Our Four I's
I was well into my 40s when I was told that my natural tendency toward last-minute completion of tasks is in fact a high-functioning response to my natural tendency to be distracted by too many simultaneous ideas and discoveries. Needless to say, I like this framing so much better than the one in which I’m a mere procrastinator! And it really does seem true that my discrete problem-solving abilities sharpen considerably with the clarity of an impending deadline.
Case in point: On the evening of June 12, a day before we launched our first national Artistic Literacy Institute, I found myself asking for a last-minute change. Can we hold our Saturday morning session not on the main stage, but in the lobby of the mezzanine? Can we shift our approach from formal presentation to open and intimate conversation? Can we model, in this new choice, the kind of community event we’ve developed in response to our core beliefs and values? The production schedules had been posted and reposted—our schedule for Saturday morning had been set for weeks—but I’ve learned to trust my late-in-the-game vision.
And so it was that on Saturday June 15 we relocated ourselves and all our participants to the smooth floors, high windows, and cocktail table seating of the Zellerbach Hall mezzanine. David McCauley got the music flowing, our crew set up the sound system, and we welcomed everyone to gather round for a mid-morning Catharsis Café.
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“Catharsis Cafés” are what we call our post-performance (or post-exhibit) conversations with audiences, and they are among our most successful engagement environments. As educators, we are most often asked to "prove" engagement by counting numbers of attendees or participants, but not all attendees at any event actually participate in a demonstrable fashion. Actual engagement, we’ve found, is not an activity, but an outcome; though it can’t be guaranteed, it can certainly be encouraged through the creation of community and the sharing of multiple perspectives.
We believe that each audience member’s experience of a work can be enriched through contact with others’ knowledges of content or context—and through a sense of belonging in a social, hospitable space that hopes specifically to deepen their connection with a work of art.
We also believe that four qualities in particular can serve as guides for creating and hosting events that facilitate the highest likelihood of self-reported engagement. Our “Four I’s” checklist (which we introduce briefly on our “What is Artistic Literacy?” page) informs everything we do—from our Catharsis Cafés and K-12 programs to the Institute itself. I revealed this checklist late in the Institute, but we used it to review our experiences over the entire three-day arc of our work together. Now, as I promised our Institute participants, here’s a look at each “I” in more detail:
We aim to be conscious at all times of our own intention to create opportunity and space for belonging, sharing, and reflecting. We further aim to view our work from all angles for intentional language and declared outcomes. This includes being on the lookout for our own unconscious biases and drawing our attention to the playing out of unintended consequences in our work.
How we invite people to join us matters, and once they are with us, we seek to ensure that both conversation and physical space are as inviting as possible. This includes creating hospitable, hosted environments that are welcoming, social, and (where possible) including of food and/or beverage. A designated host or welcoming team is crucial for inviting people deeper into the engagement as well.
Beyond invitation, inclusion requires recognizing and removing as many barriers as possible to being in a shared space. We are committed to examining practices that act as exclusionary and engaging with committed partners to create structures that effectively invite and include every participant. A foundational belief in the Artistic Literacy framework is that the more inclusive and diverse an engagement process is, the deeper the experience for everyone involved. This feeds our intentionality and invitational processes as well.
We have some advantages in our work. Successful inclusion brings people together around their similarities, and the sharing-in-community of an arts performance or event helps create an environment where multiple perspectives can be offered and embraced—where diversity of thought and opinion are truly valued as gifts that open new avenues for meaning-making.
At the heart of Artistic Literacy is a recognition of the human need for connection—connection through works of art, through being in community as audience member or artist, and through seeing and being seen in our most human aspects. Intimacy in this community context conjures both the physical (closeness and proximity) and the social-emotional (open, willing to share) aspects of relationship and community. Smaller gatherings are inherently more intimate than larger ones. Sharing cookies or a glass of wine both facilitates and slows down social interaction to allow for more possibility of connection. Structured opportunities for audience members to speak as individuals fosters a sense of individuality within community.
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Now that I’ve elaborated on each of these Four I’s, however, I do want to call out one more: Individual Experience. By embracing Artistic Literacy as an engagement framework, we hold Individual Experience at the center of our practice. We aim to empower each individual audience member to bring their own lived experience with them into the theater or gallery, to see each work of art as raw material from which they can choose to make personal meaning, and to embrace audience experience as, itself, an act of creativity.
Because we care about Individual Experience, our Four I’s are not merely “nice-to-haves.” They are necessities. The depths and details of their implementation can vary, but their presence in our work is never far from view.
How do you make a space inclusive, removing barriers and ensuring connection? How do you create invitational spaces, when purpose-specific rooms for these events don’t exist? How do you create and invite intimacy, when the goal is more often quantity, because that is simply easier to measure? We’re looking forward to sharing more examples (and challenges!) in the coming weeks.