Thursday, February 09, 2012


The most popular person I've ever known, my dear departed Earl Rich, used to always warn me against the "groupmind." This amused me because if there was ever anybody who was in a position to benefit from like-thinking and conformity, it was Earl. Although maybe I shouldn't say benefit - he used to complain that he never had any time to himself for all the people competing for his attention - his wife, his immediate family and his large group of friends.
Well, I never had much use for the groupmind myself - I've never been popular in part because I've always been more interested in expressing my opinions than in being liked. And for a woman, especially, this is a huge drawback - women don't get to be crusty curmudgeons, our first job is to be agreeable.

In any case, I was pleased to find some vindication in last week's New Yorker article Brainstorming Doesn't Really Work, which is not available in its entirety online alas, just the abstract, which says:
By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents from the past fifty years, he has shown that levels of teamwork have increased in more than ninety-five per cent of scientific subfields. Discusses the work of Charlan Nemeth, whose studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. “Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition,”
Later on, the article discusses the relevance for theatre:
Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren't predictable. And recognizing the importance of conflicting perspectives in a group raises the issue of what knds of people will work together best. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, has spent his career trying to find what the ideal composition of a team would look like. Casting around for an industry to study that would most clearly show the effects of interaction, he hit on Broadway musicals. He'd grown up in New York City and attended his first musical at the age of nine. "I went to see 'Hair'," Uzzi recalls. "I remember absolutely nothing about the music, but I do remember the nude scene. That just about blew my mind. I've been a fan of Broadway ever since."
Uzzi sees musicals as a model of group creativity. "Nobody creates a Broadway musical by themselves," he said. ""The production requires too many different kinds of talent. " A composer has to write songs with a lyricist and a librettist; a choreographer has to work with a director, who is probably getting notes from the producers.

Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn't take many links to get from the librettist of "Guys and Dolls" to the choreographer of "Cats." Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before - a common practice because Broadway producers see "incumbent teams" as less risky - those musicals  would have an extremely high Q. So a musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.

Uzzi then tallied his Q readings with information about how successful the productions had been. "Frankly, I was surprised by how big the effect was," Uzzi told me. "I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much." According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low - less than 1.7 on Uzzi's five-point scale - the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn't know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. "This wasn't so surprising," Uzzi says. "It takes time to develop a successful collaboration." But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the ninteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent - Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on - but Uzzi's data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far about the historical norm. "Broadway had some of the biggest names ever," Uzzi explains. "But the shows were too full of repeated relationships, and that stifled creativity." 
The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. The ideal level of Q - which Uzzi and his colleague Jarrett Spiro called the "bliss point" - emerged as being between 2.4 and 2.6. A show produced by a team whose Q was within this ranged was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a  score below 1.4 or above 3.2. It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics. "The best Braodway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships," Uzzi says. "These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently - they had a familiar structure to fall back on - but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but the weren't too comfortable."
Uzzi's favorite example of "intermediate Q" is "West Side Story," one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. In 1957, the play was seen s a radical departure from Braodway conventions, both for its focus on social problems and for its extended dance scenes. The concept was dreamed up by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Berstein and Arthur Laurents. They were all Braodway legends, which might make "West Side Story" look like a show with high Q. But the project also benefitted from a crucial injection of unknown talent, as the established artists realized that they needed a fresh lyrical voice. After an extensive search, they chose a twenty-five-year-old lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before. His name was Stephen Sondheim.
I've run NYCPlaywrights play readings with the idea that playwrights need to hear what people who aren't part of their in-group think about their plays. Far too often I've seen theatre groups completely dominated by insiders who are simply an echo-chamber for each other and no real criticism is allowed to be expressed - not fully, not completely. Now most people like it that way, but it doesn't make you a better writer. Quite the opposite. It's nice to have studies like these vindicate my approach.