Sunday, April 15, 2012

Opening up the shop

A Guardian Careers article today about networking made reference to a piece of research by a man called Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management near Chicago. It's a piece of research on Broadway musicals which I read about some years ago and which has really stuck in my head ever since. Now it's come up in the press again just as I'm trying to write a blog piece about collaboration.

Essentially, the conclusion of the research was that the ideal team to create a successful Broadway musical (measured on both critical response and commercial success) is made up of both people who know each other well and have worked together before and people who are new. The success of the team had more effect than the individuals involved. The networks of people who work together on such projects are small, which can be beneficial (presumably as you are not reinventing the wheel on working practices and knowing who does what well) but only up to a point: keeping a totally closed shop means that you are not allowing in new ways of working or challenges to your assumptions. This reduces the potential for creativity and innovation, as you're less likely to come up with something that hasn't been done before.

I've been to quite a few networking events in the last couple of months and the theme of bringing people together, collaboration, strength in numbers, space to share and get feedback, seems huge in the theatre world at the moment, both for small and larger companies. It's not all cosy: there are varying and I suspect often individually mixed motivations. Some are selfish, some are driven by necessity, some are genuinely about wanting to share and collaborate. Individual artists and small companies feel they need funding, support, space, feedback and some of their administrative burdens eased. But for me this shows that both large and small organisations should also be looking at how they keep introducing new voices into their creative process as well as just the practical reasons for collaboration.

I don't find networking easy, and much of the advice - back to the Guardian Careers article, and another producer's blog I'm enjoying, What Producers Do - says don't "cold" network, start with the people you know. It's right that not to feel sleazy and to make the most valuable connections there needs to be some kind of meaningful connection rather than just being out there to get what you can from people. However, for a start, what if you don't know many people in the industry? To be fair, both those sources talk then about what Guardian Careers calls "weak ties" - the friends of friends and the acquaintances. But even then, if you're focusing on those you know and their networks, you may be limiting the possibilities hugely by widening the numbers but not widening the type of people you meet: like attracts like. It's important to make the effort to reach out, too.

Deep in the tectonic plates of my own personal theatre sphere, things are creaking, and there is that slight humming in the air which makes it feel as though progress, though hard to see perhaps, is being made again after the set back earlier this year. There are two projects I'm hoping to make happen with one of my very good friends. Our relationship started as a work colleagues, moved to friendship, and now is beginning to encompass both again. One project is a multi-media theatre piece, the other a development project for emerging artists. We had a meeting about the latter last night and though it's ambitious, it feels coherent and, just about, possible.

Definitely part of the strength of our relationship is our shared understanding. We can be totally honest about what's working and what isn't, and I find her an absolutely invaluable collaborator. I'm better at making things happen than coming up with ideas, and I really struggle with devising projects on my own. I've learnt the hard way that sitting trying to write a project proposal by myself, even in the draft stages, whether my idea or someone else's, just doesn't get me anywhere. It's partly because I get bogged down in my own head and find it hard to gain clarity without talking things through; it's also because I can only get so far with the more creative elements of a project and need someone artistic to be contributing. One reason why I'm definitely a producer not a director!

Still, we both also definitely recognise that we'll need to bring other people in and also that what we do is made richer by the fact that we both also work on other projects and with other teams. It's one reason why the freelance role does suit creatives even though income and work is then potentially less reliable: you need to be able to get inspiration from lots of different sources, experience different approaches and working methods and therefore keep being able to question and challenge yourself.

So, to cut a long story short, this is part of what one of our projects is aiming to achieve. We'd like to open up access to the industry to those who don't already have the money, resources or connections to get ahead and who therefore may be far less likely to be able to succeed however much individual talent they possess. We'd also like to offer the chance for more experienced established artists to shake up and refresh their practice by working with someone new who might have different ideas, not just creatively but practically. We'd like to bring together people from different art forms and allow ideas to start from and go to different places. I'm really excited about it. If I make it happen, though, it won't be on my own.