The Stories Waiting to be Told

We are now halfway through The Art of Collaboration concert series curated by Paul at the Hugh Lane Gallery. It seems that the elements of VUCAH (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, hyperconnectivity) remain recurrent themes whenever collaboration is involved. Collaboration introduces volatility to individual interpretations and perspectives. It attaches a certain level of ambiguity and uncertainty to expectations. It creates an awareness of complexity and hyperconnectivity as we play with universal concepts and make connections with seemingly disparate things. Some of the concert attendees thus far have expressed their intrigue as they struggle to visualise how this group of people come together to collaborate. What does the collaboration look like? Don’t musicians collaborate naturally anyway when they play together? Is the concert going to be a lecture or a performance? Or both?

In this article I want to further explore the relationship between Collaboration and VUCAH elements by shedding some light on what goes on behind the scenes in the process of framing a story for the concert series currently taking place. I’ll also share some of the responses that we’ve received after the concerts and how the audience has passively collaborated with us.

Three weeks before the concert, group members had a few one-to-one conversations relating to the curation of this second concert performance. We had gained some insights based on feedback from the first concert and knew that the theme would be Dance and Fantasy with some perspective provided by Seán – a perspective that is primarily focused on collaboration in education. Some notes, concepts and ideas circulated among us to inspire thinking. The first challenge was to envision how we might find a connection between Dance and Fantasy and the theme of Education.  A week later, the musical pieces to be performed were presented.

Some notes from Ultan. Finding inspiration in the language of our own mythology.

Some notes from Ultan. Finding inspiration in the language of our own mythology.

The starting point is always the same. Start with what you have in front of you. This is essentially an exercise of “joining the dots”. In this case, I gathered notes from recorded interviews between members of the group. I took note of my response to the music to be performed and did some background reading around the stories that inspired the music (two proved particularly influential: the story of Mephisto and the religious background of the phrase Shalom Aleichem). I had notes and insights from conversations that took place between members of the group – some of which I participated in and some I did not. I laid out these “data points” and began to join them in different ways to identify patterns and themes. At this stage, I follow a two-step iterative process:

1.    What patterns emerge?

2.    What thoughts do the patterns inspire?

I tried to use certain recurring overarching themes to enrich the insights that emerged. This time, the story of The Music of What Happens from Irish mythology and stages of collaboration came into play.

A refined visual summary of one of many iterations.

A refined visual summary of one of many iterations.

Certain themes emerged naturally throughout this research process.

  • Uncertainty avoidance

  • Escaping from reality (imagination)

  • Self-trust

  • Inner-conflict

  • Duality

  • Patience

  • Integration and Connection

It’s endlessly fascinating to witness these commonalities emerge from such a diverse range of inputs. The story almost writes itself, but structure in any context is important. I set about characterising in very general terms the stories that would be contained in each “Act” as well as embedding the aforementioned themes as much as possible. The acts are stitched together to form a basic story arc.

Five pieces of music, five acts. Here’s how that looked initially.

Framing the story.

Framing the story.

This is by no means rigid. The importance of the hyperconnectivity element of VUCAH in making sense, linking relevance, and drawing parallels cannot be understated. In any system, complexity is not the challenge to be overcome - for that is the nature of the world we live in. The challenge that we face for any problem is to see how it is connected to the system that it exists in. If we limit our view of the system too much, it becomes difficult to make connections. The problem remains accessible to only a select few and often the solution becomes the most obvious one, rather than the most effective one. On the other hand, if our view of the system is too broad, we can feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. So, we need to manage hyperconnectivity and strike a balance.

Ambitiously framing some challenges.

Ambitiously framing some challenges.

The goal here is to create a frame that strikes this balance. That frame is composed of variety of perspectives that is connected to the ideas of the group members as much as possible. The intention is to design the frame in such a way that it can be populated with the talents, perspectives and expertise of the rest of the group. Having a certain level of humility and an ability to be detached from any ideas are important factors in making the frame accessible to others. However, I’m convinced that a strong sense of curiosity is the dominant factor. Curiosity is the driving force behind wanting to find a better story, a better way of telling that story and what makes an experience more enriching for all involved.

I am particularly interested in playing with the concept passive collaboration and have framed some very loose challenges that have emerged from conversations with the Art of Collaboration group. I was curious and, if I’m honest, a little apprehensive to see if any of these rather ambitious notions would be fulfilled. What stories did the audience create for themselves, if any? How did the speech interludes influence their experience? Throughout the concert, I noticed that some audience members had their eyes closed for the fantasy pieces, swaying slightly, lost in their own imaginations. For the dance pieces, they were alert, eyes open. What was going through their heads? I did get the chance to ask some audience members about their experience.

Some stories stuck with me.

HOOK – Striking a balance between reality and imagination

“It reminded me of [the film] “Hook” at certain points. It was my favourite childhood movie!”

I am fascinated by the fact that this particular film was mentioned in response to the concert. First of all, the fact that childhood was referenced is interesting to me as this relates to the characteristics that were identified in Act 2 of the initial story frame – escape from reality, playful imagination, cinematic... Thinking about Hook in the context of the themes of this concert, strong parallels emerge. The concert was focused on the theme of Dance and Fantasy, with Seán’s input adding an element of education to the story. In the end, Dance and Fantasy combine to shape our experiences. Hook is a story that shows how Reality and Imagination combine to result in new learning and realisation – in transformation. Perhaps the scene that characterises this best is the food fight scene, where Peter relearns how to use his imagination. Arguably, in losing his imagination in the first place, he lost a part of himself.

I’ve quickly summarised some key moments into five acts, in an effort to compare themes to the initial story frame for the concert.

A brief synopsis.

A brief synopsis.

Perhaps finding a balance between reality and imagination is the what makes the difference between learning and continuous learning. As Keats states eloquently:

“Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”

Teddy Bear Dance – Music connecting to the audience

 “I imagined small teddy bears climbing out of the piano and going out into the audience to find their partners. When they found their partners, they would look to the other bears with a smug look on their face.”

“What did they look like?”

“They were small brown bears with clothes on. Different shades of brown. When I was a child, my favourite toy was this small brown teddy bear that I took everywhere with me.”

I’ve paraphrased this conversation snippet slightly, as I did not record it, but there are various avenues of thought that you could take with this one. For me, it gave new meaning to music connecting with an audience. This visual image represents the power of music to create touchpoints that people can connect with and relate to (even if they are imagined), but might also have a story to tell about people connecting with their inner-child.

Still thinking about this one.  

The “music” connecting with the audience.

The “music” connecting with the audience.

Duality – Power Struggles

Another person spoke to me of power struggles within collaboration. In general terms, she spoke of how collaboration doesn’t always work and sometimes one may feel as if they are compromising themselves and battling with an internal conflict. This person was not familiar with the story of Mephisto or Faust (presented indirectly in Act 3), stories that deal with the theme of duality and inner-conflict. It is fascinating to me that she was able to draw from her own experience to tell her own story of duality and inner-conflict. I am still trying to figure out what may have prompted this thought process. I will have to look back over the concert recording, but do not recall any explicit reference to duality.


I’m finding that the practice of collaboration is a practice that drives curiosity. Not knowing from the outset how things will turn out or how ideas will take shape creates an inherent sense of curiosity. Listening to people tell their stories has inspired a sense that more is possible with curiosity than with certainty and it means that these days I am more interested in trying to facilitate an immersive experience rather than designing one. How might people fill these immersive experiences with their own life stories and ideas? There is no goal although that is not to say that one will not emerge. Collaboration is a process of revealing.

The story of this particular collaboration has not yet been revealed… but is one that is waiting to be told.