Reflections from the process: There is more work to be done

Note: this post originally appeared on the Lyric Opera's Chicago Voices blog on November 6, 2016 as part of their Community Created Performances series.

Pop quiz: how many popular musicals can you name that are written by, performed by, and about the  experiences of people with disabilities? I can think of one. It’s called FREEDOM out of order and it is the  piece we created with Tellin’ Tales Theatre for the Chicago Voices project. There are musicals about  disability  (“Next to Normal”) and there are musicals that have featured performers with disabilities  (“Spring  Awakening”), but all three of these things together? It’s rare. 

So, why does that matter? It matters because the stories we hear affect our ability to understand and  relate  to one another. Stories build empathy. And a lack of access to stories about people who are  different than  us….well, you can figure out where that one goes.

 As Animateur my job throughout the process was to work with Tellin’ Tales to identify our “untold  story” –  the things that most people didn’t know or understand about our community. At our first  rehearsal back in  June, we considered the words of author Rebecca Solnit, who said that “people live  and die by stories.” We  talked about how stories of disability have played out politically and in our daily  lives – everything from the  ADA to anecdotes about well-meaning allies who responded to the sharing  of very real struggles with “tell me  something good.”

Over the next ten weeks, we sifted through these ideas, distilling them into a tightly-crafted tale of ordinary Chicagoans navigating life in a unique way.

Then, before our public reading in August – amid frantic scrambling to assemble scripts in binders and  organize chairs onstage – we gathered together to take stock of the impact we hoped to have on our  audience.  I shared a quote from Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares, in which she talks about how  societies  need "new mythologies" in order to evolve, grow, and become more inclusive. She argues  that the artists are  the ones who craft these mythologies, which “always include ideas, cultures, and  people formerly excluded  from the previous mythologies.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “the history of  art is the history of  inclusion.” Sitting in community with a responsive and encouraging audience that  night, I could feel a shift in  the kinds of stories that might be possible.

Magnifying that piece to scale onstage at the Harris Theater in September was nothing short of  revelatory. All  of a sudden, a wide swath of people – many for the first time -- were invited to consider  the journey to  succeed in school, career, and dating through the lens of disability. This is what  musicals can do for us: they  take huge, insurmountable topics and break them down into their most essential human components: the need to be loved, the desire to achieve, the frustration at being underestimated.

And by the way, I would like to be clear that our piece, FREEDOM out of order, is far from perfect. As an artistic team, we tried our best to create authentically and in partnership with our community, but there are things we could have done better. There always are. There are ways we could have been more inclusive; stories we could have dug into with greater complexity; darker aspects to the experience we could have explored. So, it’s not perfect. But it exists. 

After all, FREEDOM is not the first piece to take up this charge and it won’t be the last. (Tellin’ Tales alone has been sharing the stories of people with disabilities and their allies for over 20 years.) There is much more work to be done, and it isn’t easy. So, are we are up to the challenge? As Ambition says in the play, "don’t ask me if I can — ask me HOW.”

On learning new languages in a civically engaged theatre-making process

Note: this post originally appeared on the DirectorsLabChicago blog on August 11, 2016 as part of their countdown to Lab 2016 un/spoken: The Language of the Stage. 

As a theatre maker, I’ve always sought out unconventional opportunities. Whether that’s staging a giant spectacle with 30 young people wearing rabbit masks on the rooftop of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (happened) or re-imagining a Japanese folktale in someone’s living room in an unfamiliar part of the city (also happened), I enjoy the challenge and the satisfaction that comes from doing something that requires a kind of translation.

Sometimes that means a translation of space, sometimes it’s about the population involved, and sometimes it’s the structure of the process itself that requires translation.

In my current collaboration, it’s all of those. And more.

This summer, I am working with the Lyric Opera’s Chicago Voices program, on a project called the Community Created Performances. Essentially, these performances are an opportunity for communities from the Chicago area to tell their “untold story” with the resources and support of a large cultural institution.

Many groups competed for the chance to participate and three finalists were selected, all of whom receive their own dedicated artistic team, rehearsal space, a stipend, and the opportunity to devise and perform an original opera downtown at the Harris Theatre on September 24. It’s a hugely ambitious project, and one that requires careful attention to the various languages at play: both in production itself and throughout the process.

We can start with my title on the project: Animateur — which, as I’ve been explaining to folks, is really just a fancy (maybe French?) version of the word “animator.” Someone who enlivens stories.

It’s actually a great title for what I’m doing, and I’m a huge fan of the role. But even it requires a translation.

Tellin’ Tales in rehearsal
(photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera)

In some ways, it’s a bit like being a director, except that my focus is more on generating story than presenting it. (In addition to me, our team consists of a scriptwriter, a songwriter, and a stage director who is ultimately responsible for guiding the piece that we create into production.)  So far as the Animateur, I’ve functioned as a space-holder, community-builder, idea-offerer, bridge, feedback-giver, peacemaker, story-shaper, advocate, and cheerleader.

As I thought about this work in the context of this year’s DirectorsLab theme, I was struck by the phrase “the Language of the Stage.” Given that our project is called Chicago Voices, I have to wonder: exactly whose language are we talking about here?

