Kaivalya Plays gets SMART: : Attending a 3-Day Management Program for Cultural Organizations
ABOUT SMART 2020:
The SMART (Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre) in its first two iterations functioned as a 10-day residential capacity building programme for theatre makers, which was conducted in three phases over a six month period with mentoring from senior practitioners. The 2020 “Covid version” was an online event held over three days without an extended mentorship programme beyond the 3 day series of workshops. The 3 days were divided into two sessions each day that covered:
Day 1 Session 1 - Reflection on the present state - guided by Neel Chaudhuri
Day 1 Session 2 - Outlining a broad vision - lead by Sunil Shanbag
Day 2 Session 1 - Unlimited Brainstorming - lead by Arundhati Ghosh
Day 2 Session 2 - SWOT Analysis - lead by Sudhanva Deshpande
Day 3 Session 1 - Visions Goals Objectives Outcomes - Mentors
Day 3 Session 2 - Extended discussions on Learnings and takeaways
The biggest positive of attending SMART was to share a “space” with other theatre practitioners and vastly experienced makers. Even in a virtual space we were able to hear multiple concerns by other makers and the challenges that the older generation was facing in these new circumstances. There was a feeling of solidarity and concern for each other.
Kaivalya Plays attended SMART with three members, two of whom have been with the organization for less than a year. Participating together created a stronger bond between the team members through the exercises of SMART which addressed individual concerns of team members as well as collectively established the most important goals of the organization.
The SMART programme’s approach taught us to think about tackling problems with lateral solutions when we could not control the outcome. This was effective to morale but also opened up completely new avenues for how we could generate revenue.
Through SMART we learned that an individual’s goals within the organisation could be brought into the wider organisation’s goals and benefit the entire team.
The facilitators at SMART designed the programme to generate questions. While initially this was disconcerting, over the duration of the workshop we understood that this meant that the programme’s exercises and activities would generate our own questions to our own problems.
Areas of Concern:
SMART is primarily designed as a programme for arts practitioners who don the hat of “reluctant managers” to run their theatre companies. This can make it difficult for a team of dedicated arts managers to profit from it over a team of artists.
SMART is not a toolkit approach to management or administration of a theatre organization. At a time when technological tools, practices and practices are of paramount importance to most theatre organizations it was frustrating to be told that we would not walk away with tools that we could apply, but rather more questions. Thankfully, all the facilitators expressed willingness to speak to us separately and create a throughline for the questions that were raised for us over the length of the programme.
SMART is yet another arts management programme we have attended this year that puts an entrepreneurial approach at its forefront without any discussion on the role of institutional funding. Considering SMART itself is funded by the Goethe Relief fund, and facilitated by several grant and funding recipients that no mention is ever made on the role of fundraising versus artistic programming for revenue generation is disappointing.
SMART DAY 1
Session 1 - Reflecting our Present State
I had been aware of SMART since its inception. The fact that Junoon and the IFA were initially involved in its creation in 2015 made it an attractive option to address the most neglected aspect of theatre (along with safety). This year, Kaivalya Plays signed up for the three day series of workshops in full force, with a team of three. Artistic Director, Varoon P. Anand; Communications Manager, Stuti Kanoongo; and Nuhar Bansal, our consulting project manager on the safety project but who plays a much larger role in the organisation. Our general manager is in the United Kingdom completing his Master’s in Advanced Theatre Practice but would receive real time updates from us through the day, and would participate in a daily debrief through Zoom.
Despite Kaivalya Plays being around since 2012, it’s only in the last 2 years that it has emerged as a realized and organised team. In 2018, it received its first grant, in 2019 it appeared at multiple festivals, received more grants and commissions, and in 2020, was one of the first Indian teams that started producing digital work, hosting workshops and appeared at the Re-connect festival in Iran. In 2020, Kaivalya Plays also launched the Theatre Management Fellowship to seek out qualified people to train and help Kaivalya Plays grow. From that programme, two of the fellows were now core team members and were going to be part of the team attending SMART. Stuti and Nuhar have been with Kaivala Plays for less than a year, and have not met each other or Varoon and Gaurav in person, but are already battle-hardened veterans of multiple productions, workshops and projects. So, Kaivalya Plays was already showing up with a strong management background to SMART, looking to understand how the most visible programme for theatre management operated and what we could gain.
