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On Collaboration

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Thanks for joining us for Teaching Theatre. On this episode, we’ll be talking about collaboration with Padraic Lillis and Jenn Goff. Jenn Goff is the chair of the theatre program at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. An actor, director, improviser, dramaturg, scholar, and cat mom, Jenn’s research focuses on contemporary comic women playwrights, as well as comic and feminist theory more broadly. She earned her BA from the University of Portland, her MA from the University of South Carolina, and her PhD from Wayne State University. She’s a co-founder of the Distracted Globe Theatre Company, as well as Etudes, online journal for emerging scholars in theatre. Welcome, Jenn.

Jenn Goff: Hi, Elyzabeth.

Elyzabeth: And we have Padraic Lillis, the founding artistic director of the Farm Theater. He’s a writer, director, and teacher. He hosts The Farm Theater’s podcast, Bullpen Sessions. He’s a company member of the LAByrinth Theater Company and a lifelong Yankees fan.

Padraic Lillis: Hey, Elyzabeth. Well, thanks for having us.

Elyzabeth: Thank you, guys, so much for being with us today. When we started this project, I knew that we had to do an episode on collaboration because theatre is, at its core, a collaborative art. I wanted to start, actually, with Padraic. You run an organization, the Farm Theater, that gives theatre departments an opportunity to collaborate with a playwright to create a new play. And Jenn, you’ve directed one of these projects. So I wanted to start by inviting Padraic to just sort of give us an overview of how that project works, because I think it’s a really wonderful program that is unique in what it offers theatre programs. So could you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?

Padraic: I will. The Farm Theater goal is to cultivate early career artists through workshop productions and mentoring, and our main program is the College Collaboration Project, which, in partnership with three colleges, three theatre programs, we commission an early career playwright. We pick the playwright. The playwright has to have a voice that is able to write for young people, and by that, I define thirty years and younger so that undergraduate actors can respectfully achieve it.

And also they have to have something they want to write and work on for a year because they’re going to develop it over that academic year and be in conversation with the students about. And when we started, the first thing, once we picked the playwright and the theme they’re interested in writing in, we set up a Zoom, before Zoom was cool—because its in its tenth year—conversation with students from each of the schools, just so that the playwright can hear how college-age students are thinking about the topic they’re interested in writing about. And using those dramaturgical resources, the playwright is writing their play. They’re not writing for the specific students that they’re talking to, but they’re engaging everyone in a conversation about the theme.

After that conversation, which takes place usually like February-August, which just happened, we had our three-day workshop of the first draft of the script. We bring in professional actors in New York around the table, the schools, faculty, and representatives. Some students will come. Everyone in the room is participating in the development of the script over three days. And then the playwright from all that information in mining may rewrite the three days, but will rewrite from what they learned during that workshop. Send the draft to all the schools, but to the first school that’s doing the first production. They will start rehearsal, and the playwright goes to two days in-person to work with the students and the faculty in rehearsal process, rewriting, answering questions, asking questions, whatever they need.

Then, myself and the playwright see the production. What we learn from the production, the playwright rewrites again. Go to the second school, the third school. It is modeled after the National New Play Network’s rolling premiere except for its rolling development. And then at the end of the process, we will do a reading in New York that showcases the play and the project, and we’ll invite actors from each of the productions to come and do their part in the reading next to professional actors. And that’s how the program works.

And one of my goals when we talk about collaboration is that we’re going to grow the script. It’s going to get three productions. They’re going to have the collaboration, but it’s really about growing artists and recognizing how important your voice is and strengthening the voice.

Elyzabeth: One of the things that I love about the program is it really is collaboration at its best because you have an opportunity to have a playwright in the room with a director and these students who are young actors, so everyone has an opportunity to work together. So Jenn, you are a director and a teacher, so how do you teach collaboration?

Jenn: Oh, well, it’s sort of fundamental to everything that I try to teach. Even in history and literature classes, I do collaborative exams because I think it’s important that theatre students just come to tasks with this collaborative mindset. And so an opportunity like this program where we’re able to see the script as collaborative in a way that students don’t always get to see. Scripts are those beautiful finished things that we get in nice bindings and they’re unapproachable a lot of the time. And so we get a chance to sort of use a project like this for students to see a script as something that they are directly impacting and that they might even consider themselves capable of doing someday because it’s not some unapproachable monolith, it’s something that all the artists are taking part in and all the artists are building together.

