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Ain Gordon during a creative residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, March 2015. Photo by Janelle Jones.

An Experiment in Five Acts in Review: A Conversation with Ain Gordon

An Experiment in Five Acts in Review: A Conversation with Ain Gordon

Ain Gordon during a creative residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, March 2015. Photo by Janelle Jones.

In 2014, the Center invited playwright and director Ain Gordon to design a critical feedback program for mid-career artists. Gordon, who previously served as the Center’s first artist in residence, was given leeway to design a program he thought would prove most effective. What he came up with was different than anything the Center had tried before. Acknowledging the speculative nature of what he proposed, we called the project An Experiment in Five Acts.

Gordon selected ten cultural practitioners and Center grantees from the Philadelphia region—ranging from choreographers, to musicians, to curators—and asked them to identify a conundrum or challenge in their own creative work. The group then met for five full-day workshops with discussions and guest presentations over the course of 15 months. In addition, in between sessions, project participants paired up with thinking partners of their own choosing and on their own time for further discussion.

As the experiment recently concluded, we invited Gordon to reflect on the project. In the conversation that follows, he speaks candidly about the project’s impact, what worked and what didn’t.

What were your original hopes for An Experiment in Five Acts?

I had two overarching questions I wanted to explore. The first was, “What could professional development look like for an artist who is firmly in a career track, and who has been recognized and rewarded?” Because once you’re on a track, once you’ve established a pattern of work, it’s very hard to step away from it. Even the act of stepping away can become fodder for the pattern.

My second question related to the issue of isolation. I think if you age into an actual career—if you’re lucky enough to—you age into a certain kind of isolation. You see the people you need to see to do your work and they have expectations of how you will behave and visa versa. So, you might end up making decisions more or less within a closed system. So the question was, “Is it possible to put practitioners together with others who, like them, are smart, creative problem-solvers but who come from other disciplines, and who might shake up each other’s approach?”

What opportunities like this exist for mid-career artists right now?

Along these lines, I don’t think that there are many. There are residency programs where you have dinner conversations together before you retreat to your bungalow and suffer at the empty page or empty canvas. But when you become a mid-career artist it becomes harder and harder to say, “Yes, I’ll go somewhere for two weeks for no money and leave my kids and my partner and whatever else.” I don’t know of many programs that are low-residency like Experiment in Five Acts was.

How did you manage the Center’s expectations while simultaneously pursuing your own agenda for the program?

I was fortunate, having spent the previous two years as the Center’s inaugural Visiting Artist. I didn’t have to manage expectations too much. I was given a long, long, long leash and a lot of trust and a very little amount of checking in.

What outcomes were you looking for?

I wasn’t. I’m not sure at this point in a practitioner’s career what the outcome would be— this was an investment in examining process rather than outcome. Let’s be clear that these people are my peers. My expectation was that by bringing people together around a set of mid-career quandaries, we all would begin to recognize the overlap in our questions and the differences in ways we were each approaching answering them, making assumptions about them, not noticing that we hadn’t addressed them, etc.

There were no tangible deliverables either.

Right. Well, that was also partially because I didn’t want the conversations to orbit around a specific project, with pressures on completion, because I think that if you are well along in your career and you know you are heading towards the completion of a project, you are, at some point, going to need to dismantle the open-endedness of the question you are pursuing and just answer it simply because of external deadlines. I wanted the group to remain focused on the questions. This meant sitting in the discomfort of not knowing, which is something that many of us don’t regularly do at this stage of our professional life. And in remaining with the questions, we were all teaching each other.

Did you sense that discomfort in the room during An Experiment in Five Acts?

There were some who were attracted to the openness like bees to honey, and there were some who found it quite difficult. How people responded was case-by-case and changed over time.

Ain Gordon during a creative residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, March 2015. Photo by Janelle Jones.

One reason An Experiment in Five Acts is hard to generalize about is that the participants were all in the room together but they were all coming at the experience with very different perspectives, career histories, work habits, and expectations of themselves.

Absolutely. And different practices, each of which mandates different kinds of alone time or different kinds of open-ended time. At age 30- or 40-something it’s just not that often that you sit around with a bunch of people and say, “So what do you do when you go into the studio in the morning? How does that work for you?” Some people are interested in, “Wait. So you just sit there, or you just X, or you just Y. I never do that.”

We had an open forum check-in at the beginning of every one of the five all-day acts. They were at times excruciating and a little therapy-like, which we all joked about, but over time, this broke down the tendency of participants to perform their professional personas for each other.

What kind of artist or practitioner is going to get the most out of a process like this? Thinking back to the selection of the group, if you were to do it again, might you have approached it differently?

I think the group was well-chosen. There were people that surprised me, absolutely, who came to it more fully than I expected or resisted it longer than I had expected, which is fine. More important than what type of person participates is the balance of casting in the room. There need to be two people whom you know will be into it, so that they can show the rest of the cast that somebody can be into this. There can then be people who are confused. This will shift over time. Some people whom I thought were not going to be the devotees became the devotees.

One of the things that I didn’t do well is that the program was better designed for an artist practitioner than a curator practitioner, and yet we had artists and curators in the room.