Of the three groups participating in the project, the one I am supporting is Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a cohort of performers with disabilities and their allies. This is a group of incredibly talented performers and writers who have been making work together for over 20 years.

On a fundamental level, the very language of how these artists make work is different than mine. As such, there are unique challenges and opportunities that emerge as I navigate collaboration within this new community.

Although we are still very much in the thick of this process, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what makes work for directors (or anyone) in a civically engaged theatre-making economy slightly different from our work in other contexts. In particular, I’ll focus on the theme at hand — “the language of the stage:”

Insight #1: expertise means many things

I think it’s easy to consider the term “expertise” as synonymous with “knowledge” or “skill” in the formal sense: as in, an expert is someone with lots of degrees, or great training, or an impressive résumé. But especially when we’re working in community-based contexts, it’s important to consider that expertise also refers to life experience, to perspective, to adaptability.

In other words, expertise doesn’t always align neatly with the hierarchies we build, and certain types of expertise are less obvious than others.

This became clear to me very quickly. As a teacher and a facilitator, I prefer embodied experiences to purely mental ones: I only have so much patience for sitting and talking before I want to get moving. From my perspective, this also makes for more interesting performance. I brought this spirit to the group and mostly they seemed to be enjoying the process.

A few weeks in, though, one of the participants came to me and said, “You know, we really like all the activities but all this movement is exhausting for some of us!”

In that moment, I really had to step back and ask myself: how well am I considering this group’s needs in a way that both pushes them to grow but also respects them as experts in their own artistic process? And so I shifted things to be more of a mix: some moving around the space, some work done sitting in chairs, and lots of writing — which was a natural skill of the group.

In retrospect, I think I had been so focused on not underestimating the group’s ability in one area that I totally overlooked a different way of working that ended up being much more productive. Sure, I knew lots of great activities and exercises, but if they didn’t work for this group they were no good. Or as Ali Stroker, the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway (in the recent revival of Spring Awakening), said in a recent keynote address I attended: sometimes it’s as simple as offering: “you know, there are five different ways to do this.”

“Usually,” she says, when something doesn’t quite work, “the person with the disability has the answer if you can just probe a little bit.” In that experience, I needed to listen for a different kind of expertise.

Similarly, as we began to tell stories it became clear that there were pieces to the puzzle that my Lyric collaborators and I weren’t going to be able to fill in; that wisdom was in the group itself.

Insight #2: message matters (a ‘good story’ is not enough)

Another interesting moment happened slightly later in the process, as we were putting the finishing touches on our script.

Our scriptwriter had been working diligently to weave together the various threads of narrative that had been generated throughout our early rehearsals, and we finally had a storyline that connected many unique characters — all with different disabilities — as they navigate life, love, work, travel, and the general complexities of grownuphood.

Tellin’ Tales in rehearsal
(photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera)

There was one particularly funny storyline in which two characters are on a date at the Olive Garden and things just aren’t going well. The waiter is patronizing toward them, one of the characters can’t seem to muster up enough confidence, and the romance fizzles. The story was based on a personal experience one of our participants had shared, but there was a problem.

A different participant pointed it out to us. He reminded us that a lot of people think folks with disabilities don’t like themselves — that they don’t have a lot of self-confidence — and that’s just not true. In fact, it’s a bit of a stereotype.

So while it was absolutely grounded in somebody else’s real experience, that storyline wasn’t doing what the project itself set out to do, which is to tell the untold story of people with disabilities. All it was doing was perpetuating what is potentially a harmful myth, and at the very least an overwrought generalization.

So, we revised the storyline. The scriptwriter and I talked, and I shared an experience from my own life — how, as a person who is queer, people often assume that I’ll get along great with their only other queer friend even though we might have nothing else in common.

I wondered if that experience might be similar for people with disabilities. We brought the changes to the group and immediately there was a resonance that hadn’t been there before.

Now, the two people on the date are both quite confident; they are just a terrible match. It’s much funnier.

Insight #3: if it were easy, we wouldn’t be doing it

The last thing I’ll share is the mantra I’ve been repeating to myself every time this process becomes a bit more difficult than I had anticipated: “if it were easy, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

At the same conference where I got to hear Ali Stroker speak, I attended a session that articulated the difference between inclusion and access. As I understand it, access means inviting somebody else into your house; inclusion means building a house with them. This is one scenario in which the language we use — and the meaning behind it — can make a huge difference.

Access is much easier. It’s much easier to build the process the way you’ve always done it, and then make a few modifications for people whose needs might be different. And access itself can be a good thing; there’s nothing inherently wrong with providing access.

The trouble comes when we conflate access for inclusion. If we are going to promise a truly inclusive process or experience, we have to be clear on what those words mean — both to us and to the folks we are involving from the community.

There have definitely been moments when it’s occurred to me that, if this were a more traditional rehearsal process, there would be some shortcuts we could take. Decisions might be made quicker, roles might be a little clearer, progress on the work might be steadier. But efficiency and ease are not what we’re here for. We are creating a space in which people whose voices regularly get pushed to the margins can tell their stories: if that were an easy thing to do, then we wouldn’t even be here in the first place.

