Monday, March 17, 2008


I've been thinking lately about the way we live. Not just theatre people, although that is my strongest focus, but everyone else, too. And myself, of course.

I am starting to realize that part of my motivation for creating this "new model" is rooted in a desire to step outside of the way we live. To disconnect from the frantic, non-stop lifestyle and take a breath. Take a lot of breaths.

In many ways, it seems to center on time, doesn't it?

I've been taking part in a reading circle about the book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Last Friday, we read several chapters from the book, including "Organizing for Improvisation," which included "The Ten Secrets of the Collaborative Organization." Number 4 was "Allow Time for Ideas to Emerge." Here's how that section began:
Many people say that they work better under pressure. At some companies, tight deadlines and long hours are a semiofficial part of the company's philosophy. But the Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile has found that this management tactic usually kills creativity. Yes, it makes people work harder, but it makes them less creative. In a study of 177 employees in seven U.S. Companies -- all working in teams where creativity was critical to the success of the group -- days that were more hectic were less likely to result in creative thinking. But, paradoxically, the emploees reported that they felt more creative when time pressure was high. Amabile discovered the real story by analyzing daily work diaries written over a six-month period. The people felt creative, but the diaries showed thjat creativity on high-pressure days happened less than half as often as it did on low-pressure days. And creativity remained depressed for at least two days after a high-pressure day.
Keith Sawyer, the author, concludes "You can't rush creativity." I think part of my desire to create a new model involves recovering time. If the tribe controls ancillary activities, and thus owns the surplus value of labor, then each person would have to work fewer hours to make the same amount of money. The 15-hour day that might feel so creative, as Amabile shows, actually is not only not creative, but it depresses creativity for days thereafter.

But it isn't only that. It's aout consumption. Bill McKibben in a chapter called "All for One, or One for All" in his outstanding book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, writes that between 1973 and 2000, "the average American employee added 199 hours to his annual schedule -- that is, the equivalent of five forty-hour weeks." People responded by buying more stuff: "Over the last thirty years, real consumption expenditures per person has doubled."

What are we buying? Sure, some of it is for luxury items, but "much of it simply buys the services that make it possible for us to work those long hours -- more child care, more prepared meals. People who are strapped go to McDonalds." Certainly, this is as true for theatre people as suburban professionals -- while it might not be McDonalds, we are probably much more likely to eat out or eat takeout when we are in rehearsal than when we aren't. We don't have time to go home and cook a meal.

What might happen if we reduced our hours? McKibben writes, "there would now be more time for almost everything, from talking to your spouse, to sleeping in, to volunteering at the local hospital. You could grow some more of your own food, and have time to cook it, using other ingredients you got from your neighbors. You would have less money, but also less need for child care, for work clothes, for the expense of commuting."

In addition, the "more hours you work, the bigger your ecological footprint, too. That's because you're spending more money and spending it carelessly: with no time to go to the farmer's market, let alone cook what you buy there, you drive through the drive-through instead. The numbers are substantial: an American working twenty to forty hours a week requires about twenty-three acres of the earth to support him; someone working more than forty hours requires nearly twenty-eight acres." That's about 22% more.

The effects on our community are as dramatic, and perhaps even more serious. In the recent book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors describe an experiment in caring. A group of seminary students were asked to prepare a sermon on the theme of the Good Samaritan. They were supposed to report to a room where they would be guided through an alley to the chapel where they would deliver their sermon. In this alley, the researcher had placed someone who looked like a homeless person who was obviously in some sort of distress an in need of help. The test was to examine how many of the seminarians about to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan would follow the example they were about to talk about in their sermon and stop to help this person. However, the researchers added one element. When half of the seminarians arrived, they were told that there was a slight delay, and they had a little more time than expected to make their way to the chapel; the other half were told that they were running a little late, and that they needed to hurry a bit to get to the chapel on time. Not surprisingly, those who were told they were running late were far less likely to stop to help the homeless person than those who felt they had more time.

Expand that effect exponentially in our ever-accelerating society and perhaps we have an explanation for the slacking of interest in helping the poor, the destitute, the sick, and the desperate. Perhaps it isn't a hardening of the empathetic arteries so much as a lack of the time it takes to slow down and actually see those in need of assistance. Not to mention other people in your community -- your neighbors, for instance.

In 1930, during the Depression, McKibben writes, "the cereal entrepreneur W. K. Kellogg put his workers on a six-hour day at full pay. Productivity increased dramatically, helping pay for the experiment. Meanwhile, the company town's parks, community centers, churches, and YMCA's all flourished. Researchers who interviewed the townspeople found that their interests had grown and changed: they now asked themselves, 'What shall I do?' not just 'What shall I buy?'"

Again, McKibben: "If we are to reverse the trend of overwork, change will probably begin with small and voluntary schemes like those that have begun to change the food market" through CSA's and farmer;s markets. "A number of towns around the country, for instance, have begun to experiment with time-bartering networks. If you help an elderly neighbor cook her meals, you are rewarded with a certain number of 'time dollars,' which guarantees that 'somewhere down the line a neighbor will help you in return.' In a traditional, well-functioning community, such arrangements are unnecessary; people do the calculations intuitively, on the fly."

It is my hope that a theatre tribe might be a "small and voluntary scheme," one that would demonstrate the benefits and wisdom of having more time. The goal would be to take a step away from the status quo and reclaim part of our lives as artists, as family members, as neighbors, as community members, as human beings.

I suspect there are those who will characterize this as nostalgic or impractical. but I think there are more and more people who are realizing that the current way of living is unhealthy, and that it contributes to the ecologically-destructive approach that is destroying our planet. Whether you call it voluntary simplicity, or deep economy, or the "paradox of progress," it all adds up to a questioning of the status quo. And that's what we, as artists, do -- isn't it?

Don Hall enjoins us to "tell a different story." Perhaps we should not just tell it, but live it.


ecotheater said...

Recovering time is certainly a critical part of any theater tribe I would be attracted to being a part of -- I simply could not agree more with the idea of using one's time for more than simply "working." Of course, I feel as though I have made that time in my life with one unfortunate side effect: my wife and I are doomed to be poor (granted poor by our American standards isn't all that bad). This is what attracts me to your line of thinking and the theater tribe, because I feel like it could be adapted in such a way that a decidedly better living could be made while retaining the gift of time to spend "talking to your spouse," or sleeping in (yes, certainly this!). Or maybe I'm dreaming...

Art said...

Hi Scott:

Fast Company did a study on Creativity in the Workplace a few years ago. They debunked some of the biggest myths:

Here is a paragraph from the section on the myth of creativity under pressure:

"In our diary study, people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that we studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover -- when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well. ....In fact, it's not so much the deadline that's the problem; it's the distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative breakthrough. People can certainly be creative when they're under the gun, but only when they're able to focus on the work."

Art said...


Amabile is the source for the Fast Company story as well.

Sorry for the redundancy.