There is a phenomenon that I experience every time I attend a multi-day learning conference that I call “the rut”. Here is how it feels: I spend a few days thinking about big ideas, have my mind expanded by meeting new people, and generally get out of my own way for about 72 hours. And then, upon returning to my job, I find that despite all my best efforts and desires to do otherwise, my feet find their way right back into walking the same track.
This is the rut.
It is that mental pathway that I have created due to the never-ending bombardment of under resourced needs by an organization. It is a pathway that contains all my shortcuts and subpar deliveries to accommodate the deluge of tasks that it takes to bring the performing arts to life. And the longer I stay in a role at an organization the more entrenched that rut becomes and the harder it is to cut new paths.
Of course, the I in this situation could be anyone, and on the last day of this year's Minnesota Theater Alliance Statewide Theater Conference, the rut was already creeping in one way or another by most everyone around me. Most of us were preparing to leave and amongst the murmur of intentions and desires being voiced to new acquaintances was the undercurrent of the rut. The knowledge that despite 72 hours of free-thinking and inspirational connection with others in our field, the return to work on that Tuesday was going to yield the overflowing digital inbox, deadlines that were now three days closer but no further along in process, and the barrage of requests by other understaffed and overworked departments (if the organization someone was returning to even had departments).
But let’s back up for a moment.
2018’s #MTASTC was the third statewide conference by the MN Theater Alliance under Executive Director Joanna Schnedler. The focus was on connections and for those that attended the full event spanning Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning we were treated to much more of a spiritual retreat than a conference. Held at the Bug Bee hive in Paynesville MN, the conference, while containing some of your standard elements (opening presentation and breakout sessions) was designed to take advantage of a disconnection from the day to day and a connection to being present amongst some stunnng nature - I only had a cell signal when I stood at the end of the dock on lake Koronis. This worked for me and was a in fact a huge motivating factor in my attendance of this year’s conference.
Sunday’s opening presentation was given by local playwright May Lee Yang who provided some dialogue about her background and her accidental falling into theater. But she quickly reinforced the retreat’s primary purpose and using the classic “four corners” activity had us breaking into smaller groups via associative preferences and conversing. The first two breakups were clearly ice breakers: sort ourselves by a commonality then discuss to find what else we had in common. From there we arranged ourselves by preference of food types and discussed why we liked those. But then the tone shifted and we were arranged and asked discuss our community, who we were there representing, a reflection on those not in the room. Finally we were arranged by our artistic role in the performing arts and discussed challenges that our community faced. There was sharing back to the group of about 50 attendeees following that final conversation and immediately themes of gentrification, access, and diversity were apparent as common threads.
May Lee finished her presentation by referencing an interview that Rachel Teagle wrote for Playlist a year ago: shape up or die. Her call to us was to connect and start figuring our how we can re-groove our ruts (my words not hers). Her words spoke to the much larger challenges of relevance of the performing arts in light of the myriad of entertainment and cultural options, but this applies to our day to day as well. How can we make changes to chip away at the entrenched behaviors that have us running in the same circles day after day? This is the theme that would be reinforced for me over the next three days in each breakout session and open conversation.
Back to Tuesday following a boxed lunch.
As I pulled away from the very beautiful and peaceful Bug Bee retreat I was certain I hadn’t discovered a bunch of answers about how to re-groove. But I was heartened by what I heard throughout the three days from individuals who I talked to.
You are not alone.
We are not alone.
I think that the rut leads to a strong feeling of loneliness, not in the traditional sense of physically being alone, but instead a kind of mental loneliness that as the rut gets deeper, the walls get higher, you can’t see the landscape, you loose the connection to people who are also doing the work. With that in mind I drove away feeling like this year’s conference of connection, and reflection, was incredibly successful.