Lab Report: My Experience as an Artist-Investigator

By Ayodele Nzinga

It’s hard to know where to start. I always like the beginning. I like big pictures and story/stories. So I think that’s where I will start.

Pictured: Ayodele Nzinga

As an artist it’s hard to find funding for work. The places that offer funding often offer direction as well as funding—thus they become collaborators in the project.

If the funders want you to collaborate with another entity, they too come to the table as collaborator.

When the work comes with a deadline and a set of collaborators, each invested from a different perspective and potentially representing different populations with divergent goals for a commonly derived project, a type of crucible is formed.

To imagine art coming from this crucible can be challenging.

Challenges include:

  • How to hold on to and serve the inspiration that brought you into the room
  • How to be open to not serving that inspiration as you envisioned or imagined it (can your Bird of Paradise seed grow a Meyer Lemon Tree?)
  • Reimagining how to find your inspiration (something of what brought you in the room), inside the things that brought the other collaborators into the room
  • Practicing leaderless/leaderful interaction that results in the production of knowledge that in turns supports action/doing
  • Investing fully and engaging soulfully with the Meyer Lemon Tree
  • Finding the way in which the Meyer Lemon Tree serves the Bird of Paradise seed
  • How to facilitate equal collaboration when collaborators are invested differently, and the acknowledgement that funders are unacknowledged collaborators as well, who influence the trajectory and the boundaries of projects, further complexifies the collaborative art making process

To imagine not making art when given a chance is inconceivable.   Especially if support is offered that facilitates your exploration of what might come of your interaction with Meyer Lemon Trees and you can negotiate the challenges above while engaging the process of making art.

As an artist, I find collaboration an interesting animal. I am not sure I like it, but I understand its importance. The things collaboration gifts are and are not art-making related. That is, the bigger lessons and blessing that come from collaboration transcend the art making process to live in how one addresses the world and builds community.

It is a space in which one must advance ideas as a part of showing up fully, at the same time one must hold space for the ideas of others and view them with as much value as ones own, while helping to facilitate the advancement of a project that in some way reflects our mutually derived vision.

In closing, the process of making art is always as interesting as the art that is the product of the process. The fusion of artist with the practice of research/investigation adds a layer on top of the complexity inherent in collaboration. I am looking forward to the soul of this endeavor which for me lies somewhere beyond the negotiation of the things I have written about here.

So far the experience has been very cerebral and that’s satisfying to my scholar soul – but the artist in me looks forward to painting with my fingers and getting clay beneath my fingernails.

Maybe next time I will blog about how collaboration invites you to be bigger than your dreams of Birds of Paradise.

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Lab Report: Artist-Investigator Program Gets Rolling

By Rebecca Novick

Last month we launched a new round of our Artist-Investigator program, in which four distinguished artists partnered with four non-profit organizations to see how theater artists can help meet community needs.  (Read more about the artists and their partners here.)  We’ll be sharing regular “lab reports” on the progress of these experiments, as we find out what happens when the powerful skills of artists are deployed outside the rehearsal room.

Our early meetings have unearthed some exciting possibilities, like the conversation we had with the chaplain at Berkeley Food and Housing Project about creating theater-based rituals to help homeless vets struggling with “moral injury.” Or the proposal from Causa Justa::Just Cause—that their artist Paul Flores work with their clients to help them tell their compelling stories to decision-makers like government officials and funders.

