The Rapture of an Idea

by Hallie Gordon

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for The Rapture of an Idea

 (Civic arts leader and The Compass playwright Michael Rohd introduces a speaker for a Project Compass event, Paul Fagen, a clinical social worker, and explains the format for the afternoon’s conversation around decision-making, All photos by Lauren Sivak)

(This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
As our team dives deeper into the reality of creating an App intended to help users (for this experiment, our focus is upon young adults/teens, as they comprise the majority of our audience) make better, more ethical decisions than they might without guidance, an App we’re calling The Compass, we are uncovering a complex, layered conversation about how young people make such decisions and the myriad of ways in which society both supports and confounds that process, through a web of pressures and precedents every day.

Our first foray in this experiment was to hold a special symposium for Steppenwolf staff and our Young Adult Council around decision-making. We invited two guests: Paul Fagin, a licensed clinical social worker, and Mike Kelly, owner and CEO of Ora Ventures (a leading Chicago App developer), and facilitated by Michael Rohd. My hope was to start getting our staff excited about this project, and ultimately get them involved. We made the announcement at the All Staff Meeting and let everyone know that lunch would be provided, hoping that would help with attendance. Our expectation was low. Maybe 10 staff members? We had a total of 45 staff members which included our Executive Director, Artistic Director and Managing Director. Now you might be thinking: “Well maybe they were just hungry for Jimmy John’s”. This was not the case. Michael facilitated a great conversation around the factors that govern making individual decision and the principles of good application design. After this guided conversation, we broke into groups and discussed issues of morality, ethics, trauma, and peer pressure. Below is a quote that came out of that symposium from Paul Fagan, as we were all thinking about conflict resolution and impulsive decision-making:

“….Think about it as if the person was on fire you would never say to someone while they were on fire ‘What happened? Why are you on fire? Did you do that thing again?’ You would just put out the fire, and then attend to the issue. And I think that is a good way to look at decision-making when it comes to The Compass, that if someone is on fire we’re not going to start problem-solving with them on how to start fire proofing their home.”


(Paul Fagen, a clinical social worker, responds to questions
from the audience around teen decision-making)

When talking to Mike Kelly of Ora Ventures, he was asked by Michael Rohd when considering the ethics of an App like The Compass – one intended to exert influence on a user’s decision-making – if any Apps that he has been involved in creating, have been released into the world and then taken on some surprising or unexpected user-driven direction that pushed its use into ethically shady territory. Mike threw this question back to us:

“…Has anybody here downloaded something like that?”

A staff member replied the following:

“My husband likes to speed, and he hates cameras or red lights. He has this App that allows crowdsourcing where different cameras are, and where the police are pulling people over for speeding. And I was thinking what if you’re prone to drunk driving, and you wanted to use the app to map your way home? That would be an unethical use of that.”


(Mark Kelley, CEO and Founder of Ora Ventures, responds to a question from
civic arts leader and The Compass
playwright Michael about App development)

Ahhhh… so, given the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the high potential for an App in the hands of unpredictable users to deviate from its original intent, how do we figure out an ethical framework or roadmap to guide the design of The Compass? In the same way we’d worry about handing teens volatile chemicals for unsupervised use, what would we actually be putting in the hands of youth? In order to help devise a strategy on this potentially troubling score, we had a conversation with Dr. Deborah Sptiz M.D., Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at University of Chicago; she gave us this to think about:

“…There is a classic study, a vignette given to children to see how they think, and it goes sort of like this: a man whose wife is very sick from cancer is too poor to get the medication that she needs, so he breaks in and enters a drug store and steals the medication. Is what he did right or wrong? Young children will say very clearly that it was wrong, that stealing is wrong, so they are operating under a very formal rule. As children get a little older, they see the nuances of this: that he was helping his wife, and he didn’t steal money for himself, he stole because his wife was really sick and that’s not fair. Then as people get even more sophisticated, and obviously some people in our society never reach this level, some people start to say ‘What does it mean to be a just society? A just society should never put someone in the position of having to steal so as to save his wife, and because the society is unjust we’re not going to say he did an unjust act, we’re going to say that society is unjust and he was put in an Impossible situation.’ So people who study moral development note that children move from a very rule based ‘this is right and this is wrong’ into something more nuanced.”

Rapture_image11(A member from Steppenwolf’s Young Adult Council shares his response
to the conversation around teen decision making)

One of our Young Adult Council members had this to say about decision-making:

“If we had a device like [The Compass] App to make decisions for us we would lose those things that we can discover about ourselves. I think when I am making a difficult decision and discovering who I am in making that decision, who I consult in that decision, what parts of myself and what parts of my past do I reach out to make what I think is the proper decision. I think the device could tell you what you think your morals are, but I think there are a lot of things that you miss about yourself in that device, in that App. A lot of the conversation is about the device and how it would work, but the device doesn’t bring out that personal conversation with yourself. Nothing can ever replace that. Personally, if I didn’t have those personal conversations with myself, I’d miss it.”


(A member of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult Council shares her opinions around teen decision making)

This became our first multigenerational conversation in which staff had an opportunity to be in groups with younger adults discussing the many aspects and complications of making sound decisions. I have been working at Steppenwolf for twelve years, and this is the first time I can remember having such an engaging lunch with my fellow colleagues and teens alike. So many aspects of our lives and outcomes hinge upon the choices we make along the way – it is riveting to witness teens (emerging into the ethical landscape of adulthood, and are therefore attuned to the components of such decisions) and my colleagues (who are compelled to examine the ingredients of such decisions – ingredients that are usually submerged in the accretion of their experience and history) collaborating to unpack the concepts and conventions nested inside such decision-making.

Rapture_image13(Kaleigh Lockhart, a member of Steppenwolf’s Development team, discusses the
pros and cons of creating an App to aid in teen decision making)

This is only the start of what is certain to be a productive and thought-provoking investigation on how we can engage our audience to help build a more robust multigenerational audience, better prepared to appreciate the value of learning alongside one another. Based on these preliminary inquiries, I am confident that this project is certain to yield some captivating and intriguing results, which I hope will be of interest and use to the field at large, as we forge a more interactive and collaborative future between artists and audiences.

(A member of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult Council shares
his opinions on decision-making with the larger group)

Hallie Gordon_headshotHallie Gordon (Artistic and Educational Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults) has created and facilitated many educational programs for Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Along with selecting the young adult productions each season she has created the Young Adult Council, these high school students collectively help to create innovative programming for their peers. As Educational Director Hallie has worked closely with the Chicago Public Schools to create an environment in which all students and teachers have access to the theatre. Hallie is the founder and co-creator of Now Is The Time a city-wide initiative inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance. As a theatre artist Hallie has directed Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre, for Steppenwolf the world premiere of The Book Thief, To Kill A Mockingbird, the world premiere of a new adaptation by Tanya Saracho of The House on Mango Street, and Harriet Jacobs adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond. A new premier of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye also adapted by Lydia R. Diamond which won a Black Excellence Award from the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, This production also transferred Off-Broadway to The New Victory Theatre. She has directed staged readings for The Goodman Theatre, Timeline Theatre, Chicago Dramatists and Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Hallie is the recipient of The Helen Coburn Meier & Tim Meier Achievement Award.


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience  engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • Tom Arvetis

    Very exciting, Hallie. I look forward to hearing more.