How an Artist Marks Time

"Your job is to learn to work on your work." - David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear 

Sometime in the last year -- I can't say exactly when -- I realized that I had forgotten how to make art. I kept making it, regardless (which is never a good idea, by the way), but I felt something missing: namely, a cognizance of what I was actually making, how I was making it, and perhaps mostly importantly: why.

And so, exactly four months ago today, I set out to reflect on those very questions in the only place that seemed suitable for such a mammoth introspective task: a run-down farm and former meditation retreat center in rural Wisconsin.

**

July 17, 2015: I awake on this morning to the beginning of a 3-day stay at Swarm Artist Residency. Artists gather – so the idea goes -- free from the distractions of life in the big city, with finally enough time and space to freely create all the things they have intended to create. Nothing stands in their way. Except for time.

Coming from the daily routine of train tracker apps and 30-minute lunch meetings, the idea of having even a full day, let alone three, to create anything quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s a case of too much possibility. The boundary of time feels insurmountable.

Groggy and sipping my morning coffee I watched the other artists get right to work: doodling on notepads, stringing ukuleles, flipping through the pages of worn books. With each passing hour, I felt like I was failing more and more thoroughly in my mandate to create freely. All I’ve made this morning is scrambled eggs!, I would think to myself. I must be a terrible artist.

**

I decided to begin the day with my morning yoga sequence. Although it was nearly noon, I had yet to settle into any particular activity and so this seemed as good a place to start as any. Besides, maybe the familiarity of the routine would jolt my body back into its usual productivity and creative vigor.

I searched for a quiet spot in the field -- not too visible as to look like I was showing off, but close enough that I still felt a part of the soft buzzing of artists-at-work. As I pushed back into my first, achey downward-facing dog, I thought about the woman I had met the previous afternoon, just before I left the city. I remembered our brief conversation, and wondered -- for a silly moment -- if she knew that I was going to be entering this alternative artist-time-zone the next day.

“Excuse me, is it Thursday?” I remembered her asking.

She was an older woman, with a slight Slavic accent. Her husband had looked up at us as he climbed his way out of the passenger side of the car. She was standing about a foot from my face, poised with a quarter in her hand.

I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I told her, “today is Thursday.”

“There’s no reason to keep track anymore,” she replied, “when you’re retired. Unless you have a doctor’s appointment or something.” She sighed, “well. We all mark time in different ways I guess.”

I nodded quietly, wishing her a pleasant afternoon, and continued down the street, her words turning over in my head.

**

My yoga mat tucked away, I strode briskly out onto the porch of the farmhouse and plopped myself down in a rickety plastic beach chair. My first day at Swarm was moving far too slowly. It was only about 2 o’clock, just a few hours after our “working lunch” check-in meeting, and I felt like I was wasting the vast openness of the afternoon.

I felt restless. My skin itched. My arms were twitchy. My entire body felt like a moth trapped in a jar. Maybe I’m too addicted to the city, I thought. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this whole relax-into-your-art thing.

These thoughts ran on and on, as I gazed out over the open field. Pure, midday sunlight gave the barn a mystical glow. My companions meandered leisurely about, out of sync with my own hurried pace, pausing to leisurely eat apples with peanut butter, or lie out on the grass, or give a quick pat to a passing dog. They seemed so undisturbed by the abundance of it all.

I had an idea. I snatched my camera from the table next to my bed, and set out to explore. After all, if I couldn’t create something myself, I could at least investigate how others were using their newfound creative space, right? And – spoiler alert – I ended up creating something. Funny how that happens.

**

I returned to the barn that evening just in time to feel the quietude of nightfall. The coolness. This is my time, I thought. The day had calmed, and my hyperactive mind had, too. I sat down in an old wooden chair, feeling like I just stepped off a rollercoaster. I flipped open my laptop and began to pull up the images from my afternoon excursion. I scanned through them one-by-one, tracking each step of my restless exploration. I thought about the awkward unfolding of my first day in this unusual community.

Swarm, I began to realize, is a place of tremendous contradiction: of unmitigated extremes of experience. One moment I would be listening to the soft hum of insects in the middle of a dense forest and the next finding myself surrounded by the endless clamor of bodies, plates, and slamming doors as fifteen people try to all simultaneously assemble tacos. It is a place of tremendous solitude and incredible overstimulation, of endless opportunity and of ungraspable time.

At Swarm a day can feel like a week, but each passing hour lasts only a second. By the end of my three days it felt like I had been here for three full weeks – just like the brief summer sessions at my old sleep-away camp. The vibe was right for it, too: campfires, hidden lakes, and even original songs replete with the charmingly familiar “friends-forever-even-though-we-just-met” refrain.

And just like when I left my summer camp each year, I departed Swarm with the distinct impression that I was forgetting to do something important. Like I hadn’t yet said goodbye in the right way, or spent enough time walking in the wilderness, or really dug into a juicy creative project. But art – like summer camp – is about making choices. You only have so many resources: so much money, so much energy, so much time. There really isn’t a “right” amount of any of it. And as I learned from my creative companions, we all mark time in different ways.

