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The cult of collaboration

In his review of choreographer Rafael Bonachela's new work The Land of Yes and the Land of No in The Observer Luke Jennings makes an interesting observation on collaboration.  His main point is connected with what he percieves as the lack of subject matter in much contemporary dance, but what interested me most was this observation:

"Bonachela is a generous, postmodern soul, who likes to spread the creative kudos and the subsidy money around, but the hard truth is that art is not a democracy. Multiple layers of collaboration don't generate multiple layers of meaning, and in this case they serve only to obscure, and to distance us from the quiet detail that is Bonachela's forte."

It was particularly the phrase "art is not a democracy" that intrigued me.  I spend a lot of time thinking about collaboration and how it works, not least because theatre is at its heart a collaborative art.  There has been a very clear move towards more collaborative modes of development over the last few years - partly, I think, because of an unease about hierarchy - though collaboration has always been there.  Diaghilev was a consumate creator of collaborations.  The phrase that always comes to my mind is Pierre Boulez's definition of a conductor as "a collaborator who decides" (quoted, I think, by Peter Brook though I can't find the reference right now) - I often repeat this to the young directors I work with at Glasgow University as it neatly sums up a director's role.

But Jennings raises the question of whether collaboration is necessarily a good thing, whereas current orthodoxy tends to hold that it is.  I think of myself as an instinctive collaborator, whereas there are other directors who find it difficult.  When I was working as a staff director in the 1990s, I worked with someone who is now one of the foremost opera directors in the world and he almost defiantly disliked collaboration.  He prefered to design his own productions, and when he couldn't, worked with designers who would realise his vision.  Collaboration for him meant everyone listening and  then doing what they were told and, crucially, doing it very well.  This director made sure he worked with top notch people, even though he didn't particularly want then to bring their ideas.  This was (and is) a technique that works well for him, but others prefer to draw together the ideas of those they work with.  I remember reading an interview with Tim Albery about a production of Macbeth he had done for the RSC and he described sitting reading the paly with the designer and seeing what evolved (the designer was Stewart Laing I think).  Wonderfull as this sounds, it is a surprisngly rare thing - too often meetings are hurried, constrained by everyone's availability.

The perfect collaboration, I've heard it said, is when you can't remember who suggested what.  My most recent production, Walden, was certainly the best collaboration I've ever had.  Part of this came from working with visual artists who didn't have the usual database of thearical solutions to draw on - this is not a dig at designers, just an observation that "theatre people" (myself included) have particular ways of looking at things, drawn from experience and tradition and sometimes its helpful to work with people who question the obvious solutions.  Mainly though it worked as a collaboration because we respected each other's work and opinions.

The real "elephant in the room" to use Jennings's rather tiresome phrase, is the question of who decides.  In an article on collaboration in The Guardian a few months ago, Katie Mitchell said of her collaboration with Leo Warner that "It's clear I'm the boss".  Daniel Kramer notes that "leaving the ego outside the room is a huge challenge", whereas his collaborator says more bluntly "the first week of working together was traumatic".  This is the real challenge and probably the thing that defeats more promising collaborations than anything else - go too far towards democracy and it looks a mess, go too far the other way and everyone's work is subverted to one vision.  There's no one solution, it's different for every group - I'm about to embark on our uber-collaborative Rough Mix programme, and one of its aims is to promote collaboration and it'll be aprocess of finding out all over again how to help a group of individuals work together.


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