No circles, no shared physical space, missing senses and peripheral vision: working virtually with new collaborators is different. You’re different too. You might find your own creative impulses altered; maybe you’re more comfortable participating, or less so. Maybe as you lament the two dimensionality of online spaces, the people you’re working with are becoming more “3D” — in meeting from our homes, we are perhaps exposed to more of each other’s lives than ever before; our personal spaces and realities delivered to each other. Many artists are talking about the greater importance of checking-in in virtual spaces. The purpose of check-in could be to get to know each other and establish creative trust, or to provide a moment to demonstrate care, and practise listening with people you already know.
I’ve been working with Turtle Island Institute, which is run by Melanie Goodchild, and in that process, with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous leadership, they start all of their meetings with an extended check in — and in that way, we always somehow manage to be in circle, even if we’re not in a circle. And it doesn’t matter if the check in takes the majority of the meeting, it actually doesn’t matter, because that’s actually part of the work — us getting to know each other. So that has been really beautiful. Check-ins could also be fun and ridiculous. They don’t have to be about your actual life. But sharing what’s happening in our lives is a way of being in relation to each other.
— Syrus Marcus Ware
Don’t leave it at the door. Shake it off for you, not for me, or for the work. And if you can’t, presence it in the space, or make it known what you need. We can help you hold it. If you are low energy from what’s going on in your world, you don’t need to use additional energy to “perform being ok”. There’s nothing left then.
— Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
Things to try on: tools, activities and resources
Checking-in (or whatever you may prefer to call it) has a few purposes. It’s one way of taking a moment to land before launching in, it’s a chance to practice listening to your collaborators, and it’s a space that allows people to let others know what they are coming into the room with, on a particular day — which could be an articulation of what they are hoping to accomplish, or letting go of a distraction that might otherwise interfere with the collective work. It’s taking time to connect with other people, in preparation for fruitful work.
Try sharing leadership
Check-in can be a moment of shared responsibility, intention and space taking. Here’s what that might look like with a group of more than 4 people:
- At the first rehearsal/ meeting of a group, the project lead/ facilitator/ director sets the tone for checking in with an introductory exercise that allows everyone an opportunity to share something about where they are at personally or artistically (see examples of icebreakers and introductions below); different groups will have different levels of comfort/ desires/ needs around levels of intimacy. The project lead can ask if someone would like to start, but should be ready to jump in and begin themselves if no one naturally offers. It’s generally not good to ask others to do what you are not prepared to do yourself.
- One way of going around in a circle when there is no circle, is to ask each person to select the next person, and so on. This allows the facilitator/ lead to take less space and for shared responsibility in the group
- After the group knows what their checking-in looks like, you can assign the task of facilitating check-in to a different member of the group each day. Do this in advance so no one is put on the spot. Each person might do it in their own way. Which can be nice. But also, after time, the facilitation aspect of check-ins can be a very light touch. People arrive, ready to listen, and say where they’re at.
Taking a moment, to actually check-in to see how people are, is a way of trying to pierce through the glass of the screen and just try to actually allow somebody a bit of a three dimensionality in their own lives, beyond the issue or the topic that you’re meant to be talking about. Because when someone comes in, in a rush, to rehearsal in a physical space, and they’re like this [gestures], we have all sorts of cues and body language. And I want to know what world you’re existing in, in this moment: like do you have roommates, or children who may or may not be showing up. I think there is a permission piece and a flagging about what might be an obstacle to being fully present. But also about saying, especially if you’re working with people who are geographically distant, tell me what the sky looks like in your world, where you are right now. What time of day is it? What’s the weather like where you are? — Weather can do a huge number on your head — What was your most recent meal? These are orienting experiences that we will all share, regardless of where we are. So there’s something about bringing our carbon reality to this digital reality.
— Christine Brubaker
In person, I always thought check-ins were a time to take turns speaking and listening, without anyone leading or asking questions or turning it into a conversation. Online this can feel different. We feel more removed from each other, and some people seem more reticent. So if the group needs some balancing, to hear from and listen more equally to everyone, a facilitator can ask follow up questions to little things that people express. The questions can invite an engaged dynamic. Whereas in person I felt that asking questions was an interruption, online I saw it as an act of care — especially if the questions came from someone who normally talks less. I talk a lot already! And I’m often a leader in spaces, so I think it works better to hand off. When the facilitation of check-in is passed around, and the questions come from someone who is more often quiet, it can bring a really good energy to the whole group.
— Erin Brubacher
Prompts for Introductions and check-ins
Tell three stories.
1) A story of your name. How were you named? What is the meaning of your name? Where do your nicknames come from? How do you feel about your name(s)?
2) A story of where you are. What is your city, your home, the room you are in? Who are the people you live with? What is the land and territory you are on? Who are the people of that land and territory?
