Monday, March 30, 2009

“Stuck in Neutral” (It’s a Good Thing!)

I met game designer Peter Olotka at a gathering hosted by the Covenant Foundation, where he made a lively presentation about the power of games as pedagogical tools. Afterward, he generously invited the attendees to pose him this challenge: We would tell him about content that we need to teach; he’d turn it into a game.

As soon as Peter made the offer I thought of the neutral question, which is the key idea in step three of the Critical Response Process. Some people take to the neutral question like ducks to water, but others find it difficult to grasp the idea – so I was intrigued about the possibility of making a game of forming neutral questions.

Once I was settled back at the office, I sent Peter an email explaining how responders in CRP must frame their questions so that they don’t contain implied or embedded opinions. Less than 24 hours later he shot back a fully-formed game structure, and he generously agreed to let me post it to this blog – see below.

I like what Peter has done to put the fun in forming neutral questions. What I especially appreciate is the element of gathering multiple possibilities for a neutral question and the opportunity for each person to function as judge of what makes the best neutral question. I look forward to trying this out soon.

Thanks, Peter!

Stuck In Neutral

Players, in turn, are saddled with an embedded opinion and ask three to seven of their closest friends for help in formulating a Neutral Question.

Goal: To be the player who is chosen as stuck in neutral the most.

How to Play:

  1. Divide players into groups of 4 to 8 players.
  2. Each player is dealt one "Embedded Opinion" card, which they keep to themselves.
  3. A different color set of blank 3x5 cards is available for all.
  4. A Player is chosen to go first and reads their Embedded Opinion.
  5. The other players have 90 seconds to write a neutral question on their cards.
  6. As they are done, they put their questions face down in the center of the table.
  7. When all the questions are in the center, the player whose turn it is shuffles them up and then reads them aloud.
  8. The player then picks one as the most stuck in neutral.
  9. The writing player scored 10 points.
  10. The player to the left now reads an Embedded Opinion" and the game continues.
  11. The player with most points wins the game.

(Optional rule)

The Embedded Opinion player ranks the questions from the most neutral to the least. And players score 10 for the most and 9,8 6, 4, 2, 1 (if necessary).

Building the Game

  1. Make a set of "Embedded Opinions" on 3x5 cards - maybe 20 or so.
  2. Get 3x5 cards for Question Writing
  3. Pens for writing
  4. Sheet for keeping score.
  5. Print out rules for game.

There are a bunch of other ways to do this. One that comes to mind is to give players "Embedded Opinions" on cards and have them read one at a time. In small groups as above, a player to the left has to ask a question aloud. The group then gives it a thumbs UP or DOWN. If it’s UP the player scores 10. Down scores 0 and the majority rules with ties to DOWN.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Q & A: Amping Up the Rigor in Step One

Occasionally I get calls or emails from former workshop attendees or presenters asking for guidance about matters CRP. Here's a recent one, along with my response.

Q: In facilitating Step One, I find there’s a tendency to say nice things or even to use this part to protect the artist (the whole thing is just perfect!), with less emphasis on meaning. But I remember you and Liz saying: no detail is too small to appreciate. So I'm wondering about the role of observations, affirmations, meaning, detail...

A: Niceness and coddling are basically why Liz stopped calling Step One “Affirmations.” If responders believe that the positive spirit is an end in itself, the feedback will feel “soft,” which can get the Process off to an un-rigorous start. So I’d suggest you experiment with ways that you can describe Step One in advance that will emphasize the rigor. It is good for responders to know that the Step One task is coming, before they see the work, and you even frame it as their commission to look for something really specific that they can note. It helps to state that, indeed, nothing is too small to notice, that assessments of the work as a whole are not necessary, and that responses must be honest (while keeping in a framework of good will). Particularly if you are working with people who are just beginning to develop their critical vocabularies, it can be very helpful to ask people not to start their statements with “I loved” or “I liked,” this alone can force people to be more particular in their statements.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Art Takes the Lead? What a Concept!

Colleague Peter DiMuro and I were at Rhode Island School of Design (a.k.a. RISD) last month for a day of CRP activities. Critique is such a pervasive aspect of the academic experience at this elite art school that how it's handled -- good, bad, supportive or brutal -- becomes a central dimension in the lives of students. That is why it was the School's Office of Student Life that took the initiative to bring us in.

Two of the three workshops we conducted opened with the Dance Exchange's "Blind Lead" movement structure, which as usual got people talking about issues and preferences related to leading and following. It was interesting to see the students draw the parallels between this exercise and the experiences they have in critique. One of the questions that came up was, who is leading and who is following, who should be leading or following, in the process of critique? The artist? The people with opinions? The teacher? A facilitator?

The answers were varied, but the one that has stuck with me came from a young woman who said, "Maybe it's the art that should lead the process. Maybe we all could be led by what we see and how we experience the art."

Food for thought.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

They Asked Me to Name My Biggest Dream, and I Said...

... that everyone might realize their capacity to make art; that we’d never learn to say “I can’t draw,” “I can’t dance,” “I can’t sing.” These activities come naturally – just ask any four-year-old. It is not the doing of them that is the learned behavior. It is the belief that we can't.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Broadway's Righteous Demon

Let us pause for a bit of gossip, shall we?

