While most performing arts organizations are still in the midst of emergency action around their current reality (safety, solvency, and immediate service, as mentioned in a previous post), most are also looking toward the still-unknowable fall and spring, when their performance seasons and tours would normally begin. The questions aren’t just around whether or when they might re-emerge into a shared physical performers-and-audience space, but also about how they might do so in what will continue to be a changed and changing world.
The best guesses on the whether or when questions are now pointing (cautiously) toward early- or mid-2021 — although those guesses draw from an absurdly complex set of moving variables (from all five of the traditional STEEP forecasting bundle: Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political). The guesses also suggest that group gatherings will “feather” back — from small groups of those with less vulnerability (assuming we know what that means) to medium groups to larger gatherings at the very end, perhaps a year or two or more away.
The evolving guesses I’ve heard around how the live performing arts might return (in shared physical space with an audience) all suggest it won’t and can’t be a return to “normal.” Any sustainable and resilient live performance plan — with so many uncertainties about the immediate, near-term, and medium-term future — will have to be highly adaptable, nimble, responsive, and risk-tolerant. Those adjectives don’t usually describe larger-scale nonprofit live performance organizations.
The trick for that challenged group of organizations will be to find loosely-coupled approaches to what had evolved to be tightly-coupled work.
Loose or tight coupling, in management theory and in software design among other disciplines, has to do with the level of interdependence among the many working parts. Organizational theorist Karl Weick (1976, 1990, among others) was among the first to define and explore this dimension in organizations, stating that:
- areas within an enterprise could be considered “tightly coupled” when the components affect each other continuously, constantly, directly, and immediately;
- while areas within an enterprise could be considered “loosely coupled” when they affect each other suddenly, occasionally, indirectly, and eventually.
So, loosely coupled enterprises have separate parts that can work independently without deeply impacting each others’ outcomes. Tightly coupled enterprises have inseparable parts that impact each other at every step.
When we look at the current conventions around producing or presenting a live performance of size, scope, and technical capacity, everything is tightly coupled — the staging, sets, costumes, lights, sound, rehearsals, scheduling, and public performance are all deeply interrelated and linked specifically to a single event. The financial supports are also tightly coupled, since ticket sales, grants, and other forms of restricted donations are tied directly to the particular event. Further, the various components of labor are tightly coupled, since work agreements are highly structured and deeply entrenched — either by conventional standards of professional practice or by highly specific collective bargaining agreements.
Tightly coupled systems can have the benefit of efficiency and scale. Without close, coordinated, and conventional interaction between working teams, some levels of technical excellence and production scope would be impossible to achieve. But tightly coupled systems are also notoriously vulnerable to external shock.
As I quoted in a post following the 2008 market crash, “such a system is increasingly stable — but over a decreasing range of conditions.” When that workable range of conditions shifts dramatically or suddenly — as they have now — the rigid and inter-related structures cannot hold.
If you don’t know whether, when, or how you’ll be able to create, develop, or present a highly produced, technically complex, expertly and integrally crafted performance to a large paying audience (paying by ticket and by donation), the reasonable alternative is NOT to. Rather, you’d need to rethink all the tightly coupled relationships between the many component parts and to loosen as many of those relationships as you can: instead of custom sets and lighting, you’d consider minimal or stock sets and setups; instead of a fixed performance date, you’d consider a more movable block of rehearsal and performance that can shift forward or back as the environment allows (as an example, a theater could announce five shows of they plan to perform, but not the order they’ll perform them); instead of restricted funding related to a particular production, you’d convince donors to contribute unrestricted funds because tightly coupling cash to specific activities puts you at risk.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. Many or even most of the tightly coupled relationships within the professional, large-scale live performing arts are (at the moment) intractably so. And much of the infrastructure we’ve constructed for live performance over the past many decades is huge, inflexible, expensive, and highly reliant on tightly coupled systems — from heating and air conditioning to unions and calendaring.
At the same time, changes that seemed impossible just months ago are now happening at rapid pace (in union agreements, funding assumptions, contract relationships, online programming, government oversight, and so on).
It seems reasonably safe to say, even in the current uncertainty, that it will be a long road before large convenings are possible again in the performing arts and elsewhere — perhaps years. And it also seems reasonably safe to say that any “season” planning that finds its feet along that road will be more modular, more nimble, more contingent, and more loosely coupled than we could have imagined in our distant past of two months ago.