Zoom workshops throw you into the fray immediately. You don’t meet and talk to one person at a time. You see everyone pop up on your screen all at once. When you speak, you speak to everyone. The benefit of this is not having to navigate the social pleasantries and anxiety as you wait for a room to start filling up. The downside is you don’t get to catch up with your friends one-on-one before everything kicks off. So, despite seeing Neel Chaudhuri from Tadpole, Manjari Kaul and Himani Pant from Art Blend, Prabhjot Singh from The Roots, Sudhanva Desphande of Jana Natya Manch, and Darshana Davé and Menaka Rodriguez from the IFA, we were only able to work with one speaker at a time.
After an extended introduction exercise from all the participants it was easy to notice some things had changed from previous years. There were more single practitioners, organizations represented by a single person, something that wouldn’t have happened before. The most surprising inclusion was Ankur, the theatre society of Delhi University’s SGTB-Khalsa. A highly regarded college theatre team defined by the fact that its members change every year.
During the orientation process, Neel Chaudhuri, speaking for SMART, informed us that over the next three days we would not go through a “toolkit approach”, rather focusing on asking questions that may not find an answer. Naturally, this was disconcerting and anxiety inducing, especially considering we had not yet received an agenda of sessions or activities for the next three days. Kaivalya Plays is an organization steeped in processes, tools and clearly defined agendas. One of the purposes of this is efficiency, but also to allow the team to prepare adequately and manage their own mental health. Not unusual for a company grounded in improvisation as its core artistic practice.
Neel then took us through a small exercise of looking at images to allow our minds to reflect on four separate ideas:
Our individual relationship with our practice as artists
Our the present state of our relationship with our own theatre group (beyond the pandemic)
Think of the community in larger sense, within and outside of the theatre
Our relationship with our audience
After seeing the images (inspired from the card game Dixit), we were broken up into separate rooms. The SMART team was conscious about separating the teams into separate rooms, so only 1 representative from each team was in each room.
Kaivalya Plays has had an exhausting year of programming. Along the lines of the “fail fast, learn faster” philosophy, we were able to implement many new programmes. The key to our approach is keeping community building at the center and, therefore, our major preoccupation remains with the safety of our patrons. Session 2 - Outlining Vision and Ambition with the Mentors
We considered ourselves very fortunate to be allotted Sameera Iyengar and Neel Chaudhuri as our mentors for the programme. Certainly for us they would have been our first choices for mentors based on their long managerial experience and ability as artists.
We were asked to outline our vision statement. In a condensed form it was defined as where we wanted to get to as an organisation and our mentors pushed us to keep articulating that into workable, applicable language. What we went back to them was the following:
Kaivalya Plays seeks to:
Innovate audience engagement
Build communities - we make sure that auditions are open, 30% of our programming is free and open to all.
Challenge established norms - this allows us to discuss safety in the performing arts, seek out experimental work, and not rely on institutions as guides.
What we began to see as different groups presented is that the mentors kept probing with “Why” Questions. Anticipating this before we presented, I began to ask myself “why” to these 3 broad ideas. I stopped after posing two “why’s”, well aware that my mentors would ask why at least once more.
These three serve to create a safer, more inclusive space in the “world of theatre.”
A safer, inclusive space gives anyone a chance to explore their own relationship with art, even those we disagree with and those who are most isolated.
Naturally, our mentors challenged us with one more why. It helped that Neel Chaudhuri has a high awareness of the artistic work of the work of Kaivalya Plays and was able to place the management vision to the artistic work already present in our programming. Our mentors prodded on seeing this vision articulated in our artistic output, where we do see a process of the artistic work informing our managerial practices. They saw our vision as our “core values” and the mission of the company.
This is where I think we differed from our mentors is that we saw what we outlined as the management vision of our organization.This was a point that was echoed by the team members that if our artistic work focused on safety, inclusivity and representation that these practices were reflected in our managerial practice as a company. The problem was asking our organization’s managers how they contributed to the artistic vision was not a useful exercise for us and left us a little uncomfortable and full of questions.
The process of asking “Why 5 times” is a very well known technique attributed to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. This encouraged managers to get on the floor and see the problems for themselves and ask “why “to get to a “root cause”. It is considered an effective technique for troubleshooting, quality improvement and quality analysis, but it has been deemed unsuitable to tackle complex or critical problems.
SMART DAY 2
The second day was broken down into two sessions:
A brainstorming session lead by Arundhati Ghosh
A SWOT analysis exercise lead by Sudhanva Desphande
The first session asked us to imagine how we would operate if granted three separate boons
Each idea was to be considered separately. So, if we had unlimited people, we only had unlimited people, and so forth. Once again, we were divided away from our teams and sorted into groups with individual representatives from each team.
