Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

The right (& fight) to experiment in arts organisations

The last couple of weeks have been tough for me professionally at work. It’s the classic story, too much happening all at the same time, a feeling of helplessness, being overwhelmed and needing to find some order, some way of making sense of what appears unexplainable and undecipherable chaos. I think this is a pretty common feeling not just across arts marketeers but also everyone who works in the arts (or should that simply be everyone who works).

I found myself on the bus home with ideas, frustrations and conversations rushing around my head and I wondered if life couldn’t all be a bit, well, easier.

One thing I’ve noticed in the arts (my only real point of reference) is that for a creative industry we are remarkably uncreative when it comes to working practice and experimentation when it doesn’t directly involve the art form.  I started to wonder whether, if we were starting from scratch tomorrow, whether we’d continue to work in that way?

I also had a meeting with a consultant last week and two things were apparent. Firstly that I would be helpless without that consultancy and secondly that experience was the necessity in resolving that helplessness. Apart from are those both true? Now I have had time to digest and step away from the sales pitch environment the first section (“helpless”) I can identify as the sign of an amazing sales pitch and the creation of need.  The second element, experience, can be incredibly true, but it reminded me that experience can also be defined differently – baggage – and that it can be difficult to sometimes tell the difference.

In our working lives we often continue to work in a particular way because experience has taught us it’s the best way. But this experience is probably not entirely ours, I’d like to bet we’ve never really challenged the concept it’s built on. Let’s take office working – we’re often told (explicitly or implicitly) that working in an office is the best environment for work – but is it – maybe in the 1980s when connectivity was a challenge, but is it still true? If you need silence to concentrate and a radio is blaring out 90s classics is that the best place to work? If your mind works in diagrams and moodboards but you can’t put drawings and ideas on the wall is that the best place to work? Or does it take away from the experience and erode the joy in achieving our work goals? Of finishing that project? Of creating something great.

So I’ve written down the things that would help me work better (and some possible solutions). See what you think? What would your list be? Chances are different, it’s personal preference to make the work experience better. Maybe comment at the bottom?

  1. Space, space, space
    I have the world’s smallest desk. It’s about 1 meter wide and I feel hemmed in all the time. I like to be able to spread out, look at things at the same time, compare and contrast. At the moment it feels impossible without intruding. It’s also the same in a virtual sense. I have a single monitor that although widescreen doesn’t make it easy to move between projects which often use simultaneous workspaces. I long for a wall, blank wall space which i can write directly on, stick ideas on, make moodcharts, add photos, themes, an actual pinterest board in real life. When I think I stare blankly into space, searching for inspiration. They help.
  2. The end of paper
    Paper, everything is on bloody paper. I make notes at a meeting, or pop an idea down and end up with reams of notes, all unattributed, all unlinked to projects, all potential goldmines (or coppermines) untapped. What I want is all my notes digitally held – notes written on a tablet, added to project files, conversations placed in the same place. We’re incredibly wedded to microsoft office but what about collaboration software? We use wunderlist and it’s great in many ways, it helps me keep an eye on what my team is up to but also when I feel like I’ve not achieved I can look at what has been done, it’s motivating to an extent. I want work syncronised. I want to get files when I’m not at my desk. I want 100% access 100% of the time. That’s not to say that I’ll use it. But if I’m in a meeting I want to be able to open what i need at that moment. Oh an if we could kill off outlook too for something that doesn’t erode my soul that’d be great too…
  3. A change of scenery
    My desk has a tiny window to the left and a tiny window to the right but no view at all. The Brontës had the splendor of moorlands to write in, Wordsworth had hills, even Dan Brown’s desk overlooks something. We need to find a space that inspires. A perfect view mightn’t always be possible but what can I do to make it more inspiring?
  4. Personal development time
    I think sometimes we need time to step back, take a deep breath in, try new things and move outside the day-to-day. I was incredibly lucky under three Marketing Manager (Rachel Chapman, Antony Dunn and Abbigail Ollive – all three ace marketeers) that they gave me the freedom to learn new things, try ideas, do silly things like social media (at the time a new thing) and develop new skills and in areas I didn’t expect. How can we continue this throughout our careers, so that learning and the simple joy of discovery and growth is inbuilt in our work ethic?
  5. Guilt free breaks
    Okay, this is 100% me. I feel bad about taking breaks. There was a theatre I worked in where all the tea breaks were synchronized so that in the morning everyone would have 20 mins break together. It’s slightly authoritarian in one way, a bit like the school bell, but actually is this the space where the communication and ideas can happen? We can still talk about work but actually connect, throw ideas, laugh, unwind for a moment? What if the tea break was where every good idea came from and we’d never found it out? How many great ideas have come from meetings and how many have come while chatting over coffee? What if that break was paid because we recognised it helped morale, and was a space for conversations and networking?

That’s it from me – just barely scratching the surface. Some starter ideas and thoughts there to consider. You may hate them, you may love them, you may be indifferent. If you’ve liked this blog post please share the post on twitter or facebook and leave a comment below – follow me on twitter or facebook, oh and join my mailing list!
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P.S. In other news I’ve hit a peak of creativity outside work. Currently I’m working on (deep breath) a new proper play, new storytelling show, a half hour TV pilot which we’re filming in Feb, new projection stand up show and a semi-improvised show which combines every Gangster/Crime film ever (possibly also with GTA5) in an epic 1 hour 2-hander. If you want to know more about any of these then get in touch! Best, Sam.

1 Comment

  1. Sam I feel your pain.

    You are not alone in your frustration at the lack of creative working practices (Insert Spaces, Ideas, Technology as you see fit or better still all three) in the “office” of arts organisations.

    Lottery capital funding has transformed the creative environments of many a theatre and arts space up and down the land but when you visit the offices of same said arts organisations they are still piled high with paper and extras desks that were never their in the architects drawings.

    What you are looking for sounds so similar to the working environments of the west coast tech sector. The dual screens, the idea of standing up and using a flip chart to sketch out ideas, to be able to simply draw out and create in the air if you wished.

    Water Cooler moments are invaluable for organisations it’s often where the most valuable information is exchanged and if you don’t have one then you should create one in your organisation.

    Simply because you work in the office you’re often deemed as uncreative within the arts, although it is what most creatives do to pay the bills. More risks need to be taken, to experiment and to fail but to learn from those failures.

    Get a laptop and use the top floor bar if you have to but don’t stay in an office that restricts your thinking and boxes you in.

    Arts organisations often fail to invest in technology properly, again if you need a new sound desk it will get bought no matter what the cost – if you want a dual screen PC – can you account for how extra productive you are going to be easily so that your boss is going to believe it? Even if the stats are out there to prove they make people more productive. Thank god you’re not after a standing desk!!!!

    Just make it a ritual to clear your desk – as in take everything off your desk every Friday – file it or put it away and you never know maybe the clutter was hindering your thinking all along.

    I could rant on but one final suggestion is Noise cancelling headphones.

    Good luck

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