The Libertinis are an interarts performance group that creates new, original work that combines theatre, clowning, and dance. They perform in Seattle and are made up of 3 individual performing artists and a rotating cast of associate artists. They have been performing together since 2013.
The Libertinis were making work they were all very proud of. But, they were experiencing some interpersonal problems that were getting in the way of finishing the work in a relatively low stress way. They had some initial infrastructure around completing tasks, but wanted to update their Mission, do some contracting with each other around expectations, and get more shored up in their operations so they could tackle some long-term goals including a rebranding effort. I proposed that by making some of these and other structural changes we could prevent interpersonal break downs. In an effort to really ensure the interpersonal conflicts would be diminished, I brought in a process that would build intimacy and give insight into each other’s cultural backgrounds and protocols that could be causing some of the problems.
What We Did
I started with one-on-one interviews with each of the three troupe members. I asked about their history with performing, what their current job was outside of the troupe, what they’re current role was within The Libertinis, what they were looking to take away from our work together, and what was something they wanted to avoid on retreat day.
The group was full of highly skilled and diverse thinkers who used those skill sets both within and outside of the troupe. Everyone was pretty much already slotted into roles that were appropriate for them, which signaled to me that either expectations of delivery weren’t clear or there were some vital tasks that weren’t clearly assigned and therefore were getting forgotten.
They all had similar long term aspirations: treat their guest artists better via higher compensation, embark on rebranding so they would stop being called a burlesque troupe, and have a super clear idea of what they should be doing so they can do things more effectively. This group was very in sync with each other, which is why I thought the interpersonal problems were 99% attributed to structural issues.
We agreed to a one day retreat, but given how much we were packing into it, we were prepared to plan another day if needed.
The Libertinis were used to doing work with social or family time. We started the day with breakfast together and then moved into an overview of good communication. This would lay the groundwork for how we were going to interact with each other and how to keep each other accountable to “clean” communication.
We then moved into having everyone review their jobs by writing down all the things they do to create a single production and keep the company moving along. This started as quiet contemplation in individual corners and then moved into sharing with each other.
The sharing piece is crucial in this sort of work as it helps people identify blind spots to their work. Often if group members are part of a founding group they just “do things” and don’t really note what the specific tasks are. By having external validation, editing, and additions to the task lists they had assembled, they could each have a more clear picture of what they actually did.
With jobs more clearly outlined, we created a giant timeline from start to finish to make a production happen. Each member plotted out when tasks happened in a different color and using a dot to correspond to the spot on the timeline. It was clear there were period of huge activity that required set up months in advance that, while the team knew roughly what needed to happen, they didn’t fully understand how all the pieces moved together. Seeing the domino effect of what happens when a single task wasn’t completed helped to illuminate why interpersonal conflicts would arise.
In the course of creating this timeline and learning about how they all affected each other, some conversations emerged about how to ask for what was needed without causing problems. Some team members perceived probes for information or completed tasks as passive aggressive commentary on the lack of work. In talking through how it affected them both in receiving the ask and in giving it, better language was worked out for the asker, and the receiver of the inquiry was able to parse through why they had the reaction they did.
We paused the timeline work to take lunch, which provided a chance for the team to talk about other things like health, pop culture, and the very delicious food they were eating. I always like it when food is integrated into a day like this, not only because it helps keep brain glucose moving along, but because when people eat they release oxytocin and dopamine, which can help with unconscious bonding with the people they are around. This team was already deeply bonded, so it provided a chance for deepening their trust in me by sharing a meal.
After lunch, we came back to the timeline work, which is where we identified the holes in the work. There wasn’t a lot, so it was easy enough for everyone to take on a little bit of the unclaimed tasks so adding additional troupe members wouldn’t be necessary. The trio could remain intact and operate without having to take on too many unwanted tasks or having to onboard a whole new person.
We then moved into working on Core Values. Something that came up a lot for this group was needing to be true to their core values, though they could only name a couple at a time. This was where I used the process of creating intimacy and developing self-awareness to uncover some hidden beliefs each person had. This was based on Implicit Narrative work by Dr. Mark Jones. They had to answer for themselves questions about if they thought they were loved, worthy of love, and capable of loving; if they felt alone or if they belonged; if they were valued, mattered to others, and capable of seeing value in themselves; and if they were part of something bigger be it a spiritual purpose or a personal purpose.