1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
5
6
6
7
7
8
8
9
9
10
10
11
11
12
12
13
13
14
14
15
15
16
16
17
17

Making peace with silence

"We win! We win!" The shouts of children playing in the courtyard below pierce through my windows. Laughingly they run and holler, their short, shrill voices rising above the soft hum of the air conditioner -- an air conditioner which I've positioned as much to cool my living room as to mitigate the racket of moments like this. In fact, the whirr of the dishwasher, the buzz of the refrigerator: the whole soft chorus of my appliances seems to act as a buffer against the outside world, a cocoon of white noise.

When you live in a big city -- even a city with quiet, peaceful pockets like Chicago -- silence can be hard to pin down. Even the sleepiest of street corners suffers the occasional wail of an ambulance or rumble of a train-car. These sounds I don't actually mind: they are the sounds of the world's gears turning. They rise up out of the quietude, as if to say, "Hey, remember that the Earth is still spinning?" before fading back into the distance.

Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com
Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com

These sounds dance with silence. They take their solos, and then offer silence a turn in the spotlight. Other sounds are not so polite: the rowdy friends voicing faux-tearful goodbyes outside the bar; the frustrated honking of cars stalled behind a backup at a green light; the truck idling in the alley, sloppily unloading packages with a thump on the hard concrete. These sounds linger. They overstay their welcome. These sounds are like your aunt Polly, who just doesn't seem to notice your all-too-frequently yawning and glances toward the door.

This was how I felt that day, as the cacophony of children in the courtyard brazenly and unknowingly marched its way into my living room, edging up my already-remarkable disquietude. On days like that, the inevitable howling is enough to make me wish I lived some fancy apartment with giant walls stuffed full of insulation, thoughtfully engineered to keep the inside in and the outside out. Safely tucked away from the mess of the city, I would look down on the bustle of hushed cars below.

It's certainly an appealing thought. 

But when I honestly ask myself, that's not really what I want. A place like that is too detached from its environment, floating like a fairy-tale castle in the clouds. There is something unsettling about being surrounded by noise and yet unable to hear it. The silence doesn't quite feel real. You open the door to step out into the world and the full force of the city hits you right in the face.

I believe a good home should be permeable. It should blend into its environment, with authentic sounds of the city making the humblest of cameos in the living room. I like to be able to passionately throw open a window and welcome in the bustle of life below, to step out the front door and inhale the soft buzz of a bicycle whizzing past.

Accidental Scholar - Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)
Accidental Scholar - Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)

Places like this do exist; I've visited them. But they hide in sneaky pockets of the city. They blossom in odd, micro-climates of sound: the spots where you can turn a single corner, or go up a flight of stairs, and suddenly feel as if you've left Chicago entirely, perhaps wandered into a sleepy, enchanted forest. And then, with a few more paces, you're back in the middle of a boisterous six-way intersection.

In this searching, I've learned that silence is not something you can actively seek out; it's too elusive, like trying to grab at water coming out of the faucet. You don't capture silence. It comes to you when it feels like it, in moments you don't expect: an insomnial trip to the bathroom, stopping for a moment to marvel at the stillness of the trees outside the living room window; a middle-school classroom at 8:50am, the moment before 30-some 7th and 8th graders come galloping in like a herd of socially-awkward elephants. These moments come to you like gifts from a secret admirer you didn't know you had.

Billy Collins captures the intangibility of silence in his so-named poem:

Silence

There is the sudden silence of the crowd

above a player not moving on the field,

and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase

before it strikes the floor,

the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,

the silence of the moon

and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,

the silence of the window above us,

and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning

which I have broken with my pen,

a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—

the silence before I wrote a word

and the poorer silence now.

For me, Collins' poem elevates silence from an aural phenomenon to an entire mode of being. That is how I feel silence. It is awareness, acuteness, absolute tuned-in-ness to the Earth. It's the reason I love seeing my friends at parties almost as much as I love coming home to my own bed; the reason I'll sit in my car, or on the train, lingering a bit longer than I have to -- just to soak up a few more minutes of aloneness before diving headfirst into the world.

A recent Brainpickings article called "How to Be Alone" invokes British author Sara Maitland on the value of silence:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. 

Of course. This is something I have slowly come to understand, and to hold dear. Meditation, yoga, "purposeful pauses" -- silence is not just about the lack of sound, or the ability to "concentrate;" it's a chance to re-boot our brains, to start again. Somebody told me once that the phrase "sleep on it" is like a human equivalent of the I.T. dictum "have you tried turning it off and on again?" Humans have a battery life, just like our machines do. We need "on" and we need "off."

Mark Robinson, flickr.com
Mark Robinson, flickr.com

As I finished getting dressed that afternoon and stepped out the door of my apartment, I happened past the same children whose shouts had addled my slightly woozy Sunday-morning brain, as I'd tried (unsuccessfully) to recharge with a catnap on my couch. And yet, I couldn't help but smile as I watched a boy of about 8 years run the entire length of the courtyard and pose like a professional football player, ready to receive an extremely difficult and important play. He was still squealing, jumping about in the same familiar racket, but something about it was different. Or rather, something about me was different. I felt my preoccupation with silence begin to dissolve, as I stood in awe of the full life-ness of the moment.

Because connection, in that moment, came at the cost of relinquishing silence. The alternative to living with uncontrollable, districting sounds is -- well, not really living. It's detaching from others, and from things that, with frustration, also bring joy.  So while Thoreau writes that he has "never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude," there's that catchy little E.M. Forster bit that urges us to "only connect."