Initially, the idea of unlimited was equally overwhelming and oddly familiar. For example, at times we feel we already have unlimited people. Often we find young people willing to give their energy to theatre. But what Himani Pant of Art Blend noted is that we wish we had is skilled people, who are in short supply. Another participant pointed out that unlimited people could also mean unlimited audience. The more the concept of unlimited as any resource was explored, the more it felt like unlimited responsibilities towards the spaces, the programming and the people. Although Prabhjot Singh of the Roots did mention if granted unlimited spaces, then he would also use those for creating public libraries and resource centers for theatre study.
Before it got completely unmanageable, Sameera Iyengar stepped in the conversation to guide us. She clarified that unlimited did not necessarily mean endless. She asked us to try shifting our focus to the idea of a “removal of constraints”. To look at these three ideas as “What could I do if a lack of people wasn’t a problem?” This clarified that the intention of the exercise was to get us to define our goals as an arts organization if we could do exactly what we wanted. It’s much the same advice a writer would give you at the time of writing a script, “Don’t think about where the money to make this will come from, write the story you want to make and see it exactly as you want to see it.”
This was very helpful to me and I was able to go back and rewrite my goals thusly:
Resources - If we had highly skilled people at our disposal we would try and offer as much training by them to our resources and the wider theatre community in general, emphasizing the opportunity to learn how to do theatre effectively and rely on our own people for feedback on how to improve and be more effective teachers.
Audience - If we knew an audience would be there, then we would take more chances to do more experimental and original work.
Unlimited Spaces - Without having to worry about spending a great deal of money on hiring an auditorium, then we would extend the runs of our performances. Instead of doing 3-6 shows over a month, we would try to do as many 25-30 performances in a month, maybe even 100 performances.
Unlimited Money -
Invest in technology - Kaivalya Plays has been a company defined by innovation in technology. Currently, in response to the pandemic harnessing great tech (including and beyond great light and sound equipment), this also means investing in the kind of technology that can allow re-imagining the audience experience through light, sound and text.
Build our own Space - There’s nothing like having your own space where you can store your sets and costumes, light and sound equipment and have all your rehearsals and performances. This is surely on every theatre maker’s wish list.
Tour Internationally - We had the fortunate experience of 13 of us travelling to Spain to perform at the Almagro festival. It wasn’t just the exposure to the highly professional environment of the festival, or the experience of performing at a venue of such stature, it was the opportunity to imbibe the arts and culture of a foreign land. The entire team had the opportunity to see and feel the origins of the play they were performing, to live its cultural context, build a new appreciation for their work and understand their responsibility as artists. Given unlimited funds our group, specifically, would look at travelling all over Latin America with productions in Spanish.
For the second session on Day 2, Sudhanva Desphande walked us through a SWOT analysis. A common practice in the business world a SWOT analysis summarises your company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. SWOT Analysis was invented in the 1960s by Albert Humphrey at the Stanford Research Institute as a model to bring accountability and objectivity to the planning process, and it remains very popular. Humphrey advocated performing SWOT analysis on specific criteria, such as products, process, customers, distribution, finance, and administration. It was evident that SMART is populated primarily by artists, more than even arts managers, who are taking on the role of “reluctant managers”. SWOT Analysis, however, is easily communicable and executable as a visual exercise. The grid format of SWOT Analysis is similar to design work, even resembling the work we have done in “rasa boxes”, an Indian storytelling aesthetic using a 3X3 grid of emotions.
Kaivalya Plays, however, was represented at SMART by our managers. I have worked in communications and cultural management specifically, Nuhar has been a venue manager for the Courtyard and heads our safety study, and Stuti works full time as our Communications Manager, but in no capacity as an artist. We also come equipped with extensive training in how to use tools such as Google sheets, classroom, docs, slides and website design and payment platforms to manage events. For us, the artistic work may have actually been the weaker link.
This did not prevent us from gaining value from the session. It simply allowed us to focus more tightly and work more quickly because we were not hampered by the Whiteboard function in Zoom to do the exercise. We were also able to offer a quicker documentation of this exercise for the partner teams who were also in the room.
The SWOT Analysis:
Strengths - We look at Tools and Processes as one of our strengths
Weaknesses - The weakness of working with tools and processes is that tools require us to train, which shows us another weakness as lacking skilled people
Opportunities - The opportunity that arose from this “need” is to create Theatre Management Fellowship and also the specific tools were offered separately as digital training workshops
Threats - We were unable to formulate these initially. But when we re-evaluated our digital workshops we were able to work these in again.
From these we were able to
Strengths - The digital training workshops become a strength
Weaknesses - These workshops can be too technical
Threats - By not having accessible workshops we would not be able to reach practitioners who could benefit.
