Melanie’s Thoughts on Learning from the Past
Melanie here. Welcome to the fourth go at this blog post.
In the previous three tries, words all sort of fell out of my brain – a big jumbled mess of ideas and self-admonishments and details about what happened that were suddenly coming back to me. All in all, it was a little overwhelming. To think back on a time when I was doing the best I could, and then ask, what could I have done better? was a daunting concept.
At NAMPC this year, I heard a low grumbling from several attendees about the kinds of projects that come up over and over – major success stories. These are awesome, and everyone loves to hear a good success story… but what about the big hairy mess-up stories? What about the stories where you trip and scrape your knee a little? How do you get up, recover from those pitfalls? While this post isn’t about a big hairy mess-up ™, it is about a project that was a little off-base, that didn’t quite achieve what it set out to do: bring the art, artist, and audience closer together. Instead of picking it apart like a turkey carcass, I’m going to pull out three important things I learned from this one particular project.
To set the scene: in their 32nd season, Woolly Mammoth produced Jason Grote’s play Civilization (all you can eat). At the time, I was flying solo in Woolly’s connectivity department, so a lot of the formulation and execution of the engagement activities fell to me. The show presents a constellation of characters, all loosely connected to each other, who are all trying to wade through life in the wake of a recession. There is also a character named Big Hog, an anthropomorphic pig, who escapes the slaughter house in order to “make something” of himself.
Now: for what I learned.
ONE. In new play development-land, it is really difficult to try to craft a plan to deepen the audience’s investment in the work when the work keeps changing. And you need to forgive yourself and stay flexible, focusing on the entry point as much as you can (or whatever theme remains true that will serve as a filter for your ideas.)
TWO. It is more helpful to take a step back from your work than it is to keep shoving your nose into the grindstone. The most fruitful moments of discovery for myself, as well as the dramaturg and director of Civilization, was during an open read of the show with a bunch of community members, friends of Woolly (read: audience) over some pizza and beer. Their feedback and reflections on the performance was drastically different from what the team assumed the audience would get out of the play. While this was just one sampling of folks, it was still a great indicator that the engagement plan we had was being built on our own assumptions of what the audience would want to engage with before and after the production, instead of what they actually needed.
THREE. Simplicity in design is so important. I sunk a lot of money into an activity that I wanted to do in order to illustrate the concept of “selling out” by getting folks to do ridiculous things for consumable prizes (free drinks at the bar, snacks, etc.) A few people engaged with it, not for lack of interest but I really think for lack of understanding. There were too many ways to engage with the activity (there were three different activities you could do within this ONE activity, ::facepalm:: ) and the directions were not super clear. Most importantly, the core of the activity did not have enough meaning in it: so what if people wear a pig nose to get a free drink? What is that really saying about the nature of “selling out”? How is that really even “selling out” at all? It was easy to get caught up in the little details and the gimmick of the activity without making sure it fit through my entry point lens.
And, as I promised myself, I’m going to stop there.
Since this project I have continued to fill my connectivity toolbox and sharpen my skills. I still have not figured out time travel, so while I can’t go back and change the past (and why would I? wouldn’t that mess up my future?!) I can carry these lessons with me into the future and identify similar pitfalls as they come up.
Here’s hoping we’ll all keep talking about our mistakes so that we can all learn from them.