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The Language of Collaboration

This blog is a companion piece to Michael Elyanow's recent article, "The Value of Collaboration."

The most rewarding feelings in life are often results of experiences we have to slog through. We climb the mountain because it is, in fact, a challenge. We set out on such quests with thoughts of accomplishment or expansion, knowing they will be difficult but assuming that we’re capable of weathering the challenges. We complain and feel stressed, and sometimes we don’t succeed. But if we do, the pain feels completely “worth it.” We wouldn’t feel successful without the degree of difficulty each quest demands.

All of us in the theater love to talk about collaboration. We say we embrace it, or maybe it’s why we do what we do. One thing is for certain—we can’t make theater without it. Collaboration at Boston Court begins with asking deep questions about a script. With two artistic directors and two literary managers, all of whom think dramaturgically, we have internal investigative discussions in order to sort through our own questions and then come to a playwright with those questions distilled and focused. We know these questions are hard. We know we’re asking playwrights to turn back analytically towards something they created emotionally. We recognize—because we are playwrights ourselves—that we’re asking writers to objectively see characters that have become people and plots that have become life stories. And we know it’s both excruciating and nearly impossible. So when I hear people expound on the joys of collaboration, I know that there is a high degree of difficulty implicit in that joy.

By the time a play gets to our stages, it has usually been through enough development to exhaust the playwright. It’s how the system—like it or not—currently works. But it’s important to us that the first production (and sometimes the second or third) is seen as part of the development process, rather than the prize that comes at the end. We have expectations that a play will continue to evolve and grow, without having set ideas about what that looks like.

 

All of us in the theater love to talk about collaboration. We say we embrace it, or maybe it’s why we do what we do. One thing is for certain—we can’t make theater without it. 

 

When collaboration goes right it comes out of a respect for the work combined with a happy coincidence of chemistry. Michael Elyanow, Jessica Kubzansky, and I worked well together for several reasons. First, we honored the script above all else. Easier said than done sometimes, particularly for the playwright who has to separate from his work and weed out personal attachments. (I use “his” specifically in speaking about this experience with Michael.) I don’t mean to imply that he should abdicate ownership or not fight for His Play as he sees it. But the playwright has the task of stepping out from behind his words, his illusion, and showing us how the magic works. No one likes revealing the trick. It makes our work naked and flat. And from the other side, the director and the dramaturg have to resist ownership. We have ideas and projections and perhaps even an unconscious agenda that we must shunt in order to be sure we understand a script from the playwright’s point of view. We must all agree to start from the same place. To state the obvious, we theater makers are full of ego. So to look at a script without the “I” attached, no matter what role we play, requires effort, diplomacy, and compromise.

When Jessica and I had the dinner with Michael in which we investigated the role of the shape-shifting sheriff, we were delighted to understand Michael’s intention. We were also able to communicate to him that because this character responded to different rules than the other characters, we would have audience members who might be confused or dissatisfied. But we three agreed to the logic of it, committed to the truth of it, and interpreted it for designers, actors, and audience. And indeed, we did hear from some people who expressed confusion, much as we also heard from people who were moved and transported. But we understood and presented the play from the same place, and so our blueprint for the production could stand firm.

Actors in a living room set
The Children at Pillsbury House Theatre

Our collaboration felt easy mostly because we made the effort and removed the ego. It doesn’t always work that way. Different personalities bounce off each project in a variety of surprising ways. And this is not to say that this collaboration—or any other—was necessarily easy. It was only because we were willing to ask the difficult questions, do the deep thinking, and parse the complex answers that we could find the joy within the challenge of it. The collaboration involved in moving a script onto the stage demands asking the most difficult questions in a language everyone can understand.

Many moons ago, when I trekked mountains in Nepal, I remember that I was given the advice to never ask yes or no questions when asking for directions. The people living in the small mountain villages felt it was impolite to say “no,” so if you said, “Is this the right path?” they would always say “yes,” even if it wasn’t. Instead, through whatever gesticulations necessary to bridge the language gap, you learned to ask “How do I get to…” or “Where is…” or simply “I’m lost. Can you help me?” Hard questions to ask when you’re used to knowing your own directions in your own language, but necessary if you’re going to find your way to the peak and back down again.

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Eloquence, truth, love and respect..... “How do I get to…” or “Where is…” or simply “I’m lost. Can you help me?” Hard questions to ask when you’re used to knowing your own directions in your own language, but necessary if you’re going to find your way to the peak and back down again.