Rapid Prototyping & the Performing Arts

Facilitating a rapid prototyping process at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts with Small Stage this past week has been a rewarding and challenging experience. The varied talents of dancers, choreographers, musicians, composers, songwriters, actors, triple threats, and teachers brought the lab to life in unexpected and brilliant extemporaneous works.

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The wondrous Cori Caulfied & Lara Barclay


I didn’t really have to ‘teach’ anything that all participants, as seasoned creators/performers didn’t already know—that much of the creative process is informed by the rapid generation, development, refining, abandonment, and re-generation of ideas.


Juno award winning violinist Meredith Bates’ and her pedals of wickedness contributed beautiful improvised textures


Dancer/choreographers Caroline Liffmann, Vanessa Goodman, & Heather Myers developed gestural music at the theremin (yes… we played with theremins)


Background (Rapid Prototyping at the CDM)

Throughout the lab, I was keen on exploring typical rapid prototyping processes that I facilitate regularly at the Master of Digital Media Program (see pics below).




physical prototyping


Examples of paper and physical prototyping of a dream house in short sprints are exercised so that learners can embody the difference between an Agile and Waterfall management approach at the MASTER OF DIGITAL MEDIA PROGRAM.


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Digital Prototyping is also part of every project at the Master of Digital Media Program



Physical puzzle game prototypes like this one created for MOTA by team RDM are often used to iterate on game mechanics


A Prototyping Lab

One question I carry through all my research, teaching in the classroom and project room,  in any design process, and in the development of new ideas whether in a corporate or arts setting, is: How can a rapid prototyping process benefit creative practitioners in the development of innovative work? Most certainly artists prototype and iterate all the time. We may not always do so for a client, although aesthetics can inform some work in specific community of practices. The prototyping cycle is similar to digital media pipelines, although it might be better to rename it, Initial Idea vs. Need or Problem to Solve, followed by the more familiar Prototype—Review—Refine process. For example, earlier this summer, I documented over fifty iterations of Chopin’s Prelude in Db Major on the piano (bars 28-32 more precisely) in order to complement Karissa Barry‘s haunting choreography @ Small Stage Canada at the NAC. Each time the piece was played, it was different and more refined, in part because of a built in improvisational structure but also because the musical gestures were inspired by an evolving dialogue with the dancer.


The Small Stage Canada Team of Performers, Creators and Designers


Translating our ideas into dance or musical gestures, images, scenes and/or journeys with others has and always will be a challenge, because no two individuals, processes, contexts and intentions are the same. In these situtations  our collaborative chops are stretched and tested. Veterans of larger collaborative ensembles may agree on some important mechanics that may contribute to the undertaking not ending in tears—persistent communication (balancing listening and speaking), clear boundaries of what each person is and is not able to do within the constraints of time (scope), defining rules of play, aligning on common goals, understanding motivations, processes, and work ethics. These ‘mechanics of collaboration’ were all exercised during the 5-day lab at the Shadbolt.

Elements of the Lab

To demonstrate the importance of being inclusive of other people’s ideas of what successful collaboration ‘looks like’, I facilitated Rules of Play with the ensemble on the first day. Through participating in this exercise, and adapting it throughout the lab,  collaborators were challenged to articulate what was important to them when it came to collaborating with others—setting a hospitable playing field for creativity to blossom.


Rules of Play at the Small Stage Lab


Warming Up

As a warm-up to the prototyping activities, each day I facilitated various games. The more familiar Yes AND from the theatre improv tradition was used,  as well as Ball Play and Counting to Ten, in order to instil some collaborative values like:

  • building on other people’s ideas;
  • listening intently;
  • making and receiving offers;
  • propagating ‘flat’ teams where all have shared ownership of an idea.