And I think that that’s really, really an exciting thing that I’ve never gotten to do with any other teaching experience. Because certainly we want them all to be in the room together and learning how to tell a story together. And this college collaboration project really furthers that experience of collaboration.

Elyzabeth: I also really love that it gives students an opportunity to learn a very specific vocabulary in terms of how to communicate with a writer, how to communicate with a director so that when they go out into the professional world, they have those skills because this is the kind of opportunity that most students don’t have until they leave college.

Padraic: I want to just talk about that because we just did the three-day workshop, and on the second day we had thirty people in the room. We had fifteen students, along with faculty and the cast and the playwright. And it was great to remind them, I said, “We’d love to hear what is interesting to you and also what questions you have,” because I found young artists wanting to solve it, and I’m like, “You don’t have to find the solution. First of all, we’re on day one of a yearlong project, so your solution is... Even the playwright’s solution is not going to be the solution a year from now. So let’s not spend time there, just what are your questions? What’s it provoking in you? What are you excited about?”

And also to model the idea of the actor committing to their job of acting also helps to clarify for the playwright what’s working and not working. And so everybody... But it was interesting just when you said it, it sparked that moment because I was like, “Right, we’re all coming to it and we’re happy to hear ideas, but you don’t have to find the solution. You just participate in the conversation.”

Elyzabeth: So what are some of the challenges that you see students struggle with in the collaborative process?

Jenn: I think one of the big challenges I often experience with my students is the desire to be right. They want to make sure they’re getting the right answer, and they don’t want to take the risks it takes to potentially find something that’s more exciting and more engaging. And that being open to a collaborative process where you can’t necessarily control the outcome is very, very scary when you want the right answer. I think students are... We joke a lot about group projects because group projects are infamously terrible, but theatre is a group project no matter what. And so I think getting students out of the sort of fear of vulnerability that comes with putting the fate of your project into the collective hand is a challenge.

Elyzabeth: I like that you said that students want to have the right answer. And I think that a lot of students really struggle with that. And of course, as artists there is no right answer. It’s all so subjective. And so many students really struggle to let go of that. Padraic, what do you see when you get in the room with students?

Padraic: Well, that’s one of them is the right, but also that willingness to... The right thing is absolutely it, but also willingness not only to be wrong, make mistakes, but to fully be able to look at it from another point of view. Because there’s a lot of times where you’ll hear early on when you’re talking about a play and a character, “Well, I wouldn’t do that.” And you’re like, “Right, right, right.” But let’s figure out why this person would do that. Because it may not make sense and it may need to be explored. Is this the action, and does it make sense in the story?

But a lot of times it’s getting them to... You want them to bring their life experience to it, but also you want them to look at it from, what if it’s another perspective? And when they can do that and open it up, it becomes very exciting because you love them to bring their own perspective, but you also want them be... I want them to challenge the room, but also be challenged themselves and allow themselves that.

So I find those what it is, the being right and also the “I wouldn’t.” And it’s also like don’t ever—I was about to put the negative on—but try to be open to the positive and no limitations because there’s always the... We just, like Jenn said, we came from the three-day workshop, and it’s so interesting when they’re talking about the end of the play and the impact it’s going to have on the audience, and they want to control that. And you’re like, “Let it go and see what the character needs and see what the story is and let it flow and be open, open as opposed to putting a cap and limitation on something.” I loved when Jenn said something they can control.

And it’s exciting through this project watching it over the years that you do watch the play grow, and you watch the students recognize how much it grew and how much it grew through their contribution. And then when it’s getting done, they’re like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know that was possible.” And I think that’s exciting, but those are the barriers at first.

Elyzabeth: Stepping away from the Farm Project specifically, I wanted to talk a little bit about devising because so many more people are focusing on devising within their theatre programs. How do you think devising has changed the way we approach collaboration?

Jenn: That’s such an interesting question. I’m an improviser. I’ve been an improviser for about twenty years, and that’s one of those things that I think people are terrified of storytelling that they don’t know the destination when they get there. It can be really terrifying for people to walk in and say, “We’re going to tell a story, and we don’t know any of the ingredients.”