Talk a little bit about that.

I think the open-endedness of the questions themselves was more attuned to what I know, which is being the generator of the material as opposed to a selector, an organizer around the material. And although I believe that curating is an artistic practice, it still might be called an interpretive artistic practice as opposed to a generating practice. I think I didn’t have enough information about what the questions inside that practice might be, or the form they might take, or what it feels like to be that person for 20 years. I had more sort of gut-level knowledge of the other experience. I’m not sure how I would address that if we were to do it again. The curators were of value to the artists because the way they talked about their dilemmas was totally new and fresh for them. And likewise, I think the curators hearing from artists about their questions also had value. I’m just not sure that I designed the overall arc in a way that was right for them.

Are there questions that somebody might ask themselves before going into a process like this to really gauge their own readiness or willingness?

I’m not sure. I think the intake interviews were vital. None of it for me was about the questions the individuals were asking themselves—everybody’s questions are valid, and who am I to have a decision about their questions? It was more about how willing they were to be in conversation.

For that reason the intake sessions were deliberately informal; over coffee. I asked them, “What things are you thinking about and what things would you be interested in thinking about?” And that just for me was, let’s see who is willing to have this conversation and let’s see who already has the tools to take care of it themselves and there’s nothing I can offer. There was one participant who did end up being in it who I said, “This person really doesn’t need this. This person can really take care of it on his or her own.” And then, to my surprise, that person became one of the strongest players and a real kind of cheerleader. So I was wrong. Or I was right but the program still turned out to be of value to this person, so I was wrong.

Now that I’ve done it once, it would be easier for me to be a little bit more provocative in the intake interviews and say, “It’s going to be like this. Is that going to be okay for you?”

Beyond a willingness to converse with others, what else were you looking for in the intake interviews? What kinds of questions were you hoping people were asking?

The more tangible the questions were, the more they were outside the parameters I had set. It wasn’t about people trying to figure out how to hire an assistant. To that I would say, “You need an assistant? You should get an assistant.” What I wanted was the mush—bigger, larger, roaming questions that probably are not about getting answered; they are literally just about articulating the questions clear enough that it hangs around for you, and you can pull it out and look at it.

Give us an example of “mush.”

I don’t want to give away too much of people’s personal material, but one of the participants asked the questions, “Who is my audience, really? Who is it? Who do I wish it would be? Who do I think it is? Who do I assume it is?” This person was asking this not because this person was going to suddenly do a different kind of outreach or suddenly go for a different public venue. This person was asking a more essential question of, “Who am I doing this in front of and what do I know about them?” That, to me, had enough mush about it.

Let’s talk about the thinking partners. The participants identified thinking partners with whom they corresponded or met between acts. Was this a way of extending the impact of the program so it was less episodic? Less start/stop/start? How did that work out?

Those who were able to deploy that resource earlier in the process in a way that worked for them may have been able to step off a bit more. There were people who—it tended to be the same people who were rankling against the open form—couldn’t deploy that in a way that worked for them because they kept looking for it to be a road to a destination, which it wasn’t. I was perhaps foolishly thinking that what we were achieving in the room could immediately be transferred to these thinking partner conversations. But I think it was too much in the outer world, so outer world behavior determined those conversations more than I had foolishly thought.

Meaning what?

Meaning, “Where is it going to go?” “What is it going to be?” “What do you want from me?”—these kinds of destination-oriented conversations that were not actually helpful because, in fact, there weren’t any parameters. Where were they going to go? It was more about trying to have a My Dinner with Andre experience. You were going to have My Dinner with Andre in your own way, which you were going to self-direct. Maybe the conversations with the thinking partners should have started later, after we had had some meetings. Maybe I should have been in one of them. Maybe they should have happened in pairs. I’m not sure.

That’s a good point. Because even after the first two sessions people were still trying to get used to the purposeful lack of destination. And so when they are meeting with their thinking partners they are dragging that with them because they haven’t yet de-programmed in that way.

That’s interesting because during the first two sessions they were saying they wanted to do this or do that. And I kept saying, “Great. Set it up. Let me know.” But actually, I thought it was a good sign that they backed away from setting it up themselves. They kind of left it in the chaos. And I was like, “Okay. Good. Keep going with the chaos then.”

Ain Gordon during a creative residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, March 2015. Photo by Janelle Jones.

What about the special guests. How did you see their role?

There were a couple of reasons for having a guest at each day-long session. I thought that since we had these individual thinking partners, wouldn’t it be great if there was also a communal thinking partner. And if people saw how they each heard, reacted to, or picked up on elements in the guests’ presentations that could be useful. “Really? Your question is about that? Those questions didn’t occur to me. My questions are about this.” Or, “I just think everything that person said is nonsense but you don’t. I don’t know why.” These group discussions with the guests, in the afternoons, were more tangible and in contrast to the morning discussions, which were so personal and required willingness by all to be vulnerable.

So that was part of it. Also, because I also didn’t know how the one-on-ones with the thinking partners were going, I thought this was a way for me to gain insight into people’s thought processes and concerns so that I could eventually start to design who the guest was in relation to things I thought were not or were happening in the one-on-ones that needed to happen more or less. So it was a little bit of theatrics.

