Archives For mistakes

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA) as a mentor for their pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). One of my responsibilities is blogging. Here’s a post I wrote. To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


I approach my work with an experimental state of mind and tend to forget, as we all do, that not everyone shares my world view. In a session with one of my academy fellows, I was reminded how intimidating the word “experiment” can be. That word alone was holding her it back. It was her kryptonite. Every time she heard “experiment” she thought “laborious and detailed,” “precise and sterile,” and “complicated, boring, and HARD TO DO AND NO ONE WILL WANT TO DO IT INCLUDING ME.”**

And it doesn’t matter if you pair “experiment” with terms like “agile” because the predominant narrative or implicit bias is the one around “experiment.”

So step one is to change the narrative; step two is to put yourself in the experimental state of mind.

photo-by-teresa-wood-from-dog-pony-dcs-workshop-of-toast

Audience activity from dog & pony dc’s workshop of TOAST; photo by Teresa Wood.

CREATIVE (& FUN)

Picture a cartoon chemist in her lab. She’s wearing big owl-eyed glasses that hang from a beaded chain around her neck and a white lab coat. The light-filled lab is packed with colorful liquids in glass flasks connected by tubing. The chemist carefully pours solid-colored liquids from two different test tubes into a beaker and it yields–a rainbow colored result! And then explodes with sparkling smoke and leaves her hair all wackadoo. “That wasn’t what I expected,” she exclaims and makes notes on a pad. She’s smiling, because experimenting is creative and fun. It’s a creative and fun activity that’s designed to teach you something. This is the change in the narrative that my academy fellow needed to make first and foremost. Whenever you see, hear, or say “experiment” replace the word with “learn something in a creative and fun way.” “Creative and fun” is also the fundamental principle for the “experimental state of mind,” especially for all of us working in the arts. Why would we want it any other way?

(And “fun”? It’s a flexible term, obviously. But I’d wager we can agree that completing a written survey via email or paper with likert scale questions is neither fun nor creative.)

NO THING IS TOO SMALL

For the academy, the AMA created a great form called a “progress record” for the fellows to track their experiments. (Forms–not commonly considered creative or fun, but incredible handy none the less.) When shaping an experiment in the context of systemic change (like diversity) and asked to track progress, suddenly there’s an overwhelming feeling that the experiment needs to be long, interconnected series of events with a (positive) growth outcome. This is not the way to exist in an experimental state of mind. Get zen and think small. Remember that an experiment is a planned activity from which you hope to learn something. Any intentional divergence from the status quo could be considered an experiment. The way you facilitate one meeting could be an experiment. The types of questions you ask during that meeting could be an experiment. The method you collect answers can be an experiment. It can feel a bit silly when you’re working systemically and long term, thinking tactically and practically IS the experimental way.

ALWAYS WINNING

When you adopt the experimental mindset and the emphasis is on what you’re taking away from each of your activities the emphasis is always on what you learned. You line up the experiments, one after another. What did I expect? What happened? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time? Then repeat! This means the emphasis is on the quality of the learning not the execution of the experiment. I believe that’s why experimenting in the arts is often labeled “working scrappy” and can bring about a little experimenter shame. Eff-that! Trying to be perfect is antithetical to the experimental state of mind. It means you already know the answer; it means people might mess up your experiment. Our experiments in the arts around audience and diversity all have people at the center and therefore must be inviting. (See point #1 about creative and fun.) More importantly, we should not ever expect to know what the answers will be. Experiments begin with a question or a hypothesis, and we should expect to–even be excited about–discovering our previous understanding was completely off base. That we were wrong. This means we were “failing.” Hooray! Now we can “fail forward,” learning from our experiment and, we hope, make improvements. Learning is winning.

To wrap up, the experimental state of mind is not for everyone. Some of us come from a fixed mindset rather than a growth one. Fixed mindset folks like established routines and avoid challenges; nothing wrong with that at all. Those of us who are looking for change could stand to adopt some experimental practices. Remembering to think small and look for opportunities to experiment everywhere, emphasize the learning no matter to outcome, and permit yourself to be creative and fun will flip the script of what creating experiments is all about. Now what are you waiting for–get to work!

 

** On the other hand: some will think that if you’re only doing an “experiment” it’s not real or valid work. That it can’t amount to anything, build a foundation, or propel your forward. Not so at all. It’s the foundation of a growth-mindset environment in which you are working responsively to the world around you.

A scene from late summer 2016:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I enter a Metro train at the rear and take a seat. I can see the entire car. It’s partially full, populated with the typical diversity of people that ride that line in the middle of the day–a mix of ages and races, suits and casual wear, obvious tourists and those who seem more like locals.

There are two female teenagers talking and laughing in the bank of seats directly in front of me. For two station stops they remain in their own world, focused on cracking each other up. But then their attention turns to a couple, an early-20s woman and man, sitting in the bank of seats immediately to their left.

“Hey. Hey!  HEY!”

One of the teens repeatedly tries to get the young woman’s attention.

After numerous “heys,” she switches to: “Is that your boyfriend? Hey! Is that your boyfriend? Hey, HEY! Are you two together? Are you dating? Is that your boyfriend?”