But I also sometimes find that that ends up making the journey all that more exciting and personal to the creators. It’s again sort of democratizing the process of playwriting that it doesn’t just belong to this person in this room with a typewriter who writes all day and then sends us this perfect finished thing. It makes writing belong to everyone, and it makes storytelling belong to everyone. And I think it’s intimidating for sure because we are very used to being told that we’re in our silos. “I am an actor.” “I’m a designer.” “I’m a director.” “I’m a playwright.” And devising asks us all to be all of those things and understand all of those things. And that’s where I think that theatre training has to make sure that students understand all the pieces of theatre and can speak all those languages because you can’t devise, you can’t effectively collaborate, if you don’t know how to speak to everybody else in the room.

Elyzabeth: Those are all great points. One of the things that has come up in some of our previous conversations has also been sort of who’s in charge. It’s this collaborative process, but who is in charge in that situation? We are all collaborators, we all have a stake in this, but is there someone actually running the ship? And different people have had different thoughts on what the answer to that is. Do you guys have any thoughts on that?

Padraic: I have thoughts on it. I have thoughts on it, and it’s very serious. I have a hard time. I think that’s an important question. Even when we’re devising, it’s a very... When I think about play development in the workshop we did, and the first time you’re working on a playwright’s play, I think it’s important to have a director-dramaturg facilitating the conversation. So technically they’re leading the room, but you’re serving the playwright and you’re asking the playwright, you’re in the conversation with them: “What do you want to achieve? What do you want to hear? How do you want to go? Here’s ways to go about it.” And making sure that you’re serving them.

And it was actually exciting these past three days. We did for the first real time that I remember having actors improv a scene and then giving the context and information that we wanted the two characters to have. And that was useful, but it was important to have somebody facilitating the room so that the playwright could... They’re serving a play, they’re hearing it.

And when I think about devising, I love that Jenn said it was the thing about everybody understanding the roles and language and conversation. I think it is valuable that there’s somebody, somebody, I don’t think it has to be the “director,” but somebody’s facilitating it because I think what’s really... And somebody else who’s paying attention to record it. They’re not writing their script, but they’re recording the information. Because one of the things you need to do in any, what I believe is important in any collaboration is to create a safe environment so that people can fully commit to what you’re asking them to do, like that improv, so they can make mistakes, so they can try something, and so they don’t have to watch themselves or listen to themselves. So you have somebody outside creating that space for the people to go into it. And there’s somebody else on the outside saying, “Oh, that was really when I heard this, or I saw that.” And then we can talk about it afterwards, but create the environment where you’re not self-conscious while you’re creating it.

Elyzabeth: So another question I have is COVID really changed the way we made theatre because we couldn’t be together in the same way. Have you seen a change in the way students approach collaboration since the pandemic? Has it changed the way they collaborate? Has it changed the way they communicate with one another, with the way they interact with one another?

Jenn: The short answer is definitely yes. I remember the first show that we did live back from COVID, we were still rehearsing masks, but we were able to perform without masks. And the first day they took off masks, they couldn’t stop staring at each other’s mouths because they just weren’t used to seeing them.

And I do think that we talk a lot about the power of screens and the ways in which people pull away from each other when we’re all buried in our little screens, and we had to live in screens for two years. And I do think that that’s been a bit of a challenge for some of our students. But I also think that a lot of them have come back from it really hungry to collaborate, to be in a room and to do something real. So they may not necessarily have had the complete time in high school where they got to do all the school plays and really learn how that works and then keep moving forward. So they might come in with fewer hard skills on collaboration, but they want to do it. They really want to, and they know that they’ve missed out, and they want to make it happen, which is exciting.

Padraic: Yeah, they want to be in the... You’re right, they want to be in the room. But I also want to say one of the things that I have to get patience for because I’m old is the thing that the pandemic did I thought was great is finding different forms of communicating. And so in a rehearsal... Before COVID, when we were around the table, you would want everybody to be present and maybe have a notebook or something. And not just technology laptops are up, but people taking notes on their phone or sending a text. And realizing they’re not distracted because of Zooming for so long, they got used to putting something in chat or sending somebody a text about something and you realize if it’s a healthy room, they’re sharing ideas different ways.

