Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It's the Little Things

Last night my wife and I went to see the highly praised off-Broadway show STOMP at ASU's Gammage auditorium. My wife has seen many more live shows than I, including this one, and she has been anxious to take me to see it for some time. I knew the basic gist of the show - an acrobatic display combining dance, rhythm, and inventive percussion techniques and tools - but I was not sure if there was any specific plot or story. This show has become a resounding success in a number of ways since its first performance in 1991, and now that I've seen the performance the idea behind the show I think is something that learning professionals can take a lot away from.

The closest relatable experience I had prior to STOMP is my experience seeing Blue Man Group in Las Vegas back in 2003. Now that I have seen STOMP, I am intrigued by the nature of the show, and it made me reflect on my BMG experience. The part of STOMP that struck me most is the way in which the performance is a study in making the most of the simplest tools available. In this case, we're talking about percussive rhythms and beats created with non-traditional tools that bring about intricate dances, some inventive quasi-slapstick comedy, and ultimately, a happy audience. STOMP is more than the use of cigarette lighters, trash cans, newspapers and plastic bags to make synchronized noise. This is a show that takes an idea so basic and seemingly unremarkable, and makes it remarkable beyond conceptualization. It's about redefining percussion itself.

As I discovered last night there is no plot, but that is of no consequence to the quality of the show. There is also no dialog at all during the performance. There are some audible cues given by the performers at various points, though they are very few. This is a show that is intended to get the audience not just bouncing along in their seat, but also clapping and participating. It's a great study in how much communication can be accomplished without words. Simple looks, gestures, expressions; all of these run the show beginning to end. There's no band either; the only instruments are what is being banged, tapped, rattled, zipped, swept, what have you. The whole show just brings to the forefront the very basics of seeing-and-doing learning, and through the use of non-traditional music-making, really asks each audience member to consider the possibilities behind anything. A broom evolves from a tool for sweeping, to an object whose shape can be manipulated to hold a beat, to a tool that sweeps, holds a beat, and complements a dance. It's all a visual demonstration of learning the basics, experimenting outside the bounds of accepted use, and ending in a crescendo of mastery of self and tool. As the performers bounced and vaulted about the stage, I could imagine their individual learning process as individuals, and cooperation as they integrated and added to the moves and display. They were already masters, but through their mastery I could envision the learning process.

But the basis for everything we saw last night was the novelty of "innovel" things. The boring is made bright; the mundane is made marvelous. Going forward, as learning professionals I think the nature of STOMP's performance can help us think creatively about the information and tools available to us and how to apply them, but it can also help us rethink how even the old tools need to be reconsidered and re-purposed. Before we jump to the most complex systems, is there an inventive and efficient way to instruct and inform without fancy technology? How can that fancy technology be applied responsibly for our aims? In other cases, how do we convince others that the latest and greatest isn't always the best?

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