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The Art and Craft of Facilitating System Change: Setting the Stage

Ian Prinsloo
February, 2018


In several recent articles, I have explored the relationship between my past work in theatre and the current work I am doing as a part of Reos Partners. My focus has been on examining the ways that the creative process and artistic practices can contribute to multi-sector system change work. Specifically, how can techniques from theatre and improv help people address multi-sector system change?

In this and subsequent articles, I want to take that inquiry further to explore the following hypothesis: that facilitating system change work can be both an art and a craft, and that the frame for that art and craft can be drawn from the theatre world’s rehearsal process.

In the last article in this series, I talked about isomorphism, a mathematical term that describes how you can use one area of knowledge as a map for exploring another less know area. The intention with this article is to articulate the isomorphic connections[1] between the rehearsal process and multi-sector systems change work as a way of setting the map for the inquiry.

1. Theatre is a social art form.

To be fully realized, theatre – unlike many other art forms – requires regular interaction between different people. A play may begin with a single person, but it quickly involves a creative team (director, dramaturge, designers, choreographers, etc.) to develop the idea fully. Next, a new group – the actors –contribute to the embodiment of the work. Finally, the shared work requires interaction with an audience to test the impact of what has been created. The work evolves through the inclusion and participation of each new group of people. And central to the process of moving from an idea to a full-fledged play is the ability to actively engage each new group of people and involve them in the ongoing creation of the work.

2. Relationships matter and are foundational to making progress.

The quality of the relationships you develop as you work together can be the difference between success and failure. How can you foster high-quality relationships in a creative setting? By encouraging people to be playful, challenge each other, build intimacy, and take risks. When you focus on relationship as a primary outcome of any process, you set the stage for people to build the kinds of strong bonds that are necessary to persist in those moments when things get difficult and the goal seems out of reach. People will need to turn to each other to move forward. Without strong relationships, this mutual support isn’t possible.

3. You must be willing to reveal yourself over and over again.

To connect with others, people need to continually look to their own experiences and understanding of the situation under inquiry and be willing to share that personal perspective with others. In theatre, this process of reflection and sharing is called “making an offer,” and it is the action that drives the work. As each person reveals their view, the group begins to knit their various perspectives together into a larger vision. This willingness to reveal and share yourself in service of a larger goal is what makes a work of theatre personal and authentic.

4. Nothing happens until you try something.

As the joke says, “In a ham omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” Likewise, we are only truly creating when we commit to doing something in public to which others can respond. Ideas, thoughts, and hunches are only guesses until they become actions. It is not enough to simply tell people your inner thoughts; you need to take those insights and put them into action to see where they might lead. To do so, you must move before you fully understand what your insight means. You act in order to understand.

5. You work from patterns to bring forth emergence.

Acting has a central paradox: You must do something each night that appears to be happening for the first time. This paradox leads many to believe that actors can lie well, but that isn’t the case. Rather, they are adept at creating the conditions under which a uniquely authentic performance emerges each night. To make this happen, theatre artists develop practices to manage emergence. They know the process choices they can rely on to create the best conditions for the insight or breakthrough to emerge. And once this energy is released, they know how to work with it to extend the possibility further.

These five areas are not separate, discrete areas but rather interact with each other on a continual basis. The act of separating them here is only done to draw attention to the qualities of each area. As we explore the way this is made manifest with the rehearsal process we will see how each practice draws on the strengths of various areas simultaneously.

In the next article, we will focus on the central capacity in theatre to take a subjective experience and move it out of yourself so you can see it, shape it, and make it something new. This capacity – known in developmental psychology as the subject-object move – is what creates the insights and breakthroughs that allow multi-sector system change work to take hold. We will look at this idea in greater detail and share some of the ways it can be applied in change work.

[1] For a detailed explanation of “isomorphic connections,” please see the previous article. In short it means the structural connections one object shares with another (rather than the mere surface similarities they share).

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