Creating an Atmosphere of Collaboration
It’s unusual to start a rehearsal stretching on the floor.
And yet there were all eight of us as the director wove his way through the maze of actors sharing his thoughts for the scene we were about to create. It felt like we were in some pseudo, combined production of FAME and a boot camp reality series. But alas we had just begun rehearsing Shakespeare’s, The Comedy of Errors, as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in Chicago.
The theatre itself is based on the old Globe Theatre in London where most of Shakespeare’s plays first premiered. It boasts a long skinny thrust wrapping a very close audience around the performers on three sides. There isn’t much room for failure.
When I was cast, I was told that this production was going to be “physical”. Maybe a couple of fight scenes. Maybe a pratfall. But all this stretching on day one was leading me to believe that my agent hadn’t told me everything.
As I stretched my quads, my heart flooded with anxiety.
A stagehand walked out and whispered something in the director David’s ear. David nodded and just moments later, the same stagehand plopped a 14 foot, wooden A-frame ladder in the middle of the stage.
“Braden, Anthony? Will you please set the ladder up?” David asked.
We all watched from the floor as this looming piece of hardware stood before us. It creaked and cracked and wobbled on its hinges before Braden and Anthony were finally able to secure it to the stage.
We sat in its shadow as David began to speak.
“This is the scene where Dromio and his pals are trying to break through the door to get at the girl on the other side. The ladder will act as the wall and also as the door. Here is how the sequence is to go: Blaine, you will be hoisted up on someone’s shoulders. Then you will walk across the rest of the group’s shoulders without using your hands until your reach the ladder. Next, you will climb to the top of the ladder.”
“The part where they tell you not to climb?” I mumbled.
“Yes. You will climb to the top of the ladder. While on top you will feign as if you are falling forward, but instead you will fall backwards in a blind trust fall into the arms of your colleagues. After that they will convert you into a human battering ram, which they use to attempt to break the door down. They will not succeed, become frustrated, leave you in a pile on the floor. When everything is quiet the girl will simply open the door and everyone will have a laugh.”
We exchanged a few looks between us as we sat in silence. That sounded amazing. It was also impossible. No one said a word.
Then David smiled warmly.
He had this glimmer in his eye and while this was only my first production with him I could already tell this guy was jokester.
“Does that all make sense?” Do you understand what I’d like to see?” he asked.
I smiled, knowingly. I knew his kind. Practical jokes like this were my absolute favorite.
“You’re smiling, Blaine. Does this all make sense to you?”
“Of course.” I smiled back even bigger adding a “I totally get you” nod.
“So then how do you think we should begin?”
I wasn’t smiling anymore.
“How do you think we should begin?” David said again.
This was very much not a practical joke.
“Uh…um…so you want us to really do all the things that you said?”
“That is for this team to figure out.”
And for the next two weeks we did. Everyday from nine to five, we stepped into the rehearsal room as one team with a very clear (albeit odd) goal. While David was in the room every single morning, he never said much. Because he wasn’t in the scene and because the scene had never been made before, he could only add a few helpful pointers when he saw something that we couldn’t. But other than that, it was our team grinding away at solving this ridiculously challenging human puzzle.
During those two weeks we really got to know one another. Our habit of rehearsing together consistently formed an incredible bond that is still present.
To this day it was my favorite rehearsal process.
By the end of the two weeks I was walking across shoulders, falling blindly from fourteen feet in the air backwards into the arms of my fellow teammates, who then proceeded to ram my head into a door.
When the girl came out from behind the door, the laughter was deafening.
David was right.
As I’ve contemplated that story for a number of years now, I’m struck by its simplicity. We were asked to do an enormously complicated thing – essentially make something from nothing. And were asked to do it with a finite number of resources (none of us were gymnasts) and time (we had two weeks before the show opened).
We weren’t special. We were just like everyone else who makes anything. Limited resources, limited time.
Most of us live in this world every single day. We’ve got unreasonable expectations to meet in ungodly amounts of time (or lack thereof).
So then how are we to create?
Or more pointedly, how are we to collaborate?
Often the tendency when we’re short on resources and time is to isolate. Often we call it “delegating”.
You go do your thing. I’ll go do mine. Let’s meet back in an hour.
While I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with delegation (it can save a “create by committee atmosphere” from forming), delegation can often lead to isolation – which is the most destructive force to collaboration.
So let me reiterate the question I asked David and the one you might be asking yourself now, “How are we supposed to do this?”
I won’t be as evasive as David was, but he had already done half of the work for us.
For collaboration to work, your projects must begin with clear vision.
Twyla Tharp writes in her book, The Collaborative Habit,
“A clearly stated and consciously shared purpose is the foundation of great collaboration.”
Had David said, “So I’m thinking about doing a scene with a ladder and some funny bits along the way,” our show would have been a disaster.
Our leader knew what he wanted to see. He stated explicitly. He shared with fire in his eyes – all with the expressed purpose that we would catch the vision and make it our own.
You’ll notice that Twyla doesn’t end her quote after “clearly stated”. Almost anyone can clearly state a vision. But, it takes a special kind of leader to get their vision to be consciously shared.
If you want to lead great processes, you simply must find a way to make your vision find its way deep into the hearts of your followers.
The Habit of Collaboration
Next up is the habit of collaboration. Our team met from 9-5 in a sweaty, stinky rehearsal room everyday for two weeks. We left for breaks and lunch only.
Now I’m not suggesting you create a boot camp for collaboration, but I am suggesting you put some structure and routine behind it.
“Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and most of all, through habit.” (Tharp)
Every book you’ll ever read on the creative process that’s worth anything will say that the professional artist, writer, dancer, whatever, must have habit or they will never succeed.
But, people don’t fall into patterns of work – they create them.
The same must be said for your teams.
If David hadn’t given us great and clear vision we could then buy into, along with a precise way for our team to create a ritual and a habit, we’d still be trying to figure out how to throw me against a door.
What do you need to do to cast better vision and create better structures for habits to form?