Ritual limits: role of the event planner

A comment from a friend about my last post brought up some excellent questions about the role of a larger organisational body in the question of ritual or workshop or whatever limits. (As, in the case in question, when a ritual is taking place at a larger event.)

I didn’t talk about this in the previous post, both for length reasons, and because the event organiser side is a bit more complicated for me to talk about clearly, but my friend made some excellent points that I do want to talk about more.

Background and disclaimer:

This is my personal blog, and here I am speaking only for me, and not for any organization I’ve volunteered with, either currently or in the past. All clear? Good.

That said, my experiences shape my opinions: and you might want to know where that experience comes from.

I’ve thought about many of these issues (and the more general question of how to make public and large scale events more accessible to more people) a great deal in part because of my time on the board of Twin Cities Pagan Pride since 2005, running both the fall Pagan Pride event (a two-day event in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, though we’re planning on going back to one day in 2011 to find a space with better walk-through/casual traffic) and our new project, Paganicon, (taking place later this month), which is a weekend hotel-based conference (albeit much smaller than Pantheacon: we’re likely to have somewhere between 100 and 150 people this year, which is just fine.)

I’ve also attended a small invite only Pagan festival for several years, and ran and helped with some other community focused events in the Society for Creative Anachronism and in science fiction fandom over the years, both places I’ve learned some things I apply to my current Pagan focus. Reasonably varied experience, basically but I haven’t seen and done everything, either.

I’ve got a particular interest for various reasons in overall accessibility of events – not just mobility needs or food allergies or identity limits, but things ranging from choices in accessibility tools (i.e. lipreading seats vs. ASL interpreters vs. real-time transcription options for those with hearing impairment) to looking at things like learning style differences, scheduling, and other details.

The role of the event organiser:

The first real question here is simple: when an activity takes place at a larger event (for example, a ritual proposed in the context of a larger convention or festival), what’s the role of the event organisers in handling the questions of limits and necessary information around proposed items?

There are a variety of ways to handle this. There are also some things event planners can do to encourage the proposal of the kind of events that they want, and gently discourage the ones they don’t want. [That’ll be my next post.]

The basic goal

As I see it, the basic goal is creating a space where things that interest and engage a sustainable number of participants happen. It does not need to be the one solution to every need, but the event organisers should have a clear idea what needs and hopes and roles different types of proposed items are filling.

A number of different pieces go into this.

What’s the goal of the event? Are you designing an event to draw people from a broad variety of related communities and interests, or are you focusing on a more specific area of interest? (For example: a general Pagan event is fairly broad in focus, while an event focused on a particular tradition or practice would be much narrower.)

The best programming focus for a Pagan Pride event is going to be different than the best focus for an event for those already within the Pagan community, though there are certainly places where there’s overlap. The first is going to want to include a lot of items that are at least somewhat accessible to people new to the idea of Paganism (and probably avoid more complex topics that take extensive context or explanation), while the latter can do more highly specialised items.

(When I was doing Pagan Pride programming, I aimed for having at least half the items be non-path specific, so that people on different paths could share ideas, or comments: favorite Pagan-relevant fiction, crafts and fiber arts, seasonal food traditions, things like that, in part because those things are also quite accessible to non-Pagans. I’d make different choices for a more focused event.)

The event planners also need to figure out what kind of event they can and want to support. They may, for perfectly good reasons, need to put limits on some things: they certainly do not have infinite time, energy, volunteers, space, and budget. Some of these things are educated guesses, some of them are easier to figure out. (How many people will pay to come to your event is an educated guess. What spaces you have to work with is a known limit, once you have a rental contract.)

Different people are different. Your ideal program is not everyone else’s ideal program. This kind of thing turns into something of a puzzle, because you’re also balancing what you think people want to see against what people actually propose, and the two do not always link up in useful  or obvious ways.

Variety is therefore good, as long as it’s tied to the core goals of the event. You don’t want every item to sound similar to every other item. And you  really don’t need duplication: even in a divination-focused event, you would not want three different Tarot 101 workshops with nothing that clearly distinguishes one from the other.

However, you might well want three 101 level workshops that approach Tarot reading in markedly different ways, or you might have three different teachers talk about how they teach 101 classes. With clear descriptions and thoughtful scheduling, this might be a really cool compare and contrast opportunity for the right audience.

So how do you balance it?

Here, we hit a particular combination of problems.

