The Space of Performance
Here is the next installment of the inquiry into the building of ensemble and process of creation. This post focuses on the space of performance – the place in which the ensemble and creation works culminates. I look forward to any question or comments.
The Space of Performance
The grounding assumption in this work is that action taken by groups operates along a continuum between a space of performance and a space of creation.
The inquiry starts in the space of performance because I believe our performances are the embodiment of our understanding. Whether large or small, a performance makes manifest what we believe – it reveals us to the world. By starting with performance - our embodied understanding - we can seek to discover what process brings that understanding into being. What it means to travel from creation to performance.
With that in mind consider the following definition:
A performance is the public display of our understanding of a challenge/question.
In the theatre analogy, an actor accepts a role and over the course of the rehearsal process will create a performance which embodies all their understanding about the situation, the relationships, and the purpose: everything they believe is of value about the character. The role is the challenge/question and the performance makes public their understanding (all they have come to know) about that particular challenge/question.
In the same way any service, initiative, product, process, project, platform, or program can be seen as a performance – the public sharing of your understanding (all you have come to know either as an individual or group) about the challenge/question at hand.
Given that, I believe that there are three areas within which it is important to strive for clarity when preparing to share understanding publicly:
The System: We endeavour to fully understand the system within which we are acting.
Our Actions: We seek to know what actions we should take within this system to address the question or challenge. Furthermore we want to be aware of the impact – intended and unintended - our actions have within the system.
The Signal: While acting within the system we strive to discover what information / feedback we need to attend to and what we can ignore. As well, we want to understand the key relationships on which to focus.
Each area naturally influences the other. They do not exist in isolation; rather they are parts of a greater whole.
Reaching complete clarity in each of these areas is rare. Yet in our preparation for performance I believe we strive toward that ideal. It is also my belief that we do not seek control by striving for clarity. Rather we work to release ourselves from the performance and thus be available for what emerges in the moment. In the literature around the development of expertise, a necessary step in achieving mastery is to make routine as many actions as possible in order to clear cognitive space for higher level challenges. I would also submit that in performance we need to act from the place of certainty in order to step fully into emergent possibility; one of the key paradoxes in performance. I would also propose that a performance remains dynamic by taking in real time feedback (part of the signal identified), making adjustments, and achieving ongoing levels of clarity in each area. This makes it possible to continue to act with certainty and be open to emergent possibility (another key paradox of performance).
If our preparation – the rehearsal process – creates clarity for us in the three areas mentioned above, we can then give ourselves over to the acts of performance:
- Direct every action in service of revealing our understanding
- Commit fully to the actions discovered (and embodiment is key to this commitment)
- Stay connected / aligned to the signals identified in the system as you act
Engaging in these acts of performance – I believe – is what creates focus and therefore confidence within a performance.
This leads to the most common relationship we have developed to organize groups of people to engage with these acts of performance: the “team”. A slight disclaimer with this term: when speaking of “team” I refer to the conventional, ordinary sense of the word. It is not the heightened sense of “team” that is sometimes evoked but the kind of relationship people experience 80% of the time when working in groups. This “team” has three main characteristics:
Hierarchy: There are defined levels of responsibility and accountability.
Role dependence: People have an area of focus that is associated with a particular role. They focus their attention within that area, listening to role specific signal.
Outcome focus: There is a clear outcome to be achieved by the team. Within each role there is an outcome for which they are accountable.
This way of organizing people to engage in performance is one choice. If we take as an ideal that people are collectively displaying their understanding of a question / challenge after a process where they have developed clarity around the actions, system, and signal, then organizing as a team can be useful in performance. At that point the three areas mentioned above become more nuanced and the negative impacts in each area are reduced.
I believe the “team” as a way of organizing group performance breaks down when it is only asked to perform and not create (which I believe most teams are asked to do). When people are assembled into roles, given an outcome, and directed to publicly display the understanding developed by others, a performance will naturally lose its depth.
Within a reduced performance of this type I think you see a greater emphasis on formal leadership and hierarchy. This is the valuing of the structure of a team rather than the work of a team. Likewise some leadership development has focused on equipping people in formal leadership positions with the tools / processes to move people quickly into performance.
There are other possible ways to bring people together to realize deep performances that are expressions of understanding. I will share one that I have been exploring – the ensemble. But before that we will explore the other side of the continuum - the space of creation – linking it to the space of performance in the next post.
 This idea is inspired by the Centre for Creative Leadership who defines leadership as the social processes that result in direction, alignment and commitment.