How often do you hear about something that sounds stupid or ridiculous, you write it off as such and then, at some future date, perhaps not so far in the future, you find yourself proved utterly wrong. In my case the answer is ‘far too often’ and Open Space ‘conferences’ is a case in point.
If you are fully up on Open Space you can skip to the penultimate paragraph of this post in which I write “It feels too long since the last one which is why Stan’s Cafe have teamed up with mac Birmingham to invited anyone involved in theatre in the region who wishes to attend to join us at mac on 8th November to help answer or at least respond to the challenge How Do We Help Theatre To Thrive Here And Now?”
Everyone else stick with me and please read on…
Open Space conferences sound stupid AND ridiculous. They start with no agenda, have no pre-booked speakers, no key-note speech, no panel discussions, no break out sessions, no power-point presentations. Hold on though, there’s the clue, when did you last enjoy a gripping ‘power-point presentation’ or for that matter when were panel discussions anything other than ploddingly awkward for everyone involved?
Wouldn’t it be great to have a conference when you can set the agenda yourself when you turn up, where you can address exactly what you feel needs to be addressed and address it for as long as you want with people who absolutely want to address that exact same issue as you? Well, that’s what Open Space provides. Officially it’s Open Space Technology but I think the use of the word Technology is misleading and encouraged me to think it was a stupid and ridiculous idea back in the days when I did. They’re not ‘conferences’ either but let’s get on with the story.
The story I’ve heard about the origins of Open Space differs from that on Wikipedia but it’s better so it’s the one I choose to believe and retell. Harrison Owen was asked to organise a management conference in the USA. He spent a year pulling it all together, afterwards everyone said it was great, but on close reflection he realised people weren’t praising any of the official program he had so painstakingly put together at great expense, it was to say how great the coffee breaks and social activities were. People got more out of talking to each other on their own terms than following his classic structured Conference Agenda approach. So, chastened but inspired he set about inventing a non-conference that was effectively all social activity.
My first encounter with Open Space was when Arts Council England convened one at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham. I attended grudgingly in order to appear to be showing willing (politics) and to see if any of my friends were there. I expected it to be rubbish – because that’s the kind of open minded, optimistic and non-reactionary liberal kind of person I am.
As it turned out the curmudgeon was bludgeoned, I enjoyed it. The rules are that if you get grumpy you HAVE to leave a discussion and find somewhere else where you’re happy, chatting to someone at the refreshment table is a legitimate activity even when discussions are raging elsewhere. The glorious thing is that because everyone has the opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about no-one can legitimately be grumpy, if what they want to talk about isn’t being talked about it’s their own fault, they should be talking about it!
And if this all sounds like a happy-clappy, woolly, fluffy ineffectual talking shop then you’re wrong. That first West Midlands Theatre Open Space event (in 2010?) led directly to numerous new collaborations, including the birth of the BE Festival, equipment storage got shared, an audience development initiative started and generally together we gained a greater sense of cohesion and empowerment.
There have been maybe three subsequent successor events each well worthwhile. It feels too long since the last one which is why Stan’s Cafe have teamed up with mac Birmingham to invited anyone involved in theatre in the region who wishes to attend to join us at mac on 8th November to help answer or at least respond to the challenge How Do We Help Theatre To Thrive Here And Now?
We will all be guided and encouraged through the day by theatre’s and our great friend Nick Sweeting – we will delighted if you choose to join us so we don’t have to eat all the biscuits. Thank you.