Teresa’s Weekly Update: Innovation Edition

by Teresa Eyring

in Weekly Update

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“…this crystallized what I had experienced in Europe: the feeling that there was a competition among different directors and companies to out-innovate one another, and this was their main way of attracting new audiences.”
– Howard Shalwitz, “Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?”

As we at TCG sift through all of the ideas and discussions generated by the 2012 National Conference, I find Howard Shalwitz’s keynote speech resonating with an increasing persistence. It is well worth a read, and a re-read, and a long mulling-over. What I find particularly useful is Howard’s notion that our movement’s perceived failure of innovation is actually a product of our success. What’s more, that success – the building of a replicable process that consistently turns out great stories well-told on a tight deadline and limited budget – is itself the product of an innovation: the resident theatre movement.

But Howard also likens that process to a corporate “assembly line,” which in Woolly’s case has three steps: play development, design process and rehearsal. Different collaborators are brought in at different points, with the actors – who are typically not added in until the very end of the process – being the most squeezed for creative time.

He talks about the Group Theatre as the most revolutionary of theatres because they developed a process that encouraged “a shared sense of purpose” among the collaborators about the art itself and its relationship to the major issues of the times. This is certainly more difficult to accomplish with the current assembly line model, as “innovation happens when all disciplines are working together.” As Howard quotes the French-American director Dominique Serrand as saying, “In Europe, the first job of the director is to re-invent the art form of theatre for every production. In the U.S., this job isn’t even on the list of what most directors hope to achieve.”

However, he holds out hope that this innovation can occur within the resident theatre movement, calling not for a whole-sale abandonment of the process that powered our movement’s growth, but for “practical strategies to gain control of the assembly line and make room for innovation” (emphasis mine). His call for “a revolution of process” builds on the progress made by what he identifies as preceding revolutions of purpose and access instead of tearing them down.

How can we empower this revolution of process, this restructuring of our organizations to support the ongoing reinvention of our art? At TCG, we foster the research and implementation of innovative ideas through our MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program: Think It, Do It. Our recently announced Leadership U[niversity] grants help both emerging and mid-career/veteran theatre professionals step outside of their daily grinds to try out some risky thinking. Support for innovative thinking can also be found through opportunities like EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, which is now accepting proposals through August 7.

There is no greater spur to innovation, however, than bumping up against surprising new ideas on a regular basis. Such is the sidewalk theory of innovative communities proposed by neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer at our 2010 National Conference in Chicago, and underscored by the “Bell Labs miracle” that housed scientists of various disciplines under a single roof. This is what Howard calls for by integrating all members – not just playwrights – of a creative team into the multi-year research and development phase of new work. This is what happens when people come together to collide new ideas at our in-person convenings, and what we hope to encourage in virtual form through our year-round online community, Conference 2.0. For if knowledge is power then innovation comes from plugging into each other.