Arts Collaboration: How Do You Two Manage That?
Arts Collaboration: How Do You Two Manage That?
The decisonmaking issues that show up in business collaboration stump playwrights, too.
Collaboration is critical to business success. Not surprisingly, it's critical to success in the arts, too — perhaps especially to performing arts like theatre.
My writing collaborator, Andrew Black, and I appeared this month in a feature interview in The Dramatist, the monthly membership magazine of The Dramatists Guild. We were interviewed, of course, on collaboration. I say "of course" because that is the single most-asked question of Andrew and me — "You write plays together? How on earth do you manage that?"
The short answer is much the same as it would be for business: We use a disciplined process and — turns out — the strategies and tools pioneered here at Interaction Associates.
There is a long history of collaborating in theater. Librettist and composer and Gilbert and Sullivan notoriously hated each other, yet produced fourteen beloved lively light operas nevertheless. I often wonder if each contributor imagined the other on the "little list" of victims of the Lord High Executioner in their The Mikado.
American theater has enjoyed the works of many other, happier collaborators, such as wife-and-husband team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, G. S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart, and Oklahoma stalwarts Rodgers and Hammerstein. Moss Hart wrote that he typed while Kaufmann paced inside a cloud of cigar smoke, muttering lines of dialogue. The couple that co-adapted the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, say that they write separately: she upstairs, he downstairs. It may seem an odd way of collaborating, perhaps, but who can argue their success in turning a 55-page short story into a richly-told feature length screenplay?
Andrew and I have successfully co-written three stage plays, two of which have been produced nationwide; the third is an award-winner. We find numerous advantages to collaborating on a script. We bring unique points of view and worldviews to each project, and are able to write varied characters because of this. Yet we are closely aligned artistically, and enjoy the same kind of well-made plays with conventional plots and structure. You won’t find me suggesting we pen an avant-garde, experimental, futuristic downer — Andrew wouldn’t care for that, either.
As we write, we’re able to read scenes aloud and hear the dialogue in a way one playwright cannot do alone, which is very helpful in the process. We can also push each other; when one is in despair about the project, the other is generally more optimistic. So the support is extraordinary. We hold each other accountable to weekly co-writing sessions. And we have the advantage of understanding the Interaction Method: a model that incorporates strategic thinking, facilitative behaviors, and a collaborative attitude, all based on a foundation of shared responsibility for success. To illustrate, in our process we might stare at each other wondering what the heck would make an interesting and compelling Act I curtain line. In that case, we might crank up our facilitative behaviors — "Let’s brainstorm!" — knowing that two heads are often better than one at problem solving.
Take a look at The Interaction Method model:
The decison making issues that show up in business collaboration stump playwrights, too. To avoid getting a script that has a committee feel, we have to slay our darlings: that is, we each need to let go of favorite lines of dialogue that are not serving the overall script. That requires mutual trust in the other’s aesthetic judgment and that highly collaborative attitude I mentioned. We do a lot of outlining and agreement building upfront; this gives us a foundation of agreements we can fall back on when the going is rocky or uncertain. We never ask each other to compromise our artistic integrity or vision, but you can bet we compromise on the smaller things.
Often, if there is a problematic scene or bit of dialogue that Andrew has written, I’ll keep my peace until we have a staged reading. Much is revealed when the work is actually read by actors. Then Andrew usually will recognize the problem himself, and volunteer to eliminate the bit that’s not working. It works the same way with my contributions that end up on the cutting room floor. By the way, we facilitate our own feedback sessions after staged readings for invited audiences; IA’s methodology helps us cull the best thinking and suggestions from our feedback participants. We have brought this technique to the Playwrights Center of San Francisco, where we both serve as volunteer board members. It is helping our membership develop new works in a safe and supportive environment.
So when people ask, "You collaborate? How on earth do you manage that?" the answer is: we use the tools and techniques we learned at Interaction Associates. The result is a joyful process that has yielded us success and promises to keep us busy and productive in the future.
Published on 02/13/09 03:27 PM