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The Collaborative Process: On the (Sometimes) Bumpy Road to Art

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The Collaborative Process: On the (Sometimes) Bumpy Road to Art

"I like working face-to-face with the design team and the director before the final tech rehearsal. There's something to be said for a designer getting together with the director to have a drink and suddenly having an idea and sketching it on a cocktail napkin. When you do not meet with your collaborators, a certain spontaneity is lost, including facial expressions, which may be very helpful."

So asserts Nathan Heverin, a set designer who is most identified with the New York City-based Keen Company, but has also designed sets for many theatre companies across the country. He has collaborated in person and he has collaborated long distance, via electronics: phone, fax, FedEx, and email. Technology is an increasingly common conduit for collaboration, especially for members of the design team. It's a trend that reflects harsh economic realities on all sides -- the designers, who may need to take more than one assignment at a time, as well as the regional theatre company, which cannot afford to spend the money transporting artists to its theatre from all over the country.

"The biggest change we've seen because of long-distance collaboration is an erosion among the design-team members," notes Frank Butler, the production manager at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. "Even if there's travel involved, directors usually do meet with the set designer, costume designer, and then the prop person, in that order. But the design people are rarely at the theatre at the same time, until the very end of the process, at which time it's often too late.

"And because they all have other assignments and are very busy, they're not talking to each other either, even if they live in the same city," Butler continues. "We recently had a situation where the costume designer came in, only to be horrified by the upholstery on the set's furniture. The colors clashed with her costumes. She had never communicated with the set designer, nor he with her."

Heverin suggests that even if members of the design team are in communication, "there are technical challenges in collaborating long distance. The sketch that I email is not necessarily the identical sketch that is received at the other end. This is a particular problem with colors that are not always faithfully reproduced on email."

For Heverin, the ideal collaboration emerges from ongoing personal day-to-day contact with the whole creative team, which he says also wards off -- at least to some extent -- the possibility of poor communication and a disintegration of the creative team. And in the best possible world, a creative collaboration is rooted in a shared artistic vision that extends well beyond the particular project at hand.

The aforementioned Keen Company, Heverin maintains, is a "model of how collaboration can and should work," a viewpoint echoed by Keen Company Artistic Director Carl Forsman and lighting designer Josh Bradford. They are currently working on an adaptation of "The Journals of Mihail Sebastian," which chronicles the rise of anti-Semitism in World War II-era Bucharest. Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright David Auburn is adapting the journals of the Romanian playwright and novelist.

Back Stage talked with several collaborative teams working in different genres to examine the complexities of collaboration. What are the challenges? How are they resolved (or not)? And, most central, what are the ingredients that go into a good collaboration?

Where It All Comes Together

So, let's consider the Keen Company and the assertion -- voiced by several team members who have been affiliated with the company for its four years of existence -- that their collaboration is deeply harmonious. What makes it so?

For starters, there is their collective sensibility and aesthetic goals, says Forsman. "We are all interested in doing sincere and emotional plays that present a more reflective view of the world than many plays would suggest. We believe that people are good and humane and we want our plays to at least include that aspect of human experience."

He adds, "We also believe that that is far harder to present -- a greater challenge -- than fashionable irony, which is fake sophistication. We feel that irony is often a pose and, as such, has limited artistic usefulness. For all that, we are not humorless. There is plenty of joking around. But we are empowered by the idea of working towards a theatre that presents something positive."

Without fostering a touchy-feely atmosphere among the collaborators, Forsman encourages mutual concern; indeed, each collaborative session starts with questions -- it's not formal or ritualized -- centering on how all the members are doing. Further bonding stems from "our mutual awareness that we've all made very real sacrifices to be part of this theatre," Forsman points out. "We're often on the brink of financial collapse, and because of the amount of time we give to every project, our outside relationships are often strained, lost, and/or nonexistent."

Feelings of individual and collective vulnerability prompt "interdependence and trust," says Forsman. (It should be noted that many collaborative teams fall apart in the face of personal or public vulnerability, which may ultimately destroy cohesiveness.)

The Keen also boasts a regular protocol in terms of collaborative steps taken with each project. As Forsman tells it, the text -- and a determination to maintain its integrity -- is the most significant element of any Keen production. Forsman meets with the playwright and/or adaptor and then the design team comes on board, although each designer's status -- and input in the creation -- is informed by the project and its needs. For example, if the play is naturalistic, the set designer usually becomes a major contributor. If, however, a play is not naturalistic -- indeed, may not even be realistic -- the lighting designer's contribution becomes more important. His role becomes more central.

