At the end of his international hit, The Encounter, Simon McBurney briefly stands on stage alone, as he has for the previous two hours. But then he tilts his head and the stage is suddenly filled with people – the technicians, sound, lighting and computer programming specialists – who have all made this extraordinary one-man show possible.
The show may be talked about as ‘Simon McBurney’s The Encounter’ but his gesture at the end reminds us that even when there is only one person on stage, theatre is a collaborative process. Robert Lepage’s one-person shows require a similar army of co-creators, not just a back-up team but collaborators essential to the successful creation and delivery of the piece. Whatever the billing, it’s very rare for a theatre show to be made just by one person.
Theatre has a long history of on-going partnerships or collaborations from Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence (a writer/actor and actor) to Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nuebling (a playwright and director), John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett (a director and movement director) or Marianne Elliott with both Anne-Marie Duff and Bunny Christie (a director and actor and designer). The success of Elliott’s recent reimagining of Sondheim’s Company owed a great deal to Christie’s design. Many a playwright’s career has been built on a long-term relationship with a director who champions their work and has the clout to make sure it gets programmed. Think of Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett. Or Rachel O’Riordan and Gary Owen.
The work of Ivo van Hove clearly owes an enormous debt and is intricately connected to the work of his regular designer Jan Versweyveld, who has worked with him for over 20 years on productions ranging from The Roman Tragedies to the West End and Broadway hit, A View from the Bridge.
Real collaboration means, as the Young Vic’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah recently told me in an interview, understanding that the best idea in the room is the best idea, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. “We just need to find the best way of sharing it.” It’s not about who gets the credit.
Theatre critics often like to attribute particular parts of a show to particular creatives listed in the programme, but as Tiffany told me of his and Hoggett’s collaborations, which include the London and Broadway productions of both The Glass Menagerie and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, “If we talk now about the shows we’ve done together, neither of us is actually sure about who is responsible for which bits.”
Yet it often feels as if it is only more recently that British theatre has recognised the power of collaboration rather than celebrating the primary artist as the creator and owner of the show. The published versions of Mike Leigh’s shows are always attributed to him, yet they would not exist without the creative input and improvisational skills of his casts. We talk of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter or of Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when in fact those productions relied on a wide range of collaborators whose contributions can all too easily be lost to theatre history.
There was perhaps an idea in the past that, while theatre requires contributions from many different talents, too many cooks in the rehearsal room can spoil the broth. Somebody has to be in charge.
Often they still are, but old-style hierarchal forms of making are also breaking down as theatre-making changes, and more shows are created through a co-devising process. Also, #MeToo reminds us that abuses of power are more likely to happen when there are unequal power relationships within the rehearsal room.
Projects such as the Lyric’s Secret Theatre initiative, created by an ensemble of creatives and actors, or collaborations such as Tim Cowbury and Jess Latowicki on Made in China, and Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse on Action Hero, indicate a distinct move away from top-down structures. Emma Rice’s shows seldom begin with a full script; the texts are a skeleton upon whose bones the meat is layered during the rehearsal process by a range of creatives.
The long history of successful theatrical partnerships indicate that collaboration is nothing new, but in the past such partnerships were often characterised by the fact that those who collaborated came from similar backgrounds, frequently meeting because they spent time in similar circles or trained at the same university or college. Such partnerships can simply be another way that the arts keep its doors shut against those who do not come from theatre’s traditional constituency – the white, middle classes.
But genuine collaboration offers the opportunity to diversify pools of creativity and right some of the imbalances that have grown, as arts funding has become tighter, and the gap between those who do receive investment and subsidy and those who do not widens.
Since the early 2000s, collaboration has become a buzzword in theatre, with many recognising that it is not “me but we” who can make a difference together. The 2010 conference ‘Stronger Together’ in Newcastle marked a significant moment when British theatre realised that if it was not just to survive austerity but thrive, it had to rethink how the resources in the room might be shared, and how relationships might operate in a different and fairer way. Just as diversity brings creative benefits, so collaboration does too.
The difficulty, of course, is that while an established talent such as Simon Stephens may feel perfectly comfortable writing in an open enough way to allow collaborators to use his script as a template, others may not have acquired the generosity that comes from such success and confidence.
While it is perfectly possible for the Royal Opera House to collaborate with a much smaller, possibly unfunded company, the danger is that the relationship remains an unequal one in which the money and all the cards are held by the richer and bigger partner. In the rush to create collaborations – something now recognised in Arts Council funding agreements – sometimes all that has happened is that David gets trampled by Goliath.
A building offering free rehearsal space to a local company, but only when it suits the building, is not a genuinely generous gesture and certainly not a collaborative act. The cynic will say that too often collaboration is merely “the temporary suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding.”
Real collaboration only comes about when all involved stop protecting their own self-interest and genuinely put other’s interests before your own. One of my favourite quotes about collaboration comes from producer Tanuja Amarasuriya, who said that anyone thinking of an artistic collaboration must believe that “that a successful collaboration is where your collaboration gets more out of it than you do.”
As Charles Darwin once wrote, in the long history of human and animal kind, “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” In the 21st century, it is likely to prove the same for those making theatre.