On Our Minds, Special Issue

May 9, 2017
On Our Minds Special Issue: IMPACT x 4
Series Editor: Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown
Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater
Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater
Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown
Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown
Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown
intro

One of the “specialties of the house” at WolfBrown is thinking with clients about innovative ways to measure the impact of their work. In Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art (featuring the report Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre), WolfBrown pioneered work on capturing the intrinsic impact of performing arts experiences on audiences. Dennie Wolf and Steven Holochwost have pursued new ways to look at intersectional impact, identifying aspects of human behavior that are particularly sensitive to what the arts and culture have to offer, such as socio-emotional developmentand risk mitigation in vulnerable populations. In this series of blog entries, all of us, together with colleagues at The New Victory Theater, discuss the organizational impact of innovation, a way of taking stock of the consequences of undertaking innovative practices or new programs. Our basic premise: Innovation should reverberate, reaching every corner of an organization.
While this issue of On Our Minds addresses the consequences of SPARK for New Victory’s work, we believe the framework for thinking about the organizational impact of innovation speaks clearly to the work of many cultural organizations seeking to cut new paths.
The innovation: SPARK
Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

SPARK, or “Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids,” is a robust, five-year theatre arts program, funded by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, specifically designed for elementary and middle schools with no history of arts programming. With this funding, the New Victory challenged staff and teaching artists to learn to work intensively in schools where teachers and students didn’t know what to expect in an arts partnership. Every year, in each SPARK school, students engage in 15 performing arts workshops with highly trained teaching artists who develop and increase student’s creative skills in circus, puppetry, theater, and dance. Young people also attend three varied live performances by international arts companies where they see the skills they’ve been acquiring live on stage. Throughout, teaching artists, working side-by-side with classroom teachers, model the ensemble skills of discussion, collaboration, and rehearsal that are an integral part of theater practice.

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The Impact of Raising the Stakes
by Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

You might say that the New Victory has a “thing” for raising the stakes. Who else puts wild urban circuses on the beautifully restored stage of a turn-of-the-century theater? Who else would perform X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation — a courtroom drama focused on the assassination of Malcolm X — for young audiences? The New Vic’s SPARK program is no different — it raised the stakes by entering into intensive and sustained relationships with a set of New York schools that serve some of the city’s poorest children. The intensity of the partnership brought the entire organization face-to-face with the consequences of trauma — young people, teachers, and schools all of whom live daily with the inequalities that are New York. The work has taught us not just to believe in the power of the arts, but also to live out that commitment in ways that have re-defined our comfort zone. Three examples make this clear…
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The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
By Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

Two years ago, New Victory asked its teaching artists about joining the research team. The offer was a little mysterious — some of my colleagues joked about putting on “white coats over their plaid pants” — but the chance to stay engaged and gain new skills was intriguing. For many teaching artists, the only chance you get to “grow” is to add more gigs or become an administrator. But this unconventional investment in human capital has turned out to be beneficial to the research and to my own professional development.
What I realized is that, as a theatre teaching artist, I have many of the traits that make for an effective researcher. Specialized expertise in the field — check. Keen observation skills — check. The ability to make sense of complex human interactions unfolding — check. The habit of showing up on time, with props, ready to dive in — check. For example…
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The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
By Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

Increasingly, arts and cultural organizations are asked whether they contribute to the greater good. Answering that question is rarely simple, particularly at a time when public and private funders alike press organizations to prove that something they did (e.g., changing concert format, working with seniors, or running programs in juvenile detention centers) actually caused the change that they would like to claim (a more diverse audience, fewer doctor visits, or lowered rates of recidivism). In the case of the SPARK program, we were looking to make the case that young people who participated became different from their peers: that time spent in the world of theater could cause stronger inter- and intra-personal skills. Like many evaluators, we turned to the existing research literature to find out how others have measured the growth in these hard-to-capture domains. This method of working from past research to inform new studies has many advantages: measures taken from the research literature often reflect years of conceptualization, testing, and refinement. So, drawing on past research…
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Curating Impact, Not Shows
By Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

In the SPARK project we ventured into new territory: we asked students as young as 8 to respond to in-seat surveys about the impact of a performance they had just seen. We wanted to know if young people could help us to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of live theater experiences. Our survey instrument includes quantitative measures of emotional response, anticipation, and impact, as well as open-ended questions pertaining to students’ curiosity and feelings about the performances. To make this work, house staff distribute the printed surveys and special pencils during the Q&A session following each performance. Then staff collect the student responses, and everyone heads out to their school buses waiting on 42nd Street within 10 minutes. As of the end of the 2017 school year, we will have collected approximately 2,000 surveys for nine shows. As completed surveys come in, we clean, code, and upload the data to an interactive dashboard through which New Vic staff can query the results. So far, the results paint a picture of distinct “impact footprints”…
andso
And so…
Yes, these entries all focus on SPARK. Yes, we have identified only four of what might be multiple reverberations of undertaking new work. But inside that specificity are a set of fundamental questions that any cultural organization — zoo, museum, film center, or theater — ought to pose when investing in new practices and programs. How can your organization design (and also discover along the way) so that you reap:

  • Impact on the Raising the Stakes: When your organization works in new settings (or with new materials or issues) how high are you willing to set the stakes? Are you tinkering or changing the way you work? When a new program completes, or the funding goes away, has the organization stretched in lasting ways or does it snap back to doing business as usual?
  • Impact on Human Capital: If you undertake this work, who in your organization will have new opportunities to grow? How can those opportunities include employees who work “on the ground”?
  • Impact on Research: When you go to evaluate your work, do you (and your evaluation partners) look carefully at the assumptions that underlie your approaches and tools? Are you learning from what doesn’t work? Are you curious about why? Does your approach evolve?
  • Impact on Programming: Are you curating for impact? Do you adequately consider the array of emotional, social, and learning impacts that are likely to come from different works or experiences?
Have comments? Share your thoughts with us!
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