3) A story of your gifts. A gift can mean something you have been given or something you give to others; What are the gifts you have to offer?
— Erin Brubacher
We do land acknowledgements: a land acknowledgement from and about where we are. This is also an interesting thing when everybody is in different places — because what does it really mean for the data (the information being shuttled across the internet) to be in a different place? Like, where actually is this? With us in our homes or a server in a data centre hundreds of kilometres away?
— Ian Garrett
Show and tell
Ask each person to “show and tell” the story of an object in the room that they’re in. How long has it been there? Why is it where it is in their room? Where did they get it from? Does someone else have something similar or related to the object that they can show? — Erum Khan
Invite each person to describe themselves/ or mood using two adjectives: “Today I’m feeling ______and_______.” This gives you a lot of information about where people are at, without asking them to talk about themselves explicitly. — Jani Lauzon
Breathing at the beginning of our Black Lives Matter meetings is really helpful. One person will lead it and we rotate, taking turns leading through a series of intakes and exhale. And we can close our eyes or we can have our eyes open and we just kind of go through this process of, you know, maybe 10 breaths — collective breaths together — and then we kind of sit, and then we start. — Syrus Marcus Ware
In a large group, sometimes we reduce it to a single word. Sometimes we create a gesture for that word, other times we write it down on a piece of paper and hold it up. — Andrea Nann
In my playwriting and dramaturgy course, I’ve been playing instrumental music, at low volume, during the time before the session begins (we open the room about 15 minutes early) as well as during the break. I put the name of the musician/piece in the chat. It gets rid of that empty silent room feeling that can be so demoralizing and intimidating; it makes non-speaking ok; it offers something to listen to and/or talk about; it often leads to conversations about music or to music trivia; and it offers something unsaid about myself, my interests demonstrated via my musical choice. I use a different piece for each session, and aim for as much breadth in the choices as possible. In another context, it would be fun to ask a different participant to select the music for each session. It’s a small, light gesture, but one that is proving quite welcoming.
— Brian Quirt
Icebreakers and Games
Pass an object around
This is a silly game that I find endlessly entertaining. It takes a little coordination, and maybe helps to get people into a “yes” frame of mind. One person picks up an object from their surroundings, shows it to the group, and then “passes” it outside their screen in any direction. Another person has to be ready, holding an object offscreen. When the first person passes their object, the second person “receives” it, pulling it onto their screen and showing everyone the object which has magically transformed into something new. And on it goes. Of course it is nice if the object is passed in one direction and is then received from that same direction, but that can be difficult with a group because of screen variations. And honestly, it seems to work just as well when the logic of the physical world is completely ignored. As long as one person passes off their screen and another receives onto their screen, our story-telling monkey brains draw the lines in, and we see a simple funny magic trick. Cracks me up every time. — Veda Hille
Colonial Violence Game
What I generally do is try to break down any kind of fragility or hesitation in the room. I like bouffant inspired games, trying to just play the ugliness and improvise a little bit. We had games that were semantically related to the piece we were working on, that we used to break the formality. Or another way to say it is try to bridge the distance with encouraging an aspect of play/jeu. My favorite game we played was one called “Colonial Violence.” Though, you could replace “colonial violence” with whatever you want, but basically the structure of it is: someone shouts out a thing. Whatever it is, like “hot dogs,” someone else will jump on it and they will explain to us how hot dogs are colonial violence. So in principle, the game is how do we disarm and deconstruct a word, and also get it to mean nothing in some ways. To get really theoretical it’s based on Kantian ideas of concept vs image – but practically it’s more about defamiliarizing a loaded term that is (perhaps) vulnerable to losing its actual meaning. IE. Colonial Violence is an absolute reality – however by using the term in a highly reductive and inaccurate way it’s drawing attention to its overuse. Maybe. Again – it’s a rehearsal tool more than something I would put into performance for an audience. On another level – purely from a performance angle – it’s also a mild characterization of playing something that’s just a little bit not you. Dipping your toe into the uncanny, I suppose. It’s a useful strategy to at least get people laughing and talking about shit. And that is key because I don’t have the time to work in a room that doesn’t feel like we can talk and debate ideas – especially with the added strain of creating online.— Jivesh Parasram
Finding that connection, meeting a new person over Zoom… You know, it’s just like trying to kiss someone through a closed door. It’s a bit clumsy, but not impossible.
— Khadijah Roberts Abdullah
Agreements and Understandings
Stuart Candy (School of Design) and Nica Ross (School of Drama) of Carnegie Mellon University made a course called Theatre in Pandemic. You can see their experimental syllabus here. In it you’ll find lists of Class Requests, Community Agreements, and suggestions for Online Collaboration and Safety. We found these valuable guidelines for online collaboration and considering how to begin with a new group of people.