I’m a little flummoxed as to my next step with this blog.
Originally, I was writing this book privately, but I decided a blog would provide me with motivation to keep writing regularly, and also the opportunity to get feedback as I wrote. Because this material isn’t easy.
I remember reading in Chip Heath’s and Dan Heath’s bestseller Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die about a 1990 psychological study in which the researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Newman, who was working on her dissertation, “assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tappers’ or ‘listeners.'”
“Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to the listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped…
The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guess only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.
But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.
The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2.”Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick
The authors call this the Curse of Knowledge. “It’s hard to be a tapper,” the Heaths tell us. “The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.” I experienced the Curse of Knowledge rather vividly when I was trying to teach my 94-year-old mother-in-law how to use her first smart phone. “When a call comes in, swipe right–” “Swipe?”
Anyway, I’ve been working with these ideas for quite a few years, and have taught them as a class a few times as well. And what I’ve found is 1) it is easy for students to get overwhelmed by all the new terminology and ideas, 2) at the same time it is easy for the students to get bored at things that seem abstract and beyond their experience, and 3) the more material is explained, the more likely they are to decide the whole thing is idealistic hogwash promoted by a jaded old man.
So now that this jaded old man has retired and no longer has the benefit of grading to enforce attention (ahem), I’m particularly focused on how to “scaffold” this material, alternating concrete examples with the concepts they illustrate, following a logical order, and writing in a style that I hope is engaging.
But now I’m at a crossroads.
We’ve been through two topics so far:
- The two wrongs turns that created the status quo
- Classics vs new plays
- Centralization of power in the producers and centralization of the profession in New York City
- How to form a company
- Each company member buys a share
- Anyone who joins must be able to extend the income of the company
- All members must have multiple talents
- Try to include a playwright
Frankly, all that was pretty straightforward, at least compared to what’s coming up.
The final two topics, following Peter Brook’s statement about the empty space, are:
- Performance space
- What’s in the performance space
- Value proposition (what do you offer?)
- Identification (who are your ideal spectators and how do you find them?)
- Experimentation (how do you determine whether what you’re offering is what your spectators “want”?)
And encompassing all this is the concept of a Business Model (how do you make your company financially sustainable?). Startup expert Steve Blank says that all startups are “faith-based initiatives” in that “there is no certainty about a startup on day-one. You make several first order approximations about your business model, distribution channels, demand creation, and customer acceptance. You leave the comfort of your existing job, convince a few partners to join you and you jump off the bridge together.” For theater artists trying to start a new venture, this is particularly true. The problem is that it continues to be a faith-based initiative right up until the last dollar is spent. Blank provides an alternative in The Startup Owner’s Manual in which he describes a process for going from “faith-based” to “fact-based.” And while his method is primarily focused on digital products, I believe there is much to learn that applies to theater.
For theater artists, this can be overwhelming (“Distribution channels? Demand creation? I just wanna do plays!”). Believe me, I get it.
I believe very deeply that theater people can live happier, more productive, more fulfilling, and more stable creative lives if they incorporate these ideas into their practice as artists. But, well, it’s a lot, I can’t deny it. It’s even a lot for me, since I need to revisit a lot of material I haven’t studied for a while.
Which is why I’m at a crossroads. Unlike with the first two topics, I’m going to need more time to read some pretty long books in order to refresh my memory. Which means that, while lately I’ve been writing a post almost every day, I won’t be able to do that with the new stuff.
There’s also a part of me that thinks that it might be better to supplement the writing with some sort of online reading or discussion group to work through this material together. I’m talking about books like Business Model Generation, and either The Startup Owner’s Manual or The Lean Startup, and All the Lights On: Reimagining Theater with Ten Thousand Things. At which point it seems like I am creating a 1-year Masters program…
While I struggle with this, tell me what you think in the comments below. What posts have so far been most interesting to you? What questions do you have? What topics seem to be calling you? Is the blog enough, or does there need to be more interaction? Any and all insights are greatly appreciated.
4 thoughts on “Crossroads”
My big question is … What companies have you formed, worked with, and what is your overall practical experience with the subjects you’re imparting knowledge on? I’d love to hear your own hands on experiences and think, if a book is on its way, that your practical experience will help build trust with your readers. Have you seen actual companies in current times follow the models you’re talking about? How did it work out for them? Would you want to do the experiment yourself?
Hi Rebecca. As I suggested in my very first post (http://theatreinspiration.com/blog/uncategorized/introduction/), I am writing as a theater historian, not a practitioner, and I am pretty upfront that those are two different skill sets. When Harold Clurman was lecturing about the ideas that would become the Group Theater, he hadn’t formed a company; Lee Strasburg was not himself an actor, and yet he taught others to act. So no, I would be a bad candidate to “do the experiment” myself. As a historian, I look at what people have done in the past (so far: Barter Theater, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Theatrical Syndicate, Double Edge, Margo Jones, and several othrs) and search for ideas and approaches that might be applicable today. I also look at what people in other disciplines have done in order to, again, find things that worked and that I think are applicable to theater. I’m also pretty clear that this is a speculative approach. There are theaters today who have succesfully lived aspects of what I describe (Ten Thousand Things, Double Edge, many theaters who are members of the Network of Ensemble Theatres, to name a few). They’ll be discussed.
I also say this at the end of the initial post linked above: “If you don’t like what I’ve written, just know that I’m not looking to convince people to change who are fully committed to the status quo–I encourage you to follow your path. It’s like opening a book at a bookstore: if the book doesn’t speak to you, you put it back on the shelf and find something more suitable.” Since I know from past experience that you are someone who is quite happy with the status quo, there a lots and lots of books that have been written providing advice as to how to navigate that path. Unlike with Theatre Ideas back in the day, I’m not very interested in arguing with those who reject these ideas out of hand, or who are going to attack me personally. I’m more interested in talking to people who are open to considering new alternatives.
I hope that makes sense. This is not Theatre Ideas Redux.
I’m truly sorry that you read my questions as any sort of attack. As a person who recently created a new theatre company in response to the pandemic and civil unrest, I am always looking for new ways forward and, in the case of our theatre company, we’re exploring the ideas of the past by creating a company that goes to the communities as traveling players instead of the other way around. I’d love to have a group that would do what you are suggesting so am honestly curious about practical examples of people doing the work today and their thoughts on your theories.