Working Open: Center Stage’s Transparency Project

This is the last of a series of three Working Open posts about Center Stage’s learning journey through EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for Performing Arts Organizations.

In this post, I’m sharing a short video that documents our innovation and prototyping journey at Center Stage. While we originally began the Innovation Lab with the goal of integrating technology to create innovative theater and performance, that goal morphed along the way to become broader and more encompassing. Now, through our Transparency Project, we are prioritizing ways to collaborate across departments in order to build new processes and a nimble, responsive organizational culture that can regularly “yield innovation.” Please watch my video, read my blog post and share your thoughts in the comments section below! — Hana Sharif, Associate Director, Center Stage.

In December 2016, Center Stage launched the first phase of our EmcArts prototype: a demo of new binaural headphone technology, featured in a roving, site-specific scene written and performed by Center Stage staff. The experience pushed the limits of what theater can be, integrating technology into our work to create a new mode of performance, and response was overwhelmingly positive. But in addition to focusing on innovative new work, it was a chance for our staff to come together before we moved out of our historic building – literally, the day before – to honor our legacy at 700 North Calvert, from its roots as a Jesuit school to the decades we’ve used it as a professional theatre. There was a balance of looking forward and looking back during the demo, sharing memories of our time in the building while also building excitement about the future of Center Stage.

Now, we made it out of the building, construction has begun, and we’ve mounted our first show offsite. The company has breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’re revisiting the same institutional introspection, but now with an added challenge: our staff is spread out across three different locations. When a huge goal of ours was to break us out of our silos and collaborate in new ways, how do we continue achieving this goal when we’re physically displaced from one another?

The solution we’ve undertaken is an initiative called the Transparency Project. In order to break down walls between departments and shine a light on our staff’s contributions to our mission, we are taking the time to gather together, department by department, and explore our processes. Each department goes through an internal reflection process, articulating the ins and outs of how they do what they do, and communicates that process to every other staff member in the company in a series of gatherings. The goal is simple: transparency. When we share our accomplishments and our challenges with one another, when we give people permission to be curious and ask questions, we can not only define this transition year with inquiry and camaraderie, but also illuminate the complexity of our company and let every staff member know they are valued.

We are halfway through this process, and so far the results are fascinating. I have learned that no two sessions are the same. Sometimes departments draw unlikely connections between one another, laughing and exchanging anecdotes, while other sessions dig into the logic and efficiency behind a certain process with relentless interest. And of course, there are always those “I never knew that” moments, or the “So that’s what you’re going through” exchanges of empathy, that expand knowledge and strengthen relationships. The degree to which each staff member is essential to Center Stage, and in many cases goes above and beyond a 40-hour workweek to make our season happen, is remarkable. After a busy 2015, these exercises are moments of pause, of celebration, and opportunities to grow. It’s exciting to see how each department draws benefits from the process, and I can’t wait to see what else we’re going to learn.

If you’re interested about Center Stage’s journey through the Innovation Lab for Performing Arts Organizations, please check out my two previous Working Open posts, which include an online quiz and another video.

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