Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dare to be different ... take risks

Back in 2009 we managed to get to see a William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream by final year students at Toi Whakaari drama school.  It was a seriously impressive production, which moved the action into a circus setting, with the faerie characters all imagined as unearthly carny folk, giving the actors the platform to learn and display various circus skills.

This year when we found out they were running a production of As You Like It, my 16 year old son was adamant we get tickets.  And let me just say, that's unusual for a teenage boy to go "oh, I really want to watch Shakespeare".

The action started in the basement theatre of Toi Whakaari dressed as the mighty halls of power of some great Dukedom - there is an estranged brother, starcrossed lovers, a comic relief fool and a tyrannical Duke.  Okay, so far so normal for both a Shakespeare production and your average Game of Thrones episode.

It doesn't take too long before everyone is banished from the kingdom on pain of death - it's a good thing Shakespeare never created this character (well it would have made for a shorter play) ...

It's at this point that things not only got odd, they got outright surreal.  It was time for a change of scenery (I know the play well enough to know that).  I have worked on enough amateur dramatic pieces to know this is usually the point where a load of burley folk such as myself, dressed in black, come on-stage to do the silent ballet that occurs when a scene change.

But it didn't happen.  Instead, silently, out came the fool from the story, pulling a curtain at the back of stage, then unbolted one door, and then another.  There was something behind the stage, an eerie lit corridor, leading to something uncertain.  At this point someone far beyond started singing (beautifully I should add), and we the audience were ushered from our seats, through and beyond.

We just didn't know what was going on, but we soon would.  Instead of a scene change, we joined the principles in exile, being moved into a second theatre behind where the rest of the play would take place.

Photos courtesy of Toi Whakaari, photographer Philip Merry (thanks guys)

Typically the rest of the play takes place deep in the forest, but here the scene and characters were imagined as some Kiwi hippie commune.  There was a lot of fun to be had seeing some of Shakespeare's characters re-imagined as a variation of the kind of people you'd bump into at the local hipster cafe, or on an Annabelle Langbein/Country Calendar episode.

Of course all these twists and customisations can be dismissed as gimmicks if the play itself isn't very good, or poorly acted.  As with Midsummer Night's Dream we walked away feeling we'd got a professionally produced play "on the cheap", and indeed there was the "hard to pull off" achievement of making a 400 year old play so exciting to a teen veteran of XBox that he wants to know if we can see again.  That's no small undertaking!

As per usual though, this isn't just a "review of a great play", but there are some really key themes here that echo with life in the office.  There are a lot of oddities and gambles at play here,
  • Switching theatres mid-play
  • The commune setting and Kiwi-isation of characters
  • As usual with Toi Whakaari, it's a very intimately performed play, with actors sometimes not just making direct eye contact as they deliver a line, but also instead of going off stage will sit in with the audience in character.  This always gives this odd, surreal experience that you are not so much watching a play as sitting within it.  Such things are not for the faint hearted!

If this was a full professional production, there would be the temptation to cut a lot of that out - a bigger, theatre means more bums on seats, and more money yes?  And while we're at it, maybe we should curb back a few of our ideas, and make it more "as per expectations" for Shakespeare, right?

What's so interesting about both productions we've seen at Toi Whakaari is that there is an awful lot of passion on show, but also an awful lot of gamble.  And that's risky - in fact from this theatre piece from our paper it seems there was reviewer who disliked it as much as we loved it "muddled ... there are too many distracting moments from the main scene" and "what is missing is the sense, made explicit in the play, 'of the golden world', whether it was in classical Greece or Robin Hood's merrie England".

Unfortunately that reads like "why isn't it like every other production of As You Like It".  That gives a sense that the play that's performed today should be exactly as performed 400 years ago, with no new-fangled electric lights, or seating, and with all parts played by men.  [By the way, Rosalind in the story is a girl who disguises herself as a man, which means in Shakespeare's time there was a male actor, pretending to be a girl ... who was pretending to be a man]

Innovation and change of course comes from taking those gambles, and chancing/limiting when they don't quite pay off.  But it's worth it because there are no immutable rules in any field, be it theatre or testing.

