Working Open: Navigating Theatrical and Organizational Prototypes at Center Stage Theater

A few months ago, I shared my first post about our progress in EmcArts’ Innovation Labs for Performing Arts and a pop quiz I made about Innovation Team members. Since then, exciting things have been happening at Center Stage as we prepare for the first phase of our prototype, which will roll out in December. Watch our video to learn more about our process so far, and stay tuned for another update from me soon.

We have determined our main form of technology that the prototype will explore: binaural headphones. The technology allows for two simultaneous layers of performance–first, a live event with actors that audiences experience, and second, pre-recorded audio coming from the headphones that’s synchronized with the performance. The result is a performance that challenges our perceived reality–at times, it is unclear whether sounds are coming from the headphones or from the performers. Also, because we can use a multitude of audio tracks for different audience members, everybody has a unique experience of the same live event.

Our recent curation team meetings have led us to a few crucial decisions about the first phase of the prototype, which will take place in our current building, a month before we move out for our major renovation. We’re using the first phase to recognize the legacy of Center Stage and unearth its most compelling histories, both factual and folklore–foundational moments, hidden quirks, legends, ghost stories, etc. We want to engage the physical structure of the building as we investigate its history, so we will stage an installation piece where the audience will travel to unconventional spaces and have different “encounters.” Each encounter will explore a piece of Center Stage history through live performance, enhanced by our binaural headphone technology.

Audiences will engage with Center Stage’s history through the building’s physical structures

The next major challenge we face as a group is navigating how we move forward, particularly regarding how we distribute leadership in a way that keeps this a team-driven project. We have made great progress on big issues, but we’ll need to make decisions at a greater velocity to get us to the finish line in time–the kind of velocity that institutional hierarchy is all about. Twenty people in a room making a decision together takes a long time. One way we plan to maneuver through this is to shift more responsibilities toward the curation team, and allocate those responsibilities based on individual curiosity instead of skillset, so that the team is contributing to the process in ways they want to, not in ways we need them to. For us, too, that involves ceding control, which can be uncomfortable. We’ve invested so much time into the process so far, and we want to play a prominent role in the product. But when people look to us for the answers, or when we feel the urge to give the answers, we pause and look to the team to fill in the blanks. And little by little, we flatten the hierarchy and forge a new process.

Our team discussing the nuances of the installation piece

We’re also knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of the project: budgeting. It has been a new administrative challenge for us budgeting a project over such a substantial time horizon, and adapting the budgeting process to accommodate our new ways of working. On one hand, we need to make sure that the project is financially sustainable, but on the other hand, we don’t want financial anxiety to let us slip back into old habits. This is a tricky part of the work too–in addition to larger, ideological questions about culture and process, there are the everyday questions of: how do we make this thing happen?

Hana Sharif is the Associate Director at Center Stage in Baltimore, MD