Smells Like Team Spirit: Master the Art of Collaboration
Director Diane Paulus delivers a crash course in team dynamics, how to nurture creativity, and the importance of obsession in a good leader.
Diane Paulus is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and was selected for the 2014 TIME 100, TIME Magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Paulus is the 2013 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical (Pippin). A.R.T.: Eve Ensler's In the Body of the World, Waitress (currently on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater), Crossing Finding Neverland, Witness Uganda, Pippin (Tony Award, Best Revival and Best Director), The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (Tony Award, Best Revival, NAACP Award, Best Direction), Prometheus Bound, Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, Best of Both Worlds, Johnny Baseball, The Donkey Show.
Her other recent work includes Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna, Invisible Thread At Second Stage, The Public Theater's Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR on Broadway and London's West End. As an opera director, her credits include The Magic Flute, the complete Monteverdi cycle, and the trio of Mozart-Da Ponte operas, among others. Diane is Professor of the Practice of Theater in Harvard University's English Department. She was selected as one of Variety's “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014" and Boston Magazine's “50 Thought Leaders of 2014."
Diane Paulus: When you work in the theater you always begin privately. There isn't always an audience. But interestingly there is always a test of what that relationship to the audience is going to be. So you begin with your team of colleagues. On a musical you have a big village of people. You have a choreographer, a writer, a conductor, a musical supervisor, and I've always felt the job of a director is to get so obsessed with the subject matter and then your job is to spread the obsession and you've got to do that in phases. So initially you do it to your inner team. And then there's a moment where you bring actors into that process and you have to transmit it to your actors. And then ultimately as a collective we transmit it to the audience. So my job as the director, even though we don't get in front of the audience until the baby is born and has learned to walk and has done some test experiences, I almost have to stand in for the audience at every phase of the process. And I often use this expression of you've got to wash your eyes clean and you have to dare to be what Peter Brooke called naïve, you have to be a naïve spectator. And you have to see without desire, which is something I often talk about, you know, how can you look at what you've done and not just get hung up on oh God the actor didn't do the line the way I wanted them. No, you can look with a lot of desire but you can also look without desire.
So you are trying to stand in for that audience at every phase and by doing that I think you cast that audience in your head and you can make a choice about how you're going to cast that audience. And I'm a great believer in the audience being a great partner and the audience wanting to stretch you and the audience wanting to learn. I just think their human needs and we want to learn; we want to be moved; we want ritual; we want to go through and experience together in life; we want spectacle. There's a human need for spectacle, and I spectacle I mean to be in the presence of something larger than yourself. It's why we stand on a beach and look at a horizon line and get lost in it or stand on a mountaintop and look at a vista. That's what we recreate in the theater is an idea of awe and spectacle so you can feel yourself in the presence of something greater than yourself.
So you can make a choice about how you're thinking about the audience and wanting to aim high with your audience. As I say that I also believe an audience needs to be diverted. This French word divertismall, entertainment gets a bad word it's like oh it's just fluff, it's just entertainment. Like no, we also have a human need to be entertained, to laugh, to leave our current situation and divert from that. So I guess I try to make a show, the ultimate dream show is something that touches on all of those that you can be challenged in your mind, you can be challenged in your heart. I actually also believe in the body. I'm so fascinated with all these studies of I have a young daughter and I remember being told when she was in kindergarten that she might need to see a specialist because she can't sit still. And then all these studies that have come out that now actually moving helps you learn and now we know we stand at desks. So this idea that the theater is a form that actually also engages your body and vibration.
The other thing about audience is I always like to think about with the audience as a creative partner. And what I mean by that is that the audience can meet you more than halfway and they can help fulfill the moment. So you actually don't have to micromanage and deliver everything, actually the space that you leave for the audience to tap their imagination, to complete something, to bring themselves is as important as what you provide for an audience. And I think that's also really important in my work with actors, when I direct a show not only am I trying to, with the actor and the play writer or the composer, make all the decisions about how we're going to tell the story, but I'm also trying to engage the actor to be creative because if they are just following directions it won't be fulfilling. And I think this is something that can be applied to anything you do in life, any kind of business, any kind of group endeavor. In our business sometimes actors feel they're a good actor if they say to the director just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. What do you want me to do? And to me that is like the death of a process is like it's so not about what I want. Actually I start every process with this statement: I say I'm going to come with an idea and I'm going to expect you to come with an idea. And I know that together we will make a third idea that is better than both of our ideas.
