Jennica is sitting on the living floor playing with my neighbour's cat. Our weekly planning meetings during the pandemic are becoming an increasingly creative balance of work and life commitments. This week, cat-sitting and strategic planning are combined task. While starting a new business in the midst of a global crisis is far from an ideal circumstance, we continue to find joy in all the small and surprising things. In this case, strategic planning with an enthusiastic cat is as good a reason as any to celebrate how far we’ve come.
As she pulls a piece of string across the floor to tease Tomatillo, Jennica reminisces about all the falling dominos that led to this moment.
It certainly didn’t start as a company. It started with a professional allyship.
Jennica laughs. She recalls countless conversations over the last few years that started with a crisis and quickly dissolved into a rich reflection about what could be different.
Starting an arts-based consulting firm was not where Jennica expected to be in this particular moment. Before moving to Vancouver, starting grad school, and meeting me, Jennica fell into the world of theatre. This happy accident set off a trail of surprising dominos.
I remember knocking on your office door and saying, "Um, the world is on fire again."
I would knock on your door. You would knock on my door. The conversation was always the same. What if ____ was just different? That’s how it started. And, then the question changed. What if we just did something differently? What if all those things we wanted done differently – what if we made it happen? That’s when this alliance got interesting.
It was entirely by accident. I was afraid of art. I can’t define it. It doesn’t have a clear goal. As a math person, I was deeply afraid. So, I didn’t intentionally seek it out.
Jennica explains that she was already working as an evaluator in Toronto when a close friend, who created a play, called in a favour.
My friend's play was about a difficult topic – not the kind of thing you casually talk about. She wanted to evaluate it. So, I watched the show numerous times, and I watched the audiences react. After, I facilitated conversations with audiences about how they experienced the performance. What happened blew me away. Audiences genuinely wanted to talk. They didn’t want to sidestep or make excuses. They wanted to learn more about their responsibilities and how to do better. I had seen so many academic lectures on the same topic, but never before had I seen such genuine interest in talking and problem-solving.
Jennica’s face lights up as she talks about the world of Research-Based Theatre. She gushes about her current ideas to balance research priorities with the theatre aesthetics. Setting effective goals (Jennica’s very favourite thing), is how she envisions combining clear research priorities with the natural chaos of production and collaborations. And, it wouldn’t be a Jennica idea without a context-specific example of what she means. She tells me about health interventions and her dream of producing community-led shows.
I deeply want us to move towards projects that honour grounded expertise. Living something is valuable. The kinds of expertise that come from living something and studying something aren’t comparable. One isn’t more valuable than another. So, it doesn’t make sense to me that there are so many projects where researchers set the goals alone. I would love to use theatre to transform patient engagement, so that their priorities, wisdom, and creativity take centre stage.
As Tomatillo curls up in a nearby box, we focus back on the task at hand and map out action items for the upcoming week. We giggle over how easy it is to divide tasks. Jennica will obviously take a stab at website analytics and assorted tech things I barely understand. SEOs? Clearly, I will be writing this blog.
While on the subject of the website, Jennica inserts an opportunity for evaluation. There is always an opportunity for evaluation, a sentiment I continue to learn from her.
If I’m being totally honest, our first website was a colossal failure.
Jennica looks at me with a kind expression. As her features soften, I recognized the look that means truth is coming.
We sank a ton of time into our first website. In the excitement of getting this company started, we wrote our website like our business plan. It was clunky and confusing. Instead of explaining what we do, we over-explained why we want to do it.
I nod. I cherish the shorthand we have developed over the years. No sugar coating. Just total honesty about what works and what doesn’t. And, the first website was terrible. It was the result of a steep learning curve. So, I actually kind of love that we just scrapped the whole thing and started fresh. Still not perfect. But, perfect is never our goal.
We’ve come a long way…
Jennica reminds me of what we managed to pull off in such a short period of time - and during a pandemic.
AND is what happens when you smoosh two people together, who share all of the same values and none of the same skills. We approach problem-solving differently. But, no matter what, we get to trust in the process and the results are really good.
With that, we have a strategic plan – at least for a little while longer. And, a first blog post.