I like reading what famous poets and novelists have written on this subject because it feels so essentially linked to how we forge connection or isolation through our art. So I did a bit more digging and found an excerpt from a piece by Wendell Berry. In his view, these two yearnings are not in conflict; in fact they depend on one another. He writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

And so it occurs to me that silence itself may be the wrong target. That the more important thing is the way we allow silence to play between moments of joy and despair, the way we let it bring us back to our selves, to our insecurities, and to a deeper understanding of our experiences. Because making peace with silence means accepting it as-is, like a lover who you know will never be, and never expect you to be, free of flaws and imperfections. It means understanding that quiet reflection moves us through life and toward the universe -- not away from it. And because sometimes the loud, disruptive cries that yank silence from our hands are actually just a wakeup call, a missive to return to life -- just as it is.

Data for Days: An Artist Learns to Love Numbers

NOTE: this post originally appeared on the Convergence Academies blog on July 31, 2015.

I have a confession to make: lately I’ve been getting unusually excited about data.

I’ve started calculating percentages, designing color-coded charts, and watching webinars on data visualization…for fun. I’ve been attending workshops with organizations like Ingenuity to try to understand how data functions in the world of the arts and learning.

A chart I created to show how our DMMs (Digital Media Mentors) are using their time at our two school sites.

A chart I created to show how our DMMs (Digital Media Mentors) are using their time at our two school sites.

I guess I’ve always been the type of person who likes maps and diagrams. I find comfort in seeing information laid out visually. I like the way that a good chart can help you know where to look, and what to examine more closely. Playing around with data mapping this year has helped me appreciate the huge impact this kind of visual framing can have on the way we understand complex information. As Kim wrote in her post last December, we at Convergence have been using a technique this year called “Data Therapy” (based on an approach from MIT’s Civic Media Center) to look at, analyze, and understand the impact of our work in the schools.

The idea behind data therapy is to make information relevant & accessible: to find and extract stories from the data that help our team draw their own conclusions, and in doing so make strategic, data-informed decisions.

Although this practice makes a great deal of sense to me, it’s not something I’ve ever encountered in other arts organizations. When I talk with other artists about data I am met with groans and impatient eye-rolling, or at best an apathetic shrug. In these situations data is either seen as boring and irrelevant, or simply illegible: something to be decoded only by those who speak the secret language of numbers (read: not “artists”).

I found a document that shed some light on why that might be.

A recent study by the Cultural Data Project surveyed approximately 185 cultural organizations in major cities across the U.S. about the challenges they face collecting and utilizing data within their organizations. Interestingly —and not surprisingly—their major finding wasn’t that organizations lacked access to data, it was that they lacked capacity for understanding the data; and more, they even cited the very culture of the arts as diametrically opposed to the use of data to inform decision-making:

The challenge that resonated most strongly with participants was the underdeveloped capacity for data collection and interpretation within their organizations. Many also cited ways that organizational culture and field-wide values in the arts can undermine the effective use of data, as well as the lack of a clear organizational vision for how to use data in planning and decision-making [emphasis added]

The fact that arts organizations often lack the capacity for working with data should not be surprising. Resources are always limited, and I’ll be the first to admit that data analysis is not always the most enticing topic to a room full of creative folks. It's the organizational equivalent of broccoli: sure, you know it’s good for you and rich in nutrients and all that — but it’s not necessarily going to be the first bite you take of the meal. I get it.

 

What is particularly interesting to me about these findings, though, is this idea that “field-wide values in the arts” actually inhibit the prioritization of data as a decision-making tool. In other words, the very nature of the arts is culturally opposed to the concept of using data. Why is that?

In part, it has to do with the way that many artists are taught to create: we learn to throw ourselves into unknown territory, take big risks, and pursue unusual or divergent ideas despite logical objections. All this is well and good. The problem emerges when we forget that creativity is not forged solely on this process of intuitive exploration; creation also involves hard work, discipline, and yes — planning (renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit is good evidence of this duality). This is where data can be useful: it can help us stay on course, remind us where and how to focus our creative energies.

According to the Cultural Data Project’s report, among their surveyed organizations they found a "deeply embedded tendency for their artistic colleagues to assume that decision-making can either be informed by data or can be informed by an artistic or curatorial vision—but not both.” There is real fear here that the very creative process they are trying to support will be undermined by the perceived objectivity of concrete data.

The other difficulty, they say, comes from what data measures: "Practitioners on the ‘business' side (marketing, development, etc.) said they’ve gotten the message from some of their colleagues on the artistic side, that 'what I do can’t be counted,' which they said leads to an over-reliance on anecdote and opinion rather than objective data, whether qualitative or quantitative."

Again, there is truth in this statement. So much of what we do can't be easily counted. There are also limitations to the depth of data collection, and ethnical implications that keep us from reporting on some of the qualities that matter most. And yes — data-based decision-making taken to the extreme can limit our ability to freely explore new  & unconventional paths in our work. But it doesn’t have to. Part of knowing how to use data is also knowing how not to use it — when to put the charts down and listen to what people actually have to say, in real time and space.

Artists are also expert at post-its.

