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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Envisioning conferencing: Insights from drama and dance

Transformative Approaches Project

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This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.

1. Drama

(a) Beyond scripted conferences: There is a true story of the visit of the President of one country to another not so long ago. Each had his principal public speech carefully crafted by a speech writer to appropriately stress the policy issues in question from his position. They delivered their speeches to each other before a large audience and all were content. Unknowingly they had used the services of the same speech writer.

There are many tales of conference conclusions having been prepared, before the gathering, in "draft" form for approval on the occasion. Together with the above tale, this suggests that all policy gatherings are to some extent scripted, possibly during the course of preliminary meetings. A "dry run" is common for critical business meetings. Academic meetings may be almost totally scripted, given that papers may have to be submitted months in advance to determine whether they can be accepted in the programme and "read" at the meeting. Whatever the degree of pre-scripting, some time is usually given for "free discussion" or "questions from the floor" -- this may also be scripted by the use of appropriate "plants".

(b) Policy dramatics: In that future era they approached these matters as dramatic opportunities. A policy gathering was also designed and assessed by the criteria of the dramatic arts. As such this view of a gathering is not too strange to us. We talk of the "main players" and are sensitive to "dramatic moments". The media are especially sensitive to such aspects, to the point of placing pressure on organizers to structure the event so that there are such moments. Events are "staged" because of the media opportunities they offer. The key speakers prepare themselves accordingly -- even to the point of being appropriately dressed, if not made-up and bewigged.

(c) Casting factional representation: But our efforts in this direction make rather uninteresting drama, except for the participants. In the future the challenge was to ensure that the different policy factions were represented by a cast of characters capable of giving adequate dramatic emphasis to the complex issues that needed to be aired, interrelated and resolved. Even today the organizers of conferences are sensitive to the question of "casting" -- who can most appropriately represent a particular perspective. But our descendants made this into a high art. Thus if some hard decision had to be made, the tragic dimensions were appropriately drawn out so that all were aware of what opportunities had to be sacrificed and the suffering that would cause. If there were ridiculous inconsistencies under discussion, their potential as comedy was fully explored (as it is today, outside the gathering, by cartoonists and political comedians).

(d) Improvisation and psychodrama: But the special merit of their dramatic approach was that they had skilled techniques for blending scripting and improvisation. In contrast with our programmed gatherings, the outcome was not necessarily predetermined. The inherent logic of the drama as it unfolded through the unscripted interventions of the participants could move the drama to some unsuspected conclusion. In our time we understand this best in psychodrama and indeed their gatherings were to a high degree sophisticated psychodramas in which participants took the role of factions or constituencies rather than personalities.

(e) Orchestrating dramatic moments to "make a point": The dramatic dimension to their gatherings provided ways of giving form to otherwise "bloodless" debates in which policy implications could take only a purely abstract form. Faced with a complex of challenges and opportunities (which could only be represented on an essentially incomprehensible complex mathematical "surface"), the drama articulated the tensions between values such as joy and despair associated with different policy dimensions, however thegathering finally resolved them. "Points" were made through dramatic moments (as at the origin of the phrase, "to make a point", in the century theatre). In our day policy-makers do not weep at the suffering caused by the decisions they may be forced to make. In that era, such dramatizations provided every justification for weeping when appropriate. The emotional implications of policies were thus fully explored during the policy-making process.

2. Dance

(a) Embodiment of aspirations in dance: In the closing years of the 20th century much is made of the of the increasing proportion of young people in the world, despite the reverse situation in western countries. Much is also made of rising levels of functional illiteracy -- even in western countries. And it is clear that the young in general have relatively little interest in the organization of society that is being thrust on them by their elders. Although they are deeply concerned by some of the issues, it is fair to say that a high proportion of young people have their core aspirations articulated through music and its embodiment in dance. In a world of many languages, it is one of the few that is shared worldwide.

One of the shocking features of our era, to those of the future, was that those involved in policy-making had lost the art of dancing. Formal dances, where they are held, have atrophied into a formal shuffle of little significance. Disco dancing on the occasion of any gathering is provided solely as a means of relaxing and cultivating relationships. Complex dances from our cultural heritage are executed as entertainment with little insight into their significance.

(b) Exploration of patterns of dualities: Our descendants developed the use of dance during such gatherings into a way of exploring the pattern of dualities by which our policy debates are variously polarized beyond any logical reconciliation. Such dualities and factional differences could be encoded in music as described earlier. But dance offered the possibility of acting out those tensions so that they acquired a felt reality -- and the sequence of the dance allowed particular polarities to be transcended in the pattern of the dance.

Such dances bore some resemblance to ceremonial dances, and masked dances, of earlier times and cultures. They also borrowed heavily from insights into self-organizing systems. Many formal patterns existed, but the dance itself, through choices made by participants, might stabilize temporarily in one, before switching into another, or through a cycle of patterns.

(c) Interfacing the personal and the collective: Dances of this kind allowed participants to explore the boundary between their personal preferences, those of others, and the organization of the whole. They offered insights into patterns of organization in which sacrifices made to others under certain conditions, could be compensated by benefits under other conditions. They illustrated the art of "winning" and "losing". People were able to feel out where they could take initiative, leading some part of the dance, and where they could more appropriately respond to the initiatives of others.

(d) Giving form to larger patterns: Of most importance, such dances gave felt reality to complex patterns which could be used to interweave polarizing tendencies in social organization. They provided a means of understanding the "temporal logic" of combining opposing (factional) policies as phases in policy cycles -- themselves interwoven in more complex patterns (reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic patterns). In effect, the whirl of the dance kept opposing elements within the larger pattern. This creative use of time was their key to the use of more appropriate and sustainable styles of organization. We can hear a faint echo of this insight in the peasant farmer's traditional use of crop rotation to sustain the productivity of his fields and in our current approaches to traffic circulation.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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