Shameless Plugging: Waiting Room

I have a friend called Dave. He is a playwright. A little while ago I had the seed of an idea for a play, but unlike Dave, I lack the requisite skills in the creative structured translation of thought to page. So, having wanted to collaborate with each other for a while on a creative project, together we mulled over the emerging essence of the idea on a long walk around the Goyt Valley early in 2016. I do find that after about two hours on a walk, my mind really gets to work on the knotty problem of the day, sometimes without my knowing. I’m sure it has something to do with the space, and the quiet padding of forwards motion – personal horizons, literal and perceptual are expanded. I’ve reflected upon this in a previous post, bringing Czikszentmihalyi’s notion of optimal experience, known as flow, into the discussion….

Anyway, digressions, digressions. The result of the walk and then Dave’s talent at translating and expanding upon our joint, amble-centric thinking was a brand new piece of writing: Waiting Room. For reasons which will shortly become apparent, I won’t go into too much detail about the play here and now. However, in the manner of what is hopefully a tempting teaser (again for reasons which will shortly become apparent – stay with me folks) I can tell you that the play is a monologue and is set on a train platform. The circumstances of the central character – Thomas, are frighteningly similar to some of my own personal details. And that’s all you’re getting for now. Unfair? Yes. Necessary? Of course – nothing is done without reason…

So, the Waiting Room was, with a shockingly small rehearsal period (2 days in my dining room), then taken to the Buxton Fringe in 2016. (incidentally, its apparently the 3rd largest Fringe in the UK after Edinburgh and Brighton) The piece was premiered for a short run in a lovely little performance space in the top room of the Green Man Gallery and played to sold-out houses (very small houses – maisonettes, really) on each performance. And, despite my occasional departures from the exact words of the script, (causing Dave to have kittens as he was operating the sound) it went well; 5 star reviews; yours truly was nominated in the Fringe awards for Best Actor, and the piece itself won Best Theatre Production. Which was nice, because Dave and I were just testing it out. You can see a review from the 2016 Buxton Fringe performances here.

So then we thought about putting it on again, just to see if the friendly Buxton audience were simply being nice. (Buxton is a nice place). We took it for two nights to the Kings Arms at Salford – a fantastically active and welcoming fringe venue (with good ale, which is always a bonus). Again, a good reception and some more positive reviews. I actually stuck to the script most of the time (Dave no longer had kittens midway through the performance) and said efforts were rewarded; a nomination for Best Performer in a Fringe Show in the 2017 Manchester Theatre Awards. I have to go to Home in March for a spangly do. I expect there may be canapés and fizzy stuff. I’m genuinely chuffed.

But wait, there’s yet more, folks; the piece has been a welcome opportunity for me to get back to performance and to practice as research. After I finished the PhD (2014) the thought of writing, or researching anything was a feeling akin to having nails dragged down a blackboard, or being tied to a chair and being made to watch the Sound of Music twice; essentially unpalatable. However, after a couple of obligatory articles/ pieces from my PhD, this work has facilitated a return to research. It’s been such fun. And here comes the reason for the prior holding back of detail – Waiting Room is now scheduled for a single night of performance at the University of Salford’s very own New Adelphi Theatre on March 2nd 2017. Yippee and Hurrah.

This performance will be the icing on the cake for me. It’s the proverbial icing for several reasons; it allows me, as a senior leader of the university, to present my research as practice to colleagues and students and do so in a manner that runs the risk of me going wrong in public – keeping me on my toes (no pressure Sam – even though at the time of writing it’s a month away, the sense of personal/ reputational risk is already a palpable presence in my stomach when I think about it). It also allows me to share a different side of my working practice with interested parties at our university, and finally and best of all, I get to a chance to personally contribute to embedding research within student learning journeys – something I’m wanting academic colleagues to routinely do as part of our ‘ICZ ready’ curriculum; In the case of Waiting Room there’s a post show talk for students, and the performance has been woven into the curriculum diet of some undergraduate performance programmes as well as having given rise to a small number of live briefs.

After this, I’ll be working with students to turn it into a radio play and a film, (more live briefs) then there’s a bit of research which, bouncing off themes explored in my PhD, reflects on the nature of optimal states of being for the performer across all three mediums.