Artists are also expert at post-its.

So what does all this mean for those of us working in the arts? Well, for starters it means a shift in culture. And thankfully, that is something that artists are expert at.

As artists who understand and affirm the power of data in strategic design, it is important for us to advocate for its seat at the table, while remaining sympathetic to the power of the arts to address things in ways that are unmeasurable. This is the point behind data therapy: in collectively mining data for story and personal relevance, we are shifting power back to the interpreter, and creating a space where artistry and objectivity can go hand-in-hand. After all, raw data on its own is not particularly useful; it’s the way we organize and interpret the data that brings relevance & meaning.

As Robert Morrison put it in his keynote address at yesterday’s Ingenuity Data Institute, “in order to get where we want to go, we have to know where we are.” That is what data affords us.

There are a good deal of artists out there who understand this & are starting to appreciate the appeal of data: the way that a bit of known information can fill in some gaps while simultaneously opening up new avenues of curiosity and inquiry. In fact, data visualization is incredibly popular right now (see Information is Beautiful), and many artists and designers are working with data to create stunning infographics and interactive displays (see Ann K. Emery’s work for excellent examples & tutorials on this topic). That is a huge step forward for the use of data in an artistic context.

But as most artists know, aesthetics are only one part of the puzzle. Although data is more beautiful than ever, there are still many roadblocks to its application in practical contexts. Questions remain around legibility, capacity, and the deeply-held values of organizations that run contrary to its use.

So, how do we learn to admire the certainty of numbers without relinquishing our love affair with the ethereal? There’s no right way, of course, but I think a good place to start is with awareness. What assumptions do you make about data? How does your organization tend to make big decisions? Considering questions like these will start you on a path to a more thoughtful relationship with data, and perhaps even lead to new insights around your own creative practice.

Data can be lovable, I promise. 

Failblog: learning to mess up from successful people

NOTE: this post originally appeared on the Convergence Academies blog on March 24, 2015.

Here on the internet, we love failure. We love it so much there are entire blogs devoted to curating the best failure GIFs. In fact, if you search “man walking into glass door” on YouTube you’ll find a video of my high school physics teacher facing an inconvenient run-in with the laws of physics. (I guess experience really is the best teacher.)

All this begs the question: what is it that we find so captivating about these failure stories? Is it just our own selfish desire for the aptly-named German concept of schadenfreude (literally, “harm-joy” — or, pleasure in someone else’s pain)?

In his opening keynote speech at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX a few weeks ago, DonorsChoose.org founder Charles Best told a different story about failure.

DonorsChoose.org is a philanthropy website where public school teachers post projects for their classrooms and funders from across the country make contributions to turn their dreams to reality — a Kickstarter for teachers, before Kickstarter existed. As part of the deal, donors are told they will receive photos and hand-written thank-you letters from the teacher and students whose project they supported. But what happens when a classroom doesn’t follow up as promised? Best explains that, in this scenario, the folks at DonorsChoose send an apology letter to the slighted donors and offer to fund another project on their behalf. As it happens, this act of recompense actually spurs greater generosity on the part of these donors. As he put it, “our biggest revenue driver was screwing up and admitting it."

What was happening here? Did these donors just feel bad for Best and offer up additional funds out of pity?

I don’t think so.

In another conference keynote address, Project H founder Emily Pilloton talked about the importance of failure in her own path toward creating an organization focused on engaging young people in civic action through architecture & construction. "Wear your failures like badges of honor,” she advised. "Talk about them whenever you can."

She even shared her desire to start a conference devoted exclusively to talking about our biggest failures. “People wanna hear those stories,” she encouraged. It’s true. In fact, Best’s own account of his embarrassingly prolonged foot-in-mouth debacle trying to promote DonorsChoose in the New York Times was one of the most delightful and inspiring moments of his opening address.

Watching the audience react with such joy to this story, I was reminded of a professional development workshop we held for Convergence teachers last summer on the subject of digital storytelling. The idea was for the teachers to create and share stories of famous or familiar failures as a way of learning how to use tools like iMovie, Twine, Cowbird, and GarageBand. What we found, however, was that the teachers cared much more about telling these failure stories than they did about learning how to use iMovie to do so. The idea captivated them, and understandably: certainly history, science, and many other disciplines are littered with examples of failures that ultimately led to successful discovery (consider, for instance, the origin of penicillin).

But something about failure seemed particularly relevant — beyond just the content of their discipline — to their own experiences as teachers, and consequently as designers of learning.

A session I attended the following day at SXSWedu, “Learning to Fail with Style and Grace,” offered some possible explanations for this. Hosted by two professors from the University of Texas at Austin and a self-proclaimed “creativity consultant,” the panel examined the role of failure in education, and its complex relationship to learning.

Educators and psychologists alike have long known that learning is a process of struggle, and that those who operate with a growth mindset (“success comes from hard work") tend to meet greater opportunity than those whose mindset is more fixed (“success comes from natural intelligence”). In fact, we see this stark contrast play out culturally in the different messages we give our children about learning.