Earlier this week, all of the artists and their partners came together for a day-long training with the dynamic Michael Rohd, whose Center for Performance and Civic Practice has pioneered a lot of the methodology we’re using.  He asked everyone to name assets that artists bring to the partnerships—not just in the “product” we might create, but in how artistic skills influences the process of the collaboration. Here is a portion of the inspiring list the artists generated:

What we bring to the table as artists:

  • my writer self
  • ability to collaborate
  • understanding when communication has not occurred
  • basing work in the body
  • making things happen, moving a process from A to B
  • seeing when things are stuck
  • seeing from multiple points of view
  • listening
  • getting people to tell their story
  • imaginative problem-solving
  • spirit-based work
  • using humor as a tool
  • articulating something for collective interrogation
  • fearlessly naming the elephant in the room
  • asking good questions at the right time
  • witnessing
  • surfacing emotional undercurrents
  • inspiring risks
  • making space for transgression

As exciting as artistic collaboration is, we’ve had to remind ourselves to hold off and be mindful of moving too fast. Our process asks artists and organizations to work off each other; but, speedy implementation is not always fruitful. As Dr. Ayodele Nzinga shared, “I always have a map, but I’m learning to make space for the emergent.”

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Announcing The Triangle Lab’s 2014 Artist-Investigators

Clockwise, from top left: Paul Flores, Elizabeth Gjelten, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, and Krista De Nio.

Clockwise, from top left: Paul Flores, Elizabeth Gjelten, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, and Krista De Nio.

In the Triangle Lab, Cal Shakes’ research and development wing, we experiment with ways to bring together theaters, artists, and communities to ignite change. We believe that through deep collaboration, artists and community members can lift up each other’s work—starting conversation, sharing stories, bridging difference, and activating deeper civic participation.

Our Artist-Investigator Project asks artists to lead our investigation into what the performances of the future might look like, and help us discover what happens when the arts are more deeply integrated into community life.

We are delighted to announce this year’s four Artist-Investigators:

Paul Flores working with Causa Justa::Just Cause

Elizabeth Gjelten working DISH (Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing)

Krista De Nio working with Berkeley Food and Housing

Dr. Ayodele Nzinga working with Green Life Project/Pathways 2 Resilience

In 2013, we invited ten artists into the inaugural round to conduct projects that investigated new locations for performance and new methods for community collaboration. You can read more about their projects here.

In the 2014 round of the Artist-Investigator program we will be creating partnerships between artists and non-profit organizations to investigate how the skills of theater artists can help address community issues.

Our Hypothesis: Theater artists have key skills that can be deployed outside the rehearsal room to help community organizations advance their missions

Our Desired Outcomes

1. Organizations can demonstrate specific impact from the project in a mission area they’ve identified.

2. This impact is possible with a relatively small budget ($5000) and investment of time by the artist (about 60 hours).

The Projects

Four artists with experience in performance and community engagement were selected via an open call. Each artist will work with one organization to develop a project together. These small-budget projects will be conducted over the course of one year, and documented carefully so they can serve as models for future collaborations between our sectors. Projects will be driven by the needs of the partner organization and will identify what theatrical skills, techniques, and processes will be most useful to that organization. Projects may or may not include public or invited performances.

We’ve begun exploring what kinds of skills these artists might share with their partner organizations, although we don’t know what will arise from these specific collaborations. For example:

As expert storytellers , theater artists can work with staff, clients or other stakeholders to gather, shape and share relevant stories in dynamic and powerful ways.  Stories – written, performed, or online – can animate public interest, influence key decision-makers, and activate public gatherings.

As skilled story coaches , theater artists can work with clients to find their own voices through training in writing and performance.  Clients can be prepared to advocate for themselves by claiming the power of their own stories and taking charge of their own narratives.

As rehearsal experts, theater artists know how to rapidly try, discard, and reinvent solutions to problems we discover.  Artists can work with staff to brainstorm new programming or to address places where discussion is stuck and work with clients to rehearse solutions to life problems.

As trained team-builders , theater artists can offer skill-building workshops in many areas such as team-building and meeting facilitation skills, public speaking, writing, etc.

As event producers, theater artists can help shape the structure and content of events, celebrations, demonstrations, and other public events, helping to make these events more powerful, enjoyable, and memorable.

We’re very excited to be working with these outstanding artists and this range of extraordinary non-profits.  Watch this blog for more updates on this project throughout the year.

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