Anyhow… In the meantime, I’m excited about March 2nd. And it would be fantastic to see lots of you there, you lovely readers, you. So here’s the shameless plug; Waiting Room March 2nd, New Adelphi Theatre, University of Salford. MIMO. It lasts about an hour, meaning you can fit in a glass of wine and also be home at a respectable time on a School Night. Best of all, you can get your tickets here.

See you next week.

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Not a meeting…

I had a great meeting at work recently. Actually, ‘meeting’ is the wrong title for such a, erm… meeting. However, ‘session’ sounds a bit too much like we were making free-form jazz and ‘brainstorm’ describes a wholly unproductive use of time in which several people chase ideas along a single thread, where one person could probably do nearly as much.

It was a… gathering (nevermind) of several people, without formal agenda, but with a clear idea of the territory we would be exploring, but without a predetermined idea of outcome, ok?

I was excited about this, because the frame of the… assembly (Nope. Again; sorry) as well as the topic of discussion, offered the possibility for invention. In reflecting on it, I’m reminded of a simulation exercise I did as part of the Leadership Foundation’s SLP3 programme.

The simulation was fun. The SLP3 cohort – a group of about 20 or so colleagues from across UK HEIs – were split into two fictitious institutional management teams, with each team being given a dedicated room. One team was the management team of a small specialist HEI with a distinct heritage and character, which, whilst being of some prestige, did not, unfortunately make ends meet. This small specialist had consequently entered into a partnership with the local large HEI – represented by the other institutional management team, comprising the remainder of the SLP3 cohort. Fed by ‘real time’ facilitator interruptions and ‘new information’ the task for both teams was to balance the competing demands of the changing situation and arrive at a favourable outcome for all. The simulation lasted about 5 hours. It passed in seconds…

Of course what the exercise was actually designed to experientially examine was working team dynamics. A facilitator was assigned to each room and at the end of the exercise, each team had a detailed plenary and discussion about the behaviours and points that had arisen.

Very useful and insightful… more in a minute, as what I’d like to say needs to come at the end.

Jump back across to the real world …

Myself and three colleagues were having a… get-together (awful descriptor – too redolent of a 1970’s cheese and wine do) to do some creative thinking around aspects of the organisational development aligned to the Education and Student Experience Strategy. It had been a while coming because, learning from the previous experience of myself and one other colleague in the room, we put aside three hours for this meeting (the last one had been a four hour + creative blitz) and finding a slot where all four of us had three consecutive hours available all at the same time had been a feat of outlook acrobatics…

So, the…summit (help me) happened and predictably (or surprisingly depending on your stance) 3 hours again disappeared in seconds, confirming that time has nothing to do with the man made construct of the clock, but is an Individual Thing dependent upon ones attitude to the activity being undertaken. During this time, as was the case in the SLP simulation, the bubble occurred – that absorbing liminal space often found at the bottom of a book, or in the pursuit of crafting something, or practicing something.

My PhD focused on the nature of this absorption, itself an essential component of flow. I’ve discovered through the doctoral study and in further reflections, big and small, that absorption is essentially a kind of conversation between the self and other; instances wherein one loses oneself in the doing and the other kind of takes over a little. In these periods of time, the creative direction of travel seems to almost take on a life of its own and drift somewhat out of ones control.

Interestingly in the context of the creative… session (maybe it is session…) I first mentioned and the SLP3 simulation exercise the absorptive other is both the ideas being generated, and the other people in the room. In contrast to the lone venture of the solitary sculptor (for instance) this flow was communal; ideas were bounced back and forth, interrogated and re-interrogated, understandings were hashed and rehashed and it was the interplay of individual contributions which produced outcomes constituting more than the sum of the parts. This idea of flow as a group endeavour has been explored in Group Genius by Keith Sawyer – great read for anyone interested in this…

So, in thinking about both the idea of the conversation with other, as a part of (productive) absorption and thinking about the two instances of group work – what are the principles, or operating guidelines for this liminal space? What did we do both times? What behaviours were consistent across both iterations? (be prepared for a starter for ten list folks– its not exhaustive…)

