Eight years ago, Phelim McDermott was in two minds: he was devoted to his craft as a theatremaker, but frustrated with the industry and with himself. He decided to stop moaning and act, and so he wrote a short invitation and released it into the wild:

Are you devoted and disgruntled too?

A group met and for a weekend they talked about whatever was on their minds. They shared insights from their own creative battles and looked towards solutions, hot-boxing the creative energy of those who came, and converting that heat to action.

Eight years on, Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D) is a frequent event and spawns conversations that continue through tweets and reports uploaded to the internet, and even new collaborations and productions.

The engine of D&D is ‘Open Space Technology’ (OST), which was developed by a management consultant, Harrison Owen, as a way to make meetings more like coffee breaks, which are often where you’ll find the most candid conversations. In an Open Space, everyone is free to call a ‘session’, which is a question they’d like to discuss. Each session happens over roughly 90 minutes, with many sessions happening at the same time and people drifting between groups.

OST has a few principles and one law: whoever comes are the right people, gathered in the right place, starting whenever they start and following the conversation as it develops, bound by the collective responsibility that whatever happens is the only thing that could have. The rule is “the law of two feet”: anyone who is neither learning nor contributing should go to where their time might be better spent. As McDermott explains to the group at D&D8 on the first morning, “you’ll be doing a group the favour by not holding them back”.

D&D is a democracy. People meet outside their usual roles and, with no-one wearing name tags and or announcing their ‘rank’ within the industry, you are just as likely to find yourself discussing someone’s Masters thesis as discussing parenthood with the artistic director of a national company. Over the three days, I met fascinating people including a performer from the Hiru Dance Organisation and the team that runs my local theatre. We shared, debated and argued, agreed and disagreed, commiserated and promised change. There were conversations that I found enlightening, and conversations that I found boring and promptly left (anything involving people bitching about money or asserting how scared politicians must be of them).

But that’s the point: an Open Space is what you make of it – if you don’t like the discussion, leave and find one where you can be useful; if you want to talk about something else, call a session on it. Some of those taking part will remember what it was like to be at the stage of their working life that you are, and a conversation that you never expected to have might make you look anew at a question that you’ve been turning over in your head for months. I certainly had a few private epiphanies: the one that sticks with me is realising that talking about pacing a creative career is difficult if we understand ‘pace’ to mean the varying speed at which we move from A to Z. A creative career is indeterminate: there is no Z, and saying those words aloud, the pain of trying to control that Z seemed to dissolve itself.

The first reports from D&D8 are online. I’d recommend that you read a few, and if you have any thoughts about anything contained in them, resolve to take part next time.

You can read more about Open Space Technology on Harrison Owen’s website.

Image: Open Space 2 Innovate