Or how I managed to stop worrying and reconcile two creative disciplines – coding and performing…

One of my favourite performance exercises is called Yippee. It is very simple with a myriad of ways to subvert it and take the class in different directions. It encapsulates pretty much every performance skill needed, and is a good indicator of a group’s competency and complicity. Because of all these things I often use it to start a workshop.

  1. the participants form a tight group at one side of the area, the audience (to start with the leader) opposite
  2. in between a soft object (usually a jumper hat or scarf) is placed on the floor as a marker
  3. one by one, without organising, conferring, prompting or coercing, each participant commits themselves whole heartedly to the following
  4. an energetic run up to the marker
  5. the highest jump they can manage
  6. whilst shouting YIPPEE
  7. and FREEZING on landing
  8. eye contact locked on the leader
  9. remaining physically frozen, maintaining eye-contact, until permission to unfreeze is given
  10. relax and retire to the side
  11. at any time the leader can send the participant back to do the whole thing again

Repeat the above, developing the rules each time to evolve the exercise in the desired direction.

I was taking a very competent and lively sixth form through the first stages of this exercise when I realised that the boy I was sending back constantly (we’ll call him Fred), was deliberately, and very amusingly subverting the rules.
Eventually there was just him left, he kept breaking the rules, I kept sending him back, and the rest of the class was watching, laughing hysterically from the sides. Fred was a natural clown. Our conflict had slowly developed into the drama of a war of wills, and no doubt the class was intrigued with how I was going to deal with this flagrant and playful undermining of my authority.
It carried on, he seemed incapable of following the simple rules, even though I kept stating them every time I sent him back. He would complete the whole exercise perfectly, then at the last moment would compulsively pull a face, or pick his nose. I wondered if it was starting to dawn on him that he had started a game that he could not possibly win on his own terms. I could (and would) spend the whole of the workshop calmly sending him back. His friends and colleagues, already starting to get restless, were not going to be so patient.

Playing The Game

Now I’m not going to try and apply that to your experience, or ask whether you can see any parallels to the discipline of Application Development, I’d like you to notice something.
All the drama, the conflict so far has taken place within the structure of the exercise. At no stage yet have we stopped the exercise, we are still playing The Game. Or – let us use the correct nomenclature of the Performance Domain – we haven’t yet left The Stage.
The concept of The Stage is one of those special places in society, a liminal zone. These are places where the normal rules of society do not apply, they are suspended and may be broken (we are back to rule manipulation, only this time at a meta level). The Stage is a place of transformation which can be traced back to its shamanic origins.
It means that more probing questions can be asked, bigger buttons pushed harder than in every-day life where office-politics and personality conflicts get all tangled up with that code-base.
To learn, often it’s really important to be able to remove yourself from the rules of the day-to-day.
I would also like to point out that at no point in the exercise has anybody done anything “wrong”, or “inappropriate”, there are no mistakes, just opportunities. All that has happened is that Fred has started playing a different game.
The trick is to find out what game each person is playing, and start playing it with them. Getting annoyed when Fred will not Bend-To-My-Will, will achieve nothing.
To learn, it’s really important to suspend judgement, and be in a group who will not judge, and will let what unfolds unfold.

Trying Harder

Last year at October’s try{harder} code retreat, I decided to break one of my long standing rules. Every participant leads a seminar in a subject of their own choice, and I had been undecided as to what mine should be on. I have always attempted to keep my twenty plus years of performance experience out of my Development job, and I wear my abysmal lack of technical knowledge like an albatross, in plain sight so I can be the first to criticise it. So a technical presentation wasn’t really me.
In amidst my indecision I made a passing comment, about someone else’s presentation, something like:

the thing is, as long as the talk is intelligent and inclusive, you could talk about any subject with this group of people because they are also all intelligent and inclusive.”

I realised that I should act on my own advice, and changed my talk to the one that I naturally should be giving:
The Heuristics of Devised and Improvised Performance
It worked very well, and not only was my fear of being ridiculed unrealised, but I discovered that the Performing Arts had a conceptual language that was able to describe the act of group creation that I haven’t come across in the Tech World.
Whereas the Tech World is filled with good solid practical techniques and advice – TTD, BDD, Pair Programming, DRY, KISS etc it is all code-facing. At its heart the Performing Arts describe the relationships between participants both in the real and in the conceptual, and seeks to develop these, starting internally, towards maximising the complicity of the group and thus its creative output. In other words, good clean, elegant and most importantly efficient code is an emergent property of a group of individuals that work together as a single unit.

Something Different

So Fred was getting more and more frustrated, until finally he cracked and blurted:
“but, but, but… I’m breaking the rules… you said that rules were just a starting point, so I’m breaking them.”
– pause while that sunk in.
“Yeees, you’re quite right I did mention that earlier. Well observed. And you’ve just been illustrating that point rather well, thank you very much for that. You are extremely good at – you break rules very wittily.
So two points:
Firstly I also said that this workshop was about complicity, so – and this is to the whole group – why is he up there on his own?
Secondly I would say Rule Breaking is something you practice all the time.”
– agreement in various forms from the group.
“You’ve turned disobedience into a rule that you always follow.”
– pause while that sunk in.
“So why not do something different, something you would find hard, and something that would push you?
Would you go to the back of the hall, run, jump, shout “yippee”, freeze and maintain eye-contact until I give permission to re-join the group”.
Needless to say, he did the excise perfectly to a standing ovation.

*UPDATE* There has been a change in date and location 22nd – 26th April 2013, Littondale, Yorkshire Dales (near Skipton) UK. There are still some places available, so pop along to try{harder} Level Up 2013 for more info.

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