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What I Mean When I Talk About Collaboration

It is a truism that all theatre is collaborative; the community aspect is a huge reason why so many of us do it. But I often find myself facing the reality that a large segment of the institutional American theatre is set up in ways that limit, constrict, or otherwise thwart true collaboration.

This essay is not meant to be a complaint. I want to celebrate the idea of theatre as a collective creation, and to question our celebration of the cult of the individual to the exclusion of the idea of collective authorship.

Which is not to say that there is not a large and bright constellation of individual voices that light up our theatrical universe. But I think our theatre needs both individualism and collectivity. And I want us to strive to create spaces and models where true collaborative creation can take place.

What do I mean by this, by “true collaborative creation”? I mean the model—going back to the days of Molière and Shakespeare, and embodied today by Pig Iron, the Rude Mechs, the Civilians, and so many others—where a number of artists gather in a room to make something all together. A model where directors, dramaturges, designers, and actors are valued as co-creators, as part of a collective hive-brain of authors of a singular experience. To define by its opposite: not the model where a play gets written and then picked up by a theatre and assigned a director who is appointed to be the one who speaks to the actors, producers, and designers; and then cast with actors who may or may not be invested enough to not leave at any moment for a better gig, and then rehearsed for three point five weeks and then teched for three or four days by designers who had up until then visited rehearsal maybe two or three times (if you’re lucky).

I want to talk about the kind of collaboration where you choose the artists first, and they stick with it. Where everyone is committed, not because it’s a job, but because everyone has a creative, authorial stake in the project. You have artists and an idea, or a couple of ideas; an idea about a story or a theme or a style of performance you want to explore. And as a group you jump off a cliff and try lots of stuff.

An abstract illustration of black and grey orbs.
Original illustration by Skye Murie.

It’s hard to do. And hard to explain. What is it that I’m talking about?

It’s emotionally exhausting.

Because you have to be generous and selfish all at the same time. You have to listen harder than you’ve ever had to listen before, both to others and yourself. You have to take risks publicly. You have to be a part of a community. You have to participate in creating that community.

It kicks your ego in the ass.

A dirty secret about collaboration is that a lot of people don’t actually like it. They’re not cut out for it. It’s bad for your ego. Shit, it’s bad for my ego. You have to be simultaneously very humble and very outspoken in your ideas. Sometimes you have to share an idea and insist that other people try your idea—people you admire, people you look up to, people you think might be smarter and more talented and prettier than you. And then you have to be brave enough and clear enough regarding what you’re looking for (or, what you’re not looking for) to say that you were wrong, it was a terrible idea, let’s try something else. Or maybe there was a glimmer—a phrase tossed off by an actor clowning with an imaginary martini glass, or even just the way she waved that glass around—that points towards a style, or a character, or a scene. A motif, perhaps, or a moment in a collection of moments.

It’s expensive.

Because you have to get all those people in a room together. You have to pay those people, and pay for the room. Those of us who love working this way often do it for peanuts, or less; we pay ourselves and our collaborators out of our day-job-lined pockets, often turning down or not pursuing more lucrative opportunities in order to work in a process that feels true.

It’s time-consuming.

Because you—the collaborative team of artists—have to have time together. To dream together as a big loud noisy sweaty group. To discuss. To try things. On your feet, in three dimensions, not just as ideas on a page. And to fail together.

It’s sometimes self-produced.

And rarely supported by institutional theatres. Which is changing. Thank you, Actors Theatre of Louisville.

It’s never one thing or the same thing.

The piece you all are making is in a constant state of flux; change to one aspect of text or design or staging causes a chain reaction of changes in each of the other elements. It’s an exhilarating, thrilling, challenging, and inspiring way to work. Sometimes even the process itself changes as it is being made in response to other things changing.

It’s a learning experience.

You must be flexible, open, always learning, always humble. Always ready to admit that while you might know some things, there are also a hell of a lot of other things that you don’t know.

I want to talk about the kind of collaboration where you choose the artists first, and they stick with it. Where everyone is committed, not because it’s a job, but because everyone has a creative, authorial stake in the project.

It’s a laboratory.