Is a funder the most effective steward or instigator of this type of project? Where should a project like this ultimately live?

I think it is perfectly reasonable for a funder to be the steward of it. This kind of funder, embedded in a geographic domain that it supports in all different ways, might be better positioned and more effective than a national funder. The Center has deep interpersonal relationships with the practitioners in this city. So I think that’s perfectly reasonable. It was noted by the participants the ways in which the Center kept its hands off the process. In some cases, this expanded their view of the organization, which was certainly one of my agendas as well. But I also think it could be academically sponsored—I think a number of different kinds of organizations could sponsor this type of program.

Because it is quite different. It is breaking and reformulating the relationship.

Right. Which I think can only be good.

An Experiment in Five Acts was part of the Center’s capacity-building work for our constituents. Generally, we design these experiences not only to increase the competitiveness of our constituents but also to stimulate the next round of applications. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “Did that workshop work? Are we funding better projects as a result?” We’re always hoping for long-term organizational impacts, but we’re also often looking for these short-term impact as well. This is a program that is not geared toward short-term impacts, which meant that we had to come to terms with and develop a degree of comfort around the fact, as you have said, that we may not know the impact for some years.

It’s a long-term investment. I think that struggle of figuring that out was the same thing the participants went through. How do they see worth in this arc? How do they know that they are doing what they want to be doing? How do they know they are getting what they should out of it? Those are the questions we often don’t have time to ask anymore at this point in our careers. So even the questions about the process are the beginning of asking the questions the process was there to support, which are bigger questions about your working methods, your desires, your wish for outcomes. This process is not going to tell you, for example, who you are actually performing for. But it is perhaps going to get you to ask, “Why am I asking that?,” which is actually the question.

Can you imagine designing a template that artists could use as a point of departure for their own, self-tailored An Experiment in Five Acts program?

I don’t know. Certainly I think anybody in that room would know how to, could run such an event, that they are well-equipped for it by their own practice. Ironically, however, given the open form, I think it helps if there is a facilitator who is, you know, willing to live in the discomfort and willing to live with some discomfort coming back at them. Someone used to directing, a person who is willing to have extensive sidebar exchanges with the participants—because I did lots of sidebar exchanges. So, a facilitator who has both a strong design sense and a strong tolerance for not appearing to have a design.

Was your discomfort in the facilitator’s role limited largely to the open-ended process and not knowing how people were going to take to it and how it was going to work out? Were there other things that fed it?

No. That was mostly it. And, you know, I think sometimes people found me a little inscrutable, which they found tedious.

In terms of your own intentionality?

Yes. There were days when I came away and thought, “This didn’t go very well.” I could solve it, but if I solve it then we’re not doing anything. That would be me just making the day more fun or more shaped, which isn’t what I’m here to do, or what they are here to do, or what we said we’re going to do. So the sort of tolerance for temporary failing—I had to have a lot of tolerance for that.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention that we haven’t touched on that’s been on your mind about the program?

A bunch of people said, “Oh, you know, I hope it goes on,” and that raised for me the question of why would people want more of it? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think it is just a testament to the truth of the fact that having an actual career is relatively lonely after a certain point. Even if you don’t think you crave this kind of behavior, you do crave it if it’s for real. What you don’t necessarily crave is sort of the performed, public version of it—the panel in front of an audience or the public talk—which actually is just the same as what you do all the rest of your time; that’s work as opposed to personal research.

Looking back, what do you think was most successful about An Experiment in Five Acts?

In some ways it’s not our privilege to know if the program “worked” or not. It was an investment that will play out over time among serious career-long practitioners. We know that at the end of it, the majority of the participants spoke quite strongly—the majority, not everyone—about having had an experience that mattered to them. My first indicator of that, though, which I loved and which was exactly what I would have hoped, was people who didn’t know each other started to have sidebar conversations and sent each other emails. They started inviting each other to their openings and showings. And that said to me that a culture of different kinds of exchange had been set up.

We remember that in the final session, one of the participants talked to the group about how the experience put him back in a state of mind that he hadn’t felt since he finished school—where he didn’t know everything, where everything was fresh.

Right. It is kind of boring to talk about, but the “treadmill” is real. And by the time you get to a certain stage in your career you are on the treadmill for better or for worse, often both. There’s a lot of discussion about stepping off the treadmill to replenish, but it’s actually pretty hard to do. You have worked very hard to be on the treadmill, to achieve the treadmill. You have worked very hard to develop a toolkit that will harness the treadmill for its best aspects and allow you to still make what you make despite the treadmill’s parameters. And you are rewarded for being that person. It takes more than one three-hour conversation at a foundation to get off the treadmill. It takes willingness by a sponsoring body like the Center and a group of intrepid practitioners to endure an evolving process—an “experiment” (it’s not an accident we called it that). We had to jointly risk not just that experiment but a purposeful turning away from our natural desire for outcome toward creating an arena for examining the very processes by which we arrive at outcome. It’s a more elemental examination.