A while back before I started working professionally as a theatre maker, some circumstances led to me wanting to be the master of my own universe. I had experienced something that alot of people in the industry have experienced at some point in their career, if they've stuck at it long enough. It was this:
A Difficult Collaboration... DUN, DUN, DAH!!!
I won't go in to the details of it here, suffice to say the experience led to my decision to write a novel. Something that I would have complete control over. I am a control freak in many ways, as I suspect alot of creatives are, it almost goes with the territory. And I thought that writing a novel, alone, with just me, my brain, my laptop and several gallons of diet coke for company would be the perfect antidote to the difficulties that I had experienced in the theatre. And so I set about it, working on my novel Raven Boy, every day writing away by myself. I enjoyed this for a time, no one demanding anything of me, no one telling me what to do, no one critiquing my ideas... and then it happened... I started to miss it.
It was like 'Being Alive' for those of you who know Sondheim. The very thing that we believe we don't want are the very things that perhaps we need.
I missed people demanding things of me. I missed being able to solve problems that came up. I missed no one telling me what to do as I'm notoriously lazy. I missed people critiquing my ideas because inevitably their critique made my ideas better. So what happened? A lovely director friend of mine approached me about adapting my book into a theatre show... I said of course she could do it. As long as I could write the music.
So much for getting away from collaboration. It turns out, that for me, as much as I want to run away from it and that it terrifies me. It is also one of the things that I love most about my job. The magic that happens in the meeting of minds.
It's not easy this collaboration malarkey. I think some people really take it for granted. Because essentially what you and everyone else has to do is put aside your ego. And basically that's like telling the T-Rex from Jurassic Park to "Just please get back in your cage." It's difficult. It requires a honed armoury of emotional weaponry. And when you add your T-Rex to everyone else's meat-eating lizards, you get a hell of a play-time. And it's not going to end well...
Essentially, the one thing that makes collaboration impossible is the illusion of control.
We are all desperate to have some measure of control over our lives and our work, we believe that this is in our best interests. Sometimes we believe that we know best at the expense of others. We can't help it, after all, we are human. But the cool thing about being human is our intrinsic longing for connection and communication...
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Well, I can only say what I've learnt from my own experience and for me, it's all about letting go.
That's not easy. It's about as easy as someone telling you "Why you can't you just decide to be happy, and then be it." It is at once, the simplest thing and the most difficult thing in the world. It's one thing to say it, it's a whole other thing to actually do it. To be an effective collaborator, you have to relinquish control. Here are some points that I have in favour of this letting go business:
1. Any control you think you have in a collaboration between equals is an illusion. Therefore holding onto such an illusion is taking a step away from reality and that can only end in pain.
2. if you let go, you can feel the shift in energy in the room. It's liberating and exciting and others (maybe not all) will hopefully begin to follow suit.
What's the old adage? "Everyone's faking it, no one really knows what they're doing." I think there is real truth in this. I have had a little success with my work now and I still definitely don't know what I'm doing. The trick is to really own it.
In my experience the best collaborators have been the ones who are able to just let go. They relinquish their control of a situation. They put their hands in the air and say "Look I don't have all the answers. But with your help I think we'll find them." And that's a brave thing for someone whose standing in front of a bunch of hungry T-Rex's to do.
Relinquishing that control is one of the most challenging and important aspects of making theatre. And sadly it is one of the most rarely talked about. How to be vulnerable in a rehearsal room and in the writing process should be embedded in the musical theatre community, and unfortunately it isn't.
WHY IS IT SO HARD?
It's basically like being Superman, then rolling on the floor with your belly exposed to the sky and saying, "Hey this is me. There's some kryptonite just over there. Use it against me." So that's difficult because you're giving someone the means with which to destroy you. If for example, you stand up at the beginning of a rehearsal period and say "Hey guys I'm not really sure what I'm doing. But I'm going to try and figure it out." Then any person in that room can turn to the producer later down the line and say "I knew they weren't any good. They admitted it to all of us. And look the show is shit!"
That's why it's hard. You're giving a stranger a loaded gun and you are trusting them not to use it on you. That's terrifying.
HOW DO WE DO IT?
Someone clever said something about love once. That love is not something that you feel. It's something that you do. And you have to decide to do it every day.
I think the same is true of letting go. It might sound like a passive release. It's not, it's the opposite. Letting go and relinquishing control is an active state. If you think of it like a mountain, then "Letting Go" is balanced delicately right at the peak and gravity is constantly trying to slip you up and send you screaming down the slate escarpment into the valley where the meat eating dinosaurs (Your Ego) roam.
Letting go is a decision you have to make in every aspect of collaboration every day and in every minute of the rehearsal room and writing process.
We put up walls around us and hire guards to stand watch protectively. All to keep us safe. But they can't keep us safe, not really. All they can do is give us the illusion of control and stop us from achieving our potential. Fortunately for us, when we take down the walls and retire the guards, our fear begins to go away and we are a more open, generous and creative version of ourselves. Just think, if we put all that energy that we spend protecting ourselves into the work instead... think what we might achieve...
TRAITS OF GOOD COLLABORATORS
The best collaborators I have known have the following traits:
1. They are happy to admit when they are wrong
2. They are happy to try anything
3. They will not try to force or coerce
Note that I don't mention "talent" here at all. All the talent in the world can't save you if you can't learn the art of collaboration. You're better off writing a novel (although, indeed, turns out that's pretty collborative too, friends, readers, editors, publishers... you can't escape!!)
For those of you interested in the science behind all of this, there are brilliant people out there called Vulnerability Researchers. Brene Brown, in particular sums things up pretty well in her TED TALK here:
Enjoy and happy collaborating!