Cleveland Chronicles: Seminar #2 Leading in Complexity

Corey Atkins of the Cleveland Play House reflects in his experiences in the Engaging the Future Program, which inspires and supports innovative new strategies for engage younger and more diverse audiences in Cleveland.

When I interviewed nearly two years ago for a new position called “Artistic Associate – Engagement” at Cleveland Play House (CPH), I knew very little about the city, other than that Liz Lemon once decided to “flee to The Cleve.” But I got a palpable sense that there was a new ethos of possibility and transformation in the city itself, and particularly at CPH. It turns out I was right, and I’m fortunate to be a part of rethinking CPH’s mission, vision and raison d’etre, ensuring that the nation’s first regional theatre is a vital part of Cleveland’s ‘rustbelt renaissance.’

Blogging from “Engaging the Future”

For the next year, I’ll be blogging about my experiences in “Engaging the Future” (ETF), a program funded by The Cleveland Foundation and administered by EmcArts that aims to inspire and support innovation new strategies to engage younger and more diverse audiences in Greater Cleveland cultural organizations. I hope you’ll share your thoughts and questions, too. Maybe we can prove that the internet can foster not just cat videos, but exciting exchange about the future of American arts institutions, too!

The Past: ETF Year 1

CPH is now entering the second year of the ETF program, so I think it’s important to start with a bit of context and recap. I also think this blog will be most useful if I‘m as honest about my frustrations and failures as my successes. With that in mind, let’s go back to the Summer of 2011.
The ETF programs’ first year focused on “the capacity to innovate” (translation: getting real about the necessary ingredients to create smart change). I remember feeling like if I had a nickel for every time someone said “adaptive challenge” that first year, I’d have had a slot machine named for me at the new casino down the street. To be frank, there were many times in the first year that, while others seemed to be having ‘a-ha moments,’ I personally struggled to fully connect ETF’s exploration of how to innovate through adaptive change with my work and the current moment at CPH. I began to see that my quandary stemmed largely from CPH’s unique history and current position.

To explain: an “adaptive challenge” is a big, hairy, deep-seated one—one which requires recognizing the flawed belief(s) that created the challenge; questioning the underlying assumptions that make up that belief; and arming yourself with real, clear data, in order to solve the problem by bringing your practices into line with your actual circumstances to achieve your goal.

My light bulb moment was the realization that, unlike most of our ETF peers, CPH had already undergone an enormous adaptive change mere weeks prior to starting the program: we’d sold our increasingly dysfunctional home of nine decades, and partnered with a private company and a state university to create new administrative and education facilities and a three-theatre complex in the heart of downtown. (You can check out this Wall Street Journal article on our unique “model of economic viability in the arts” for more context). We were already on the other side of an adaptive challenge before our first ETF convening.

The rest of the year at CPH was spent deep in the Valley of “Technical Challenges”— those things where a tweak of current practices seems to be adequate in addressing the problem. The adaptive move had re-set our status quo, but the experiences of the first season downtown, and a lot of new and/or re-invigorated programming (made possible in no small part by The Cleveland Foundation’s support of my new position) had made technical challenges as plentiful as I wish those nickels were.

The Present: ETF Year 2

Flash forward to September, 2012. We started ETF year two with a day-long seminar titled “Leading in Complexity: An Applied Introduction to Systems Thinking,” which seemed apt. There is always plenty of complexity to be dealt with, particularly with the challenges implicit in ETF’s stated goal of helping engage “new, younger and more diverse” audiences (YMDs as I call them). John Shibley and Michele Radomski’s seminar helped to bring to the fore how one element of a system effects the system as a whole, and particularly how assumptions or uninformed thinking can undermine our best efforts to create change.

A great example comes from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. For years, the Forest Service, worked under the assumption (red flag!) that forest fires are bad because they burn people’s stuff and people don’t like to have their stuff burned, therefore all fires should be immediately extinguished. What the assumption missed was that this aggressive policy allowed an unnatural accumulation of dead vegetation. This meant that the next fire would start more quickly, burn with more intensity, and spread more rapidly than the last. By re-examining the flawed assumption in the system, they arrived at a surprising adaptive solution: the Forest Service should start fires. The new method of “prescribed burns” uses small, controlled fires to manage fuel build up, which actually makes future wildfires easier to contain. The lessons of system thinking have already been useful as we assess our Engagement goals and consider how to achieve them as part of the company’s new strategic plan.

At the risk of going too Memento here, I want to loop back to a conversation from a few weeks ago, then back to 2011 where I started… As I was starting to write this post our Managing Director, Kevin Moore, and I had a conversation about the importance of Engagement as a core institutional value, and therefore a necessary factor in the strategic planning process. This led to the blunt query of whether or not our current season programming could ever actually attract YMDs in the way that we want—need—to. In response I said something like “I think our season is really strong, and I just assume that we haven’t yet found the right Engagement strategies to help YMDs understand how the work connects with their lives.” It hit me as soon as I said it: “assume.” Maybe, Kevin challenged, we need actually to re-think our producing model (read: system) and even consider how to we might produce or present work specifically geared to a YMD audience, in addition to the work our current audiences love. And if so, we’d first need to find out what it is that the YMDs in our particular region want, and not assume it’s the same as in, say, Chicago or New York or Minneapolis—or anywhere but here.

The confluence of the Systems Thinking seminar and this conversation created, for me, the a-ha that many others got in year one. We’d learned that you can enter a system from any point, and where you enter effects the way you experience the system. This lightbulb moment illuminated that though we started the ETF program at a different point than others, the system still applies: we’ve now climbed up out of the Valley of Technical Challenges and found ourselves sitting again, Strategic Plan in hand, atop Adaptive Challenge Hill where everyone else had started. Also, the seminar taught us, systems may generate counter-intuitive results: putting out fires actually causes bigger fires; or, producing [what we think is an exciting] season of theatre with exceptional artistry world-class new venues may not be enough to engage YMDs. It took a year, but the system looped us back around; the environment of adaptive challenge that was behind us then is right in front of us now.

The Future of Engagement

As we continue assessing our initial Engagement efforts and move further into our strategic planning process, we must take a clear look at which adaptive challenges have been fully addressed by our move and programming changes, and which haven’t. What needs a technical fix and where in our new moment are there still trap doors of assumption waiting to fall out from under us? Driving past that new casino on the way home tonight I’ll be heartened by the knowledge that if a bunch of MIT nerds could use a system to win big by counting cards in Vegas, then systems thinking can help a bunch of passionate and talented CPH staff hit the jackpot, too.

Corey Atkins joined Cleveland Play House in 2011 as the company’s first Artistic Associate-Engagement. He works to connect staff and audiences—both current and new—to CPH’s mission, vision and work through initiatives and events that spring from the company’s artistic core. In his first season he has created exciting new programming and community connections, both in and outside the theatre walls, enriching patron experience and engaging new, younger and more diverse audiences. He holds an M.F.A. in Directing from the University of Texas at Austin.