Sunday, April 21, 2019

“Vision with action can change the world”: Planning for Impact in Artistic Contexts

ASSITEJ International President Yvette Hardie’s Keynote Address at the 2019 IPAY Showcase

Bertrand Russell said that “real life is a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible…”. This is also true of artistic projects. How does one design impact into a project plan and then ensure that the impact is delivered and measured?

Yvette Hardie draws on experiences of hosting the first ASSITEJ World Congress in Africa to suggest key strategies, opportunities and pitfalls. 

What is impact…? It’s quite a violent word really. Imagine the impact of an asteroid smashing into Planet Earth, in the middle of my country, South Africa, at a place today known as Vredefort, more than 2 billion years ago, resulting in rock being rained down 2500 kms away to form what is today’s northwest Russia and Scandanavia; leaving a crater some 380 kms across and 50 kms deep; changing the climate of the planet for millions of years; changing the landscape forever. That’s impact!

When we talk about impact in the context of theatre, we generally don’t mean something quite so cataclysmic, random or violent. But, nevertheless we do want to leave a mark – perhaps not a gigantic crater, but a mark, nonetheless.

For me, what impact means could be summed up in the words, ‘What Remains.’

When the transitory experience is over, when the stage lights are turned off, what remains? When the project is over and the final report is in, what remains?

And what remains “for who?” and “for what purpose,” and what has changed, and what will still change because of the mark we have left? And, does “what remains” have the potential to give birth to something new?

When ASSITEJ SA started to think about the possibility of bringing the ASSITEJ World Congress to Africa for the first time, there was a lot of doubt about the idea. There had never been an ASSITEJ event on African soil in the fifty year history of the organization. Would we be able to find support for the project? Would people be prepared to travel to South Africa to attend? Did we have the expertise to pull it off? We have never had a dedicated international festival of theatre for children and young people in South Africa – so could we get locals to understand the importance of hosting such a thing?

Then, South African theatre for young audiences has been a pretty haphazard affair, poorly funded, with few platforms for showcasing work outside of schools and creches, and with only two permanent theatre spaces dedicated to work for children in the country. The arts ecosystem is generally unsupportive and full of disconnects.

Would we be able to present work which would be of a high enough standard? And then we had no tested audiences for certain kinds of work, for example, theatre for babies and infants was virtually non-existent. And what about other African work? Most African countries have very poor support for their artists – many don’t have arts councils, so much of the work that does happen is driven by funding agendas and sustainable development goals, and is instrumentalised as a result. Would we be able to gather sufficient diverse productions from the continent to make for a truly African and truly excellent event? And then could we handle an event of this size? A 4-day Congress, a 2-day Conference, a 12 day festival presenting work from every continent? We are a small organization with only – at that stage – a six year history. It was all very intimidating. Would we be able to pull it off? Should we even try?

But then we started to ask ourselves the question, what did we want to remain after the event? What was the potential impact of the event? And as we explored what it might mean for us, it seemed self-evident that we had to find a way to do it.

So for us the first step in planning for this event, was visioning not the event itself, but rather engaging imaginatively with what we hoped the impact of our project might be.

What kind of a theatre for young audiences industry did we want to see fostered by hosting this event? Who did we want to be part of the conversation who had never been there before? Whose attention did we want to get? Who did we want to be able to partner with? What strengths did we want to share with the rest of the world, and what did we see as being new possibilities for our work into the future? What work did we want to see on South African stages that wasn’t there yet? What venues did we want to see engaging with TYA work and taking it seriously? What opportunities did we want to see available for South African and African artists? And what did we want this to mean for ASSITEJ as an international association? How did we want to change the make-up of the organisation? Literally, how did we want to change the map of ASSITEJ?

We kept these questions in mind as we defined and designed the event. As we worked, we stopped seeing the World Congress as an event of a certain number of days, but rather as a programme of work of several years with a kind of peak-experience crowning it – the Congress – which, if successful, could have far-reaching consequences.

We named the World Congress and Performing Arts Festival, the Cradle of Creativity – a name that spoke to both Africa’s place as an original home for all people and therefore all creative impulses, and to the birthing of something new.

