And You Thought Developing A New Performance Piece Was Hard

Watching the latest webinar on the Creating Connection initiative from ArtsMidwest, I am pleased to see the progress that is being made. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs has embraced it and has made it a central part of their efforts, organizing seminars and training sessions throughout the state.

I don’t mean to gloss over and skip quickly past the work that is going on in Michigan, but the second organization featured in the webinar, Mixed Blood Theater had some challenges rolling out a project that echoed my post yesterday.

Mixed Blood’s neighborhood in Minneapolis has a large Somali population. Like the Oakland Museum of California I spoke about yesterday, Mixed Blood has ambitious goals of improving the well-being of their community. They created an initiative they named Project 154 with a aim of:

“bridg[ing] cultural gaps between residents, health providers, promote preventative care, increase trust of health providers and promote personal narrative to boost personal confidence and increase community self-advocacy, using theatre as a core tool to achieve this.”

They had initially hoped to record 154 stories of residents discussing their health. They quickly realized that they didn’t have the degree of trust from the community required to achieve that.

They decided to move to story circles where they provided food, tea and a financial incentive to participants. While they had more people interested in participating than was practical if they wanted to limit the circle size, they ran into some cultural barriers. Women wouldn’t speak with men present, especially in regard to their health; younger people wouldn’t speak in the presence of elders; and interactions were somewhat burdened by the need for translation.

The next attempt at hosting story circles, they had the assistance of a Somali speaker recently hired as a project coordinator. He helped them better understand the cultural nuances of the neighborhood residents. These story circles were lead by a member of the community who had knowledge of the health care system. The circles were separated by gender and age. The groups were smaller and the conversations were more extensive. This allowed Mixed Blood to develop better relationships and trust with participants.

It was at this point they were able to move to the stage of recording the stories of community members. Their goal is 20 instead of 154. Mixed Blood shared these videos with healthcare providers to help them better understand the concerns and perceptions residents had about health care.

As you can see, there was a lot of work involved getting to the point where people would be willing to participate in a video recording. Ten of the 20 have been shot and Mixed Blood has only just recently had women agree to being recorded. All this is part of an ongoing effort much broader than I have described here.

Much as the Oakland Museum did in the article I referenced yesterday, Mixed Blood has identified a problem in the community and how they can contribute to solving it.

In some respects, what they have tried to accomplish has taken a similar amount of time and effort as developing a new performance piece from scratch, workshopping and revising it. The difference is that many of those participating in the many stages of development are generally invested in cooperating toward the same goal. Mixed Blood had to overcome a number of barriers to get to where they are today.

Webinar below. Michigan Council starts at about 8:45 mark, Mixed Blood Theatre around 30:30 mark.


They Started Roling Out These Performances Sooner Than I Expected

When I wrote about using roleplaying games as the basis for character and plot development back in June, I never imagined I would see the basic concept manifest so quickly.

Apparently ideas like this occur and are developed somewhat in parallel because for the last two weekends, the theater department here at Mercer University has been using the basic framework of Dungeons and Dragons to create a heroic saga with the participation of audience members.

Martin Noyes of Savannah College of Art and Design had experimented with the idea on a smaller scale in the classroom, but this was the first time he employed the concept as a full production that unfolded across seven nights.

The experience was very intriguing to me because it both required creating a sophisticated framework of rules and allowing the performers (and audience) a lot of freedom to introduce unpredictable elements into the performance.

The technicians supporting the performance had to be prepared to create the appropriate ambience on the fly. In many cases, they had to be just as inventive and resourceful as the actors. It was quite telling that Noyes would often be surprised that they found an appropriate image to project or sound effect to use as part of the action. He wasn’t completely aware of what they had available in their repertoire.

In addition, there was a musician on violin accompanying the performance creating a soundscape on the fly as well.

The performance, called Vengeance and Veritas, was presented in a blackbox space. The set looked something like this:

As you might imagine, flexibility and imagination were employed more frequently than realistic set pieces.

The cast consisted of four main characters, plus four others that took on various roles and helped with some of the mechanics of the performance. Noyes acted as the game master and portrayed many of the allies and antagonists, providing direction or challenges to the main characters. Audience members were pulled up to be ancillary characters and with a few whispered notes from Noyes, were called upon to make decisions to either thwart or assist the central characters in their goals.

By the finale, there were about 12 audience members up on stage alongside the actors either manipulating the rudimentary puppets of one of two dragons or depicting female warrior-monks.

If that wasn’t enough uncertainty added to the proceedings, the 20 sided dice so iconic to Dungeons and Dragons were used to determine the outcomes of many decisions. Oversized dice were distributed throughout the audience. When called upon, they threw the dice into the performing area. Often multiple dice were thrown simultaneously forcing Noyes to indicate which die would rule as it skittered across the floor.

There was a lot I loved about the design of this production.

First, I loved that it developed into something larger than expected. Noyes apparently didn’t think things would develop as far as they did, forcing him to create more narrative guidelines between performance nights. In the heat of the action, he would often forget where on stage he put his notebook down, providing an amusing delay while he retrieved it to consult his notes.

The actors were free to make decisions about their involvement within the confines of the narrative. Noyes had a couple of out of character exclamations of “oh shit” when the actor portraying a vampire turned up deciding to be the hero, thwarting the plans of the villainous character Noyes was portraying.

At the same time the nigh unkillable vampire kept becoming a liability to his allies as the dice roll incited his bloodlust to attack wounded allies.

There were also times where well-reasoned character development and choices by the actor was allowed to trump the dice roll.

While a performance built within the framework of a game like Dungeons and Dragons does require you to have some degree of insider knowledge, unlike many arts experiences, the audience was often more knowledgeable than the creators. Noyes had to admonish the audience to silence as it became clear the actor portraying the vampire was about to make a decision that would benefit a regular person but is deadly to vampires.

