A Guide To Collaboration
A lot of people have asked me for advice regarding collaboration, as well as about my experiences with collaborating. Collaborating on a new work, specifically as a writer, can either be one of the greatest experiences ever, or one of the absolute worst. I find it is a topic not often discussed, and sometimes a few helpful hints can make a world of difference. So, this is my guide on how to have a successful collaboration. I have divided it up into three sections: 1.) Co writing 2.) Separate but equal collaboration 3.) Ensemble collaboration.
1.) Co writing
To be brutally honest: tread with EXTREME caution. I know that sounds cryptic, but it’s true for many, many reasons. Especially since this tends to be one of the most common types of collaboration, and it is often entered into very causally. “Hey BFF – we should totally write a movie together!” “I have this cool idea for a play, wanna write it with me?” etc. It’s also the easiest to enter into for the wrong reasons.
Entering into any kind of collaboration, but especially co writing, is the equivalent of getting married. And that’s not simply metaphoric – it’s meant in a very literal, legal sense too. Actually, it’s like getting married and instantly having a child. Only, where as when an actual marriage doesn’t work out the two parties can get divorced and, as painful and difficult as it may be, can in a way “divide” the child between them, when you’re in a co authored collaboration that doesn’t work out your only options are to force yourselves to stay together to keep the child (your work) alive, or, quite literally, kill the metaphoric baby. When you enter into a co authorship you are creating what is legally termed a “joint work.” This means that the elements of that work cannot be separated. You can’t sit down and say: “well, I came up with the idea, so that’s mine, but you came up with the characters, so those are yours, and I think I wrote this line of dialogue, so that’s mine…” and then go your separate ways and rewrite your material using none of the influence of the other party. You either stay together and follow through on the show/film, or the idea is basically dead (unless the other party gives you WRITTEN, not verbal, permission to go it alone, which is what happened when Jonathan Larson’s original “Rent” collaborator lost interest in the project.) Now there are some possible exceptions to this. You can retain an idea if it is completely yours. You cannot, however, use, or claim credit for ANYTHING that you jointly came up with with your collaborator. So if you’re really able to reboot completely from scratch, with no copy write infringement, it’s possible, though very difficult.
Co writing is also like a marriage in that you get to know your collaborator intimately. You may be friends with the person you’re collaborating with, you may admire them, but that’s not enough to keep a collaboration together. It’s the same as when two friends become roommates. Sometimes it works out great. Sometimes it destroys the relationship. Your collaborator may work at a different speed then you – do you finish all your writing in less then a week? You may be harassing your collaborator who takes months to finish an equivalent assignment to hurry up. Or visa versa. You might like your collaborator’s writing, but are your writing styles compatible with each other? Is it painfully clear who wrote which scenes? Just because you like someone’s work doesn’t mean you should collaborate with them.
And more then that – collaborations can go south on tiny things. You will be spending a great deal of time in each other’s company. You will be in each other’s homes. You will be eating the same food. You will be hanging out with their friends, and they with yours. At some point they will do something to hurt your feelings, and visa versa. Many of the adjustments you have to make when you marry someone, you will have to make when you collaborate with someone.
And most important of all, you must both be telling the same story. If you have different ideas about the theme, structure, or how the story should be told, it’s not going to work. If one person is not open to hearing criticism or rewriting, it’s not going to work. If one of you is more enthusiastic about the project then the other, it’s not going to work. I personally have only co written two pieces in my life. Not that I haven’t had the opportunity to co write more. They were only entered into after careful thought. Here is a checklist for when you’re deciding whether or not to co write a piece with someone.
1.) Why are we interested in telling this story? Are we unified in our reasoning?
2.) Do I respect this person as an artist?
3.) Do I respect this person as a human being?
4.) Is this person open to critiques, and rewriting?
5.) Am I open, and comfortable with receiving critiques from them?
6.) Is this someone that I want to spend many hours with, every week for months, and possibly years?
7.) Is this someone I can see being in my life for a very long time?
8.) If this person and I are not getting along personally, are we both able to put that aside and maintain a professional relationship?
9.) Is there a reason why it is more beneficial to write this story with this person then it would be for either one of us to write it alone? The fact that we could hang out and it would be “more fun” is not an acceptable reason. This is one of the MOST important questions on this list.
10.) Does working with this person inspire me? Or make me feel worse about myself, and my abilities?
If you have not positively answered EVERY one of these questions DO NOT enter into a co authorship. I’ll use one of my collaborations as an example. Right now I’m in the process of co writing a play. I’ve answered all the questions in the affirmative. For question #9 I would say that my collaborator and I, while sharing similar artistic likes, and vocabulary each have different areas of expertise, and different artistic backgrounds. We are therefore able to compliment each other with our strengths.
Once you have decided to co write, sit down with your collaborator and establish the following.
