Adaptive Change: Alive and well in Toronto’s performing arts sector

When EmcArts and the Metcalf Foundation put out the call for people interested in learning how to facilitate adaptive change work in Toronto’s arts sector, Sue Balint and Alicia Payne answered it.

Little did they know how closely the training would mirror the work they’ve done for years as Toronto-based freelance artists.

“Adaptive change facilitation was completely new to me, but how they described the program really resonated,” said Sue, a producer and playwright. “It’s a breath of fresh air from my normal work. It allows for a lot more flexibility and different ways of thinking.”

Nearly 100 arts organizations and practitioners came to an information session exactly two years ago for the Adaptive Facilitator Training Initiative — AFTI for short. The specialized training goes hand-in-hand with the Staging Change | Toronto program created by EmcArts to support organizations as they seek proactive and creative new approaches to the complex challenges they face.

Last fall, having completed the first two phases of the program in 2018-19, Toronto embarked on the “Incubating Innovation” phase, which supports four organizations with $25,000 each for a full year of researching, designing and publicly prototyping a major innovation. After a competitive application process, four organizations and three Adaptive Change Facilitators moved into the Incubating stage of the Staging Change program. The current cohort of organizations includes some of the brightest stars in the city’s performing arts sector: The National Ballet of Canada, Tapestry Opera, The Theatre Centre and Theatre Direct.

This is when first-time facilitators like Sue and Alicia really get to put their new adaptive change skills to work; the duo is paired with Theatre Direct for the last two phases of Staging Change | Toronto. Now in its 43rd season, Theatre Direct is one of the country’s leading Theatres for Young Audiences (TYA).

“I kept hearing it was going to be really intense work and now I completely understand why,” Alicia, an actor, writer and artist educator, remarked after the duo wrapped up a five-day intensive retreat with the cohort in February.

“The work that I do has adaptive elements, I just never knew what to call it and did not approach it with the rigor I was asked to approach this with. I am so glad that I applied.”

Theatre Direct’s entire staff attended the retreat and, with Alicia and Sue by their side, created a radical new vision that defies the typical TYA mold and set about discovering new ways to work and produce. One idea, tentatively dubbed “All Work All Play,” would disrupt the working week of a non-TYA company in order to create a site-specific piece of theater by adults and children. Another would put young people directly at the center of a project, allowing kids to create their own show for an audience of their choosing.

“Oftentimes, with a TYA, the expectation is you are going to have a presentation, and the children and youth are going to come, and they are going to watch,” Alicia explained.

“It was refreshing,” Sue added. “They want to find a way to break out of what you expect in what they produce and how they do it.”

The Adaptive Facilitators called the work some of the most challenging they’ve ever done.

“Allowing them to remain in this challenging and uncomfortable place before we jump to conclusions can be extremely uncomfortable,” Sue said. “We are so often results-based in the programs that we do — we want to get to a solution quickly. That is not what this is. This is helping people stay in a place where they are treading water and living a bit longer in this uncomfortable moment.”

Alicia and Sue found it helpful at the end of each day to compare notes with EmcArts veterans Liz Dreyer and Melissa Dibble, and fellow Adaptive Facilitator, Pru Robey. Each of these process facilitators worked with other groups during the retreat.

“They shared what they had learned from their organizations that day and how they were strategically looking forward to what they would lead with the next day,” Sue said. “As someone who was going through the process for the first time, those debriefs were a crucial part of each day and really put us in a good place for the next morning.”

As Theatre Direct and others in the cohort enter the prototyping period for testing and evaluating their new strategies, Sue and Alicia believe the bonds formed during Staging Change | Toronto ultimately will strengthen the city’s entire arts community.

“These are organizations that may never have been in a room together before. After working so intensely together, they now have a connection unlike any other,” Alicia said.

Sue put it this way: “The opportunity that this program has given these Toronto-based organizations to flex these muscles is so rare. And training local facilitators in adaptive change practices will allow that kind of knowledge to stay in Toronto. I am already feeding so much of this work back into other organizations that I work with. The benefits are exponential.”



Photo credit: Guntar Kravis

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