Yet, in our country at least, we have (at best) a schizophrenic relationship with failure. We know it can be important and even useful, but we are afraid to talk about it for fear of seeming incompetent or unqualified. (Just last week, I sat in a room full of teachers who explained to me that they could not imagine hosting a conversation about their students' work, since their unit did not progress as they had hoped -- all the more reason to share the results, I thought!). Academic success, at least in our current educational landscape, is often an indicator of “mistake minimization.” Parents check their children's math homework for errors before turning it in; college students drop out of classes they can’t seem to master. Those who succeed in school are often those who are best at avoiding — or at least hiding — their mistakes.

And while technology (and its array of fantastic failure GIFs) can be a great tool for celebrating failure, it may also be partly to blame for our lack of understanding around the role of failure in a creative, iterative process.

According to the panelists, technology has sped up our understanding of process almost to a point of invisibility. More so than ever before, we have immediate and easy access to the end-result of a creative process, with little understanding of what it took to get there. Results are at our fingertips, but rarely do they come with explanations  of prior failures. When we ignore process, the product starts to seem impossible. We compare ourselves to where somebody is at the end of their project, rather than where they were earlier — when they were where we are now.

The solution? Make process “super overt.” Understand what it is. Talk about it. Admire it. It’s not magic or genius. Sarah Bush, founder of MakeGreatStuff.com explained it like this: “We are obsessed with end results. We need to appreciate the emotional arc of a process. Stop experiencing your struggle as a character flaw. Instead, it's normal, part of universal experience and helps you move forward.”

The phrase “universal experience” stuck out to me. The reason we find failure stories so captivating isn’t because we enjoy laughing at others’ misfortune (okay, maybe it’s not exclusively that) — but it’s because understanding someone’s failure helps you see their process. And in doing so, it helps you realize that process itself is universal, if not uniform. In other words, we all fail: just at different times. It’s easy to forget that.

The DonorsChoose backers who received Best’s apology email were motivated to donate again because they were allowed to truly see into the complicated process of running a philanthropy website: warts and all. The admission of error humanized a successful organization, making it seem familiar & worthy of continued support. Surely, they would do better next time, right?

Or, as summed up more succinctly by the Danish poet Piet Hein,

“The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain

And simple to express:

Err

and err

and err again,

but less

and less

and less."

I left the panel discussion with a newfound enthusiasm for the importance of the failure narrative, and with sparking thoughts about its relationship to less-exciting-sounding things like “documentation,” “student work,” and “formative assessment.” I wondered how, as educators, we are making our learning — and our students’ learning — visible. How are wearing our failures like badges of honor? Pledging to do better next time? Are we only sharing our work when it shows how great a job we did, or are we also willing to share the struggle?

These are questions we ask ourselves every day at Convergence Academies. And they're at the heart of the way we are asking teachers and Digital Media Mentors to spend their time in reflection, iteration, and revision of their work.

Spending time with process is not always fun. It can be tedious. It can be messy. It can be ego-bruising. But it can also be some of the most important and revelatory work we do.

Listen. Salmon burgers.

With holiday celebrations abounding, it's easy to get caught up in the red-meat-and-mashed-potatoes regimen. So, this time around I decided to try something a bit different.  Starting with these versatile Salmon patties from Trader Joe's (grill, bake, or pan fry!??), I set out to create a  somewhat healthier burger alternative.

96766-premium-salmon-burgers
96766-premium-salmon-burgers

To start out with, I sauteed the burgers in a spicy Chipotle-infused olive oil. This was easier and faster than baking or grilling, and the olive oil locked in some flavor from the start, without the need for added calories from a chipotle mayo, or other spicy sauce.

IMG_9802
IMG_9802

Trader Joe's pineapple salsa made an excellent companion for the Chipotle olive oil, adding just that little bit of sweetness and tomato that we've come to expect from the burger experience. Not only was the salsa lower in sugar than your usual Heinz, it clocks in at a measly 5 calories per tbsp. Take that, ketchup!

Image
Image

As the burgers were cooking, I prepared the buns, adding the necessary finishings: a little something crunchy (yellow onion) and a little something green (baby spinach).

IMG_9803
IMG_9803

Put it all together, and enjoy!

IMG_9804
IMG_9804

In Praise of Downward-facing Dog

I’ve never quite understood organized religion. Dressing up, going to church, following a set of imposed rules and doctrines -- it always seemed like such a fruitless obligation. A + B + C = what exactly? I know, I know, it’s intangible. But that made it, well, hard to understand. School made sense to me: you went so that you could learn, go to college, and one day get a job. Even familial obligations seemed clear: these are the people that love and support you, and honoring special occasions with them is important.

But church (or temple, or what have you) always felt a bit out of reach to me. What exactly was the purpose of gathering in a room of (mostly) strangers to listen to someone else telling you what and how to feel and believe?

Well, it turns out that’s a pretty successful formula.

As kids, we’re used to having our days paced out for us. Our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have responsible parents) carefully map out a balance of familiar routines and new experiences, to provide us with opportunities to grow, explore, and discover the world around us.

Gradually, though, as we get older, that process becomes less clear. Done with formal schooling and working a series of intermittent jobs, there are days when I simply look around and think: now what? I have a career. I’m a responsible “adult” (sort of). But that doesn’t mean I always know how to keep myself on a steady path.

