-minded artists to create something better than the original inspiration.

MAUREEN: Women. Art and media created by women influence me. Books are my favorite kind of art to consume–Roxane Gay, Ottessa Moshfegh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith are a few of my go-to writers–but I’m also really into TV shows like Broad City, Insecure, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that showcase women at their funniest and most complex.

I’m grateful to be living at a time where the artistic contributions of a more diverse selection of the population are finally being given some of the attention they deserve. I decided to quit reading books written by white men a few years ago, and it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made. It’s not that I think that art created by white men isn’t valuable, but it’s all I was really able to consume for the first two decades of my life (shout out to my teenage obsession with J.D. Salinger), so now I’m trying to correct that imbalance.

That’s what we’re going for with Funhouse. We work with artists from diverse backgrounds and creative fields, because the goal of each show is to have something for everyone. We want to create art that resonates with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

ZOE: I’ve always resonated with strong, snarky, quirky female characters. I quote Broad City, Bridesmaids, Gilmore Girls, Mean Girls, and Never Been Kissed on the daily. I also appreciate the truth in awkwardness shown through actresses like Rachel Bloom, Zooey Deschanel, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon, Rachel Dratch, I could go on for a while. They showed me that nonsense and playing with language can be fun and absurd and wacky. I think the combination of these things, wacky humor, and extreme expressive emotions is what we present in our Funhouse shows. There’s always some truth, always a real conflict, but then there are layers of wackiness on top that make the show entertaining without diminishing the message.

Zoe Schwartz, Managing Director, Read more about Zoe here. Image used with permission.

ALEX: Aspirationally, I want to be Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. I love her sense of community. I love watching her prove people wrong when they underestimate her. I love that she isn’t afraid to make hard decisions for the betterment of the community. I want to bring that active care for the community into my work with The Funhouse Family. In Funhouse IV, we had some pretty wild scripts. But no one blew it off or pretended they were greater than the work at hand. They fully went for it. I think that leaning into how absurd you feel can create some of the best most striking moments, both onstage and in everyday life.

MIKEY: I have way too many interests and hobbies, ranging from an obsession with anime to a compulsive need to watch comedy news shows before bed so that I’m simultaneously terrifically frightened and balled up in laughter by the current political climate.

Rap music is a huge part of my life, but also classical and flamenco music. I love myself a cheesy sci-fi movie I can make fun of, but I also love getting deep into a brilliant film full of nuance. This menagerie of artistic interests, spanning ‘high art’ and what some consider ‘guilty pleasures’, drives me to incorporate a lot of diversity into the type of pieces I want to see produced by The Funhouse Family.

The Funhouse Family. Image by Tommy Calderon

Funhouse started as a play anthology, and in the last year has expanded to include a Podcast and 90s themed concert. How do you decide which ideas rise to the top and move to the production phase?

BRIAN: It really depends on the themes we want to explore and what’s coming down the pipeline in regards to our programming. All of it has to have intention. You mentioned the concert. The purpose of the 90s themed concert we produced last fall was a publicity tool to supplement and expand the universe of our flagship anthology show, Funhouse IV. The aesthetic for IV was the style and programming of the 90s.

Similarly, our podcast serves as an entry point to our company and an opportunity for artists to expound on their creative processes. The podcast also serves as a playground for artists to cross-pollinate, play, and network with one another. The podcast can also be the first impression for audiences to buy-in and see our live shows.

MAUREEN: N/A (that’s a Brian question)

ZOE: Shazam to Maureen

ALEX: ^

Alex Garramone, Community Outreach & Education Manager, Read more about Alex here. Image used with permission.

MIKEY: ^

Is there anything about the Funhouse Family’s work that you find specific to Seattle? Would this pursuit be as successful in another city?

BRIAN: We value equitable and inclusive practices. Seattle is a progressive city, so I want to leverage that to my (and hopefully the community’s) advantage when laying out administrative policies and creative work. Creating art in a progressive environment allows us the opportunity to really challenge norms, which is what The Funhouse Family is all about. This includes everything from our conduct policy to the types of artists we work with. We strive to create a supportive, democratic environment and eliminate gate-keeping.

MAUREEN: I absolutely think our work could, and maybe should, exist outside of Seattle. The Funhouse Family is about creating great work that uplifts artists and tells stories without ever preaching to our audience. I think there’s a craving for work like that both in and outside of Seattle. So much theatre and art, in general, is very “here’s the lesson, here’s what you should be taking away from this,” and, while I think didactic art has a place and can be important, it shouldn’t be all there is. It can be more powerful and effective to tell a story in a way that allows the audience to take away from it what they’re ready to take away from it. Yes, art should challenge the way people think, but it should also encourage the audience to do the work themselves instead of handing them a tidy little package of what the artist thinks they should believe.

ZOE: Coming from the Midwest, I can say that work like ours does indeed exist in other cities. What’s unique and wonderful about our company existing here is that there is such a passion in Seattle to be inclusive and to hear voices we don’t normally hear on stage. I’ve seen these efforts through productions like “Intersections Festival” and “She is Fierce,” as well as The Funhouse Family. I had never before been involved in a company that made diversity and inclusion as much of a priority as The Funhouse Family does. It’s very refreshing.

ALEX: I think that The Funhouse Family is unique, even to Seattle theatre. There is a lot of gatekeeping and a lot of the same musicals or plays produced all over the state. But opening up the theatre world to weird, new plays, and giving young actors and performers a stage is a great way to usher in a new era for the theatre community, both in and outside Seattle. Let’s face it, there are weirdos everywhere. They just don’t have a Funhouse to play in yet!

MIKEY: It’s grungy and not afraid to be liberally weird while still leaking the influence it has from the progressively innovative minds and companies that exist inside Seattle. A lot of the work that goes into Funhouse comes from the brains of Seattleites. This undoubtedly has an effect on the pieces, and much of it is affected by the audience members who, for the most part, are local. The Funhouse Family’s work is not only internally collaborative but changes due to the presence of the Seattle audience that morph every night’s production. I see The Funhouse Family eventually expanding outside of the area, but the blood in its veins roots itself in Seattle.

Mikey Moore, Marketing Liaison, Read more about Mikey here. Image used with permission.

Funhouse Tonight! is premiering May 24th and 25th. Can you explain in two sentences or less what a potential audience member will experience?

BRIAN: “Funhouse Tonight!” is a parody of the late-night talk show format featuring local comics, artists, and musicians. We’re poking fun at the perfunctory corporate nature of this type of programming by getting weird and fucking with it.

MAUREEN: I usually describe our work as “unsettling in the best way.”

ZOE: “This is weird. I like it.”

ALEX: Have you ever wanted to own a lime bike?

MIKEY: A cathartic journey you’ll dream about…or more accurately, wake up from.

Want more of The Funhouse Family?

You can see “Funhouse Tonight!” at Theater Off Jackson May 24th and 25th, with a different lineup each night. Here is the Facebook event for more details. The second season of the Funhouse Family podcast is currently airing and can be found on all major podcast platforms including iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Kacie Rahm is a local storyteller and co-producer of The Moth in Seattle. Kacie grew up in your favorite local tourist destination, Lake Chelan. She attended Western Washington University and graduated with a degree in Creative Writing in 2012. Kacie’s day job is in commercial property management, and her many side hustles include: Producing a monthly StorySLAM for The Moth, running the “Storytelling Seattle” Facebook Group, writing for Lonely Arts Club, babysitting her much younger siblings, and being a dog mom to a very needy 11-year-old chihuahua named Sula. Find her on Twitter @kacierahm or Instagram @kacieandsula.

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