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Agile Ball Game that somehow this group of artists managed to ‘solve’ in record times on their first sprints…


In addition to purposeful warm-ups, we used a What IF map as a method to provide feedback on other people’s prototypes. This, instead of the more familiar use of critique proposed that we offer suggestions as to how a prototype could evolve. The What IF map also set the tone for all of us to be continually open to new imaginative ideas.


what if map



Types of Prototyping

I facilitated various prototyping exercises over the course of the five days. We played,  failed, laughed, cringed, experimented, had fun, developed new potential partnerships, took risks, realized our own limitations, developed potential seeds, resisted, provoked, trusted, listened, led and followed. As a facilitator, questions that arose included:

  • How much structure should I provide?
  • How many tools should I propose?
  • Because the many collaborative tools I have learned and developed all take time to fully explore,  how do we as a group (or many smaller groups) generate showable work within a small window of time?



(left to right) Katie Cassady, Makaila Wallace, Caitlin Griffin and ROBERT MITCHELL explore, with his amazing gear


The result of my constant questioning and witnessing the prototypes develop each day, inspired me to provide new constraints, values and themes. In this way, I also remained integral to the cycles of prototyping itself. I reviewed the lab process daily, considered the structure of the participants’  activities, proposed refined prototyping activities the next day, received feedback from the group and tried anew.  We played within these boundaries:

  • FROM allowing individuals to select collaborators TO assigning individuals to one another;
  • FROM creating portable works TO creating site specific work using the Shadbolt’s amazing architecture;
  • FROM creating prototypes of indefinite length TO 45 second prototypes;
  • FROM showing work at the end of each day TO showing work throughout the day;
  • FROM allowing 90 minutes to develop the work TO allowing sprints of only 20 minutes;
  • FROM letting individuals organize their ideas collectively TO proposing that each individual on the team lead others in rotation;
  • FROM creating one prototype per team of four TO creating four separate prototypes;
  • FROM showing prototypes only once TO allowing time to refine a prototype and showing it again;
  • FROM working in small groups TO working with the entire ensemble;
  • FROM developing prototypes collaboratively TO drawing paper prototypes individually then guiding their physical manifestation.

The Results

The results were captured through photography and video, with dozens of seeds of ideas that may one day be developed.
Here are some moments captured in stills.



Dario Giuseppe Dinuzzi, Judith Garay & Karissa Barry with fan as musical instrument


Choreographer  Cori Caulfied competing with composer and conductor Giorgio Magnanensi to be the Pianist


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Burgundy Brixx, Vanessa Goodman, Caitlin Brown and Brahm Taylor perform prototype with fan



From paper to embodied prototype with the constraint of integrating the ensemble at the piano



Dario Giuseppe Dinuzzi and Katie Cassady get crushed in another piano ensemble tableaux


Composer GIORGIO MAGNANENSI improvising what is best described as hybrid insect-zapping music with Vanessa GoodmanKarissa Barry and Makaila Wallace



Agnes Tong, Karissa Barry and Katie Cassady (along with Makaila Wallace) in the finale of a post-structural penguins at the piano prototype

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Paper to embodied prototypes in the lobby of the Shadbolt Centre of the Arts…with Scheherazaad Cooper and idea by Vanessa Goodman



The rapid prototyping lab for Small Stage at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts was a resounding success thanks to all the contributors and their willingness to experiment openly with new collaborators. I believe that the rapid generation of collaborative ideas is complementary to the artistic process and I look forward to seeing what works might emerge from the lab in Small Stage’s productions this fall.

For more specific tools and processes like the ones used in the lab, and ones that are focused on supporting teachers who facilitate collaborative learning of any kind, download my free ebook, The Disruptive Game.

And finally….just some of the many participants at the Small Stage lab….a truly amazing and imaginative ensemble of artists.

back left to right: Dario Giuseppe Dinuzzi,   Burgundy Brixx,  Judith GarayMakaila Wallace, Julie-Anne Saroyan (who made it all possible), me and  Cori Caulfield
front left to right : Katie Cassady, Vanessa GoodmanCaitlin Brown,  Karissa Barry,  Agnes Tong,  Heather MyersBrahm Taylor
missing (and missed): Scheherazaad Cooper , Giorgio MagnanensiCaitlin GriffinMeredith Bates,ROBERT MITCHELLLara Barclay, Tariq Hussain, Corbin Murdoch, Babe Gurr