It’s been more than 30 years since Microsoft PowerPoint made its debut, aiding scores of professionals in delivering presentations backed by bullet points, charts, and animated transitions. Some people love the software, while others loathe it. But likely few would argue that the familiar “data-on-slide” template is due for a refresh.
Enter Stuart Flack, a Chicago-based playwright, producer, social entrepreneur, and policy researcher who is reimagining data visualization, turning it into a theatrical performance and teaching students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to do the same.
“There may have been a time when a PowerPoint presentation was thrilling and exciting because we had never seen it before. We’re way past that point,” says Flack in a recent Capital Times interview. “Part of the class [I’m teaching] is being spent exploring ways of making [data] engaging. If you’re creative and you know what you’re doing and you push the edge, you can be very exciting with this. It’s part of the mission of an artist, to communicate, to enliven.”
Flack’s work on campus comes through his appointment as the Fall 2018 Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence, presented by the Division of the Arts and hosted by the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the Wisconsin School of Business. Co-sponsors include the Design Studies Department, WARF, and the Wisconsin Union Theater.
Stuart Flack’s presence signals our expansive vision for business education and the pioneering approaches we take in pursuit of innovation.
–Angela Richardson, WSB Aesthetics and Business Project Coordinator
“Stuart’s residency marks the first time that the Wisconsin School of Business has hosted an interdisciplinary artist in residence in the program’s 20 year history,” says Angela Richardson, WSB Aesthetics and Business Project Coordinator. “It has been exciting to collaborate with partners across campus to integrate disciplines such as business, social sciences, and the arts in ways we haven’t seen before.”
Flack is teaching a course titled “Performing Information: Exploring Data Through Live Performance” for undergraduate and graduate students from many fields of study. The class blends reading, discussion, and data analysis with workshops that allow students to apply and test their thinking. These workshops are led by practitioners in dance, clowning, and dramaturgy, among others, who teach students techniques for developing information-driven performance.
For Nick Pjevach (MBA ’19), taking Flack’s course has been an intriguing complement to his core MBA curriculum.
“There is surely cognitive dissonance which stems from performing clown techniques a few doors down from where I once studied financial accounting, but this tension has made me reflect on how to make everything more fun,” observes Pjevach. “Play—as a process of joyous exploration—is so important, especially when trying to tackle difficult problems.”
The class takes place in one of the active learning classrooms in WSB’s new Learning Commons, which offers flexible space that Flack can adapt for the needs of the curriculum on any given week. For example, one week he cleared the room entirely of furniture to create ample space for the physical demands of a theatrical performance activity.
“This class would not be the same in a more traditional classroom environment,” notes Flack. “The active learning classroom inspires creativity, exploration, and collaboration in a way that really brings the student experience to life.”
For Flack, the opportunity to create this course is meaningful, offering chances not just to teach his students, but to learn from them as well.
“This class is like a lab for me,” says Flack. “In working with these students, I find myself better able to understand this concept and to continually think about new and unconventional ways of presenting information in a professional setting. This experience will definitely help inform my future work.”
In addition to his work in the classroom, Flack collaborated on a data visualization project as part of the Wisconsin Science Festival and has participated in many events across campus and throughout Madison—including lunch and learns, playwriting workshops, and public lectures.
“One of the benefits of the Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program is that the hosting institution gets to share its visiting artist with the public,” notes Richardson. “As Stuart engages with other audiences, WSB forges new campus and community connections. His presence signals our expansive vision for business education and the pioneering approaches we take in pursuit of innovation.”
See Students In Action
Students in Flack’s Performing Information course will present a public performance, “Data Vaudevilles: Bits and Bytes,” on Saturday, December 8 from 2-3 p.m. at UW–Madison’s