Which nicely brings me to the Test Sheep's gamble of yesterday - for which you may have seen the Tweet ...

Okay - excuse the grammar (written on a phone), but you get the idea!  Yes indeed, I'm moving on for a few months to help with another project.  Unfortunately we have a very small project where work comes through somewhat ad-hoc, and when it does come through, is typically a one-person task.

The problem is that there's no assurance when work comes through that there will be the same person available to test, and only a few people have experience of the system.  For one of our key projects as discussed previously, we not only have a team culture, but a supporting handbook for the project.

The best way to onboard someone onto a new system is to talk them through it, and "let them explore and experiment" to get to know the system.  But you can't just explore without some guidance (unless the pages have help or are obvious).  Some guide is useful.

Sadly even at this point there wasn't time to write and screenshot the instructions.  This is where that XBox-generation son of mine came in, he was looking up some how-to-guides on YouTube, and I had a cunning plan!

It's true - turn to Google, and ask "how do I...", and more than likely you'll end up with a whole load of YouTube links.  Video is a method we're increasingly getting experience of using to learn.

I figured I could do a screen recording with a headset talking through the important attributes (both business and technical) as I performed several key tasks on our system (especially those non-intuitive tasks). I have to say everything on our system is documented, but that doesn't really mean if I gave all that documentation to a new tester that they'd know where to get started.

My reasoning for recording a series of screencasts was I could achieve in about a day what it would take a week and more to achieve in writing a handbook.  It sounded too good to be true.

And it was!  There were some difficulties namely,

  • Screencasting software isn't "just available to download", it costs.  I tried some software out, and hated it.  Fortunately from my stop motion work I had a copy of AVS Video Editor.  The problem was it ran (and was locked to) my very old Vista machine.  Vista!

  • Thankfully my target audience was other peer testers, because the videos are not slick, and involve some fumbling "oh wait ... I'm not on the right page".  To get something good enough to show-and-tell a customer, you do really need thorough knowledge of the system, and (shock horror) be working to a script.  So closer to a week than a day there!
  • Vista.  Well to be honest it's an old laptop, and I was running a lot of applications on it, so it's 2GB memory struggled, and occasionally the IE browser I needed to use just "stuck", but even that pailed into comparison next to everyone's favourite, the blue screen of death that would happen if my video was too long ...

This path had risks to it - mainly that by the end of it, I'd have used up a day or more, with no real gain, and be stuck trying to do the handbook again (and being a day behind on that).  To that it became important to know "how long to spend on this before I need to see results?".  Thankfully my technical problems only wasted a few hours, but I needed to be mindful if I kept having problems on when to just abandon the project and do things "more traditionally".

It was also not only untried, but even when finished, I had the feeling of "cheating".  Somehow onboarding instructions should be a Word document, we're just so trained to it like Pavlov's dogs.  Videos felt "wrong" somehow.

Yet all the same, the purpose of the material, whether video or Word document is to educate new testers.  The media through which that is achieved is not as important as the acid test of if people can learn from what you've produced.  Certainly there was a lot of Twitter support last night for the concept ....

What I realised last night is that just like the As You Like It production last night, I won't "be proved right", I'm just enjoying as we all should, and opportunity to experiment, try something new, and if it works, maybe evolve our approach.  It's not about being proven right, it's taking the leap and freedom to try something new, and by doing so not feeling trapped by convention we feel we have no control of.

In our own way, every week we should be taking risks, trying something new, but knowing when somethings "not working" and to cut our losses.  Thats how we evolve our approach to what we do, much like that first theatre that used (shock horror) female actors to play female characters!

[Of course all that got put "on drugs" by the British convention of pantomime where typically the hero is a female playing a male, and there's a pantomime dame, played by a guy.  Typically most pantomimes end with a double wedding of the (female hero) and damsel, as well as the pantomime dame and their (male interest).  Same sex marriage, and in front of the kids!  And yet it's only lately that some people are getting horrified by the concept!]

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