Unsurprisingly, asking if they are worthy of love, feel belonging, feel valued, and part of a larger purpose caused some emotion to come up. We learned a lot about their past hurts and traumas and how they developed some of the internal stories they had about themselves. By using the principles of communication we had established at the beginning, I was able to coach the team to helping each member through tough realizations about themselves and others.
Fortunately, no one uncovered anything that was very surprising, just ideas they could finally put into words and shared with others who could hold them in a space of safety. By modeling judgment-free questioning, holding people during their processes, and doing simple things like paraphrasing and perception checking, I was able to guide the group through some more difficult situations and they picked up a lot of skills very quickly and were already doing similar behaviors within just 20 minutes of the start of the activity.
We got through this part of the day and it was about a half hour to the end of our day, which meant we didn’t end up having time for reviewing their mission. We agreed to table that for another day and they would take the rest of the time to do some season planning for their next year.
Two months later we held a follow up retreat to finish up work on the mission and devise core values for the company as a whole.
We took the original mission and started doing some word-smithing. The team wanted to find a way to sum up what they delivered that took them out of the rut of being called a “burlesque troupe.” They had initially met doing burlesque work, but the work had evolved past that point into something that didn’t seem to fit any other words they had come across.
The group kept playing with words, but eventually I asked what keeps them from using the phrase “inter-arts gang” in their mission, which is how they describe themselves in conversation. Most of the resistance was because they were afraid people wouldn’t understand what that meant, exactly. We talked about what the purpose of a mission was and why language that spoke to them was more important than language that was repackaged for marketing purposes on this particular exercise. We needed a good base understanding of what we were doing together before it could be re-written by the ‘Tini in charge of marketing so the essence of it could still be captured. They settled on their original mission after realizing that all they needed was permission to be themselves and a good understanding about how not staying true to the language they use could hurt their brand and growth efforts.
We then moved on to core values. After doing work around Implicit Narratives in the last retreat, the group could more easily define what actual values were important to them. We had a discussion about why each one was important to each individual member so everyone could understand where ethey were coming from in their choices. They started with about a dozen words and were able to narrow it down to a few mostly because they realized that some ideas were embedded in others.
A year later I met up with The Libertinis to check in again. I was expecting to do some sort of tiny project with them again to tweak some of the things they had done. But, I was so excited and proud to learn that they took the work we had done together and ran with it. The past year had been the smoothest they had ever had and they were able to resolve conflict quickly and easily. They attributed this to clear goals, more defined roles, and having the understanding of each other’s implicit narratives. Having a frame of reference for why someone is feeling vulnerable and getting defensive made it easier to adjust styles of communication when emotion spiked.
The Libertinis are truly an example of what can happen when a team moves into the realm of “high-performing.” They were able to get work done successfully before, but with the work we did together they avoided many of the points of friction that would cause a time and bandwidth suck as a product of having to do prolonged processes of reconciliation. The Libertinis continue to be one of the fastest growing and most popular fringe companies in Seattle.
“The pre-retreat phone call with Verhanika was immensely helpful. I felt understood before going into the room with everyone else and I was able to be more candid in that private call. The deep personal work we did way exceeded my expectations. I feel like I not only understand my fellow company members more..but also myself! The work that Verhanika did with us was incredible! I can’t thank her enough. Her warmth and incredible insight is amazing!” – Tootsie Spangles
“Honestly, everything worked for us. This experience was beyond helpful for me personally and for our ensemble. We are moving forward equipped with clearer language and conflict management skills, as well as renewed support for our mission, core values, and goals. I went into this process thinking that we would develop processes that would make us a more efficient business. Instead, Verhanika helped us develop new communication tools and set attainable goals on a real timeline. This is beyond invaluable, and something I don’t think I could have hoped for. THANK YOU!! Thank you thank you thank you thank you. This was the best decision we as a company have made.” – Hattie Hellkat
“IDENTIFYING IMPLICIT NARRATIVES was personally profoundly significant to me, and made a huge difference in understanding each of our knee-jerk reactions to many points and styles of communication. Rather than provide short-term solutions to communication difficulties, Verhanika drove to the roots of problems and helped to make them apparent and easily dealt with. A lovely surprise! We love working with her!”– Woody Shticks