Everything gets tried. Everything gets tried three ways. You put the idea up on its feet in the rehearsal room, and so everything is theatrical all of the time. Language exists in space. Characters have full bodies from the moment they are imagined into existence. Relationships exist in proximity, in gesture, in choreography. Storytelling can be silent or earsplitting. Rhythms are discovered and language written for the rhythm of the character, rather than the other way around. Design ideas emerge from how actors use the space, and character ideas develop from stuff that designers bring into the room early in the process. We use what’s in the room. That has always been true; it is one of the most significant values I inherited from Pig Iron—is it a Lecoq value, or a Chaikin value, or a Pig Iron original? In any case, it has stuck with me. Inside of me. I carry those people with me, wherever I go. Because when you work so closely, you become family.

It opens up the room to multiple creative voices.

Shakespeare wrote for an ensemble. Molière for his troupe. In turning playwriting into a solely literary form, centered on the cult of the individual, we have lost the blood and guts of dealing with the actors and the space you have right in front of you, the immediate necessity of writing for the groundlings in the stalls as well as the royals in the boxes. And we risk undervaluing their contribution—or, worse, not making the most of what and who is in the room: for me right now, it’s actors and designers, who I’m counting on to be equal authors and creators of pieces we think of as “ours.”

It breeds hybrid artists.

Writer-directors. Director-designers. Actor-director-designer-producers. Because what is at stake is the performance event, and you’re going to throw every ounce of your best self at the problem.

It makes you think about the audience more.

Because the play is coming out of a series of conversations you’re having with each other, at some point the audience becomes part of that conversation. Because you’re always working towards something, a performance; there is a deadline, you know that those people are going to (hopefully) buy those tickets and show up at your door. And that’s how it should feel: like you are welcoming them into your show. They are part of it now. You have made it for them.

It makes you part of the ensemble.

Although part of a playwright’s role inside the ensemble is to be a bit apart, to be the outside eye, to provoke, and to witness, you cannot stand outside of it. Writing for an ensemble is a mix of provocation and responsiveness. You provoke a conversation, and ideally you have surrounded yourself with people who can be provoked and who are also able to provoke smart people themselves. But then in the best cases, you have to sit back and watch for a while.

(Do I really? Sit back and watch? Is it okay to admit that that is part of what I do, part of how I do what I do?)

I took a break from writing in a collaborative method. I needed to hear the sound of my own voice. I thought I had lost the ability to sense and articulate my own ideas and vision. I didn’t even know if I had ideas or a vision. Writing collaboratively, I felt entirely responsive to my collaborators. At the time, I was a few years out of college and working with the Pig Iron Theatre Company and they were so fucking smart, so damn talented, it was all I could do to keep up with their wit and their beauty, to collect it all and to sift through it. And it turns out, years later, that part of my process, and part of my voice is responsive, collective. Sometimes I write, but sometimes I listen and collect and collate, sift and shape and sculpt. Sometimes the way to be a part of a conversation is to instigate, sometimes it is to provoke, and sometimes the best way is to listen.

It’s making it up as we go along.

A major piece of my work as a writer on a collaborative show is listening, absorbing, watching improvisations. Maybe the improvs are based on an idea the director had, an idea I had, or an idea of an actor or a designer. Maybe the improv is based on a scene or monologue I wrote; but more often, I write based on what happens in rehearsal. This moment in the process is terrifying for everyone—no one knows where it is all going to lead. No one yet knows what the play is, or what it should be or what it will be. But, together, you start to see it take shape. Everyone in the room feels it. You feel a click, a spark in the material, you say, “Yes! Like that! Or, not exactly like that, but something like that, something close.” The improv, the inventiveness, starts to become more deliberate, more directed, more specific. Let’s see that character again. Let’s see that character do something new. The provocations that we provide are more and more informed by what has come before in the room, and together we are all developing a language, a style, a show.

It’s a collective vision.

And what is happening is not a singular vision. It is a collective vision. And this is why I believe, fundamentally, that theater is utopian. Specifically, rehearsal is utopian. Where we can create a version of the world as we wish it was. (I stole that from Joseph Chaikin.)

It’s where we talk to one another.