Opportunity - By realizing the threat we could go back to re-evaluating how the workshops work, understand how to make them simpler and
More than understanding our own needs, what we were able to do is listen to the needs of the other attending teams. Often, it is interesting to note that we share the same problems, but this was an opportunity to see three different teams besides our own that have very different understandings of what their personal vision was. How they struggled to bring the team together behind a vision. In this case each of the other “teams” in our room only had one individual attending, which meant that they would either have to go back outside of the programme and explain the experience to execute the process.
SMART DAY 3
By Day 3 we were looking forward to the sessions. The daily meetings as a team had created a strong bond between team members who now identified themselves, and were identified by others, as Kaivalya Plays. We had also gotten past any initial hesitation to engage with our mentors, who also identified our needs more closely.
On this day, we were asked to continue expanding on the ideas we had been able to identify or focus on in our vision. Today we tried to lay out our strategies through another guided managerial exercise.
From our vision we had to lay out goals, objectives and outcomes. Unlike the grid formation of SWOT Analysis this exercise moved from column to column laterally and built on the previous column. Yet, after arriving at the outcome there was a cyclical effect of returning to the vision as new goals emerged. Here’s what the exercise looked like:
Kaivalya Plays’ experience
Once again we were divided into the same teams as the day before. We considered ourselves fortunate to have Sameera Iyengar and Neel Chaudhuri as our mentors. They both carry a wealth of experience and cool minds to advise and listen in a way that made us feel comfortable.
What was important for us to consider is that we had goals as an organization but also as individuals. An important learning as an organization is that Kaivalya Plays had to be able to create a space for individuals to execute their professional goals within the ecosystem of the organization’s wider goals. What we noticed in our exercise was that once we began with an individual’s goal, we quickly established it as a goal for the entire organization. For example, if an individual decides that they need to earn a certain amount from the artistic work, that figure can be applied to all individuals in the organization to come up with, at least, a bare idea of the budget the organization will have to raise to sustain its workforce. We had never tried this approach before. What this approach made evident for us is that when we sell our workshops or performances for cheap we, effectively, ensure that we do not have a future as an organization. But by putting those numbers down for an individual and applying it across the organization we began to understand why we needed to price our offerings higher, and understand the value we needed to create for our patrons and our clients to earn that amount.
One thing that the SMART programme never mentioned to the participants is that the acronym SMART is closely tied to the goals an organization sets based on their vision and mission. These goals need to be:
A SMART goal is deemed to be the most effective. At Kaivalya Plays, we applied this to our chart to set our goals, objectives and look for the outcomes. Without giving away too much about what we discovered (since this would then start giving away our major strategies for the next two years), we can share that our mentors continued to prod at our outcomes. Our outcomes were deemed too altruistic. Again, we did not totally agree. We believed that the outcomes came from a selfish origin, but the only way we could be motivated to deliver them was by thinking of benefiting the larger community. An individual in an organization can be most effective when they see their work as larger than themself, this is what we believe. After a healthy back and forth and re-evaluation of many of the items we laid out we came to a strong position.
At the end of the programme we were surprised not just by the clear strategies we had laid out for ourselves; nor by how much we had learned in three short days; but also by the effect it had had on uniting the team. We had been warned that sometimes “teams come to SMART and learn they are not a team.” But our experience had been the opposite. We had arrived as co-workers and were leaving as a team, invested and committed in the growth of an organization and curious about the expansion of our roles and contributions within it. Being the company we are, we plan to continue following up with our mentors and applying the learning to our own Theatre Management Fellowship in 2021. We also proposed to the SMART team to let us offer toolkit solutions for the next set of participants so that they could get the most out of the exercises, since we were well versed in how to get the most out of the applications demonstrated.
We would be remiss if we did not make a special mention of one final aspect of SMART that proved the most inspiring. Jayashree Murthy, a 72 year old theatre maker from Coimbatore attended the programme with a vision to change the culture of the theatre going public in her city. She wanted to create the kind of theatre work her city could be proud of, away from the double-entendre Tamil comedies that so many flock to. At no point in the programme did her gender or her age seem like a challenge to her dream. If we, some at the very beginning of our professional career felt making theatre in India was hard or hopeless, her presence only made us more keenly aware of our advantages and the need to stand with those who wish to see change, no matter what the odds.
While we left with a considerable amount of questions, those questions were not confusions. Those questions were about specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound goals and targets. We look forward to applying our many learnings from the programme and maintaining a strong relationship with the other teams.