  •  We didn’t meet in a ‘normal’ setting – this was a different space for all of us, therefore tacit normative behaviours and assumptions were easier to ignore if one so desired.
  •  We spent some time ‘checking in’ – in both groups the start of the meeting had spacetime for us to leave whatever was not needed at the door.
  •  We trusted, and therefore could say whatever.
  •  There was no hierarchy in the room – everyone’s opinion and thought was valid – people were playing themselves, not their day job.
  •  We drew things and kept things visible–someone took up the reins of scribe early on in each meeting and recorded everything – flipcharts and whiteboards rein supreme – analogue rules.
  •  We kept ideas bubbling between us, not settling or bouncing into groupthink and positive reinforcement of each others ideas, but maintaining a state of what Ronald Heifetz has called ‘cooking the conflict’.
  •  We had plenty of snacks (maltesers, cakes and coffee were a recurrent theme – I know healthier options are available, but; maltesers. Maltesers, people.)

See you next week.

Double Click on ‘yes’…

I was in Southampton on Thursday and Friday this week. I was presenting at UKAT 2016 on some of the work we’ve been doing at the University of Salford towards enhancing the student experience. It was great (unintended) timing for such a presentation as the results of the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey were published the day before and we’ve bounced up a pleasing 12 places, with improvements noted across all aspects of the survey, which is good news. (Unsurprisingly I nudged mention of this into the talk)

However, useful and vibrant through the conference was, this blog entry focuses on the bits of space and time around the formalised and organised elements of the event.

After the first day of presentations had concluded, I had intended to grab a quick bite to eat somewhere and then hole myself up in my room to do some work for the remainder of the evening. In the end, I went straight back to my room, did only a couple of hours of work and then, on the basis of an email from my PA, headed out.

Now, I could have been studious and carried on working deep into the night – working in HE, recognition of more needing to be done is taken as given. However, I had to admit to myself that after a caffeine-fuelled conference day the grey matter was not perhaps at its sharpest. I also then realised that for the rest of the evening I had no further calls to make, commitments to hold, or dates to keep. It dawned on me (and some of you will find this odd – bear with…) that I had no plan for the remaining hours of Thursday. The possibility of just pootling for the evening poked its head above the green timeblock parapets of the outlook diary.

This is where the email comes in – I’d had a catch up with Emma, my PA, earlier on in the day and my inbox was therefore replete with the flags and reminders (red flag for I have to do it, green flag for Emma has done it and purple flag for I should have definitely done it by now…) There was also a thoughtful email pointing out the location of a Southampton cinema.

Ooohhh….

(Reader, you can almost hear the synaptic cogs)

So, a short time later, with the directions to the cinema winging their way to my feet via the magic of iphone earphones and the Google map app, I wandered across Southampton to the Harbourside Cinema, diverting myself for food along the way and causing the map’s voice to become irked with the task of re-routing me several times over. The route I eventually took embraced several dark alleys and less populated areas, one major road, a conversation with someone who was also looking for somewhere and was lost (re-enter Google stage right) a fox and the sea (thankfully the edge rather than the middle – I wasn’t that lost). From hotel to cinema was a series of delightfully unexpected and eclectic nocturnal vignettes strung together by the theme of being a little bit misplaced.

However, digressions and distractions having been vaulted, I arrived at the cinema. I haven’t been to the cinema in ages. I dislike the multiplex experience – I feel like I’m sliding towards inadvertent participation in Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World. The Harbourside experience is anything but this; Comfy sofas, subdued lighting and all the feeling of a local arts space, rather than a corporate monolith. And it had a bar serving local food and craft beers. Mine had a slice of orange in it. I may have had two. (Danger is my middle name.)

The film was OK; not great, but certainly not awful, but, with only three people in the auditorium to cap it off, (I felt like the film was being screened for me) the experience as a whole was a deliciously indulgent interlude in the pre-planned. I had been afforded the delight of the unusual; a gem of an evening gifted and crafted by virtue of accepting suggestion.

And there’s my point. Accepting and acting upon the impromptu implied suggestion in the email led to a far richer evening than I had expected. All the best bits were things that I didn’t plan on, but ended up inviting in as a result of an initial internal ‘yes’. Importantly, the evening-as-interlude gave me a liminal space, like that of a ludic act or a game; time aside wherein I could take (or not take) whatever Southampton decided to offer.

