For the past couple of months, I’ve been working with Atlanta’s Midtown Alliance on an event: The Business of Creativity. We plan to bring together three speakers from very different fields to talk about what role creativity plays in their organization. It’s a strategy that I expect will give our audience a diverse view of the topic and a chance to learn from businesses they may never interact with under normal circumstances.

In prep for this event, I interviewed one of our speakers, Tim Habeger, founder of Atlanta’s PushPush Theater. He provided a complete and extremely insightful commentary on creativity, living and working in Atlanta, entrepreneurship, and the technology-guided shifts in doing business that are forever changing the game for him — and nearly every organization.

The event is on the evening of Thursday, July 25th. If you’re interested in attending and are in the Midtown Atlanta area, drop me a line at scritchfield at gmail dot com.

Tim Habeger, PushPush Theatre
Image credit, Stacey Bode Photography

Tim, you’re the most obviously creative of all of our presenters — you operate PushPush Theater, which is an artist-run incubator of original stories by independent artists. You’re a writer, a storyteller, an actor and … a businessman.

Tell me what made you decide to create and launch PushPush Theater.

I had just moved from New York to Atlanta and was really surprised not to find continuing professional development programs for performing artists and filmmakers. Atlanta’s film and theater scene was growing but there was little to help our own creative artists keep up with the growth or help them have a bigger voice in how the changes would affect them. There were no seminars, professional workshops or affordable spaces necessary for R&D.

PushPush Film and Theater became an affordable place where creative artists could learn, try new approaches, take risks and develop original work for a growing market.

Today in Atlanta, nearly two decades later, Atlanta has several institutions whose main purpose is the continued professional development of emerging artists and administrators: The Metropolitan Foundation, WonderRoot, AFF 365, and C-4 among others are growing and with more of these organizations, we see the growth of world-class, original work being produced in the Atlanta area.

We believe a city’s creative environment doesn’t just magically get better — it improves with strategic planning and steady work.

How are things different now then when you started the theatre back in 2006?

The biggest difference I see is the increased connection between Atlanta and other cultural and business centers. We are more connected and as our “community” expands, so do our options. We face tougher challenges of the bigger field, but we also get new ideas and solutions — new ways to frame our challenges.

PushPush began its international exchange program over 10 years ago and this program has been the biggest asset to our company’s growth and improvement.

Were there any obstacles that forced you to pivot/course-correct along the way?

We have changed directions three times in our 17-year history. The first was from doing other people’s work to developing our own original work. We realized a prime definition of creativity is the evidence that our work is being imitated or copied by others. We changed from copying other artists’ work from New York and LA to establishing our own place as an original content incubator.

The second change was the development of personal planning. We went from an organization motivating its staff and associates to allowing individual planners to take responsibility for their own career paths. And through responsibility, exert a greater voice in the decisions that affected their own work.

The third major change was to get rid of our reliance on the old notion of theater as a place to show plays and films. We went digital — and mobile. We are currently in this phase that is marked by connectivity, relying on existing networks, and collaborative, open-source thinking.

Conventional thinking might lead people to believe that creativity in its purist form is for people in the arts. Nancy Nersessian from Georgia Tech will likely talk about why she believes this isn’t true. I’d love to hear your take on what you think creativity means, and whom it belongs to.

 Richard Florida writes about the rise of the creative class — the newest, largest segment of society that sees its job as coming up with new approaches, solutions and ways of seeing the world. I think this is true, and cannot possibly be seen as merely an artistic phenomenon.

Computer programmers, marketing people, business strategists and others face the same challenges as screen writers and other artists who create worlds out of thin air. They rely on inspiration and ideas for their own success.

Lately, there is a big intersection where cultural artists and other creative people overlap. They are coming up with new ways to create work-models and approaches. They are creating new ways to assess the value of work and to define terms like “community” and “scope.”