So once we had a sense of what it was we wanted to do, we then set about planning the event. But as we planned, we constantly asked questions about impact and about how we monitor and evaluate this impact through the process. Questions like who do we want to impact and how will we know what the impact is? How many audiences do we want to reach, and where should they be coming from? How can we best achieve this? What will be the best mechanisms to track this information? Who needs to be involved?

To give you some concrete examples:

An impact we hoped for: We wanted African work to become more visible globally – to be present within ASSITEJ events, within the festivals of ASSITEJ members and to be a source of inspiration for international visitors. When we spoke about Cradle of Creativity to potential funders, we talked about showcasing Africa to the world. But we were also worried. Because of the dearth of funding for TYA in South Africa and other parts of the continent, would we be able to find sufficient work for a range of ages and sufficiently diverse to be interesting to our delegates and audiences? Would we be able to present a programme of work of which we could be truly proud? Our theme was intercultural collaboration – something which is already at the heart of much South African TYA. But this gave us an opportunity to build partnerships between the global north and south, and in some cases, stimulate collaborative productions which would allow artists to get to know one another in the years preceding the event.

In addition, we embarked on a programme we called Congress Incubation – which took many forms. It started three years ahead of the Congress, and included an African playwrighting development programme and festival, and the mentorship of artists in the development and touring of new productions within South Africa. It targeted creating work for early years, dance work for young audiences and non-didactic work for teenagers – all areas we felt needed special attention and investment.

Through this programme, we were able to contribute to the development of a number of new works, and to raise the awareness and buy-in of artists and audiences simultaneously. Children and young people were part of the process of engaging with this new work and giving input to its development; the work was showcased at festivals and in schools, raising the profile of ASSITEJ SA; and interesting teachers and gatekeepers in the Congress which was to come; and artists began to see the Congress not just as some distant event, but as something they were co-creating with us and which was providing immediate and concrete opportunities for them.

In measuring the development and impact of this new work, we were test-driving some of our systems for monitoring and evaluating the Congress. We were testing mechanisms for observing responses, extracting the information and getting funders involved as partners in working towards the bigger event. Not all of this work made it to Congress, but we were able to stimulate the field in ways which had a big impact on what we finally had to select from.

Part of this planning process was also to think about how to enhance or extract most value and impact from each element of the event. I do not like waste! I call this approach, “squeezing the lemon”; using every element in multiple creative ways – thinking about using the pips, the rind, the flesh, the juice…not wasting any opportunity. So as we designed the event, we looked for ways to ensure maximum impact by considering how we could utilize the lemon in diverse ways which would speak to multiple constituencies.

An example: The reality of the South African context is that most children are economically and often also geographically excluded from accessing theatre. Because of our history, this plays out on racial and language-based lines as well. It was vital that we find ways to get children and young people who would otherwise not experience something like Cradle to feel part of the experience, otherwise we would have felt that we had failed.

We were able to secure a bus sponsor who would help to bring audiences into the theatres, but this wasn’t enough. We also wanted the international guests to understand the dynamics and complexities of our country, and to experience the realities that our artists are grappling with when they are touring their work into schools and communities. We wanted to contextualize the work for them. And so we devised the idea of Cultural hubs, four township centers for performance and discussion which were mini-festivals within the larger event, allowing for greater accessibility and reach for our audiences.

Another impact that we felt the need to address was youth unemployment, which is a major issue in South Africa, particularly for those aged 18-25. So in devising these Cultural hubs, we decided to train up 50 young under-26 year old artists as cultural managers, technical staff and programmers, to run these spaces as mini-festivals. This meant that we were able to attract funding from organizations which had a particular interest in youth training and employment, and that we were able to give 50 young artists full access to Cradle of Creativity. Further, they were able to shape these spaces and participate in the conversations that happened in them to ensure maximum relevance and meaning for the South African participants.

It had been one of my greatest fears that we might hold this enormous event and that despite our best efforts, local and African artists might not be able to experience it – simply because the barriers to their involvement was too great.

One way to work on this was to build partnerships. By expanding the number of partners we had, we were able to build in a number of elements to the Congress which would have been impossible otherwise. We were able to expand the range of the audience and also of the event itself. We were able to bring in finances or other resources, which had powerful impacts on participation.

