Social Presencing Theater (SPT) is an art form and “social technology” that brings together social change with creative expression. Through a synthesis of mindfulness, creative embodied expression, and group dialogue, Social Presencing Theater directs our consciousness to our own body, as well as the social body, and its deeper knowledge.
The word “Social” stands for people and groups, like in organizations and social systems. We are exploring social fields in our practice. “Presencing” derives from two words: presence and sensing. It is a combination of being conscious (i.e. of my own body), and being aware (i.e. of the space and everyone around me). It refers to the quality of attention we practice in Social Presencing Theater. Finally, “Theater” stands for embodied play in its original form — a tool to raise awareness, to make invisible things visible. These things can be hidden social dynamics, blind spots, or forgotten resources.
Social Presencing Theater is part of Theory U, a framework for effecting change personally and organizationally, in communities and globally (see chapter on Theory U in this book*). Social Presencing Theater has emerged during the last two decades from the life’s work of American artist, dancer and meditation teacher Arawana Hayashi and her collaboration with Otto Scharmer.
The practice has spread to thousands worldwide through courses and online programs. It is applied in facilitating group and organizational change in such different areas as, for example, education, business, art, and social justice. But it is not a means for improving and fixing things. It’s a social practice for mindfulness, awareness and fresh insight around leadership challenges related to social systems.
Basics of Social Presencing
The basic assumption in the practice is that everyone attending is sane and whole, that there is no-one and nothing to fix or repair. When we share, we own our feelings and perceptions about the other. We respect each person’s reality as truthful. Our leading principles are “curiosity“ and “loving kindness“.
Social Presencing Theater is based on a principle called, in Japanese, Ma. It literally means “interval”, or “between”, but in Japanese art it refers also to a cultural paradigm-shift in the way of seeing and attending to something and one another.
There is a habitual tendency for many of us to focus our attention on the content (i.e material part) of an object, or the words and actions between people. Ma reminds us to expand our attention to the space between, like to the environment and the atmosphere. For example when we look at an object like a drinking glass, many of us notice the solid, transparent material the glass is made of. However, what makes the glass useful is the space between the material that can hold water. The same applies to a door: we see the wood or material it is made of, the hinges and handle, but the empty space to walk through actually makes the door. In groups of people this empty space is our way of being together, the communication between and beyond words, how we relate to one another. Social Presencing Theater is an invitation to discover more spaciousness and openness in our daily living and our working with others.
In Social Presencing Theater we experience Ma and what can emerge from it through simple awareness-based body exercises and more advanced constellations of systems. Letting Ma lead is a way of exploring what naturally wants to happen, not what you think should happen. You start to listen to, and learn from, your “stuck” situations in life by noticing your body in the present moment and in relation to others. In that way things can fall naturally into place, without thinking hard. Practiced in organizations and social movements, it can help more constructive, collective things to happen, without the need of a central role to develop and implement a strategic solution for it.
Naming the elephant
I have been leading Social Presencing Theater workshops and practice groups since 2014, and also offer consultation to teams and organizations. I find it an extraordinarily powerful tool to help people talk about the “elephant in the room”. That is, an important or enormous topic, problem, or risk that is obvious or that everyone knows about, but that no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable or is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, or provocative.
Usually I am not directly invited by those organizations or communities to bring up the elephants. I am asked to help with vision and strategy design, to strengthen the community spirit, but surely also to help them dive into topics that usually don’t have space in the everyday. Whatever their goal, when they are open to experimental, unconventional methods, I recommend them to start with some Social Presencing Theater work, to “clear the table”.
My sense and own experience is that individuals are often not aware of how much of a burden certain challenges at work are to them, or they only have a very specific perspective on things, or they don’t have words for what they deeply feel. Probably most important, they simply don’t have the space to creatively, collectively engage with what’s going on. Words are often not sufficient to get behind the social dynamics at work. I am talking here not necessarily about interpersonal conflicts — though they might be a symptom. I am talking much more about challenges that arise from being part of complex social systems, where economic questions meet personal needs, environmental challenges, political conditions, and so on.
What I’ve experienced is that Social Presencing Theater empowers individuals to realize and share what’s in their hearts. This way it supports groups to do some long-overdue straight talking in a respectful way. This builds the capacity to collectively, and in agreement, name the direction for the next step.
There are several different ways to learn more about Social Presencing Theater. Various materials in form of texts, articles, pictures and videos can be found on Arawana Hayashis website, https://arawanahayashi.com/social-presencing-theater.
Instructions for some of the core practices: “20 min Dance”, “Stuck Dance” and “4D Mapping”, can be found on the Website of the Presencing Institute, https://www.presencing.org/resource/tools.
For a comprehensive overview of world-wide Social Presencing Theater basic 2-day courses see the most recent Social Presencing Theater newsletter https://arawanahayashi.com/read.
Social Presencing Theater Practice Groups can also be found around the world. In Europe they currently take place in Cologne, Amsterdam, Sintra, Paris and Berlin.
*This article has been written by Manuela Bosch in Collaboration with TL Practitioners, an European project for adult educators who want to add a transformative-learning edge to their practice. It will be published in their book, that in Summer 2020. Find out more about TL Practitioners here.
For upcoming Social Presencing Theater workshops by Manuela Bosch check manuelabosch.de
Picture by Jane Sverdrupsen, 2019, University of Art, Norway