Consider the involved collaboration that went into "The Journals of Mihail Sebastian," starting with the 700-page journal that had to be winnowed down and told in dramatic narrative form. "Part of the problem is that the journal spans nine years and there are fascinating incidents and great writing throughout," says Forsman. "Any number of sections could have been plays all by themselves. But both David [Auburn] and I wanted to tell as much of those nine years as possible, while dealing with the fact that the journals do not adhere to an Aristotelian structure."

Forsman insists that his collaboration with Auburn was smooth sailing and that they were in sync on virtually everything. Nonetheless, he admits that there is a clearly defined hierarchy in place, with Forsman having "veto power, although I execute it judiciously." And, as the theatre administrator most responsible for budget, Forsman has to exercise restraint and make sure "that we're getting the most bang for our buck." Those elements also inform the collaborative process.

With the "Journals," a minimalist production value was forged to serve both economics and aesthetics, and much of the design concept is metaphorical. In this piece, the lighting designer played a major role, collaborating with Forsman. "We knew we had to create a new visual language for this play," says Forsman. "Our goal was to bring to life the 120 days that we cover in the play. Each day had to be visually evoked and visually distinct from every other day. And then there were the visual transitions between scenes.

"Among the areas we addressed are the intensity, color, and volume of lights for each day and the angle of the lighting. Are we lighting from the top or from the side?"

Lighting designer Josh Bradford insists he is very comfortable collaborating with Forsman et al., stressing that the amount of collaboration that goes on at the Keen is unusual for a small company. "In most cases, the bigger the theatre and the larger the resources, the greater the collaboration. When there are fewer resources and less time, it's harder and rarer to have good collaborations."

Personality Problems

The success of any collaboration, of course, depends on the players involved, their personalities and temperaments. And while we started this story talking about changes in the art of collaboration, typically the quality of a collaboration is a function of the people involved, not the era, budget, or even the nature of the project -- although all of the above play their role.

Bradford recalls that the worst collaborative experience he ever had was with Bob Woodruff at NYU'sTisch School of the Arts, where Bradford was earning his M.F.A. "Woodruff was not visually oriented at all and he was never clear about what he wanted or didn't want. He'd say things like 'I hate it,' or 'I love it,' but was unable to say why. The set designer who was working on the project before me quit," Bradford continues. "Woodruff was abrasive in style and never bothered to learn my name. He'd call me, 'Hey, set guy.'

"I had to learn to work around that, although I don't think the production was as well served as it might have been if we'd had more genuine collaboration," Bradford continues. "Still, since it was an experimental production, I had a lot more freedom than I would have if we were doing a drawing-room comedy. I also had a built-in excuse if my designs were not as good as they could have been thanks to the obstacles created by the director."

That said, Bradford stresses, "I have learned not to be a victim. In any collaboration, if a problem cannot be resolved or an argument won, I'd suggest backing off. It's more important to save face."

Clearly, not everyone agrees with that viewpoint. Indeed, many might find that kind of self-censorship corrosive, leading to further resentment, loss of communication, and perhaps even an explosive outburst with all parties stalking off in separate directions -- to the detriment of the project and its players.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are collaborations that just work from the outset. One of the most successful recent theatre collaborations was between two young unknowns: Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, the composer-lyricists (they each do both) behind the Broadway musical hit "Avenue Q." They're an unusual team on several fronts, not least the fact that "Avenue Q" represents their first collaboration (not bad first time out). Equally unexpected, the songs came before the book. In most musical collaborations, a book is in place before the musical team starts writing music. And, the book writer and/or director -- not the composer-librettist -- come up with the show's concept. Here it was the reverse. And finally, as noted, both Marx and Lopez jointly wrote words and music for each song.

"We'd sit in a room and hash out every song together," says Lopez. "Then we brought in the director and book writer and we all created a story on the basis of the songs. And we worked on song placement as a team."

Adds Marx: "We all shared a commitment to write a show for young people that would disarm them with puppets and humor."

The two men insist it was a labor of love for all the parties, including the producers, who at no point demanded expansions or deletions of songs or book in order to make the show more commercial or accessible to a broad-based audience in its move from Off-Broadway (the Vineyard Theatre) to the Main Stem.

Lopez and Marx have some clear-cut caveats for successful theatre collaborations.

"It's a mixture of knowing when to be strong and do what you believe and when to listen," says Marx.

Adds Lopez, "It's respecting your partner and wanting his help. That means you have similar tastes and want the product to reflect what you both like. We have found that if the product matches both the Bobby test and Jeff test, it's probably stronger than if only one of us liked it."