We partnered, for example, with the Goethe Institute who were interested in exploring Fair Collaborations with African artists. Through the co-production forum, a further 10 African artists were brought to Cape Town, and a useful side-conversation was developed which spoke to our main theme of intercultural exchange. We also partnered with Queen’s University and the University of Cape Town to develop a complementary Puppetry symposium called Objects with Objectives, which explored connections between puppetry and applied drama. We partnered with a number of provincial arts and culture departments to sponsor artists to attend Cradle from their province. Some of the partnerships were developed over a long period of time and provided numerous layers of activity to the event.

Through these initiatives, we were able to ensure that 189 South Africans and 42 Africans from other countries, were sponsored to experience Cradle of Creativity; this meant that there was a critical mass of artists from across the country and continent, who shared the experience, to ensure that artists understood the international parameters and opportunties of TYA  – and that their awareness of ASSITEJ – became embedded and widespread.

Another way to enlarge the scope of the impact was to ensure multiple entry points to the event to cater for diversity. We looked at the entire ecosystem we were hoping to serve: the children in terms of their ages, their backgrounds, their abilities, their language groupings; the artists in terms of their respective experiences and interests; the international delegates and what they might be hoping for from the event; the teachers and schools authorities; the various levels of government from local, provincial and national; the funders and potential funders. We asked ourselves whether we could find equally compelling entry points to Cradle of Creativity for each of these groupings. What would they need for this to be a potentially transformative experience for them? Could we find a way for them to access the program through their particular window of interest? Of course these questions lead to other questions, around quality, research, methods of engagement, time frames and types of communication with each of these audiences.

One of the mechanisms that we developed to this end was the notion of Focus days. Each day of Cradle of Creativity was themed according to a focus area which we felt might attract a different demographic or part of the arts ecosystem we were trying to address, and then we worked on the marketing and communications through this frame. They included: Theatre and Storytelling, Theatre as Education, Theatre for Social Change, Theatre for Healing, Theatre for Children by Children, Dance for Young Audiences, Inclusive International Arts, Music theatre for Young Audiences, Theatre for the Early Years. We felt if we could get people in through the door one way, they might be interested enough to stay and look around a bit longer. We hoped that this would be inspirational for them and would then lead them to wanting to invest more strongly in the TYA landscape.

Ideally we wanted to offer them a peak experience.

Peak experiences have been proven to be vital to the developmental process and researchers are now claiming that they can also be vital triggers for educational attainment.

Peak moments are moments where we experience insight (shaping the way we see the world), where we experience elevation (we are lifted out of the ordinary), and where we experience connection (a sense of our relatedness to others). They are the moments that make all the difference. They are the moments that make life worthwhile. The moments we remember. We will generally forgive a lot, if we are provided with a peak moment. Maslow believed that these moments are more easily accessed by creative people, and are the basis for self-actualization. Peak experiences have consequences. Very important consequences.

And who better to design peak moments than theatre artists! We are uniquely equipped to plan for impact since this is precisely what we do when we create a theatrical experience for our audiences.

So what are some of the theatre processes or knowledges we have that could potentially link to designing projects or programs for impact?

Casting: A good director knows that the choice of actor is vital – it impacts everything. We can only work with the raw material of the artists we have in front of us. So when working on a project, let’s first ask who, before we ask what. This means making sure that we get the right people on the bus.

Ensemble: A good director is able to create a shared culture and community – and this is vital to success. Jill Dolan calls the rehearsal process as a fleeting experience of utopia where we are all working together, regardless of our status or role, towards a shared vision, with complete trust, commitment and with an eye on the goal.

Give and Gain: this is a philosophy which is found in a lot of devised theatre in South Africa, that every team member’s contribution should be valued while at the same time, each person needs to be given space to grow. Often we will spend time considering what each person has to give to this process and what each person has to gain. If both priorities are satisfied, there is a deeper investment in the outcomes.