This particular approach to creating dramatic narrative answers many of the objections people make about performing arts – it is never the same performance each night, the outcome is unpredictable, the audience is actively engaged and doesn’t have to be cajoled into participating.

Another great thing was that the episodic nature of the performance induced people to return to see the show again. (Anyone who performed got a little gift at the end of the night too) Where they may not have participated on the first night, a lot of people were ready to jump up and take part on subsequent nights.

Because the cast didn’t know how the performance would unfold every night, no one knew when the show would end each night either. Noyes had to judge a good cliffhanger point to stop at.

One conversation we had (my staff provides the ticketing for the performance) is that if this type of show is ever done again, we need to offer special multiple performance pricing to make it easier for people to attend as many nights as they like.

The process also provides artists and technicians with the opportunity to explore new approaches to story creation; become nimble and resourceful in executing complex tasks on the fly and evaluate what does and doesn’t work. There may be a number of practices in common with comedy improv performances, but there are a lot more moving parts involved.

Because of the performance environment, the unintentional pauses, rough edges and problems in the shows I attended only served to provide a greater sense of intimacy and connection for the audience. (How often do you see a director exclaim his pleasure when something is unfolding well or preface a performance by telling an audience how his ultimate goal is to destroy a good portion of what he labored so hard to create?)

In a different physical spaces, the expectations might be for a more polished product. In that case, the performers might have to run through a scenario a couple times before an audience encounters it—but still introduce a mechanism of unpredictability to keep things feeling exciting and fresh.

Since I didn’t expect to see roleplay driven storytelling manifest so quickly and in such a way, I am obviously excited to see what else might emerge.

Create, Re-Create, Recreate

I was reading a piece in CityLab about Repair Cafes which strike me as a good complement to MakerSpaces and creative activities that arts and cultural entities may host.   The concept was started in Amsterdam by Martine Postma who was disturbed by how much repairable equipment was sitting at the curb on trash day.  She sells start up kits that allow you to use the Repair Cafe logo and puts you in touch with the other Repair Cafe’s around the world.

But beyond reducing what is sent to the landfill, personal empowerment plays a large role in the Repair Cafe concept:

What she’s discovered was that it wasn’t that people liked throwing away old stuff. “Often when they don’t know how to repair something, they replace it, but they keep the old one in the cupboard—out of guilt,” she said. “Then at a certain moment, the cupboard is full and you decide this has been lying around [long enough].”


For the time being, communities are doing what they can to encourage people to fix things. Libraries like the one in Howard County, for example, have started renting out tools and creating “makerspaces” where members learn to both repair and create. Elsewhere, cities have hosted MakerLabs, FabLabs—short for fabrication lab—and Innovation Labs for both adults and children. Bike shops and nonprofits alike have fished scrapped vehicles from the landfill to repair and donate to the underserved community.

The social and personalized elements of the Repair Cafes, makerspaces, etc may be part of the value and appeal. After all, you can watch a YouTube how-to video to fix something that breaks. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to effect the repairs, having someone available to teach you the skills to do so in the process of fixing your stuff might motivate you to act. This despite the fact it is more trouble to haul your broken equipment somewhere versus tossing it in the trash.

It is also easier to toss stuff away rather than hauling it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but people donate goods to non-profits all the time because they know it is better not to let things go to waste.

Just as recognizing your capacity to be creative is empowering,  learning to fix items can instill a degree of pride and self-satisfaction which is why I feel it is such a close companion effort to creative activities.

Where They Use Pom-Poms Rather Than Pens To Fill Out The Audience Survey

Another month, another helpful webinar from our friends at Arts Midwest where different venues around the country talk about how they are integrating the Creating Connection practice into their operations.  This time around people from San Jose’s Teatro Vision and Red Wing, MN’s Sheldon Theatre.

Teatro Vision talked about an interesting project they conducted in conjunction with Day of the Dead activities. They had audiences respond to a number of prompts and then took the responses and used them to create poems which they posted in the lobby. Then they surveyed audiences about whether the poems helped to enhance the experience of the performance.

I had been looking forward to the Sheldon Theatre’s portion of the program for nearly a year. Anne Romens, the Creating Connection program coordinator, had been referencing their work in webinars and the professional development conference session we worked on last year so I really wanted a deeper dive into what they were doing.

If you have been reading up or hearing about Creating Connection over the last year or so, you know one of the basic, but crucial concepts is a focus on the audience and experience. The Sheldon has gone whole hog on that. Check out their website and you can see that plainly. Tell me you don’t want to be there.

Starting at about the 28 minute mark in the webinar, they talk about how there were no humans in any of the archival pictures of their building. Everything had been focused on the architectural beauty of the building. The 16-17 brochure was the first time an audience member attending a show was depicted in any of their promotional materials. If you watch their before and after pictures, you can see what a difference “populating” the building makes.

Executive Director Bonnie Schock talks about the concern her board and community members had that this shift in focus would undermine the value of the organization. But when they talked to their audience, themes of togetherness and shared experiences emerged as primary measures of value over the quality of performances and artistry.

They started to develop experiences surrounding performances- everything from meet and greets with artists to tea parties for performances of Alice in Wonderland. During a celebratory event at the start of a season, they handed out “emergency confetti” packets as people left for use when they were feeling down.

One technique I have seen nearly every group presenting a Creative Connection use is a white board/post-it note board for audience feedback. Not only did the Sheldon use this, they also “surveyed” audiences by having them drop little pom-poms in jars labeled with different sentiments (~40:45 mark).

A lot of great ideas presented by both groups, don’t let my prior interest in learning about one of them keep you from watching the whole thing.


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