Conscious Delay

Jul 08, 2014

SITI Company is currently engaged in a three-year project with the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  Supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, our shared endeavor is entitled Making Communities Visible. The Krannert is an imposing and formidable performing arts center sometimes called “the Lincoln Center of the Midwest.”  But among some constituents of the Champaign-Urbana community, the Krannert is considered elitist and inaccessible. SITI’s charge is to work with four specific local communities in Champaign-Urbana who rarely enter the performing arts center to see if there are ways that the Krannert might become a resource for them.

One of four targeted communities is a group of first-generation students, undergraduates at the University of Illinois, and the very first in their families to receive a higher education. We meet with them periodically to envisage and plan an event at the Krannert that may allow their community to become visible to others.  During a recent discussion with the “first-gen” group, a young woman spoke up.  “Every Friday evening, my best friend and I leave our iPhones behind and go out on the town.  We enjoy the novelty of simply talking with one another and watching the world go by.” She continued,  “I propose that we create a ‘tech-free’ zone at Krannert where young people can meet and share interactive art experiences without the aid of technology.”  Instantly her colleagues reacted with excitement and agreement.  Another young woman spoke up. “Because of social media, we have become a generation that has lost the ability to read body language.”  An animated conversation ensued. 

I am intrigued by the enthusiasm with which the “first-gen” students received the plan for a tech-free environment. I was inspired by these young smart people, raised on technology and excited and galvanized to imagine what might occur in its absence.  

When I was in my twenties and thirties I spent many late nights sitting on Manhattan stoops, taking in the life on the streets passing by.  I remember one particular night, very late, sitting on a stoop on St. Marks Place between 2nd and 1st Avenues, watching the world slow down into a nighttime lull.  After a long interlude of nocturnal silence, I started to hear a vague whooshing sound from far away.  The noise grew louder until all of a sudden a pack of about a dozen late-night skateboarders zoomed by me, moving swiftly from west to east.  And then they were gone and the silence returned.  Somehow that evening, the quiet and then the sight and sound of the skateboarders whooshing by and disappearing into the night, exerted an enormous influence the time signatures in my work as a theater director 

Nowadays, instead of sitting at night on city stoops, I tend to indulge in the ubiquitous phenomenon of instantaneous connection.  The extraordinary ability to transcend spatial limitations via technological communion proposes opportunities to be in contact with vast numbers of people during every waking hour. I can access information at any moment and in a matter of seconds. I enjoy the dopamine spurt that my body provides simply by landing upon the exact source of my curiosity.  Who directed that film?  Who invented Teflon?  What is a Heffalump? I have grown impatient with delay, with any postponement of immediate satisfaction.  And yet I have also learned that distraction and impatience are enemies to the achievement of depth in art.  

In the midst of our current techno-environment, patience is the skill that requires the most cultivation and training.  I understand that patience is an active and positive cognitive state. I know that there are times to work swiftly and there are times to slow down and that it is necessary to learn when to ply each one effectively.   In order to understand the necessity of slowing down, I must develop an awareness of the benefits of patience and conscious delay. The notion of delay may seem counterproductive to action but delay is actually a form of engagement in the world and a vital tool in the process of creating art. 

To practice conscious delay, I must first develop temporal intelligence. Developing temporal intelligence is challenging for me because I tend to jump to conclusions quickly, a proclivity known as cognitive bias. Although I am aware that at certain moments in rehearsal cognitive bias is tremendously useful, mostly it gets me into trouble. I tend to make decisions too fast.  Without diligence, wakefulness and conscious delay, I infer and assume things about people and about situations too quickly. I need to develop the ability to relish waiting and belatedness.  I need to understand that delay can be productive and that patience can lead to skill. I must learn to engineer pace and tempo, deceleration and immersive attention.  

It is biologically difficult, perhaps impossible in certain circumstances, to slow down one’s reaction time.  Animals and humans react instinctively to danger, a self-preserving and positive attribute.  But there are moments when conscious delay is viable and even preferable. It is possible, for example, to delay anger in response to an insult.  It is possible to consciously slow down time in rehearsal or in front of a painting or while listening to music.  With determination and practice, the action of conscious delay is achievable. Patience is power.

Because our current technological environment does not nurture patience or conscious delay, we must create opportunities to develop these abilities. The theater offers a singular environment outside of the spatial and temporal structure of our current culture.  The theater encourages and cultivates empathetic and perceptual fine-tuning.  We are offered the opportunity to experience deceleration and immersion in the context of shared experience. 

Here are a few practical examples of productive conscious delay within the context of the creative process:  

• By intentionally setting the brain up with a problem to solve and then moving away, doing something else, the brain is allowed to do its work. Clean the room or take a walk.  What may feel like laziness and procrastination is actually a necessary step in problem solving.  Once the brain is primed, time needs the space to draw associations and find solutions.  But first, the pump, the brain, must be primed.  

• In the midst of a Viewpoints improvisation, novices tend to respond physically to everything around them immediately.  While recognizing the plethora of stimuli that is constantly surrounds one is a necessary step in learning the Viewpoints, subtler work can be achieved by conscious delay. Rather than responding to every stimulus, one can notice what is happening and store it for the future.  These “in-sights” become valuable fodder for later action. 

• Playwright Chuck Mee proposes that an effective director is the person in the rehearsal hall who can endure uncertainty the longest and ply patience and wait until the appropriate moment for decisive action. 

And on a completely different note:

Along with my Co-Artistic Directors Ellen Lauren and Leon Ingulsrud and the entire SITI Company I would like to welcome Interim Executive Director Michelle Preston as the new Executive Director of SITI.  Michelle assumes the reins from Megan Wanlass, SITI’s Executive Director who had been with the Company for the last nineteen years, first as Company Stage Manger, then as Managing Director and finally as Executive Director. After a thorough nationwide search, interviews with a field of excellent candidates and in-depth discussions within the Company and Board, it became apparent that Michelle was the best candidate to help steer SITI into the future.  She has demonstrated a visible commitment to the advancement of the performing arts, both dance and theater.  Michelle’s sense of adventure, her belief in our values and work, and her innovative and enterprising thinking are simpatico with the ethos of SITI.  We greatly look forward to working with Michelle as we move into our third decade.