Collaborating, we have to not just talk but actually communicate, to create something new in the world that wasn’t there before by communicating, by working together. I think of Ariane Mnouchkine’s company living together in a collective, really putting into action their ideals, eliding the utopian dreaming of the rehearsal room with the rest of the pedestrian world. That is an extreme version of what all rehearsals are, or should be: the place where we learn how to live with and for each other, to share a vision of the world as it is and how we wish it would be. Because we make the rehearsal room. It is ours. We write the rules, create the customs, the language, the process. It is up to us. The world is in our hands. We are making life. We are making theatre.

And because it is a collective vision, we can take on giant questions and themes, and have multiple perspectives. Collaboratively created work tends to have more layers, tends to have a denser texture. Which is why it is sometimes messy, cacophonous. Sometimes it feels muddy because everyone is trying to agree, or give equal weight to different ideas. But when it works, it is magical. When those layers and textures build on each other, and reveal aspects of each other which otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.

And yet it has a unity of vision.

This unity comes from the strength of having an outside eye that is still part of the collective, the ensemble—the director, the writer, the dramaturg, a dramaturgically-minded designer—the leader, the guide, the sifter, the problem-solver, the avid and rigorous collector of whimsy—and sometimes, the executioner, who cuts things. You know you’re really onto something when it feels like 99 percent of the best ideas wind up on the cutting room floor. That means you have the pulse of the thing at hand, and are following that logic as it breathes and gathers strength and comes to life.

Which is painful because in a collaborative process you’ve actually built and staged the thing, you didn’t just write it and watch the discarded draft flutter into a recycling bin—no, although that happens too—a group of actors memorized those pages and you all got together and staged it and then you ran the show and realized that thirty minutes need to be cut. Or, worse, only thirty minutes are working and worth keeping. And all that work around the thirty minutes gets discarded. It hurts. It’s disheartening. But it’s what makes the thing so good in the end. You don’t settle for mush. You don’t settle for maybe. You don’t settle for fine, or good-enough, or that’s-what-we-got. You don’t say yes to things you are adamantly opposed to. You compromise sometimes, but only if someone else believes in it more than you oppose it. Never for something that is weaker or inferior. (See? Collaboration as guide to life.) You will hardly ever find a solution to which everyone agrees right away. But you want to feel strongly. You want to be willing to burn a bridge and watch your own brilliant idea go down in flames.

It’s production-driven.

This is not a bad thing. You’re working together on making something; the goal puts pressure on you to make hard decisions even if you feel like you’re not ready. In the regular play development world, you are not supposed to be thinking about production—or at least not racing towards it at the starting gate. With collaborative processes, you kind of are. You build in a huge amount of time to explore, but eventually, you set a production date before the play is finished. Sometimes, long before it’s finished. You trust that you will get there. And people (producers, funders) have to trust that you’ll get there too.

That’s another reason why it’s hard to get institutional support.

There is literally no way to guarantee anything about what they’re signing on for.

Even in the crucible of the HARP residency (and HERE is an extraordinary supporter of collaborations and an advocate for taking as long as three years to develop a project), you know that you are headed towards production, either at HERE or elsewhere. I mean, of course you are! It is insane to pretend that you’re not! This is the theater! If you’re not writing something to be performed, then you are not writing a play. There. I said it. That will piss some people off.

And that’s why it’s so damn expensive to work this way!

I know! I cannot say that enough! Once you start developing the damn thing, you need audience, you need a theater to work in, you need the resources that usually only go towards production. While creating the first draft of Chimera in Minneapolis this past spring and fall, the Playwrights’ Center provided us a total of eight weeks of full-time days in the theater. That’s insane. Nobody does that. But our play would not be what it is if they hadn’t done that for us. (Thank you, PWC. Thank you, Workhaus Collective.)

It’s seductive and addictive and religious.

Over half of the theater work I do now is initiated with, by, or for specific artists. My work is born of conversation, communal investigation, idolatry, love, curiosity, and/or envy (“I want a piece of that.”). It’s cult-like, obsessive. There is a religion—a collective devotion to the platonic ideal of The Project, the thing you will never attain or achieve, but you make a blood pact to chase together.

I like to use the phrase “making a play” instead of “playwriting” to describe both ensemble work and independent writing. It is a phrase that allows for the fact that in the very best and utopian collaborations, authorship is collective. My credit often reads “text by” instead of simply “by.” What does that mean? It hopes to signal that the writer was but one part of a group of people who made the play.

