Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
The facilitation and culture change practice I engage in with social change organizations is part and parcel of a decades-long, abiding inquiry in group process that began with theater directing in my early 20s.
I value theater for its bracing ability to shine a light on presence and beingness. When you go to the theater, there is something happening in front of you that involves living, breathing humans–right now! When I work with people in organizations, it is the same.
Over the winter, I became reacquainted with the work of André Gregory, one of my favorite theater artists and director extraordinaire. Gregory talks about the process of creating theater as one akin to creating a happy family, where the director fosters a nurturing, intimate environment. The same approach can be applied when working with people and organizations. Gregory’s approach, like mine, is to create optimal conditions for deep exchange and creativity to emerge.
I first came across Gregory during my undergraduate days, when I was inhaling any documentation I could get my hands on concerning experimental ensemble theater work from the 60s and 70s.
I communed with Jerzy Grotowski, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Brook, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Eugenio Barba, Richard Schechner, and many others. I pored over old copies of TDR/The Drama Review and searched the library shelves, book by book, for titles of interest.
One title jumped out at me and grabbed my heart. Alice in Wonderland: The Forming of a Company and Making of a Play (1973) was an utter revelation to me, and I repeatedly checked it out. I was mesmerized. The text. The images. The intentionality. The intensity. It was composed of captivating photographs by Richard Avedon, as well as interviews by Doon Arbus with each of the seven ensemble members of Gregory’s Manhattan Project.
Made in the CFA, a site-specific, ensemble performance I created and documented in 1990 is so deeply influenced by the work of André Gregory and its subsequent documentation that it’s hard for me, nearly 30 years later, to untangle what’s mine, what’s his, and what’s ours.
Fast forward to 2019 and my work with organizations. Gregory’s approach to group process, like mine, is to create the conditions and hold space for emergence.
I hardly ever tell an actor to do anything. I never impose my own ideas. I don’t really have any until after I’ve seen something. Then I know. Somehow I find a way to bring out what in me through them.
Gregory’s words deeply resonate with me. In my work with organizations, I offer a few key parameters that encourage people to fully manifest and bring their best selves forward. What’s central to this work is offering the conditions that will foster productive ways of being together and then getting out of the way so that organizations can continue the work sustainably.
For Gregory, the theatre is not about performance, but instead, is ‘an act of prayer.’ Performing… is really about ‘the art of being.’
Ultimately, performing–whether it’s in the theater or with your colleagues in a social change organization–is about the art of being. The art of being present to yourself and others. The art of being open, taking risks, trying something new, failing, trying something else, learning, and trusting.
André was committed to experiment. Not to experimental theater–which is an old concept–but to work itself. To work without knowing where it might lead. To just keep working until something resulted and then see what it was.
(Manhattan Project ensemble member Gerry Bamman)
People in change-oriented organizations benefit hugely from shining the light on themselves, examining how they’re functioning internally, and practicing the art of being. My work with organizations is centered on fostering this sense of beingness, one which ultimately results in greater impact in the world.
I fall in love with an actor…. I’m in there with the actor, in their bodies, in their souls, but I don’t believe in telling them what to do. I believe in them and I’m there just as a coach to help them go further.
(2013 interview with Andre Gregory)