sacred arts intensive part one: open space technology

This summer’s eight-day Sacred Arts Intensive was such a powerful experience for me, that I’ll be writing about the week in a few different posts.  For now, let me just boast a bit about our adaptation of Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology.

Whose idea was this anyway? Roger and I weren’t sure who first came up with the idea of  hosting a cross disciplinary laboratory for creating new work in community, but that didn’t matter. The idea seemed silly, risky, weird, and totally impractical. As Roger would say, the idea was perfect.

The idea: Gather artists together from different disciplines for at least a week under one roof in Cleveland, Ohio and dare ourselves to create. Dig in deep. Dive in deep. Explore. Focus.  Incubate. Tease. Make messes. Stay up late and get up early. Cross pollinate.  Mash up processes from other disciplines. Push each other to our bleeding edge. Trust in the wisdom of the group to make sense of it all in the end.

The plan: Organizing an eight-day arts intensive for a diverse group of artists without creating total chaos or total structure would be tough.  I knew this would be tricky, and that skillful facilitation would be key to pulling it off. So I was a little nervous going into this, but I would be working with Roger Sams, master teacher and facilitator with a proven track record of bringing out the best in people, so no need to worry.

We wanted to allow the participants to help create the activities for the week, have time and space for both solitary and group work. We also wanted a structure that would gather and focus our forces for at least part of the time. We wanted both choice and structure, freedom and organization.

I’d seen Open Space Technology work for meetings,  conferences, and corporate retreats, so why wouldn’t it work for a handful of artists in Cleveland? Given we’d be together for eight days, we’d have to adapt the process. Again, I was working with the best, so no worries.

Everyday we met to discuss what (if anything) we were offering to share, invitations were made. An eight-day time space matrix (Owen’s fancy word for sign up sheet) was spread out on the kitchen cabinets. We trusted each other  to self organize and to share. We discussed the principles for Open Space and we hoped for the best.

First Principle of Open Space: Whoever Comes is the Right People. I was concerned about the numbers.  Would there be enough people?  Would everybody get along? Was there too much diversity? Not enough? Would there be enough to eat? How would this mix of six people whose labels included a playwright, a drag king, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an acting coach, a poet, a composer, a dancer, another dancer, a music educator, a visual artist and a dream worker all get along?  Turns out, Harrison was right. The right people showed up. The first principle was at work in the individual sessions as well. Sometimes everyone showed up. Sometimes no one. But it was all good and again, no need to worry.

Whenever it starts is the right time. This principle seemed a bit flaky to me, and I almost chose not to mention it. Tell a gathering of creative people “whenever is the right time” seemed to be asking for disaster. (I even went out and bought an extra clock.) Still, for each of the sessions, activities, meals and field trips, we self organized to the point that flexibility about start times seemed normal and stress over time seemed rare.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Hard to argue with this one. Also good to be reminded.

When it’s over, it’s over. After a bit of adjustment, we learned we didn’t need a clock to tell us when a session was complete.

The Law of Two Feet. Owen explains his one law like this: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. I didn’t see many people leaving activities mid-session. Just knowing that I could leave an activity at any time with no hard feelings gave me an incredible sense of power and freedom.

We ended up quoting from the Open Space principles and the law often during the week, even when the context had nothing to do with a session. I’m still enjoying the freedom and power of my two feet. I’m looking at start and end times differently. I’m challenging myself to see everyone who shows up around me as the perfect people. Open space works in meetings and in arts intensives because it’s principles work anywhere in life. Thank you, Harrison Owen.

Next posts about the Sacred Arts Intensive will include: projecting our dreams, deep dives and feedback, going to Mass, safe emergencies.


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