Sustaining the Field Through Change: Facilitate Community by Releasing Control

By Jennifer Edwards


Reluctance to embrace innovation holds the field of dance in stasis. This reluctance (or hesitation) limits outreach, spreading and feeding what many call “fear of change.” My interest lies in disrupting this dangerous pattern of institutionalized thinking in order to challenge each of us to see the possibilities and opportunities that technology, new media, and community engagement offer on a larger scale. Analogies abound relating change to the human experience, to the seasons, to life itself–we all know change is inevitable. Yet when I speak with arts organizations (and other non-profits) about the shifts technology has caused in creation and development of work, I often experience huge resistance to what they refer to as “change.”

I propose this is not actually a fear of change, but for arts organizations, it’s a fear of losing control over the field and the channels of disseminating information. And for performing artists, it is a fear of losing live audiences due to the performative nature of new media. The boon of new media is often misunderstood–connection is constant and fluid through social media. Infusing this type of practice into our creative habits will sustain the field.

The biggest shift in audience engagement
Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus–Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, speaks of the shift in audience engagement as a transition from passive consumer to engaged co-creator. He points to the fact that people are actively participating in developing and spreading ideas and products through social and new media projects. This pays off for for-profit corporations like Coca Cola, whose EVP and Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer, Joe Tripodi wrote in the Harvard Business Review blog: “Our [Facebook] fanpage wasn’t started by an employee at our headquarters… it was launched by two consumers… as an authentic expression of how they felt about Coca-Cola. A decade ago, a company like ours would have sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter from our lawyer. Instead, we’ve partnered with them to create new content, and our Facebook page is growing by about 100,000 fans every week…. Consumers have become empowered to create their own content about our brands and share it throughout their networks and beyond.”

Later in the piece he urges, “Be a facilitator who manages communities, not a director who tries to control them.”

How this translates to the dance community: It is imperative that we start valuing our audiences; beyond the money they pay for a ticket or donate to our companies. Their feedback and input are important; yet, it has been common practice in the art world to direct a one-way flow of communication from lighted stage to darkened audience. Dance is a monologue in a world now driven by open conversation, and people are starting to tune us out. It is time we learn to listen and apply what we learn. Audiences want to see themselves reflected in our work. They see this everyday on Facebook, which is one of the biggest stages in the world. They see photos that reflect their lives and messages that matter to them. More than that, they have access to and impact on the flow of information as it circulates. By the same token, art that is “all about the artist” with no entry points for the audience, feels withheld, inaccessible, and outside of the scope of those we strive to reach.

Every Expression Counts
Much of Joe Tripodi’s piece in the Harvard Business Review centered on the idea that in marketing, the reach of a campaign has been calculated in terms of “impression” or how many people will see, hear, or read about you via Facebook postings, print materials, reviews, listings, etc.

“But,” writes Tripodi, “impressions only tell… the raw size of the audience. By definition, impressions are passive. They give us no real sense of engagement, and consumer engagement… is ultimately what we’re striving to achieve. Awareness is fine, but advocacy will take [you] to the next level… So we are increasingly tracking ‘consumer expressions.’ To us, an expression is any level of engagement with our brand content by a consumer or constituent. It could be a comment, a ‘like,’ uploading a photo or video or passing content onto their networks.”

How this translates to the dance community: Social media is a creative medium. I implore you to stop approaching Facebook, blogs, and twitter as “marketing tools.” A common complaint from organizations is that they post events and calls to action on Facebook with little response. They promote shows and see little increase in audience attendance. This is because they are using social media the same way they use flyers and postcards. But social media is closer to an open studio showing than a marketing campaign. It is a big platform, open for you to share work. But it’s not an improv jam–you should ‘practice’ your social media voice–e.g. edit and streamline your message. It is also not a formal performance–so stark and in the spotlight that it lacks transparency. Instead, new media is a stage that welcomes continued conversation and process through dialogue.

Think about how you use Facebook with friends. When you log in and post pictures of your new puppy to your wall for friends to see–what are you selling? You’re not selling at all–you are sharing. You are inviting people you know into your life, and you are offering them a seat on your couch. You are also asking them to do the same. Dancers and dance-makers must approach social media projects (indeed all projects) like new virtual puppies–have fun–play–share and allow others to engage with you. This includes commenting, sharing, ‘liking,’ and re-posting their content as well. Create work that you want to create, but with waves and winks at those who care about your work–your co-creators and audience members.

From the dance world, I like to use the example of Trey McIntyre Project and their employment of new media. Few companies are doing what they are in terms of bringing online and in-person communities to their work and maintaining honesty and transparency in every endeavor. TMP fluidly blends new media creation with their professional stage work to such an extent that they have blurred the lines between what would typically be the ‘creative work’ of a company and its ‘marketing materials.’ All their work is creative work, and, therefore, one clear message pervades all of their projects: online, in hospitals, during international tours, or a New York season. TMP does not need to talk about their mission–they live it.

Often, hesitating to engage in conversation with one’s audience stems from fear of criticism. In a recent interview on The Today Show, Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of The Pontifical Council For Social Communications addressed this concern–one that the Catholic Church, arguably one of the oldest and most criticized non-profits, faces often. He said, “We’re not just interested in talking to people. We also wanted to listen and sometimes listening to your critics enables you to understand why they’re critical and maybe you can readdress them in a different way.”

A final radical notion: We will own legitimacy on the national stage when we transcend our respective niches. The only thing that needs to change is the distance we put between our organizations and the rest of the world. Though I am certainly not advising everyone to audition for So You Think You Can Dance, I am suggesting that we stop sequestering dance–walling it off from the general population through how we talk about our art form. Make yourself and your work relevant within the context of your community. This will aid in forging organic, strategic partnerships. You just have to ask what people (your audience, and your community–external and internal to your company) need and be willing to listen to and take action on what you learn.

This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of In Dance.

Jennifer Edwards is a founding partner and consultant specializing in group facilitation, and organizational development at Edwards & Skybetter/Change Agency. She is also a choreographer and the Artistic Director at JenEd Productions. Her advice on managing stress at work has been featured in publications including Martha Stewart's Whole Living Magazine, Forbes, and the New York Times. She is currently designing a stress management app called home/body for dancers. Edwards often contributes to publications including The Huffington Post and Dance/USA's From the Green Room.