Ian Mackenzie over at Theatre is Territory will occasionally drop a post entitled What should we talk about now?, a call to discourse that, in my opinion at least, neatly sums up the need we all have as theatre artists to develop a common language towards breaking down the barriers between us and our dream of a modern sustainable theatre industry. This is a language and a method of communicating that should continue to be forged between different companies the world over, so that the global community of theatre can have an accessible forum for ideas and problem solving in much the same way that we talk to the other members in our own companies. When we put up our individual productions the process is always the same: we bump up against some problem, gather around and talk about it, solve it, and move on to the next. This is how we’re going to solve all of our problems, by sharing ideas, opinions and solutions. Upon this idea the theatrosphere was born.
This seems, oddly enough, a rather new idea out there on the internets, one that I believe the world of indie theatre is just waking up to. Web sites that are about theatre as a concept (not just about individual productions) are prolific, yet compared to the amount of people that declare theatre as their abiding passion, infinitesimal. I know for a fact that Ian’s web site has a strong readership, yet the number of comments on his latest petition for discussion topics was five. And they were about robots. The American theatre blog comment forums occasionally erupt in lengthy discussions which can alternate between robust dialogue and nasty, defensive, and unmediated schoolyard brawls, where at times commenter’s very opinions are challenged. But you know what? The rules are being written right now, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of. I’ve noticed that the real button-pushers tend to eventually fall out of orbit by the sheer weight of their own vitriol anyway, and the ones with real passion find more focus because of it. For the uninitiated (and even for the seasoned vets, I’m sure), jumping into the growing theatreweb is a navigational nightmare. (Until you master the mysteries of the feed aggregator, start with Matt Slaybaugh’s excellent site Theatreforte. He makes a great Chewbacca.) I often find myself wishing we could just get everyone in a big room together and hash it out face to face.
So did Phelim McDermott. Phelim is a theatre artist out of the Improbable Theatre Company in London who, after years of toiling away within the existing model of theatre, found himself sick of hearing himself moan on and on about the current state of affairs and decided to effect some change by getting a huge group of theatrists in a room to hash it all out face to face. And so was born Devoted and Disgruntled, a seminar series named for the feeling Phelim found he had developed towards theatre, and which has since had three consecutive annual mountings in the UK since its inception in 2005. Vancouver’s PuSh Festival organizers invited Phelim to bring his forum here to the North West, and last Friday your intrepid reporter was literally the first of about 80 in the door for North America’s first Devoted and Disgruntled seminar. How was it, you may well ask? Let me put it this way: Ian Mackenzie would have collapsed in an apoplectic fit of sheer arts-business bliss in the middle of the room.
It was one of those great two-day happenings that usually invokes a response of “…um, you kinda had to be there” from attendees when asked about the experience. In some ways that’s true, but I will do my best to describe it for those of you who didn’t make it out, but allow me to say that I really, really wish that you had. It was resonant and revelatory, and has made me a more educated theatre artist.
D&D incorporates a seminar methodology called “Open Space Technology“, which was invented in the mid-eighties by an American named Harrison Owen and which has since been adopted in over 100 countries. It was developed as a reaction to the boring old seminar model that had been annoying Owen for years. He noted that everyone would be fully bored two minutes into a given speaker’s lecture and disengage, and that the truly interesting stuff always happened during the coffee breaks. Open Space is the “coffee break” model of productive communication.
The overriding theory that makes an Open Space seminar work is that everyone in the room is an expert to some degree based on their passion for the subject, and that the attendees take ownership of the affair by creating a discussion on that which they’re most passionate about. It takes into account the myriad of personality types that attend conferences: some are super-keen and adopt leadership positions, some like to sit back a bit and react to the ebb and flow of the prevailing current, while others like to sit quietly and absorb. If at the end of the seminar what you wanted to talk about most hasn’t been discussed, there’s no one to blame but yourself. The group as a whole is the organizing committee, and the facilitator becomes redundant as soon as things swing into gear, which is about an hour into the weekend.
The concept is remarkably simple. The participants sit in a huge circle. In the middle of the circle sits a small table upon which is a stack of blank sheets of paper and some felt pens. There are several gathering points or “breakout areas” marked in various spots on the floor within the big circle and demarcated by an identifying brand (In our case it was styles of art; post-modernism, expressionism, etc., but they could just as easily been a,b,c…). Four sections of the surrounding walls had been reserved with signs corresponding to the four hour-and-a-half sessions that were to make up the day’s schedule. On another wall hung a large timetable with the day’s schedule made up of post-it notes, with each of the art forms that designated each breakout point written on them, one for each of the day’s four scheduled sessions. Off to the side was installed a bank of PCs and a printer.
The day began with Phelim calling the seminar to order and describing the process. Anyone who had something that they wished to talk about, anything at all, should first come up with a snappy title for their discussion topic, get up and walk to the centre of the circle and write that title on a piece of paper, sign it, and take it over to the timetable wall. From that, choose a breakout point sticky note from the time column in which you would like to hold your session, stick it on your piece of paper, and stick that on the section of wall corresponding to that time segment. Then find your seat again. Phelim then turned his mic off and sat down on the floor.