Hopefully the arts will become more viable and sustainable through this, and non-artistic organizations will become more creative, original and fluid.

The outcomes of the changing dialogue are good for all those willing to continue their development. The changes will also strike fear into those who see change as threatening to their way of life. But like it or not, we live in the greatest period of change the world may have ever seen.

What role has technology played in what you do — especially right now, when social media, crowdsourcing, on-demand and online communities are so ubiquitous.

At every step of PushPush’s evolvement, the changes we’ve made have been prompted by the way our people use technology — both our audiences and our artists. The Internet and its social media have changed the way we create.

We founded PushPush in the 20th century as a bricks-and-mortar operation with a hierarchical infrastructure.

As for the bricks-and-mortar notion, we believe that artistic organizations can only maintain their own space with heavy subsidies, or by compromising their integrity and/or simply producing low-end marketable sweets for the masses.

Regarding the hierarchical notion, film and theater have mainly valued the “auteur-theory,” that argues for a single leader — nearly always a white male — to lead the rest with his artistic vision for nearly every aspect of a creative project. For generations, we justified the lack of diversity in a variety of ways, and held tight to the belief that things were changing.

In 2001, we found ourselves in a new century and for the first time more of our audiences were online than were not. They had access to information and choices. The person of the year was “Me.” More and more, we all had an immediate, connected, informed and active network of creative partners that wanted a stake in the results of their work.

We quickly moved from a small, local organization that served live, local audiences to one of the first theaters to bring digital technology into our programming on a daily basis. In ten short years, we have helped to develop 30 hybrid productions, 250 short films and 10 features, five of which have worldwide distribution.

Our bare-bones style and our mission to be an incubator of new ideas were helped enormously with the introduction of affordable HD digital technology. This affordability has also met well with our desire to be inclusive and diverse.

The technology changed our operating model which in turn, brought down the auteur, opening the door to more diverse voices and that has resulted in more work and a wider audience.

Social media has made the change possible allowing us to have active, daily partnerships with global partners and to share our work affordably, quickly and without the pressure of a large price tag.

Atlanta has received a lot of attention lately for brining movie filming to the area. What has it been like to have launched and grown your career in Atlanta?

I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of ups and downs in the film industry in Georgia. My first major production was ABC’s Breaking Away television series in 1979 and since that time, we have been through union struggles, economic declines and industry booms — and somehow ending with our current situation where tax credits and a world class infrastructure has made Atlanta a go-to city for the film industry.

I went to film and theater grad school in Georgia and I feel better now than at any point in the past three decades. We sit on a major challenge and opportunity. And that is whether we want to invest in Atlanta as a center of unique culture – whether we want to be the creative voice, or continue to produce work created elsewhere.

Atlanta has a younger cultural scene than most other cities and we are changing faster than nearly any comparable city in the United States. We have a unique opportunity to invest in our own creative voices that can speak to the world about the biggest issues of our time.

It’s going to take courage. Moving forward from the oft-told stories of civil rights and the civil war. Moving forward from southern stereotypes and backward humor and using our unique experiences to tackle the current issues.

What project(s) are you working on right now?

PushPush is currently producing a follow up to our biggest production to date, SeeThrough, an interactive audience experience involving over 30 of Atlanta’s most promising visual artists. SeeThrough also includes a performance event and 10 of Atlanta’s new musical groups.

We are also creating a new work, Worth, about how we perceive time in our daily lives. Based on some of the newest ideas in physics and biology, Worth is about how we create truly new ideas and how we can act on this creative thinking. This is a follow up to our last touring partnership with LA’s Padua Writers Group and Berlin’s Ballhaus Ost.

Our biggest project right now is GRFX (pronounced “graphics”), funded by The National Endowment for the Arts’ New Media Program. This project is a serialized television story about a struggling comic book company. GRFX hopes to provide a new way to distribute original Atlanta work on a global scale as well as serving as a world-class discussion of creativity itself.

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