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Some Thoughts on Collaboration

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I’ve started to worry that we are making too much theatre without attending to the notion that it’s a collaborative art form.

For anyone who knows me, they know I talk a lot about Lynette, my partner in life these last fourteen years. In part that’s because I’m a bit of a sap but it’s also because our relationship is my longest creative collaboration. In a global sense relationships are always a creative collaboration. Figuring out how to understand another’s sense of housekeeping or money management requires a tremendous amount of imagination. But in this case, Lynette has been a true collaborator. I read her fiction and though she has better editors, I’m a pretty decent stand-in in a pinch. She edits HowlRound and has been writing copy and editing every print publication that I’ve been associated with in my career since the beginning. In fact, we started dating my first week on the job at the Playwrights’ Center. I talk to her about everything I’m doing artistically and she does the same with me. We share an aesthetic but have our best discussions in those rare moments she loves something I hate or vice versa. I think of our collaboration as my ideal and strive for it in other artistic collaborations.

 

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If your soul desires so deeply the act of creation that it chooses that desire over pretty much everything else, then how can we possibly imagine creating in spaces where trust and love are absent?

 

Here are some things I’ve learned about good collaborators from Lynette:

It’s necessary for collaborators to see things differently.
I learned in college that between the objective facts of birth and death, everything that we attempt to account for in between falls into the subjective. Lynette and I have a completely different subjective experience of reality. I see the forest and Lynette sees the trees. The difference in our actual visual perceptions was never more apparent than when we bought our first house together. I saw the beauty of the frame, and the Victorian reference points and she saw the beauty in the subtle cracks of the original plaster walls. She saw too much shade for a potential garden underneath the overgrown elms and I saw privacy and cool backyard breezes. Strangely, my sense of the whole and her sense of the parts made it possible to ultimately agree on one place that could bring together our divergent visions for a suitable home for both of us.

The ability to fight it out, to argue within an inch of each other’s emotional well-being will ultimately lead to a better creation.
Lynette and I are both Italian and we’re both hotheads. Our fights scared and drove off many of our Minnesota-nice friends. But they have only drawn us closer over the years. Our fights are most often completely irrational because let’s admit it, emotions tend to be irrational more often than not. We had one of our biggest brawls in the backyard in earshot of neighbors over which canned tomato sauce to use. Neither of us believed in canned tomato sauce but in the dead of a Minnesota winter without a fresh vegetable in sight on a Sunday morning when the Italian deli was closed would you choose Hunt’s or Contadina? My mother chose Hunts. Hers Contadina. But sauce aside, Lynette is my harshest creative critic and when I want true and sometimes brutal feedback, she’s willing to give it. My work and my person are better as a result of the honesty and emotion we bring to our collaboration.

Collaborators have to have fundamental points of connection. Things that they agree upon spiritually and conceptually.
Perhaps it’s because we both were raised with strong Italian mothers but Lynette and I share a worldview that maintains certain principals that can’t be compromised. Family comes first and loyalty trumps right and wrong. We stand by the people we love in the best and worst of times. Food is central to all interactions. It’s a sin to ask someone into your home and not feed them. There’s always enough to feed one more so when you come over, feel free to bring a friend. Money is nice because it means you can do more for family and friends. Curiosity pumps blood to the heart. There’s always another book to read, play to see, museum to wander through, city to visit, trail to hike. Art is never finished just periodically suspended in time.

Love is essential to all collaboration.
It’s insane to think that you can see the world differently, fight with passion and a desire to win, and share core beliefs without committing to love. If your soul desires so deeply the act of creation that it chooses that desire over pretty much everything else, then how can we possibly imagine creating in spaces where trust and love are absent? Loving Lynette has given me all kinds of creative courage. We both love art and theatre that disrupts, that lives at the margins, that challenges cultural norms, that is aesthetically complicated. We love risk in form and content. Very little of what we love is commercially viable. The very queer form our love takes is a threat to the status quo. In a world that is pushing us away from art, imagination, and creativity—well, only love can conquer all.

I look around at how so many of our institutions are making art—jobbing in collaborators, pairing playwrights with directors they’ve never met, creating theatre like a business proposition. Perhaps we need to think a whole lot more about whether we truly believe theatre is a collaborative art form.

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Polly,this is amazing!! I love it.. I am a blast from your pastwas in yellowstone this week with my kids and thought of youI would love to be in touch but dont do facebookdo you have email?Jo Kelly

“I sometimes think that the act of bringing food is one of the basic roots of all relationships.” -- H.H. The Dalai Lama

One of the finest experiences I have ever had at a theater conference was at UCSD a few years ago for their Baldwin New Play Festival. I was coming as a playwright from another university and what brought the whole experience together for me was not the reading of my play during the festival, but all of the deliberate meals organized throughout the long weekend. At some point I had sat down and eaten a meal with every conference contributor and guest. Lunches were intimate, with two or three at small places around La Jolla, while dinners were eight to twelve around a big table. I asked about this meal-planning and the organizers admitted that it was a lot of extra work, but that it was important for all of the participants to meet like this.

In my own small, active community - the best times we have together are in the theater followed by all of us heading to The Dutch Tavern (a pre-colonial vestige with tin ceilings where ONeill used to hang-out) or some other out of the way location. The bi-weekly playwright's group that I co-ran for 12+ years also had an after-meeting component that often outshone the meeting itself.

Gathering around tables, arguing over beer, letting outrageous ideas out, is a potent action and one that deepens the collaboration. How we spend the time we don't have to be together is an interesting thing to observe.

I really loved this, Polly, for the way it speaks to all of our collaborative relationships in life and art and how they merge. A student in screenwriting recently asked me how to get through the desert of the "middle passage" of his script, that that middle 60 pages or so felt like a huge desert to cross, he was lost, bewildered, in the dark. And I said, "Relationships. Relationships are what's gonna get you through. What happens between the characters in your story will help you find your way in the dark." In art as in life. The messy beautiful collaboration.

p.s. still chewing on the convening ... sent you and David some thoughts ... wondering how to continue all those conversations ...

There's a lot of beauty to take away from this, but I'm choosing to interpret it as an open invitation to dinner if ever I'm in your neighborhood... : )