If everything is in transition, then isn’t nothing really in transition?
I was recently reading a passage in “The Dawn of Everything” about indigenous societies of the Americas (and indeed elsewhere in the world), who would operate according to vastly different social structures depending on the season. The exact same group of people may move from functioning within an extremely egalitarian and horizontal society, to an extremely hierarchical one in which one person is imbued with the power to tell everyone else what to do, and then, at the change of the seasons, they would transition back into being an egalitarian society. I was struck by this on a few different levels.
In some ways, doesn’t this sound a bit like the process of rehearsing and putting up a piece of performance?
But also - the wider structures in our field (or indeed in our society), don’t really ever change THAT much, in the way that is being described in this book. Why is that? And what might be gained if they did?
To pull in a separate but related thread: I am currently in what everyone loves to call a “transition”. I departed an institutional leadership role at the end of June, and am now focusing more on the company I co-founded, which I’ve been growing on the side for the past eleven years. (While I am excited to have more time and space to focus on this endeavor, I also have to figure out how to earn enough money to live my life going forward - which is the part I’m still figuring out! Lest you thought I was describing an elegant slide from one full-time salaried role into another - because that is not the case!)
To zoom out from my moment of transition (and that of the handful of folks across NYC cultural institutions who happened to leave their arts leadership jobs on the exact same day) - I was speaking with a program officer for a large foundation a few months ago who told me that nearly 60% of the organizations they work with are currently in a leadership transition (including the foundation itself!).
Perhaps the biggest challenge associated with my own transition was to try and assure the various stakeholders in our organization, from artists to staff to funders to audiences, that my leaving the organization was not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it is exciting! It opens up possibilities for both the organization and myself. It is an opportunity for the org, and those in it to evolve with and in response to new leadership. Nevertheless, I was met with a good amount of lamenting, hand wringing, nervousness, and general doom and gloom that I would no longer be in the role that I had been in for the last several years.
And I think *that* may be one of our big issues in the theatre right now - not only the desire to hang on to what we know, but to have everything clearly defined and laid out for us. I recognize that the ability to say “I don’t know” and not have it be a reflection on one’s job performance or self-worth can be difficult. It took me years of intentional practice. Saying “I don’t know”, even to myself, let alone out loud, used to provoke anxiety, dread and fear. It used to quickly jump to questioning my own “qualifications” and begin to doubt that I could really do what I had set out to do. So I fully understand that change, and uncertainty about that change, is likely to provoke similar feelings in most of us. I still work every day to keep the demons of doubt and fear at bay, but I’ve gotten more practiced at doing so, just enough that I am starting to relish change. And once I felt that feeling - that feeling of not just the scariness of the unknown but the possibility of it - I was hooked. I now try to incorporate change of some kind into my life on a frequent basis - to try and push myself out of my comfort zone at least every few months, if not weeks.
What does this look like? It could be taking a class on a completely new subject, deciding to approach a familiar task in a wholly different way, or even learning to cook a new meal. In my theatrical work, I am constantly iterating on processes - changing what we did in a previous rehearsal or show to try it differently. Structuring the team or the development process in a way we haven’t tried before. While it can be a challenge - and is nearly always more work than following a set formula - it’s almost always really rewarding too.
We all keep saying we want change in our field, right? So I’m wondering if we can extrapolate out - normalizing change in our own lives as a means toward normalizing change in the organizations we build and in which we work. After all, do we think that change is going to be defined for us, handed to us from external forces? (I hope everyone understands this as a rhetorical question, because the obvious answer is, of course not!)
Strangely, I found that those who most often talk about wanting change were, in some ways, the most anxious about the big “I don’t know” of who is going to lead the organization going forward. And I get it. Change is difficult!! But we know what we get if we don’t try. We get the status quo, which according to most in the industry right now, is…not awesome.
In this moment of great change for me and for the field, I wonder if we can reframe our perspective a bit - instead of labeling something as a “transition”, and then allowing it to stress us out or disorient, can we embrace change as the norm? Can we live the truth of that old saying “the only thing constant is change”, and resist the urge to label the “beginning” or the “end” of a transition, or perhaps to label a transition at all?
Instead of seeing the departure of a leader as a blow or a setback (something that was said in numerous ways over and over - in front of me - after I shared that I would be departing the org), can we all challenge ourselves to look beyond our own status quo, however enlightened and ideal we think it may be, and take a joyful leap past that?
I know, it’s hard. But I believe we’re at the point where we don’t have much of a choice in the changing realities of our field, or our world at large. Our choice is whether we show up to figure out what the future holds. Whether we choose to be a part of the messy, exciting, infuriating, inspiring, frustrating, life-altering work of co-creating the future we want to see - both in our field and in society at large. The two of which are of course inextricably connected, but that is a topic for another post.
I’m going to challenge myself to show up for embracing and normalizing change in all aspects of my work, including and beyond the concrete transition out of my role. I hope many of us will choose this with intention, and talk to each other about it, so that we can get down to the real work of what comes next. And what comes after that, and after that, and beyond that too.
Author's Bio: Theater maker, producer of gatherings of humans, podcast enthusiast and dabbler, emerging NYC gardener, crazy cat lady, reader of all the weird nonfiction.