It’s been all over the internet since it happened a week or two ago. I caught up with the news last night on an opera blog, of all places. Broadway star Patti LuPone, performing the climactic “Rose’s Turn” scene in Gypsy, stops the show to confront an audience member who has taken several flash photographs. “Who do you think you are?” she rants repeatedly, before resuming the number as the transgressor is ejected from the theater. (In an ironic twist, the moment was captured for posterity by another audience member concealing a sound recorder.)

Reading the online chatter, it’s fascinating how starkly opinion is split between those who see Patti LuPone as the avenging angel of audience etiquette and those who regard her as an unprofessional bitch. For my part, my sympathies tend to lean toward Ms. LuPone, as I consider the cardinal sin of flash photography in theatrical settings justifiable provocation for the lesser sin of breaking the forth wall.

Also, as a person who works behind the scenes in the performing arts, I have to wonder. If ushers and security are really doing their jobs, shouldn’t a performer be protected from ever having to take such extreme action? I’m going to indulge in my own pet sin of self-righteousness here for a second: Years ago when I spent a summer stint as an usher at an arts festival, we were trained to confiscate cameras on a strict no-tolerance policy. We used to try to outdo one another in our vigilance at nabbing shutterbugs before they became pests.

Finally, what is it with people’s need to generate digital evidence of everything they do? I love my camera as much as anyone, but I have to ask: Do I need my own photo or sound recording of Patti LuPone in full cry in order to prove that yes, I saw her in her much-lauded portrayal of Mama Rose? I can’t help but wonder that with all the media at our fingertips -- the ability to record, replay, and distribute practically anything we are witness to -- we lose the capacity to remember our own experiences and to evoke, unaided, those memories for ourselves and others. Could we put aside the digital devices and rely instead on skills that enable us to notice, listen, observe and later to describe and reflect on the experiences we’ve had? What a concept!

My late mother saw Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in its original Broadway run 60-some years ago. Years later she could describe to me how Marlon Brando “talked like he had a mouth full of potatoes.” I treasure that connection to theatrical legend far more than I think I could prize a bad flash picture of Brando.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Creative Making of Barack Obama

In the Inaugural festivities of the past week it has been interesting to note how, from varied corners of the globe -- Africa, the Islamic world, the Pacific rim, not to mention many sub-sectors of our own society -- people are seeing themselves reflected in the identity of our quintessentially American new president. From what I know of Mr. Obama’s biography, here’s what I find most inspiring in the phenomenon of the one-man melting pot who has attained our nation’s highest office: That a person with his variegated pedigree and transient upbringing, who might well have said “There’s nowhere that I belong,” chose instead to live by the conviction “Anywhere I go, I belong.” Obama is, in fact, a paragon of what Liz Lerman calls active belonging. And the “active” in active belonging requires more than mere conviction, as the career that led to the presidency attests. That career is a story of sheer will, pushback against rejection, and the calculated choice to belong and to appear to belong. It is through active belonging that Mr. Obama shaped himself into a masterpiece of self-invention.

At the risk of indulging in the new national pastime of projecting cherished personal values and aspirations onto our shiny new Chief Executive, I’m going to hazard an interpretation. Mr. Obama developed his capacity for active belonging in tandem with three qualities that make his leadership style especially refreshing: He listens, he learns, and he is remarkably free of defensiveness -- indeed the lack of defensiveness is, to my mind, the key to the “No-Drama Obama” mystique.

I won’t belabor the parallels between those leadership qualities and the values of the Critical Response Process. But I think it’s notable that Mr. Obama has explained his desire to hold onto his Blackberry as partly the need to bypass the presidential security bubble so that he can remain open to critique from people beyond his immediate circle of advisors. If he is sincere, it is a very hopeful sign, because now more than ever the Presidency is a work-in-progress. And as we know, a viable work-in-progress requires a good feedback system.

(A note about the photo: The Happy Dragon, above, is one of the characterful denizens of the Dance Exchange's hometown of Takoma Park, where he resides in a side yard just a few blocks from our headquarters. He regularly gets festooned for various holidays, and for the past week he's been sporting the Inaugural regalia shown in the picture, which I snapped on Friday morning.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blog Buzz: From Art School to the Jury Box

The Critical Response Process "actually seemed to open up the space for people to feel more empathy for the artist's process and offer opinions that were coming from a more informed place." That's according to blogger Pete Hocking, who reported on the CRP presentations that colleague Peter DiMuro and I made last week at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Critique, or "crit" as they call it, is a way of life at RISD, which made the students at this renowned art school a discerning and demanding audience to play to. Check out the post at RISD Public Engagement (including a photo of yours truly doing a crazy hand jive) and watch this space for more reflections on our RISD experience soon.

And this from quite a different domain of practice: Critical Response Process "wouldn’t need much adjusting to make a fine template for jury deliberations." Those are the words of Anne Reed, a trial lawyer and jury consultant in Milwaukee who maintains the blog Deliberations, which focuses on "law, news, and thoughts on juries and jury trials." I won't tell the circuitous story of how she encountered CRP -- you can catch up with that on her post -- but I will mention how tickled I was to have a drawing of mine picked up by her online American Gallery of Juror Art. Anne is clearly a person of with a broad and humane grasp of the legal discipline, and I was delighted to see how CRP caught her interest.