June 14, 2016

It's All About Sharing: A Look Into the Moisture Festival Share System

Moisture Festival co-founder Tim Furst on how the Festival’s unique share system came about

By Steve Wacker

Laughter can be private, but it’s best when shared. And as it turns out, the Seattle Moisture Festival’s unique compensation system is also based on the concept of sharing. 

As awareness of the Moisture Festival increases, its various venues generate increasing amounts of merriment. We laugh at the comedy, as well as at self-consciousness and stuffiness. But how does such a system – which operates on a shoestring budget and is almost completely run by volunteers –  manage to bring together such amazing artists every year to perform for us lucky Seattleites? That is, how does it work? 

photo by Sandy Lam Photography
Part of the answer lies in the egalitarian philosophy the Festival maintains with regard to how performers are compensated. In a recent conversation, Moisture Festival co-founder Tim Furst said that the Moisture Festival’s share system is one of the things that sets the Festival apart and makes it possible. “We decided to deal with all performers equally as individuals, and to give every performer one share for each show in which they perform,” says Furst.

It works like this: All income goes into the same pot. At the end of the Festival, after all hard expenses are paid (such as transportation, insurance, theater rental, and food) and enough money is put aside to cover the year-round operating costs, the remainder is divided among all performers and some of the key technical people. In this way, the value of a share is set AFTER the Festival, after expenses are paid, which keeps the Festival out of debt. Performers are told they will receive a stipend that is based on how well the Festival does. Because all the money from all shows is pooled, it means that the performers are compensated equally, and not based on the ticket sales for a given night’s show. 

Furst also pointed out the share system means that Festival organizers don’t have to negotiate separate fees for every act, which would be a lot of work. For example, the 2016 season featured more than 125 different acts. Eliminating the need for fee negotiation saves the volunteer staff a lot of time and effort.  

Another unique aspect of how the Moisture Festival conducts business is the way it relates to performers. “We tell performers that if they’re booked at the Festival and they get an opportunity for a well-paying gig that they feel it’s in their best interests to take, it’s fine to cancel. We won’t hold them to their commitment if they need to take another gig.”

photo by Sandy Lam Photography
Furst was a full-time professional performer for more than 20 years (with the Flying Karamazov Brothers), and he knows what it’s like to deal with contracts, exclusivity agreements, and the like. “We don’t promote the Festival based on individual performers, and we let performers know they can perform in Seattle before, during, and after the Festival. We promote the Festival as a whole, and we arrange performers’ schedules around other things they might want to do in Seattle, such as catch another show, dine with relatives, or whatever. We want them to enjoy their time in Seattle.” 

In addition, the Moisture Festival philosophy is to treat all performers equally. “We have a full range of performers, from people just starting out to seasoned professionals who typically earn thousands of dollars for their performances elsewhere,” says Furst. “We’ve had Cirque de Soleil performers get in touch and say that they have a week off, and that they’d like to come out. Also, each performer gets a full share. It’s not one share per act, but one share per performer. In traditional vaudeville, different size acts would get paid different amounts, and a performer’s experience might also affect their pay. With Moisture Festival, it’s truly a one-size-fits-all model. You perform, you get a share. You do lights, you get a share. It’s served us well.”

The idea for the share system emerged in about 1976, says Furst. “A number of performers would come to the Oregon Country Fair (OCF), some of whom would receive a stipend, but basically performers were paid in accordance with their ability to pass the hat at their own shows. Then a number of us who performed on the one vaudeville stage decided to put on a big combined show, which meant we would all be passing the hat for the same show. We had lengthy discussions about how the “hat” should be divided, and we decided that we should just split it equally among everyone who was in the show.”

Furst also noted that for a number of years, the OCF served as a gathering place for many new vaudeville performers, especially those on the West Coast. However, the OCF didn’t pay travel expenses and only provided small stipends. “There were some performers who couldn’t afford to spend a week in the woods with their friends and lose money, because it would cost too much to fly out and give up other work, so over the years the OCF became less of a gathering place for vaudeville performers. A number of us missed that camaraderie and wanted to create a gathering place for performers.”

photo by Sandy Lam Photography
This desire to create a gathering place was part of the inspiration for the Moisture Festival. Also, Furst had made many friends during his 20+ years of touring. “I wanted to provide a place for us all to get together and enjoy each other. For example, there are many vaudeville performers in New England, very few of whom had any contact with the West Coast. So we thought maybe we could connect similar performers and provide a place for them to hang out.”

Performers appreciate the Moisture Festival philosophy. “They don’t make very much money, but we pay their transportation expenses, and we house and feed them,” says Furst. “Feeding performers is not unique, but it’s not that common either. We provide a full dinner every night for all performers and tech people.”

As a touring performer, Furst learned that when he was treated decently – when basic needs were met – it was much more enjoyable. And if the performers are enjoying themselves, the quality of the performance is enhanced – the audience can feel it. “So I pushed hard in the early years. If Moisture Festival was going to work, and we were going to get performers to come in and perform without any guarantee, we needed to house them, feed them, and treat them well.”

Moisture Festival audiences can attest to the success of that philosophy. If the performers seem to really be enjoying themselves, that’s because they probably are. The Moisture Festival is unique, and we hope its success will continue for many years to come. "When I stopped touring after 20+ years, I missed spending time with performer friends from around the world. I thought I’d start a festival so I could get my friends to come to me,” says Furst. And we’re glad he did.

Seattle's Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè, founded in 2004, is the largest and longest running comedy/varietè festival in the world. Learn more at http://www.moisturefestival.org/.

Thanks to Kirby Lindsay for background information.

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