The male in the couple appears to realize the teen is addressing them. He nudges his female companion, they confer, and she looks at the teen. “Is that your boyfriend?” The woman shakes her head and he says “No.”

“Oh, you’re just friends,” says the teen.

“Yes. Just friends.”

The teens burst into laughter.

They start again: “Hey. Hey. Hey, do you speak English?” The young woman and man attempt to ignore, but it’s difficult. Impossible. The teens’ volume increases and they were already loud enough to draw all of us in at the start. Most everyone on the train was listening, watching. After repeating “do you speak English” five or so more times, the woman responds “no.”

The teens crack up again.

Then they start in a new direction: postulating how the couple must talk.  It’s basically unintelligible except for phrases like “ching-chong-china.” A middle-aged woman a few rows away whips her head around and stares coldly at the backs of two teens’ heads; she rises and moves further away on the train.

Finally, a woman in her mid-50s who had been sitting to my immediate right the entire time approaches the teens and says something in a low voice just before exiting the train. The two are quiet for a moment, but then laugh and continue with their mockery of the way people of Asian heritage speak.

I exit the train two stops later having said nothing.

The teens were African American. The young couple was of Asian heritage; possibly Southeast Asia. The older woman, who spoke to the teens, was African American. I am White.

While I want to analyze the other racial dynamics at play, the only one that matters is the big one, the one I recognized immediately and then ignored: White Fragility.

I witnessed this entire scene play out some four months ago and did nothing. I recognized immediately my inaction was the result of White Fragility and I tampered the urge to overcome it. In the moment, I actually assumed that no one on the train was expecting me to do anything because I am White and everyone else involved were People of Color. I feared becoming the object of the teens’ focus; I didn’t want to be teased and harassed. I just wanted it all to go away or for my stop to arrive as soon as possible so I could get off the train. So I burrowed into myself and took no action.

This was a Huge Fail.

Let me say that again.

A. Huge. Fail.

But what it doesn’t mean is I am a Failure or a Bad Person.

I learned a lesson that day about how vigilant I needed to be, to hold myself accountable in the moment. I cannot allow me to talk myself out of taking a just course of action. Interrupting behavior(s) can be done gently, with strangers. If I end up in an uncomfortable/undesirable position as a result, I will survive it. It will be nothing compared to what People of Color encounter and endure on a daily basis. But I know if the White person on the train doesn’t say something next time, she won’t the next time, or the next time, or the next time, or ever.

And I also know if I didn’t share this story, it would allow me to hide it instead of learn from it.

The GiverIn Lois Lowry’s The Giver, members of a dystopian future society enact an apology ritual around even the slightest error. The wrongdoer states “I apologize for [__brief description of wrong doing__].” The wronged respond, “I accept your apology.” The apology ritual is performed between two individuals, an individual and her family, and even an individual and the entire community.

I listened to the audio book and watched the movie of The Giver within a few months of each other last year, ironically after spending considerable time deprogramming myself from continually saying “sorry.” (Unlike the characters in The Giver however, I was actually taking emotional responsibility for all the little things I was apologizing for—yikes!) My personal distancing from the “s” word and the repeat exposure to The Giver heightened my awareness to the number of colleagues constantly apologizing, directly or indirectly.

My amazingly talented colleague Ivania Stack (yup, another amazing person you should check out) and I adopted the ritual from The Giver in order to playful help all of us recognize we were either dropping the “s” word gratuitously or unnecessarily taking responsibility via an apology: we, and others, now immediately respond back with “I accept your apology.” It gets laughs and knowing nods… and I would like to think it helps. Colbert Apology Accept But let’s touch on the flip side: actually allowing your community to care for you by accepting your apologies. Last night in rehearsal, a question about whether I liked an idea the group was bandying about caught me off guard. Low on sleep, high on stress, amused by the idea but trying to think through how it would manifest in the show, my response was a strange defensive explosion of “why would you think I didn’t like it of course I do come on why are we singling me out what could I possibly be doing that would make you think otherwise!?!?!” I apologized. We moved on. At the break, I apologized directly to the question-asker again and with true sincerity she responded “I accept your apology.”

I SO NEEDED THAT. I'm Sorry It's okI needed her to accept my apology. I needed for her to recognize I made a mistake, and acknowledge she could forgive my actions and move past them. And she needed me to deal promptly, honestly, and directly with the exchange. In fact: the entire group present needed it, all fifteen of us.

This is how healthy communities are created and maintained, be they workplaces, families, or dystopian future societies: open lines of communication, personal responsibility, authenticity of voice, transparency of process. Adopting and enacting ritualistic actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, does not connect us with one another when they are devoid of meaning. Endowing actions with intension, allowing them to carry the appropriate weight, and sharing support with your colleagues—forms powerful bonds between individuals and continually reinforces them over time.

I looked around the interwebs for more on women in particular and over-apologizing. Thought I would share a few of my findings here:

Sorry, Not Sorry--Why Women Need to Stop Apologizing for Everything

I'm Sorry But I'm Not Going to Stop Apologizing

When "I'm Sorry" Is Too Much

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.