Staging Change Participants Engage in Small Experiments with Radical Intent

Half way through Stage 2 of Staging Change, each of the eight Toronto-based performing arts companies designed and executed Small Experiments with Radical Intent (SERIs). These are the first opportunities for participants to put their collective inquiry around a self-identified complex challenge into action, a critical part of the Staging Change learning process.

SERIs are based on learning through doing. They are intentionally small experiments, rough and ready in design so that they can be executed within a short time-frame. The experiments are discontinuous from current practice, not business as usual. To work, SERIs must have the organization step outside its comfort zone to be vulnerable enough to take risks. These are all the qualities of adaptive work. The cost of  the SERIs is underwritten by the Foundation with small grants. However, the biggest investment is typically the human resources required to invent and implement them.

All eight organizations  – The National Ballet of Canada, The Theatre CentreThe School of Toronto Dance Theatre, Studio 180, ProArteDanza, Luminato, Theatre Direct, and Tapestry Opera –worked through a range of fascinating and inventive SERIs that tested their long-held assumptions and introduced them to a spirit of experimentation that will serve them well within Staging Change and beyond as they grapple with a rapidly changing environment full of unknowns. Two SERIs are highlighted below.

In order to obtain meaningful data, an audience participant in the Let’s Dance experiment shares her experiences with one of the NBoC dancers.

National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) The NBoC is the largest organization, by revenue, in the Staging Change cohort. They began their journey by identifying the following complex challenge: to be more accessible to, and engaged with, Canadians while remaining true to our artistic mission and fiscally responsible. Using this as a starting point for addressing change, the NBoC identified four radical new visions including this one: we recognize that engaged people will contribute to our community by dancing themselves. This is radical because it redistributes authority and questions a traditional approach that says only professional dancers can move in the context of a ballet performance. One team tested this hypothesis out by creating a SERI called Let’s Dance, in which audience members were invited to learn a short excerpt of choreography from the performance itself and join an impromptu moment of physical activity in the lobby. Held during the intermission over a series of six performances, the experiment tested the necessary conditions for successful participation including physical and emotional safety.

The results of the experiment helped point the way toward unpacking longstanding assumptions about audience engagement and how the company could re-imagine the many-faceted nature of its relationship with its audiences.

The Theatre Centre's SERI invited artists to share the company’s space for one week between the hours of 10PM and 7AM. Photo: Kyle Purcell

The Theatre Centre Compared to the NBoC, The Theatre Centre works in a different discipline at a smaller scale. The company’s complex challenge aims to imbue all of their activities with a spirit of reckless generosity, both internally and externally. Of the five radical new visions that were proposed by the working team, one resonated for the company as having the most potential:  we recognize sniffing out alternative time as a means to exchange energy and needs. Four SERIs were designed and Night Shift took the lion’s share of energy and imagination. This SERI invited artists to share the company’s space for one week between the hours of 10PM and 7AM, when it is traditionally dark and unused. A public showing was organized for the last day.

Although considerably larger in scale than a typical SERI – it required a small marketing campaign and an application and assessment process – the week-long event tested the artistic community’s interest in working through the night, which was considerable. Another outcome was that the entire event was managed by the house technician who wouldn’t normally participate in the curatorial process. Discovering leadership capacities from an unlikely individual was a very meaningful, and unexpected, learning.

All eight performing arts organizations created a Summary of Learning at the conclusion of Stage 2, which captured the process and outcomes of working adaptively.  Next up: applications to Stage 3, which is a year-long deep dive called Incubating Innovation.

Staging Change is a program designed to address the challenges and opportunities that confront performing arts companies in an ever-shifting landscape. In their pursuit of increased public value and impact, these companies face opportunities big and small, while the challenges can be either persistent or temporary. When addressing these challenges, organizational leadership can call upon on a number of existing or known strategies that are often highly successful. But when there is no known response that guarantees positive outcomes because underlying assumptions have either been ignored or are no longer valid, then relying on best practices or external expertise no longer cuts it. In this moment of complexity, next or emergent practices are the only way to effectively shift organizational culture.