As a company who tend to devise most of our work, we think about collaboration quite a lot. Neither Rachel nor I perform or create lighting or sound designs, which means we collaborate with other people all the time. Maybe this affects how I see everything else, but I’ve increasingly come to believe that the cult of the individual isn’t a very accurate or helpful way of looking at the world. By the cult of the individual, I mean the pervasive idea of the individual genius artist, but also the pressure people in the arts sometimes face to talk about themselves as an individual rather than part of a collective. I recently applied for the Clore Short course and they put a lot of emphasis on this. Similarly, when I applied for a Higher Education Academy Fellowship as part of my other job teaching in a university, they insisted I talk about 'I' all the time rather than discussing the work of my team. Of the collective that is more than the sum of its parts.
A few weeks ago I was asked by Gez Casey from Live Theatre to come in and talk to a writers' workshop about Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, which I worked on a staff director way back in 2010. Thinking about that play and that process, I reflected on the way in which it developed. Obviously, Jez was the lead artist and wrote every word of the play, but I always felt that the influence of Mark Rylance, Ian Rickson and Dominic Cooke could be felt in the play and contributed to its richness.
Similarly, I’ve often wondered whether its wrong to be so fixated on individuals in theatre history like, say, Stanislavski, when sources seem to suggest that it was in the collaboration with others like Anton Chekhov, Nemirovich-Danchenko (the playwright and dramaturg with whom he co-ran The Moscow Art Theatre) and the actors he worked with such as Olga Knipper and Maria Lilina. I even wonder whether Shakespeare would have written as he did without the collaboration he had with actors such as Richard Burbage and the way in which Will Kempe’s departure from the company and the arrival of Robert Armin transformed the way he wrote comic characters has been widely analysed.
As I cycled to Live Theatre, thinking about all the stuff, I suddenly realised why I had been thinking so much about the myth of the individual visionary or leader. There were a lot of attempts by some politicians and the media to make the election a presidential choice between two individuals, when the history of British politics has been a history of political parties and the box that you tick on the ballot paper is for a local MP, not their party leader. It is a general trend of Conservative ideology to encourage us to focus on the individual rather than the collective (“there is no such thing as society”). I’d always known in theory that the left used to tell a really compelling collective story, but it wasn’t until I visited Woodhorn and learned about the coal mining unions and saw Mark Thomas’ The Red Shed and the film Pride that I really understood how that story worked. Reflecting on this, I started to think about how important it is, even in how we talk about our own work, that we don’t fall into a shorthand of ascribing to an individual a piece of work that was really collective. We need to tell the story of how collaborative everything we do really is.
Although fanSHEN is led by Rachel and me and it is usually us who come up with the starting point for our projects, our shows are the result of a joint effort by collective of people and it is the strength of that collaboration, of the different perspectives and expertise brought by different people that makes the work what it is.
When people start making theatre collaboratively they often think that collaborating means they have to agree with each other all the time. On the contrary, however, I think good collaboration involves a fair amount of critiquing each other’s work and challenging each other to be better. This is an idea that Elena Marchevska first encouraged me to think about and the value of it has really grown on me over time. One of the things I value most abut the collaborators that fanSHEN works with is their capacity and willingness to (kindly, compassionately) say when they think something is a bad idea or doesn’t work and explain why.
I still don’t enjoy being criticised but I have know that it helps me to get better as long as I can retain the optimism and energy to carry on. I was watching a programme about the birth of the Renaissance in Florence and apparently the workshops of the artists and craftspeople used to be open to the street and other artists and citizens used to wander in and critique what the artists were doing and the art historian reckoned that this was part of why the artists got so good.
At one of the recent Lunchtime Talks for Theatremakers that we’ve been running in Newcastle Gateshead, Gez Casey introduced the idea that in the past ten years the artistic community in the North East has grown and developed, but that there hasn’t been a parallel growth in criticism. At the moment we’re trying to figure out how to address that. Bellyflop magazine and Total Theatre are both good models of an artistic community collaboratively critiquing each other in order to enrich the work that we make. We’re also thinking about how this critique might exist in conversational as well as written form and what the best structures for enabling that might be. We’re big fans of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. We’re also considering how conversations might different if they happen while walking. There is something about walking that seems to allow space for reflection and perhaps for disagreements to be discussed in a non-confrontational way. In this way it might be possible for us to learn from the critiques of artists who are not inside our process, who have a more distanced perspective, as well as those who are. These ideas are all at a very emergent stage so if you have any ideas or suggestions, we would love to hear them!