Two Models of Collaboration
In my decade plus as a lighting designer for downtown theater and dance in New York, I was a student, more than anything else, of collaboration. Most of the shows were short in duration – three or four days of rehearsals and then a weekend or two of performances. Sometimes I would hear from the choreographer or director, but many times I would never see them again. I was a small-time operator, surfing a peculiar little wave of people spending their savings and considerable energy on their short New York season.
After what must have been tens or hundreds of these shows, I noticed two strategies of collaboration. I did not consciously develop them, nor are they the only ways to approach working together.
The first approach is the Tennis Match. This is what we were taught in school that working as a designer would be like. You show up for a meeting, having read the script and developed your own concepts, and lob a fat serve at the director, who hopefully returns the ball. This ignores the fact that the director has already spend more time imagining this show than you could ever hope to (or care to). While serving the ball gives you the feeling of control, of contribution, you may in fact be on the wrong court entirely. There was always the danger that you invest a great deal of time imagining the wrong show.
I developed a variant on this (cowardly, I know) – my goal was to avoid visualizing the final result for as long as possible – to concentrate on not knowing until it was no longer possible. Not only did this force me to observe what the piece was already, but it kept me from getting stuck in my initial impressions. I would play a quiet game, until I understood what was going on enough to set up a few good shots and often profoundly change the whole show with before they could get defensive.
The other approach is the Ballroom Dance, though I’ve privately called it the “rope-a-dope” before. When beginning to work with a collaborator with a very strong, fixed vision of how the show would look, I often found that the only approach that worked was to match them step for step, offering minimal resistance at the beginning. Once you have matched their speed and direction intimately, it becomes possible to inject your own direction into the collaboration – when this works best, your partner believes they came up with the idea themselves.
It is sometimes necessary to take this approach even when you believe that the direction the project is headed will come to grief – it is merely necessary to walk them to the brink so that they understand. The skillful collaborator, by this point, may have worked out a way to save the show, and is able to present a way out. However, I often found it valuable to sit for a moment with my collaborator, staring into the abyss, neither of you knowing what to do next. More than likely, you will both pick up the pieces and begin to work together as equals. If you’re lucky, they will begin to trust you a little.
What do we hope to contribute as a designer? The egoist will maintain that they are the artist, creating an original work from whole cloth. At the other end of the spectrum, a designer is merely another service provider, like a lawyer, skillfully guiding their client towards realizing their vision. I fall somewhere in between. I have learned the most from some of my most difficult collaborators – and the end result was much more than either of us imagined. Ego can get in the way of skillful listening, but you have to have the backbone to tell other people when you know something is finally right.