Silence. A few nervous chuckles and glances around the circle. Finally, inevitably, one woman sprang to her feet and, with a bold, ice-breaking intent, marched to the pile of paper. Then someone else followed suit. Then someone else, and then two more…until it looked like a feeding frenzy of conversation-starved artists. I watched for a bit, took a breath, and entered the fray. I wrote down “Marketing Through Community Building” (I knew I should have prepared something catchy in advance) in a green felt marker, announced it over the mic to the group and took it to the board. I affixed a “realism” sticky note to it and stuck it on a time-slot wall. The second time-slot of the day, 12:00 to 1:30. Then I sat back down. By the time everyone who had a session to lead had stuck their stickies there were about 30 potential forums to attend.
Open Space Seminars are governed by four basic principles which act as loose guidelines for the meeting, and one law, wherein lies the genius of the thing. The principles are:
Whoever comes are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
Whenever it starts is the right time.
When it’s over, it’s over.
You can see how well this concept grafts onto a forum full of artists, can’t you? I know I’ll be invoking that first one in the future on nights when we have only a few people in the audience. Now, the only hard and fast law of the process, and the element that makes Open Space so appealing, is dubbed The Law of Two Feet, by which all participants have full license at any time to get up and leave their current discussion and go off and join another one. Or go to the bathroom. Or go to the pub. To basically decide what and how much you want to get out of the assembly. To quote Phelim: “If theatre used the law of two feet more, it might get more interesting”.
So that was it. The rest of the weekend consisted of asking and answering questions, hearing opinions, discussion and debate, bitching, commiserating, and generally absorbing the collective experience of theatre artists from all over Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, and many more places that I didn’t have time to identify, all of us taking responsibility for that which we cared about the most. I mediated my own session (people showed up! Several people!), I participated in others, and for some I just stood in the back and monitored before “butterflying” to the next. I’m sure there were a bunch of sessions that I missed which I would have loved to sit in on, fortunately each group has a designated note-taker responsible for recording the major points of the discussion and then transcribing them into one of the available computers. Each of us gets a dossier of every major point discussed over the weekend.
I was a little worried at first that it might turn into a touchy-feely artist retreat. Now, I’m not against artsy-fartsy gatherings per se, been to more than my share, but at this one I wanted to talk business, and as it turned out so did most everyone else. You are allowed, nay, encouraged to call a session on anything at all, and some topic headings went up that were a little more, ah…nebulous than others. These were largely disregarded, the big groups flourished around topics like Passing the Torch: Is the next generation of arts leaders ready? and How to Create and Finance Your Own Theatre Space. Mind you, one of the most well-attended sessions of the whole event was called by Matthew Payne of Victoria’s Theatre Skam and was entitled Yoga. It was twenty minutes of yoga. Welcome to Vancouver.
Here’s a short list of some of the topics discussed at Devoted and Disgruntled…
Small Town and Arts: Does it only happen in the big cities?
I Want my Intermissions Back: Can creators deal with this?
More Than Wallpaper: Design that’s useful, integrated, kinetic.
Dramaturgy of the Half Hour: What happens before the show.
How Does Art Compete With Pop Culture and Win?
Can Comedy be High Art?
How to Make Room for Chaos Within Organizational Structures.
At Last, Kismet! Finding your collaborative buddies, co-conspirators, teammates and partners.
Are We Ready for a Free Night of Theatre?: And what other ways can we build our audience?
Honestly Speaking: Why can’t we tell our colleagues what we really think of their work?
The Playwright is Dead: Dramaturgy for ensembles, collectives and improvisation.
What is an “Emerging Artist”, and How do I Stop Being One?
And as anyone who reads my interview series here will recognize as one of my favourites:
What now? What Next?
I wish that more Vancouver theatreists had shown up. I wish there were more people there altogether. I was surprised by how much the number of participants diminished on the second day, and it was interesting to see who showed up again. Ideally there would have been at least another day to establish ways to continue the discourse with those involved. Actually, that third day could have been devoted to introducing ourselves to those we met that we would wish to continue correspondence with. Phelim had mentioned something interesting to me near the end of the weekend, that ideally every member of the seminar would be anonymous, many at this one were not due to the PuSh Assembly name tags they wore. But the beauty of this concept is that everything that is offered comes from a very personal, experiential level, and truth be told ours is an industry that treats people in certain ways based on personal bias. Phelim spoke of a conversation he had with a notorious theatre critic in London after the last D&D there, in which this critic had noted that it was the first time he had ever had an honest conversation with a theatre artist, because no one knew who he was. Let’s face it, no one likes the “why don’t we go ’round the circle and introduce ourselves” guy. Perhaps we should just get on with it, and if you connect with someone, pull them over to the side later, outside of the matter at hand. (I did, however, recognize some names from Ian’s interview series because of their name tags. That was pretty cool.)
I hope that this is a model that the theatroshere can aspire to. I can see the value in going outside of your immediate circle to hear the considered opinions of artists with different backgrounds and fundamental ideologies than yours. And, most importantly, to adopt the old acting adage of accepting an idea before you reject it. There is, after all, value in opposing view points, just like there is value in watching theatre that you wouldn’t do yourself. And none of us should ever be at a loss when someone asks us what we want to talk about now.