Collaborators

Talking with someone who you are thinking about working on a project with is a little bit like dating. There’s a chemistry, a way of similarly talking about what you want and how you want to do it that is so tricky to define. Seeing someone’s work matters. But not always. Someone who can talk a good game is important. But it’s not everything.

Sometimes it feels like you just know. And sometimes you’re right. Other times you are super duper wrong.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I bring people on in various kinds of capacities for a whole host of projects. There are the collaborators I’ve worked with in the past, people who may not at first blush seem right for the thing I’m asking them to do, but damn it something just says, if you want them do it anyway. There are people that I don’t know at all, who might be crazy or unstable or un-collaborative, but something in my gut just says to do it.

There are people I have made things with that turned out really really well and for some reason the process just didn’t feel right. So even though the outcome was fantastic, something internal keeps me from bringing them back.

There are other people who feel like the open my brain up and make me see things that I could never have imagined. They are creators that I feel like talk the way I talk about work. As if I can be more honest about what I really want and how I want it. I still don’t know exactly what that feeling is or how it happens, but I know when it’s there. And whether it results in the best work I’ve ever made or not, I seek it hungrily.

And then there’s everything else in between.

It’s hard to know sometimes exactly what you’re looking for, and in what proportion: some combination of intelligence, kindness, initiative, talent, confidence. And of course the balance of these things in one person can often smooth out the deficit in another. It is a strange alchemy, this practice of creating something with a group of people. It’s a kind of cookery I’m often feeling just a step behind on.

In high school I co-wrote a musical review with my best friend at the time. We spent months in secret creating a script for “What We Did For Love” (remember that post where I said I could never go to a college without a musical theater program?). The show was a pre-Glee high octane rom-com high school musical fantasia with a loose homage to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. We were a phenomenal writing team. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve been quite as passionate and diligent about a co-collaborator. And recently, when I went back and looked at the thing I was still more than reasonably impressed with some of the snappy, silly, and oh-so heart-felt-edly genuine words we poured our efforts into.

As co-directors (the only time such a thing has ever been functional for me, btw) we were compliments of each other in an easy and comfortable way. While I preferred to look at the big picture of staging, structure and transitions, Tracey was super smart about the details that really mattered, especially when it came to the wry smile of our ingénue or the right delivery of the male lead. Nowhere was this eye for detail more needed than in casting. Which was unfortunate when Tracey came down with chicken pox and had to miss the entire audition process.

The leads we could convene on. These were folks we knew and had strong ideas about going in. But it was those smaller, bit roles, the ones that weren’t large, but really made our script what we imagined it to be. This is where we stalled. We talked, but there wasn’t any substitute when it came down to it, and she just had to go with some of my impulses.  Some of which worked out, others not so much.

The problem with me, I think, is that when confronted with something, I am often swept up by imagining the potential of the thing or person rather than what is actually in front of me. I imagine what, given infinite time and ideal circumstances and a bit of luck, could be the best version of a collaboration. And in some cases, the more underappreciated I see someone to be, the more I really want to be the one to put that person in a position to really shine, surprising everyone with the potential I envision so that their undiscovered artistic superpowers might be brought out.

This works fantastically in some cases, especially when I am thrown into a situation where I have little control over the people I am involved with. I have often agreed to create with those I know almost nothing about and been open enough to discover a multitude of amazing and creative things about them. When I have to make the best of an unknown, I am generally pretty great at mining for the gold.

Sometimes though, that ability to imagine the possibility of such a discovery can get in the way of objective assessment. I often find myself in love with a strange or small quirk in a performer or potential collaborator. Many is the time I realize I am measuring them not against some impartial standard but against themselves. When I see them grow, it feels amazing because I have been on that journey with them. But this is not always the experience of the audience. They most often only see the end result, which may not seem so impressive without the context of the starting point.

There are days when I wonder if I’m a lucky fool. Or some kind of idiot savant. I have had the fortune to hook up with some amazing artists. But I don’t know if I always knew what I was doing. There are many times when I wonder if I actually know what “good” is.

Which is why I am often at such a loss for how to choose new co-creators. Which is why I like to stick so close to the chest and hold on to those people I know and love. I do think they are talented, but more than that, I know they are interested in the way that I happen to create. Which is a hard to define mix of forthrightness and listening. Which requires an open mind and relatively flagrant disregard for how things are usually done. A maker whose mode of making includes a hearty belief in their own artistry but is able to apply that in context of a group discovery and naïveté. I need each process to feel like we are finding it anew together. I need artists who know they will find something worth doing because they know they’re awesome. But for the result to be a real discovery, none of us can be sure exactly what that awesome thing will be. Which is perhaps why I so rarely begin in the usual fashion from a script. Which is why Swim Pony’s work is often me asking people to do anything except what I’ve seen them do before. Which is why I tend to like performers who tackle things from an odd angle that I don’t totally know how to deal with.

So back to Tracey. It was rough, and I didn’t like that I had to cast the show mostly without her. There was one, a kind of mannish gym teacher, role that I gave to a freshman. It was, in the end, not the most shining part of the play. And I realized halfway though the process that the person Tracey wanted would have been a lot better.

But I think I cast that freshman because I liked the idea of giving her space to be huge and loud and in charge. I wanted her to have a chance to be brash and funny because she wasn’t really that way in person. I liked the idea that she could, some day, be that character, even if she wasn’t right now. And It wasn’t the best in the moment choice, but it was a kind of long view tactic at creating a space in which people get to express all kinds of sides to themselves.

That kind of vision of theater requires community that invests in its creators over the long haul. It requires us to want to allow people not to display talent but develop it. To break the stereotypes of what we see people already capable of in the immediate takes time and a lot more leeway to give them room to grow.

I don’t know which is better.

But it’s why I continue to surround myself with lots of opinions, so that I have balance in the way I evaluate the people with whom I will work.

A

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