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Group Genius and Collaborative Theatre

In general, our culture is trained to honor the individual genius. But there is such a thing as group genius which is built from the notion that the group can create something entirely unique and powerful and which is distinct from what the individual can create. And it is from this that the ensemble model is built."

~ Theresa Chavez, Artistic Director of About Productions

There is a famous saying that “two heads are better than one”. Which, if true, could then be argued three is better than two, four is better than three and so on. It is also the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. I truly believe this and have adhered to the idea in my corporate career, preferring to work in groups rather than on my lonesome, occasionally experiencing that magical synergistic “group flow” that creates something no one individual in the group would have been able to generate in isolation. I am constantly amazed at how often something gets shared in these meetings that makes me smack my head in consternation wondering “Why didn’t I think of that?”. Unfailingly though, in my experience, when more than one mind is in the mix and group flow is generated, it is more likely the final product becomes something greater, more effective and more joyful than what was imagined at the start. But it is certainly not a given that effective collaboration or group flow will occur in every group. It takes concerted effort and focus to create that sort of magic.

Before moving forward, I should define what I mean by group flow. Keith Sawyer studied under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the researcher who named the concept of individual “flow” in 1975 described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (New World Encyclopedia). But Sawyer took it a step further in his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration describing the possibility of “group flow” as a state of flow even more powerful than an individual flow state. Sawyer describes group flow as a “peak experience” when a group is “performing at its top level of ability” and have reached “a collective state of mind”. He then outlines ten “ideal conditions for group flow” that make it more likely that a group reaches its highest potential.

Returning to academia and refocusing my career on my passion for theatre over the last two years has awakened all kinds of new possibilities for future theatre projects. One of the things I’ve recently become intrigued by is what it might look like to apply the concept of group flow and full collaboration to my theatre company work. I’d like to see what it looks like to create an ensemble that is intentional in their approach to collaboration and very purposeful in their efforts to create a unified, synergistic company of artists; an ensemble filled with performers, directors, designers, producers and techies where all players have the same amount of skin in the game and are considered equal contributors. I don’t yet know what it would look like exactly, I think it would be up to the group to create. However, I believe Dr. Keith Sawyer’s ten “ideal conditions for group flow” are a good place to start.

I will be scheduling a gathering this summer to discuss this concept with whatever other theatre artists are interested. look out for the invite!

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