Says Marx: "A good collaboration keeps you on your toes. Not lovey-dovey, but inspiring each other. In a good collaboration, your partner is your built-in audience." He stresses, "Before we started working together, it never occurred to either of us that we were anything other than two self-contained units. But we have found that working together has made our work so much stronger and more fun."

That said, both Marx and Lopez feel collaboration may not be for everybody, specifically those who are close-minded, not open to another person's vision, and too easily hurt. "You have to be willing to surrender your ego," emphasizes Lopez.

A Troubled Collaboration

To what extent egos were surrendered -- or not -- is almost beside the point in one of the more bizarre (and still unfolding) collaborative debacles. It took place between cast and producer vs. director on the Off-Broadway musical "Ministry of Progress," slated to open March 4 at the Jane Street Theatre. The $1.5 million musical, which was 10 years in the making and boasts 11 composers, tells the tale of a young man who attempts to correct a clerical error on his driver's license and finds himself in an Orwellian nightmare.

"This is a story about finding your identity," says director Kim Hughes, who adapted the piece from a radio play by Charles Morrow. "My pieces are always about finding your purpose in life."

What precisely transpired behind the scenes is not entirely clear, and Hughes did not feel it was a good idea (at this point, anyway) for her to offer too much information about her conflict with the actors and the producer, short of saying, "The actors were too frightened to explore their souls. It was a collaboration from a dictatorship [referring to herself], although I hate that word."

In all fairness, it should be noted that two other collaborators on the project -- specifically, a video maker and musical arranger-orchestrator-composer -- enjoyed their collaborations with Hughes and did not find her unreasonably dictatorial.

And Brian J. Dorsey, a "Ministry of Progress" actor who talked with us, admitted that the show, now in its final pre-opening days, was coming together, although up until the last minute it was a dicey situation all the way around, with no one knowing exactly what he or she was doing onstage. As he tells it, there was a lot of talk about collaboration and the fact that actors have to take emotional risks. But in the end, there was no collaboration, but lots of risk-taking by the actors that seemed meaningless at best and potentially humiliating, if not physically dangerous.

"Kim had us rehearsing in the dark, using flashlights. Ropes were dangling from the ceiling and we had to negotiate our way around the ropes," recalls Dorsey, suggesting that these exercises had more to do with some oblique psychological need on Hughes' part than with the script.

Every Equity-affiliated production has a deputy on board to whom all complaints -- regarding treatment, conditions, etc -- are registered. Actor Richard Waits, who serves in that capacity on "Ministry of Progress" and has filed a letter of complaint with Equity on behalf of the actors, describes the scenario this way: "We felt Kim was abusing her position as a director -- crying, screaming -- to work out personal problems. Further, we felt that the exercises she asked us to do were physically dangerous. To that extent, we felt abused.

"There was also the question of her competence," he continues. "The red flags were there from the beginning, at least for me, although I chose to ignore it: specifically her 'avant-garde' behavior. In every musical that I've been in up until this point, you learn the song's music and then the number is staged. Here, it was just the other way around. We'd start to learn the music and then abruptly Kim would interrupt us and say she wanted to stage the number. None of it made any sense."

It is not entirely clear what happened at that point or who was in charge; Sheila Matthews, an Equity business representative, who oversees these cases and is currently reviewing this one, refused to comment. Nonetheless, Hughes has been barred from speaking to any of the actors. As Waits tells it, she has been allowed to sit in on the rehearsals, make notes, and pass those notes to the stage manager and/or producers, who then determine what notes to give the actors. And she is still the director of record.

Dorsey points out that the actors were not faultless, either. After all, they allowed the situation to continue. "Actors are always told to 'own it,' be responsible for what we're doing onstage," he says. "But actors are not 'owning it' if they have a problem with the director that they are not addressing. Actors should remember that they're the ones who are going to be up on stage."

He continues, "What should have been done early on is for us to say to the director, 'We're here to do a job, not be engaged in psychotherapeutic exercises or be your best friend.' Part of the problem was that it wasn't stated up front what our roles were in relationship to each other."

Producer Terry E. Schnuck agrees, maintaining that there wasn't a clearly defined hierarchy in place, with one person ultimately responsible for the show. "Kim was an excellent collaborator with the designers," he says. "However, she was wearing too many hats -- creator, adaptor, director, and she was a producer, too. There were just too many tugs and pulls in different directions.

"For me, the most serious issue was whether the project would ever be completed or ready. You need someone on the team who is able to stand back and see if the ideas are being implemented."

Looking back, Hughes admits she didn't communicate as well as she should have. "As distasteful as it is, artists have to be able to intellectualize what it is that they're doing if they want to communicate their ideas to others and ultimately help themselves get their project out there!"

This is a case we'll be watching.

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