Together, we labored and dreamed and fought. Together we brought a world into being where there had been none before. We are all in the room. And we use what’s in the room to author that world.

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Just read this for the first time.
It is the best discussion of the collaborative process I've seen or heard.
We met at the most recent performance of Lucia. I am member of the PI board for 5-6 six years, love your "texts by," and am busting to see "Chimera." Suli gave ne a brief preview a bit ago at Nichole Canuso's fundraiser at the Wolf space in Phila.
My friend Anna Elliott, Tisch 2010, turned me on to your post today.
[email protected]
Your description of the process makes it sound exciting and scary. Prolly not for me, but I am an egotist, not an artist.
I hope to see you at Under the Radar.

beautiful words. thank you for your inspiration. and i can't wait to hear more words of wisdom as we share the semester together. really... well said.

In the beginning there is a blank page and someone

(or some collective) begins scratching upon the blankness in signals others from his/her tribe will recognize and understand.

Great playwrighting, like great petry is a deeply meditative act, and historically an individual one - shared in develpopment with many hands.

can a beautiful experience be created in this manner - of coure yes. Can a play that resonates throughout time - another question entirely

So much energy and insight in your reflections; it's clear every takeaway you've shared was hard fought by doing, experiencing, and learning, not by talking about possibilities. The passion is showing through in every line. Collaboration is hard work, and you're right, sadly (or perhaps for the best?) not everyone is cut out for it. And yes, many in traditional management spaces aren't ready to cede control to the team, going 'all-in' on the risk of true unfettered collaboration. In business and public education circles (where I run) some of us continue to hope (and lobby!) for the cultural control bias to start giving way.

Fleeting? Perhaps. But there's always the next one. And the one after that -

Great post, Deborah, thanks for sharing.

All of the above of course and more. Shakespeare and Sophocles were actor/ writers and surely worked similarly, collectively. I often joke that theater is intrinsically, democratic, not, goodness forbid, democratic; so sticky questions of leadership and ego remain. i think when such problems arise, the work reveals how egos and individuals serve it. Amazing Sekou Sundiata once said, "i collaborate with people I like."

Lovely. Thank you so much. I'd like to add:

It's fleeting

Often once the show happens, it has happened and won't happen again. It disappears and if you weren't there, you missed it. I think theater in general should embrace this more in the era of On Demand.

You are so right on. It is about 'making a play'. I have never thought of myself as a writer of plays, but as an old fashioned play-WRIGHT, not much different from a wheel-wright or any other hands-on craftsperson trying to shape something with my fellow workers and dreamers in the shop out back.

but at some point decisions must be made..that actor is not right for this ...this line doesn't t work, this scene is not working.... the ending is not...etc....
and someone has to say yes or no and thats the rub...I know of playwrites who have withdrawn work of directors and actors and production folks who have moved out of the project......

THANK YOU< THANK YOU, THANK YOU...your article is eloquent, inspiring and full of true heart. And it really gets down to what we do, and what we long to do more of, and be recognized for. Joseph

I cannot listen to this wisdom enough! I am teaching my ears to read this essay while I sleep! Thank you Deborah Stein!

This is exactly it--what I try to articulate whenever I talk to someone about the theatre I like to make. It's rare to find a group you can do this with, but when you do it's gold. Wonderful essay, thank you.

Having opened, yesterday, a three year in the making collaboratively devised piece i have led at one of the nation's largest regional theaters (and with an in-residence acting company), I believe this essay would have been nice to pass around early on. No matter how attentive one is in process, the joys and fears associated with the sort of collaboration you write about are always hard to anticipate for those new-ish to the work. Thanks for this; I'll keep it handy.

Deborah: Thanks so much for your words of truth and inspiration. Although we've never met, I've worked at ATL with Sean and know Emily. Being a co-creator in the rehearsal room or as a solo storyteller with an audience brings such joy, fulfillment and creative flow. And it's not for the faint hearted - you are so right - it is hard on the ego! Thanks again for articulating so beautifully this process. Best, Navida Stein

More inspired by these reflections on collaborative creation than I have been by most anything else in recent months. Fabulous. Sharing now.

What a true and inspiring piece about how and why we all do what we do - thanks so much Deb for articulating so viscerally what's important about what we do -