It’s fairly obvious that this liminal space; space aside is vital in creativity, in fostering the unexpected and in systematising serendipity. But by and large, it seems to be the exceptional or rarer space, rather than the norm. Does it have to be, in order to retain its certain special nature? Might we mainstream it and flip the model of the everyday on its head? One aspect is clear; to enter/ operate in such space, to turn the key to this particular door, one has to be willing to invite, recognise and act upon suggestion when given. Recognising such gifts as they fly past us is a skill in itself.

I haven’t had gifts arrive by email before…

See you next week.

Walking the Dragon’s Back

Last Sunday I went on one of my favourite day walks  – the Dragon’s Back.

I went with our dog. We’ve had our dog now for about three and half years. She was a rescue puppy and has a stub for a tail. We’re not sure why. Her name is Willow. Somewhere along the line, this name has been suffixed with ‘Pants’, resulting in Willow-Pants. Again, I don’t know the reason behind this. Occasionally, the original section of her name will disappear when I’m calling her. When she is out of sight on a walk, (as she often is) the frequent solo audio performances given by the solitary suffix offer the mildly alarming impression that I’m trundling along on my own, sporadically shouting out the word ‘Pants!’ to a listening woodland or hill top path. It’s the little things…

Anyhow, Willow and I went on a walk. For me, a typical day walk can be anything between 8-20 miles. On these walks I’m more often than not alone with the dog. I thoroughly enjoy the solitude of this activity and paradoxically often wish that I could share the experience only arrived at by being on my own. Having hiked in many countries and continents, I can say with conviction that I find the Peak District to be one of the most beautiful places to walk in the world. It gives me a quiet call to nature as soon as I step out my door and I enjoy some of my most peaceful and profound periods of personal peace and contentedness when I’m quietly padding along with the hills for company and a pack on my back.

If I’m lucky, the walk will contain one or two periods of time when I am lost. Not literally lost, (although that is often the merry case – my ‘shortcuts’ are the stuff of legend amongst friends), but lost-absorbed in the moment of doing. In those liminal bubbles, space-time starts to curve and I find myself connected to my surroundings to the point of merging, and yet I’m somehow insulated from them. It feels as if, in a state of hyper awareness, everything I need is within reach – perceptual horizons are extended beyond my immediate phenomenal environment.

This ‘extended’ state of being has been approached from various disciplines and practices and has attracted numerous descriptors; John Dewey called it ‘imaginative unification’, Abraham Maslow termed it ‘peak experience’ and Victor Turner described it as ‘communitas’, to name but a few . I’m sure I’ll write more on this in future posts as I try to pick at it from various perspectives, but in the meantime, back to the circumstances of this particular instance…

Thinking back to last week’s walk, it occurred as I hit a ridge on Hollins Hill, and was able to look through sharp afternoon winter sunshine over a stile towards Chrome Hill,  nicknamed the Dragon’s Back for obvious reasons: (I took the shot below on a different walk)14883863978_1ca3874b06_o

I’d walked Chrome Hill earlier in the day, so there was a certain amount of satisfaction in surveying conquered ground, coupled with a delight in being outside, immersed in such beauty and unencumbered by the constraints of walls – literal or technological. I was acutely aware of experiencing a grounded connection with the wide world around me; a phenomenological pleasure in participating in the essence of something inexplicably complex and so simple. All senses firing, with the body-mind moving in an accelerated state of what Csikszentmihalyi called flow consciousness.

Whilst this instance isn’t replicable in itself, (nor should it be) I’m beginning to understand and seek out, on a personal level, the circumstances and conditions which lead to a greater chance of encountering this state of being-doing. Csikszentmihalyi called it the flow channel – a state wherein we become absorbed and the ‘doing’ begins to steer us, rather than the reverse. There’s even a diagram y’know.

flow-diagram

With an eye on my weekday preoccupation, (I’ll be the first to admit, it does seep into evenings, weekends and the wee small hours) one thought (of many) and one question (of very many) surfaces…

Flow is a wholly positive telenomic state; that is, one experiences a sense of positive personal expansion through flow engagement in a given activity – lost in becoming more, so to speak. Technically then, it’s the autotelic telenomy of self.

Wouldn’t it be great if we built learning environments/ patterns that were designed and created as an invite to foster flow engagement as one aspect of learning? There’s already thinking on and debate this

See you next week.