Almost all theater is collaborative at some level. If you don’t like creating stuff with other people, you should probably be a poet. (I can say that, I used to be a poet.) When we talk about “collaborative” theater, we are talking about a spectrum. But what is collaboration? What does it look like in the rehearsal room, what does it look like on stage? Why do we collaborate? What do we want from the process and what do we want from the product?
There is no job description for playwrights – sometimes we’re up on stage performing, sometimes we’re making puppets, sometimes we are just (just!) putting words down on the page for others to interpret. Sometimes we are at rehearsals up until tech week, tweaking and re-writing and trying to make perfect. Sometimes we just fly into town for opening night and hope the director understood what we were trying to do.
This means that, as a playwright, I don’t always know what “collaboration” means. Do you want me doing vocal warm-ups with the cast and brainstorming costume ideas? Or do you just want to pick my brain about some character choices? I have learned the hard way that “collaboration” means different things to different people. And when you are not a well-known name (or, as I like to call it, a “pre-emerging playwright”) (I’m joking, please don’t ever call me that) you do a lot of self-producing, which means that everything is a collaboration. Asking an actor to design a post card, having my director double as haberdasher, and bouncing press kit ideas off of my SM are all things that sort of seem collaborative but that are actually just cheap and desperate. Except cheap and desperate often begets innovative and creative. So maybe it’s worth it.
I was asked by my dear friend (and object of supreme jealousy) Isabel Nelson if I would be a part of the process of creating These Old Shoes, Transatlantic Love Affair’s 2013 Fringe show, and then in January was asked again to consult on the extended version of Ash Land that was playing at The Illusion. (The irony is not lost on me.) For those two shows, I was definitely a guest in their space. They have a creation process that works for them, and I entered into it as a guest, using my outsider’s perspective to help nudge plot lines, give opinions on characters, and eventually write some dialogue. I was not writing A Play, or A Script, or even Large Chunks of Text. I was there for the same reason they were – to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. And by parts, in this case, I mean fifteen different, unique creative voices all working together.
But I have to tell you – I don’t think I could work this way all the time. As someone who is 1) a control freak, 2) a quick decision-maker, and 3) hard-headed, I really missed the efficiency and unity of vision that come from writing alone. I know, I know, even in ensemble work the director has a unified vision, and the ensemble members are good at self-editing if they are worth their salt, but still. How long does all that take? I can just highlight a few sentences (or pages) and hit Delete.
There is only one writing project I can think of where I had more ownership over the text than I had with TLA, but truly shared in the creation of it. I had just moved back to Minneapolis from New York, and I was missing my community of writers dearly, and my friend Meghan Deans and I decided to write a play together – she from New York, me from Minneapolis. It was about a dead cheerleader, and her best friend, the lonely fuckup, who everyone thought had killed her. We took turns writing. We spent hours on the phone talking about these girls, about what was at stake. We’d fill each others’ plot holes. We’d set up challenges for each other: silly vocal tics or speech patterns or weird conventions on which we’d have to follow through. We were honest with each other about what was working, and what wasn’t. We were able to take and give criticism because we both cared so much about these characters, and about telling their story – we knew we were both working in service of the story, not to look smart or seem cool. We wrote fast. We applied to a couple of festivals, sent the script to a few people. It’s never been produced. I love it dearly.
If I get to a point in my career where a nice man at a desk sends my scripts to lit managers, and I fly into town for an opening night reception or maybe a post-show discussion, will I miss the more “collaborative” aspects of theater-making? I think I would miss the rehearsal room. Performers are so smart. You give them a half-formed, messy draft of a thing and they slip into it like a silky smoking jacket and they so totally own it that you start to see things you never saw in the words before an actor spoke them. And there are themes and patterns and threads within a play that you miss when you are staring at it, word by word, on the glowing screen of your laptop. And your director is there in the rehearsal room to pluck those threads and more deftly weave them in, like re-braiding a girl’s hair. I would miss that.
But I don’t know about the rest of it. The endless iterations, the vetting of ten million ideas, the enthusiasm for a thousand possible storylines that eventually die out. Sometimes collaboration feels like the watering down of a good idea until it fits everyone. I think collaboration should be the building up of an idea until it’s bigger than all of us, until it floats on its own. Maybe I’m not cut out for collaboration, or maybe I’m especially cut out for it because of my impatience for bullshit. I can’t tell.
I might have more thoughts on collaboration after this summer. My boyfriend Mark Sweeney and I are working on a site-specific Fringe show that involves music, text, bike-riding, banjolele playing, and hopefully some really excellent storytelling. If you see me at Fringe, ask me what it’s like to work so closely with the person you’re dating. And then time-travel back to now and tell me how it goes. I’m honestly curious.