Getting Away to Get Things Done

It’s tough to get everyone on the same page of a big initiative. A retreat can galvanize your team around a goal and prep your group to tell the same story.

A view from the Airlie Center, the site of the Innovation Lab for Performing Arts five-day retreat.
A view from the Airlie Center, the site of the Innovation Lab for Performing Arts five-day retreat.

This post is part of a series from Jenni Werner of Geva Theatre Center, as she and her team in the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts program prototype a new approach to complex adaptive challenges they are facing at their organization. This first installment focuses on the five-day retreat component of the Innovation Lab, which was held in March 2013 at the Airlie Center in Virginia.

When the ten representatives of the Geva Theatre Center innovation team climbed wearily into the bus, heading for the airport back to Rochester, New York, we had logged five days together, taken dozens of pages of notes, eaten WAY too much food, and traveled miles and miles – literally and figuratively, as we both roamed the Airlie Center campus during breaks and took a long journey toward consensus in the meeting room.

Discussing the subtle nuances of artistic directorship during the Innovation Lab retreat.
Discussing the subtle nuances of artistic directorship during the Innovation Lab retreat.

Journeying towards a shared story

Our team – comprised of several artistic and administrative staff members, two board members, one playwright and one subscriber/donor – left Airlie galvanized around a goal, speaking the same language and ready to tell the same story. While we had already been experimenting with ways to center our theatre around patrons and artists, we had each arrived at Airlie with our own idea of what that might mean. The week-long retreat was crucial to defining our purpose.

We knew going in to the retreat that so much of our life is transactional – as a capitalist society, we are a culture based on the exchange of money. And, in fact, Geva’s history is full of examples of success with transactions – throughout the theatre’s 40-year history, we have sold over 4 million tickets and become one of the most attended regional theatres in the country (outside of New York City). When we think about artistic experiences, however, we don’t want to think about the exchange of money – we think instead about emotions, and about the ways that we connect with other people and other ideas.

During our week together at Airlie, we argued over definitions, we proposed idea after idea to each other, and we alternately tried to enlarge and reduce our goals and targeted audiences. Simply put, we were working at cross purposes. And then, a few things happened that shifted the conversation.

Shifting definitions

We brought in Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, an organization dedicated to the lives and livelihood of playwrights. Todd said many impactful things, but I’ll share just two here.

Members of the Geva Theatre Center innovation team working on their new approach.
Members of the Geva Theatre Center innovation team working on their new approach at the Airlie Center.

First, he urged us to consider the fact that a new identity for the theatre would require a fundamental – he used the word “cellular” – shift in how we think about our work. He suggested that we were not curators but catalysts for theatrical expression, and that we move from attempting to control what happens onstage and between our artists and audiences to merely influencing what happens. Our team began using phrases like “create a space,” “cradle,” and “dialogue.” We started to really consider our role in nurturing relationships between people, rather than creating artistic products.

And then, as we worked with our facilitator, John McCann, to agree on a definition for the group of people we refer to as “patrons,” we realized that each of us had a different idea of what that meant. We were circling around with no definition. John drew a rough drawing of a circle, inside another circle. We remembered that, in the same way that a drop of water in a pond creates concentric circles as it ripples away from the center, Geva is at the middle of a series of circles. That series includes those loyal donors – patrons – who are part of a larger circle encompassing the Geva community, which is part of an even larger circle, made up of the Rochester community. Our current project will start with the smallest of those circles – the audience members who have demonstrated loyalty and an investment in our theatre – and work outwards to those bigger, encompassing circles as we proceed.

Those two shifts in our language were significant as we moved towards defining the prototype we would work with over the next several months.

Becoming the catalyst

We left the Airlie Center with the intention of creating relationships between the six writers whose new works we’ll be producing in our next season and patrons who have given some kind of support to the theatre. When we create these relationships, we act as catalysts by allowing the two groups of people to influence each other both in and out of the theatre itself, but we don’t control what happens between them. We believe that allowing for an exchange of ideas, emotions and experiences between artists and patrons within the Geva community will lead to a new identity for Geva as Rochester’s theatre home, increased loyalty between the theatre, our patrons, and artists, and artistic and financial balance.

Personally, I left the retreat with these questions about my own practice, which I ask you as well. What are the ways that you, in your life and your work, can act as a catalyst for artistic expression? How do you support and influence artists, and how do you support and influence patrons and members of the wider community?

[All photos in this post by Sean Daniels, Geva Theatre Center.]

About
Jenni Werner is in her second season as the literary director/resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre Center. Previously, she was director of programming at Theatre Communications Group, where from 2005-2011 she curated and produced TCG’s annual National Conference. She is an adjunct instructor at SUNY Geneseo, and a guest instructor at other Western New York colleges. Follow her on Twitter at @jenniwerner.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    I always find it amazing when the rephrasing of one concept can completely change the angle of an organization – catalysts instead of curators. I’m taken in by this idea of acting as a catalyst – letting go of attempting to have complete control of the audience experience and allowing the artist and the audience to have a more intimate, seemingly authentic experience together. As part of the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan University, which I am the program manager for, we have also allowed for a more flexible, intimate experience between the artists we bring to our campus and the campus community. I feel that this has worked very well for us as an organization and for the artists, but the structure of a university environment is very different then a dedicated performance center. I look forward to hearing how this shift in thinking is implemented and reading more about what worked and what didn’t work. Good luck!

  • Hi Jenni, I’d echo Erinn’s comment – it’s pretty incredible what taking a critical and close look at the language we use daily in our work can do. The dramatic change you describe makes sense to me in the context of the adaptive vs. technical challenges framework that we talk about a lot here on ArtsFwd (adaptive challenges are the ones for which there’s no existing solution or best practices). The language we use internally is probably one of the most deeply ingrained practices in our work, and it’s rarely questioned or even considered. Without a chance to think about big ideas (which often seems to happen when we have the chance to leave the office for a fresh environment outside of our day-to-day administrating), we might not get the chance to reconsider these basic building blocks of our communications and values.

  • Alison K.

    In addition to setting aside time to pull apart the layered interpretations of art world speak favorites like “patrons,” “engagement,” and “funders,” and work toward an agreed upon definition and understanding, arts organizations should be clear about those definitions with the broader public. Buzzwords like “community” are so freely and frequently bandied about that they don’t simply lose their punch, they lose their intrinsic meaning. If organizations are open about how they view and interpret these terms, they’ll not only restore meaning – as defined through the lens of their specific mission and operations – they’ll provide a clearer understanding of the pathways by which the public can be involved in their work (be it as a patron, audience member, etc…. however you may choose to define them!).