And that's a really important thing to say upfront because we live in a hierarchy and people tend to feel that they don't have space to have an idea, that they need to execute or they need to just deliver what is expected. And I think in the arts we all know the art is going to be great when you get to the unexpected. So we actually are in a profession that values that, but I think that that idea of giving agency and empowering anyone, whether you are an actor in a show or whether you sit in the box office, whether you're a receptionist at the desk to a company like at my theater, I want everybody the whole endeavor is going to be better if everyone is as invested and as engaged in the big picture. So you have to do a lot of talking about the big picture. It can't just be an execution because people don't understand. People get resentful when they don't understand why they're being asked to do what they're doing, especially if it's hard work. So I always feel my job as a director is to constantly point to the top of the mountain and remind people like we're going there. And guess what, and this is also an important lesson that I've learned and I always tell this to young directors, you don't have to have the answers. A lot of young people feel like I can't be a director; I don't have a vision; I don't have the answers. I say it is so not about the answer. In fact the whole process is finding the answer together. If you have the answer you have the wrong answer or you definitely have not asked a big enough question. The idea is together we're going to find out how we get to the top of the mountain. I don't know how we're going to get there but I know that's where we're going. And then definitely the job of the director is when everybody is tired and people are cranky and they're immunities because that happens and people just want to give up and go down the mountain, you have to find a way to engage people to say come on we're going to keep going, we're going to keep going. And that's I would say 75 percent of what I do as a director is keeping people motivated, keeping people engage and inspiring people to have a some kind of faith.
And you can only do that if you believe in where you're going. So that's so important and for me it has defined my investment. And what I do emotionally, spiritually is I will not take on a project that I don't believe in because it's too hard and it won't be authentic that investment of my personal energy and my personal blood, sweat and tears if I don't believe in where we're going.
In the arts, and particularly the not for profit arts movement there can be a lot of blaming the audience for the lack of engagement. The audience has left the building. Nobody wants culture anymore in America. We're depraved. We have no more attention span. The Internet has corrupted our minds. No one wants to sit in a theater anymore. And I remember hearing all this and thinking very strongly, well we're just blaming the audience. And I'm a producer and an artist, I actually have a chance to take a little responsibility for maybe why the audience has left the building. So I want to do everything I can ahead of time before the audience is ever invited into the process to make something that I think an audience is going to want to be in the presence of. And by want I mean they want it, they need it and they need it now. So I think in a process with my team in a creative process we're constantly asking big questions. Why are we doing this? What story are we telling? Why do we care? What are we identifying with? Should an audience even bother to stay interested at this point?
And those can be very scary questions because they're big questions and you don't want them to dismantle your process to the point where you're debilitated. But if you can find a way to ask tough questions, again, to get everyone around the table thinking and feeling as hard as they can the work will get better. And that is a process in the theater that continues constantly and that real horror of the theater is you don't know what you have until you put it in front of an audience. So even though you've tried very hard to stand in for the audience, to make all your best decisions based on what you're trusting yourself and your team and the actors and the small invited guests that are brought into the room, you really don't know what you have until you have an audience. And then if you're lucky you have a chance to change it in front of an audience. And then if you're really lucky you get to continue to work on it.
I just did a national tour of Finding Neverland, which was a musical I did on Broadway and I did it at the NART at Harvard. I did it on Broadway. It ran over a year on Broadway. Now it's on tour. We just changed it again and it's a staggering process to know that sometimes you can just get so far with something and you need to step back; look at it again; live your life a little. Everybody has to go off and put it in a drawer and then come back and then you can see fresh because sometimes this idea of seeing without desire is not always possible. So that's why we talk about process. We talk about process that there is a process of the work never being done and how you can continue to improve something. And in many cases you improve because you get feedback and you get feedback from a very, very honest audience. And there were people who said things to me at ART when we first did Finding Neverland that stuck with me. And for many reasons the actual change we made years later couldn't happen, but now they've happened and there's nothing more fulfilling than having a chance to continue to work on something and make it better.
As she explains the architecture of her creative process, Diane Paulus provides a crash course in leadership and team dynamics. Paulus knows collaboration well: she’s the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and has directed numerous Broadway productions. Teams work to their full potential when each member has genuine input and space to be creative – the director has to steer the project, but nothing squashes motivation like micro-management. Directing a project – even beyond the theatre world – requires you to remove yourself from what the project ideally will be, and ask tough questions while it’s under construction to keep it on track: like ‘Why should an audience care?’ and ‘Why are we doing this?’. If you’re not satisfied with your answers, your audience (or product user) won’t be either. "In the arts… there can be a lot of blaming the audience for the lack of engagement," Paulus says. "I'm a producer and an artist, I actually have a chance to take a little responsibility for maybe why the audience has left the building." There is a bounty of wisdom to be gleaned from Paulus’ experiences in the theatre: never stop learning and adapting your product, don’t just see what you want to see – find flaws, know that too much hierarchy will make your team stale, and be obsessed – positive mania is infectious in a team. Find more about Diane Paulus at www.dianepaulus.net.
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Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
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