Organic energy: This is really about trusting that there is an organic energy at play which needs to be discovered, harnessed and directed. Jim Collins in the book From Good to Great, describes this energy as a flywheel, and says: “When they feel the momentum begin to build, that is when the bulk of people line up to throw their shoulders against the wheel and push”. We definitely found this with Cradle; when there was an accumulation of results towards the event, so people became more energized and wanted to participate, and so the flywheel built momentum, and more people wanted to join.

The universal and the particular: Theatre teaches us to see the big picture and to understand the entire ecosystem, while also considering the detail; “the universe in a grain of sand”. Part of pursuing excellence in the theatre is through taking care of every detail, every person, every moment and understanding how this contributes to the whole.

I believe that we can apply these lessons equally to project management and that through doing this, we will increase our potential for impact through the quality of what we are doing.

Of course it is vital that we capture and measure this impact, and this means a host of related activities – keeping records (quantitative, qualitative, visual, aural) and ideally doing a 360 degree review: I’m not going to go into a lot of details on this point, but it is essential that we consider both internal reviews from all relevant points on the ecosystem, and external reviews, which can help us understand better how we are perceived by others.

It may also mean considering a longer term trajectory for the gathering of this information. Reviewing the responses to the event immediately after the event may give us different information to a week or two down the line and we may still be seeing impacts months and even years after an event.

Of course, tracking and understanding long term impact is not always possible, but where a project is as large and all-consuming as Cradle of Creativity was for us, we are interested in continuing to record – whether methodically or anecdotally – what the ongoing impacts of the work may have been, and what unexpected gains may have been found. And then to find ways to share this impact.

We spend an enormous amount of energy prior to events or projects speaking them up in order to build partnerships and gain resources, but how much energy do we put into the communication after the event or project? How do we continue the conversations with our partners and funders after the program has ended and allow these conversation to be part of a longer term trajectory of heading us towards those larger goals that were part of our planning in the first place?

In the end, we made some mistakes with Cradle of Creativity and there were many lessons which we have learnt and can apply in other projects. Of course, not everyone was happy all of the time, nor did we attain all of our goals. But the impact was real.

Apart from hosting a successful Congress, Conference and Festival for ASSITEJ, we were able to achieve many of our goals. Economically our impact was estimated by our external reviewers as being R92 million, a highly impressive (and for us, unexpected) figure. We contributed to the employment of 831 people. Audience wise, we reached 21,000 attendees, a large number of whom were first time theatre goers, through 63 productions involving 464 artists from 32 countries, with 46 productions being African or collaborations with Africans. We secured participation from a very wide range of stakeholders and attracted 1390 delegates from 78 countries and 7760 local learners who were sponsored or partially sponsored to attend Cradle. Delegates responded favorably to the event, so much so that an epic poem was written as a celebration, with contributions from 62 artists from 30 countries.

What we can say for sure is that we were able to provide some peak experiences, some moments of insight, of connection, of transcendence for our audiences, for our artists, our delegates and for ourselves, and we have managed to see many of the results we had hoped for.

African artists are collaborating internationally and their productions are travelling the world and are far more visible in ASSITEJ events and festivals than ever before. Activity on the ground is far more engaged and there is greater acceptance and acknowledgement of the value of the arts for children and young people in my country from the education authorities. New audiences have been created and there is interest in areas of work where there was no previous precedent. Funders are recognizing the value of the arts for children and are looking at longer term strategies with us. Universities are taking research into Theatre for Young Audiences more seriously. And for those international delegates who attended, they have a strong sense of African realities in making theatre for young audiences, while for Africans there is a far deeper understanding of the international context and conversations. Meanwhile new African ASSITEJ centers have been created and new collaborative projects activated. The ASSITEJ map is changing. And ASSITEJ SA is committed to presenting a biennial international theatre for young audiences festival called Cradle of Creativity, which will continue to generate impact in African TYA, with the first edition happening in Cape Town this August and thereafter moving around to different parts of the country.

Building concepts of impact into the planning of an event can be a way to bring together vision with action. As Nelson Mandela said, “Action without vision is only passing time, Vision without action is merely day dreaming. But vision with action can change the world.”

I believe that every time we consider the notion of impact seriously in our planning and programming, we are making a contribution to changing the world just a little bit.

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