And I thought, “Oh, that came out of this, and I think it’s useful.” It’s useful for me to be aware that that’s happening and that it’s not not productive, it’s a different way of sharing ideas. And some people are better at writing it in chat or that equivalent of whatever that is than speaking up maybe. And it’s really I found ways for different conversations to happen in a room, which is exciting, because I’d like it all to be in a circle and take time and one person at a time speak, but more information gets shared.

Elyzabeth: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about that. The work that you do at the Farm is very specific. It’s a very specific process.

Jenn, what skills did you see your students take away from that experience?

Jenn: Definitely they really grow in their ability to analyze and talk critically about story and about character. I’ve directed two Farm shows now, and the first one was John Proctor Is the Villain. And we were the first school to do it. And when we first got the script, there were a couple of pages that said things like, “something awesome happens.” And it was great because the students really got to see their impact on the script as it went along. And there were scenes that were written after she met our actors, and there were lines that were delivered for the very first time by these twenty-year-old actors who now they look at that script and see themselves in these conversations and see how analyzing something isn’t just an exercise in English class, it’s very actionable, and that they can see that their ideas play out in very real artistic ways. That was really cool.

Elyzabeth: Padraic, what do you see students take away from the collaborative process?

Padraic: I see what Jenn said is I make a comment that I think it’s Miracle Grow for students because they recognize... I think it’s, and I’m going to say Miracle Grow again for them because it is. They see the impact that their artistry has. And when you talk about doing a play that’s published and done and you’re getting the tools of... When we’ve had students do everything, students have directed, designed, stage managed, and acted. But you’re sort of solving a problem of this published play, and you’re learning the tools of acting. But then when you realize that artistry is about using those tools for your voice, for you to express something, for you to... And when you bring that and you realize that what Jenn said, and Kimberly I just talked about her play, there’d be like six lines on a page and then “something awesome happens here” or the equivalent. And then you realize that how you said a line, what you brought to it, your personal artistry impacted that, and that play will be changed forever.

You watch their confidence just grow because they realize they matter and they’re not just learning how to act or trying to be Romeo for the first time, or if it’s been done for five hundred years, and do I get it right? They’re like, “Oh, I’m breathing life into something that’s never been given life to before.” And so I do, I watch them whenever I... We just met around the table in August, and when I see them, the same kids in June, yes, they’re a year older, but they’re so much more confident in the process all the time. And I find that to be the truth with all the kids who do the collaboration.

Elyzabeth: So, we’ve talked a lot about the actor-playwright-director-collaboration. How do you pull in your designers? How did they become part of this process?

Jenn: Yeah. Definitely the designers are a major part of the collaboration. Certainly we usually have at least one faculty designer, if not more, but then also student designers who are a part of it. And so there’s the sort of teaching them how to plan ahead the way you need to as a designer while also planning flexibility, because it’s a new plan, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

And they are definitely going to be present when the playwright is on campus. They’re going to be invited to and present in rehearsals when they can be because they need to... I don’t like when we get back to those silos I talked about, this notion that somehow the designers are separate from the process, that they are building a world alongside everybody else. We’re building it together, and so they have to be able to ask questions of the playwright.

We had the second play that I did as part of The Farm with Dipti Bramhandkar, who is this year’s playwright. She had a lot of really specific music in her script that our student sound designer could not wrap her brain around. And they spent so much time together talking about why this song and what does it mean and listen to the lyrics and listen to the beat and, “Oh, what else could fit along that?” And building this whole sonic world because she was empowered to ask the playwright questions and to bring her own creativity to the process. So really cool.

Padraic: Glad you mentioned it because that was the collaboration I was thinking about because the first response. It was also learning how that collaboration happened. Because at first it was like, “We wouldn’t listen to that song,” that limitation. And then when it became asking questions of what is it? What can it be? Why is it? And then it gives you opportunities like, “Oh, okay, if it’s that, then what if it’s this?” And it was really great.

And such a simple... I was thinking about that play for some reason because also the costume designer, I think, was a student and the people had to mature over a year, but it wasn’t about a year’s maturing. It’s called soft launch because it was the first year out of college and sort of finding your traction. At the end of the play, somebody has really taken a large step, and I thought, “Wow, they all look like they’re five, six years older in this simple thing.” And it’s like, “Oh, that person understood the journey of the play, and they were really engaged in what their job was for the end.” And I thought both of those student collaborations were because they were part of the whole and listening throughout and being in conversation. But it’s bringing them in as early as possible. I would like them to be around the table when we’re doing the first read for the year because they always start to think about how the story is going to be told physically.