This is where yoga comes in. That lovely actor-training-technique-turned-exercise-regimen-turned-spirtitual guide has been an evolving part of my life for the last four years. And, surprisingly, at every turn it reminds me more of that church-going practice I never quite understood.

Criteria #1: community

Let me break it down: it’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon and I’m at home in Boston, MA, braving the winter doldrums. I pry myself off the couch long enough to make it to a far-too-intense 90-minute hot yoga session at a nearby studio. Midway through class, the instructor is encouraging us through a particularly difficult pose. “Remember,” he says, “there are 23 other very sweaty people in this with you. They got this. You ALL got this.”

That was when it hit me: there’s something powerful about a roomful of people committed to exactly the same thing as you. And all the better if you don’t know them, because there’s less social anxiety to deal with. It’s like the spiritual equivalent of writing an essay in a crowded coffee shop. You feed off the energy of your comrades, without even having to interact directly with them.

Criteria #2: sermon

But that class wasn’t just about the other people in the room. It was also about the instructor, pushing us to go deeper into a pose, or reassuring us that wherever we were in that moment was perfect.

My favorite yoga classes are the ones that begin with a small reflection or meditation on life. I like when the instructor actually takes a moment to recognize that we’ve all come together in the midst of the holiday madness, or on a rainy afternoon, or following a national tragedy.

Sound familiar?

This introductory “sermon” makes the practice feel pointed. Purposeful. We set our intentions so that we have something to work toward during our class time. As somebody with a type A personality, this always reassures me that it is time well spent. That something was accomplished.

I realized this was part of what I’ve always overlooked about religion: its potential for focusing or contextualizing the messy business of life.

Image
Image

Criteria #3: ritual

Perhaps the most baffling thing to me about religion was the idea of being told what to do.  I value my own independence and free will to the extent that the very notion unnerves me.

So, why is it that I don’t mind it – and in fact crave it – when I am on my yoga mat?

The answer is something yogis call vairagya, the practice of “nonattachment,” or letting go. We spend so much time and energy as cruise director for our own lives that it can be nice to let go and allow someone else to steer the ship for a while.

And what’s more, that may be just what we need.

Yoga teachers and religious leaders alike rely on the power of ritual to help us along this path. Ritual provides a clear, familiar, comforting structure in which to release the need to control.

My favorite book on yoga, Meditations from the Mat, frames it this way: “yoga is about getting unstuck.”

Criteria #4: music

This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. The idea of yoga-as-religion had already been rolling around in my head for some time, and I figured I had picked out all the relevant similarities.

And then the “om” began. And I thought, of course. That clinches it. The part of the practice that connects us in an unspoken way, allows simultaneous, universal, egalitarian participation: music.

We are allowed this one, brief window into each others’ souls, uniting the disparate voices in the room, as would a familiar hymn on a Sunday morning.

I still don’t understand organized religion. I don’t think I ever will, truly. But the need for connection, for community, and for coherence? Yeah, that one feels pretty universal.

Walking Headfirst into the Storm

I'm sitting here with a 101 degree fever. I've just gotten dressed, and I'm about to go lead a short series of callbacks for the play that I'm directing. (Don't worry, I'm on antibiotics -- not contagious, just cranky.) When I was in college, I came down with a horrible case of mono right as I was to begin rehearsals for my thesis project. I could barely get out of bed, let alone articulate a coherent thought. But the moment I stepped into the room with a group of actors -- ready, hungry, anxious actors looking for engagement -- everything came back to me. There was a gust of energy that came from the sheer passion of the space. Then, of course, they left and I broke down into a useless mess on the floor.

This is how I know that I am meant to do this work. (And how I know I won't collapse in the middle of some poor actor's script reading.) Our art is alive. It is about human-to-human connections; it is kinetic.

So, when this is the ONLY thing I can manage to do when I can hardly eat, shower, or stand up? Yeah, I'd say that's a pretty good sign.

When Life Gives You Lemons

Here's the thing. I'm not big on "free time." Mostly, I find it confusing and overwhelming, and just end up filling it with senseless activities like exercise and sleep. In all seriousness, though, I always need to have a project. Doesn't have to be huge. But just something creative to keep my brain working -- to remind myself, "hey, you can make things." And so, this summer the project has been cooking. Since I'm not in rehearsal I have my evenings free, and what better thing to make than something you can eat?

And though life did not exactly give me lemons, Jewel did (I paid for them, don't worry). Then, I used them to make pasta:

pasta
pasta

While I don't claim to have invented any of these recipes, I have added my own customizations to each. This makes me feel like I'm contributing (somehow) to the greater creative universe. That, and my new habit for food photography. It's a fine line between delicious and slimy, my friends. Among other creations, tacos:

tacos
tacos

A baked mac 'n' cheese with bacon and barbecue sauce (my additions):

417550_1870143513315_230198328_n
417550_1870143513315_230198328_n

And a white chicken chili, which was a step outside my cooking comfort zone of "meat + noodle"

599960_1870146833398_2000701965_n
599960_1870146833398_2000701965_n

Had to include this one, too. Sage comes from my new herb garden!

547720_1876558993698_2067851656_n
547720_1876558993698_2067851656_n

I'm sure soon enough I'll be back to eating Chipotle twice a week, but in the meantime...anyone got any recipes you want to try??