“I have an idea!” The young scientist raised her voice.
“She has an idea!” the second scientist echoed.
“She has an idea!” “She has an idea!” “SHE HAS AN IDEA!” The chorus reverberated through the audience, igniting voice after voice until the entire room reverberated with support for her idea.
The scientist-performers were modeling a simple technique, advocated by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and even used within Obama’s staff meetings, to amplify the voices of women in their communities.
It was a powerful moment. The audience was swept into the experience and the performers achieved their objective to amplify the voices of women in the male-dominated fields of science.
This was the culmination of a Stanford d.school course we designed to explore the intersection of two radically different disciplines: theatrical performance and design.
The performer-scientists were two female undergraduate physics students, Shenglan Qiao and Claire-Alice Hebert. Their performance was entitled Amplify. Their mission: To empower women in science by amplifying their voices. Scientists might seem unlikely candidates for this course -- but, in fact, performance and design abilities apply whenever you are putting innovative discoveries, scientific or otherwise, into action.
Designer, performer, citizen
Students enroll in the course with a social movement they seek to advance, which can be cultural, socio political or economic in nature. In Design for Influence, students creatively explore the moment a movement drives an individual person to action. During the course, students act as designers, performers and above all passionate citizens of the community. Design for Influence culminates in an experiential performance with a call to action designed to shift individual and collective behavior within their communities.
The student teams have wide-ranging interests. One team wanted to reimagine local arts. Another wanted to reframe dialogue across difference. Another wanted to redesign journalism. The journalism team was composed of John S. Knight Fellows at Stanford (professional journalists who, who spend a year exploring and advancing solutions to “the most urgent issues facing journalism”). Their “performance” was a live, interactive café titled Coffee & Bytes where they interviewed readers to find out what they thought was news. Their goal was to make local news more relevant by delivering stories that the community felt were important, not just what journalists deemed newsworthy. In short, they wanted to bridge an empathy gap in local news. You can read Lisa Rossi’s account of their course journey here.
An unexpected finding
As educators designing this pilot course, we suspected that, Communicate Deliberately, would be one of the eight core design abilities that would be most essential in the intersection of design and performance. It’s the craft of telling a compelling story to your audience in a way that both anticipates and responds, in real-time, to their point of view. To influence, we must communicate deliberately. And to communicate deliberately we must perform -- physically and vocally. And to perform effectively we must embrace the art and ambiguity inherent in this design ability. As the course unfolded, it quickly became clear that, in fact, another core design ability of — Navigating Ambiguity — was a major learning. Teams must navigate and respond in realtime to multiple layers of nuanced interactions — interactions within the team of performers, between the performers and audience, between audience members and, ultimately, simulate future interactions between the audience members and their communities.
A few key principles equipped the students to navigate these layered interactions:
Employ empathy to make performance easier.
Performing doesn’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, for many, performing is uncomfortable. And that’s what makes it a perfect partner to design. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand the world from someone else’s experience.
Shenglan discovered through the course that “performance is not actually about acting, but providing stimulants that trigger the desired emotional responses and associations with the audience’s individual experiences.” By leveraging the essential element of design -- empathy -- we act from someone else’s perspective and are fueled by that other person’s background and story.
Invert the hierarchy of performer and audience.
A successful performance in our class was not about the performers on stage receiving attention and praise, but rather transferring power to the audience as actors who must embrace their role as change agents in their communities of influence and carry out the proposed call to action within the social movement.
Claire articulated: “The goal throughout was to center the performance around the audience so that they would come away with the motivation to act on our message. That meant showing them how easy it could be to make other voices heard, as well as motivating the importance of that act.” The focus shifts from the performer on stage to the actor in the audience.
Communicate deliberately without being prescriptive.
It’s uncomfortable to be open to more than one interpretation. Leave space for more than one interpretation and allow holding of multiple possible ideas in parallel is core to navigating ambiguity. Our students needed to react and respond to the range of audience members in the room, and yet communicate a call to action that that everyone could embrace.
“I think good performances strategically balance clarity versus ambiguity,” Claire surmised. “In retrospect, when we designed ‘Amplify’ our intuition led us to a crystal clear message -- ‘Let's amplify women's voices’ -- but left it to the audience to decide what to do in their everyday life. ...now I can design my communications using ambiguity as a tool.”
The final performance
As the audience gathered for the final performance at The Clock Factory, a creative agency in Berkeley, California, nerves and ambiguity were running high. Finally, it was show time.
“Our goal was to illustrate the importance of amplifying the voices of those who might not be heard,” Claire reflected. “We knew the most effective way to do this was to really engage with the audience: instead of throwing out numbers or statistics on a slide, we had to figure out how to bring members in through an evocative experience.”
When the time came for Amplify, a new, assertive voice filled the room, communicating deliberately – and powerfully. “She has an idea!” The team employed a performance technique of planting advocates in the audience and adding in recorded voices, until the room reverberated with support for her idea. A young woman’s voice. Amplified.
“The situation was contrived but the feelings were real,” Sheglan reflected. “As a result, by creating those stimulants during our performance we lowered the psychological barrier for the audience to act in a certain way. I never thought performance could have such powers.”
While the Amplify performance was a very deliberate call to action to call out the ideas of others in their everyday lives whose voices are often missed, the outcome was in the hands of the audience. What would they do with the call they heard? This is the ambiguity we must navigate as performers. We put ourselves and our point of view out there, but we cannot control the response.
Sheglan later received feedback from audience members that the “chanting made them felt like a unified community, ready to speak up for gender equity. One person who was at the performance told me last week that that he intervened during a casual sexist moment at a pick-up Ultimate frisbee game.”
At the end of the course, sixteen people had transformed into performers, designers and influencers. Concepts became calls to action by communicating deliberately, building empathy and navigating ambiguity. They had used the power of performance to design for influence.
About the teaching team
It's not every day an actress and a designer co-teach a course, but they had a hunch that their complementary disciplines would strike a chord. Both are lecturers at Stanford. Melissa Jones Briggs teaches performance to MBA students, including from executive presence to navigating complex interpersonal power dynamics. Jessica Hastings Munro is an IDEO alum and teaches design at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school). They decided to put their complementary disciplines to the test in a production-based intensive course Design for Influence: The Power of Performance.