Sunday 6 February 2011

Keeping the cafe open.

Malcolm Muggeridge once described national culture as resembling a big, busy cafe. Most of the time, there are a number of different conversations going on at different tables, people travel between them, sometimes groups join together, every now and then we all focus on the same thing, a fight or singer in the corner. The important things are to keep the conversations going, and to maintain the connections between them.

It's a useful image, and especially relevant when you're discussing things like subsidy, and the extent to which one part of the cafe depends on another. I've been reminded of it sometimes by social media - the way that Facebook users will suddenly agree as one to replace their photos with doppelgangers or cartoon characters - but the first time I've ever seen the metaphor made flesh was last weekend, at Devoted and Disgruntled 6.

D and D, as the cool kids call it, is an annual event, and one that it's quite hard to put a name to - 'forum', 'talking shop'. 'Agenda-free conference' comes closest, but that doesn't really catch it. Basically, it's a two-day gathering for theatre folk (the title refers to how most of us feel about our chosen medium) , organised by Improbable Theatre, and run according to the principles of Open Space Technology.

This was the brainchild of an American named Harrison Owen, who kept noticing that every time he went to a conference, all the best discussions took place in the coffee breaks. So, turning background into foreground, he tried to find a way of making the coffee breaks into the main event.

The principles of OST are very simple - at the start of first day, anyone can get up and propose a session on anything at all. At D&D, these range from the general (loads of sessions about funding) to the particular ('I'm writing a play about archives. Can anybody help?'), from the theoretical ('Training Directors. Is it possible?') to the practical ('I'm a producer. Does anyone have any shows for me?'), from the serious ('How can we use theatre to make the world a better place?') to the trivial ('My friend Sally is hot and brilliant and really wants a boyfriend.'). One effect of this is that no one can complain that they didn't get what they came for - if no one's talking about your pet subject, call a session yourself.

Sessions are timetabled, about twenty at a time, and assigned spaces; people choose which ones they want to attend and go for it. There are four principles:

Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whoever arrives are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
When it's over, it's over.

Added to this is the 'Law of Two Feet', or more inclusively, 'Law of Mobility'. If you're in a session, and feel that you're neither contributing nor learning, you just get up and go elsewhere. it's not ill-mannered to those you leave, it's a gift, taking away a millstone. Some people go from session to session, like bumblebees, some remain as beautiful still centres, like butterflies. If you call a session, it's your responsibility to get it written up - at the end of the weekend, everyone's given a phonebook-sized volume of the 120-odd conversations that have taken place.

There are also two other OST principles; free coffee (or tea, or juice) all day and - this is maybe the most important - no name badges. In other words, no one schmoozes.

So... over two and a half days, I convened a session on failure (it was, ironically enough, very successful), heard a lengthy and fascinating account of the Burning Man Festival, helped two people with their ideas for shows, had profound discussions about theatre's relationship with both science and religion (these sessions were at the same time, so I bumblebeed between them), saw a Philip K. Dick short story performed as a solo show with matches, made some new friends, rediscovered some old ones and (in a session called 'Tell me something I don't know'), found out about the subculture of people who walk around London with wineglasses on a Saturday night, trying to find parties that they can pretend to be locked out of.

By the Sunday evening, my head was so full that I found myself introducing two people, having completely forgotten that one had introduced me to the other the previous day. I'm wary of the word 'mind-blowing' but, if I'm honest, my mind was thoroughly blown.

Oh, and in case you've been wondering, Sally didn't find a boyfriend, but, according to her write-up, had some interesting conversations and 'a most excellent way to spend an hour and a half'. Hey, I didn't say we could solve everything.

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