Elyzabeth: So how do you think the collaborative process can help us through this moment of crisis that we’re in in the American theatre?

Padraic: There’s a couple of moments. There’s a moment of crisis in an absence of audience, and there’s absence of funding, and then there’s also important social change that’s happening in theatre. And I’m wondering when you say “crisis,” which one do you want me to think about? Because I don’t think the cultural change is a crisis. I think that’s for the better.

Elyzabeth: Definitely. Let’s think about it in terms of the crisis of our audiences and our funding because I think that’s the thing that is threatening our livelihood.

What we’re doing for our art is training students to be people who think about the way that the things that they say interact with and impact the people around them and how they can hear what other people need and value and what matters to them.

Padraic: Talk about one of the goals for the college collab is when we picked the playwright and I say, “Pick a theme that you’re interested in writing about,” it’s something I think undergraduates will be interested in having a conversation about. And when we get in the room for the three days, they’re having a conversation. Then when you’re in rehearsal and designers, and then we ask, and Centre College is a great partner with this, to reach out to, when we did John Proctor Is the Villain is about the #MeToo movement, counseling centers; and they start to have a conversation, and it becomes wider. And then of course the audience used the play, and the conversation gets wider.

And as it goes from community to community. Conversation keeps growing and growing and including more people. And I think what we want to remember is we tell the stories of theatre because we’re sharing ourselves; and if we’re fully sharing ourselves with a purpose, we’re not only asking the audience to listen, but we’re also listening back. It’s a conversation. And as long as we keep engaging them in the conversation and for a purpose of what we think is important, and what I think is important is our humanity. Not that we’re going to the theatre to lecture, but we’re going to examine. We’re going to talk about my humanness in this, around this theme, around this issue, around what makes it hard for me, what makes it exciting for me, and then hearing back from them about what resonates with them.

And I think if we can... That’s collaboration and it’s an inclusive conversation. And I think when we do that, and I think right now when we talk about building our audience back, I mean, I’m happy that Broadway is alive and well, but I think one of the ways we’re going to have to keep doing it is building an intimate audience and inviting them in for personal experiences. When we talked about the pandemic and being on screens, people wanted that connection. So as I talked holistically about the conversation, it’s building it intimately, building it personally, really listening to the audience, knowing that they’re valued, their experience with what they saw is important.

And then when you’re going to funders, it is sharing that, being like, “Here’s why it’s important. Here’s the conversation I had, and here’s the impact I heard.” And donors respond to that. They want a stronger community, and they want value. And what’s the value is people felt valued and they felt heard, and they felt seen. And so I think that’s the spirit of keeping the collaboration continuing from production to the audience, that that’s still collaborative.

Jenn: Yeah, I completely agree with Padraic’s discussion of the audience as part of the collaboration. We traditionally have treated the audience as if they are receivers of something, but it’s not even a performance until they’re there. And so really there’s the sort of what we’re doing for our art is training students to be people who think about the way that the things that they say interact with and impact the people around them and how they can hear what other people need and value and what matters to them. And I think that goes beyond their impact on the theatrical crisis as well, that the sort of global inability to connect with each other. Collaboration is at the heart of any solutions to that, that we have to learn how to communicate and listen and be vulnerable and share, and that it’s a worldview. It’s a way of making meaning. It’s not just a way of making art. And so that’s why I think that collaboration is necessary.

Padraic: What Jenn said made me remind me of when you said we’re making people. It’s like, “Right.” And I think what’s valuable about the process of collaboration in the room is if you learn to listen and you learn to understand other perspectives, you learn the value you bring. Whether those students or any of the artists in the room continue to make theatre or not, doesn’t matter. What matters is that they understand that they bring value into the world and that the other people in the room bring value to the world, and then they continue to build off of that into whatever direction they go in their life.

Elyzabeth: And I think as educators, that’s ultimately what we want for our students, that they can go out into the world and that they can be good collaborators, whether that’s as a theatre artist or in any other field that they decide to go into. Right?

Padraic: Yeah.

Elyzabeth: That these skills translate into so many other things.

Thanks, you guys, for being here today. It was lovely to talk to both of you.

Padraic: So great to talk to you.

Jenn: Yeah, this was fun.

Elyzabeth: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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