Not everyone knows everything: Your nice programming staff folks presumably get the same 24 hours in a day as the rest of us. It’s safer to assume that there will be gaps in their knowledge.  (Even the folks who’ve been around the community for decades haven’t lived everywhere, learned every path, etc.) Sometimes those gaps will be minor. Sometimes they will be substantial.

Programming best practices, therefore, do their best to make it easier for the programming staff to do their job – namely, create a schedule that does not put all three items on Specific Topic at the same time, and to deal with any limits, special requirements, etc. that may be involve with the help of the presenters, and to be aware of topics that may need delicate or thoughtful handling. But they don’t expect the programming staff to be experts in every field – that way lies misery and failure and lots of hurt feelings.

Expecting the programming staff (or any event staff, while we’re at it..) to mindread is an exercise in everyone’s frustration. Event planners can and should make it easy for people to tell them the information they need to know (we’ll come back to this), but presenters making proposals also have a responsibility to do their best to clearly indicate any limits, specific needs, considerations, or other topics. They know their topic and proposal best.

More eyes is better. Since no one person is going to know everything, more eyes help a lot. (I’m a librarian. I *still* don’t know everything: I just have a highly trained set of skills in where to start looking.) However, this means building enough time into your deadlines that reliable, thoughtful people with broad experience in the relevant communities can look over your proposals and say “Hey, should that have more clarity?”

Do not expect attendees to mindread either. People will read programs and other information when they are tired, wired, undercaffinated, underslept, distracted, and much more. Make things as crystal clear as possible, in unambiguous but caring wording, if you are expressing limits, restrictions, or other absolutely necessary information, etc.

Fundamental questions:

Now, we come to some fundamental philosophical questions. Like most philosophical conundrums, there is no one right answer: however, answering “Yes” to some of these questions may logically require a “Yes” or “No” to others.

Should all items be ‘open to all’? This is one approach to take: create a policy that all official items at the event must be open to all registered attendees. However, this has two problems.

First, realistically, there are practical, health, and other limits that mean they won’t be. An event beginning at 11pm is not accessible to people who need sleep and who also need to get up early. An event that is open to very young children is not suitable for some kinds of work (and an event at 9 or 11pm is probably also not going to work for them.) An event that has a lot of dancing is somewhere between less accessible and not accessible to someone with mobility challenges. A dimly lit event is not accessible to someone who lipreads. I could go on, but you get the idea.

There may be no stated limit on who can walk in the room, but some people will end up feeling like they’re left out. Statements about how “all events are open and welcoming to all registered members of the convention” will just make them feel more so, and with good reason.

The other problem is the personal history issue: there will be times, in any sufficiently sized community, that people will have significant personal differences. Someone running a ritual may need to say “Other people are welcome, but one specific person, my ex-husband who’s trying to get custody, isn’t.” We hope not to need this one often, but it’s common enough that sensible event planners should be keeping the possibility in mind and have policies that deal with it.

What’s the difference between protected spaces and discriminatory spaces? There is a long history of events offering shared community space for people in a particular situation – whether that’s people who share a gender identity, an orientation identity, a racial or ethnic identity, having shared a particular kind of experience.

Many people find these valuable and important, both as a way to help manage strains and stresses of a larger event (where they may feel marginalised in various ways), and as a way to connect with other people with similar experiences. Removing limited spaces from the entire event also removes these.

How do you solicit the right balance? People do not propose the precise combo of things you’d like to see. It might a great idea, for example, to have rituals that speak to every possible range of a particular identity or range of experience. However, your chances of actually getting people to propose compatible items that fit every possible need in the spectrum of choices in a single event are … well, unlikely. That leaves event planners in the position of either needing to go solicit people to run a particular thing, or of leaving gaps. Neither is a really great solution.

(I’ll also add a particular planning challenge here: sometimes you think you’ve found just the perfect balance between different areas of focus or interest, and then all of a sudden, one of them has to cancel and you may not have time to find a workable solution.)

In short:

It’s the job of the planners to create the shape of the event. It is not their job to fill that shape with color and light and sound and life all by themselves: they need the presenters and ritual leaders and attendees, and all sorts of other folks to help do that for them. Clear communication about the boundaries and edges and hopes for the event go a long way to helping make that happen well – but there are some other steps you can also consider.

This has again gotten long, so I will be addressing things that can help in various directions in a subsequent post.

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