1.) While friendship is a helpful aspect of collaboration it is not a NECESSAIRY aspect. I repeat: as sad as it may sound, it is not necessary for collaborators to be friends. If you are friends, put it to the side when you are actually working. My collaborators and I often, vocally, establish “professional” time, and “friend” time when we are together. Talk beforehand about what your professional relationship will be. This includes (potentially) drawing up contracts, establishing “credit,” and royalty percentages, as well as what your actual process will be. No, do not think “oh, but we’ll be fine, we’re buddies, we don’t need a contract.” Think in terms of a worse case scenario. You do. I don’t care how close you are. This will also prevent any potential business issues from destroying a friendship if one already exists. On the flip side, being co writers means you're going to have to get personal with each other - to a degree. You will be spending a lot of time with each other, and talking about the emotional issues you're writing about. Personal things are going to come up. You may be good friends, you may not, but you need to be able to listen to, and support each other as caring adults regardless.
2.) Spend a lot, and I mean a LOT of time talking before you actually start writing. Talk about what excites you about the project. Be very clear, and unified about what the theme of your story is. Exchange movies, books, music, etc. that you think are relevant and inspiring to your project. Create a VERY detailed outline for your story. Talk about the characters. This can last for weeks. The more unified you are now – the more heartache you will save later. Talk through each scene in detail. While you may come up with wonderful things when actually writing, neither of you should be hugely surprised by plot, structure, character development/voice, and general action when reading pages the other has finished.
3.) Discuss what your writing process will look like. Who will write what? How will rewrites happen? Are you comfortable with the other person making changes to scenes you have written, or do you want them to run all changes by you first? How do you each like to receive criticism? How do you both like to structure? Can you combine your methods?
4.) Stick to the process you have decided upon.
5.) Be generous with your collaborator, and go out of your way to understand and support their process. In theory, they should be doing the same for you. If they have a favorite book on writing, and always use the basic outline said book suggests – read the book. Likewise, pass on materials that have become a part of your vocabulary. Read everything the other has written. Learn their strengths and weaknesses – but only as a means towards better collaboration. Above all, support them. Go see their shows. In essence, be the best boyfriend/girlfriend ever.
6.) Despite the marriage and boyfriend/girlfriend analogy, NEVER become romantically involved with your collaborator. There are two exceptions. 1.) If you have finished work on a particular project and are not actually in the process of writing together. 2.) If you are 110% sure that said romance will end in marriage. Long lasting, forever marriage. Remember, co writers are co writers for life. There’s no such thing as true “divorce.”
7.) Be honest. If something is done, or said in a way that upsets you, be sensitively up front about it as soon as possible. Don’t get angry, but calmly explain how said action affected you, and try to resolve it quickly. You don’t want things to boil up between you. This way you can also learn more about your collaborator, and can develop a stronger shorthand between you. Honesty also means keeping promises. If you say you will have a scene to your collaborator by Friday morning – make sure they have it by Friday morning at the latest. Of course emergencies happen, but by and large you should be on time, preferably early. Don’t be the one who has to be given fake deadlines to make sure you actually get things in on time. As Neil Gaiman says, “You must have two of the following three to be successful: Talented, On Time, or Nice. You can be talented and nice, but not on time. You can be on time and nice, but not talented, etc.” I’ll go a step further and suggest you keep all your bases covered. Be talented, on time, AND nice. It’ll only help you.
You and your collaborator will be on intimate terms, whether you like it or not. In a dream scenario, your work will be picked up by a producer, and be very successful. But keep in mind, as wonderful as that may be, you and your collaborator will be jointly responsible for every decision a writer has to make. There is no swing vote. There’s no majority rules. You both must agree on a director, cast, design team and concept, contractual negotiations, etc. You will disagree about something, somewhere, and you need to know you’re working with a person you can come out the other side of it with. No matter what your personal relationship you will still have to attend opening nights/premiers with this person, do interviews with them, if your work is successful – forever.
2.) Separate But Equal Collaboration
While many of the same rules apply, this kind of collaboration has a little more wiggle room. This type of collaboration refers to situations where the collaborators, while equal contributors, do not have the same job. The best example is in musical theater. You might have one person writing the book (script), one writing the lyrics, and one writing the music. Often you may have one person writing the book AND lyrics, and another writing the music – in which case more of the co writing issues above come into play, since there is no tie breaker in decision making. However, because the work, though collaborative, exists in two different mediums (words and music) it is more possible to separate responsibility and contribution. On the flip side, you may have multiple composers, or even composer lyricists.
A word of warning. Due to slightly grey copy write laws musicals very frequently are considered “joint works” whether the contributions can be separated or not. This is helpful in one respect – namely producers can’t try to play collaborators against each other, but difficult if there is a genuine desire by both parties to separate their work. This gets fuzzy, and is something to be discussed before entering into a collaboration.
But in essence, if I have written music for a song, and I don’t like the lyricist I’m working with, I can always take my music and have someone else do new lyrics. Case in point – Andrew Lloyd Webber replacing the original “Phantom of the Opera” lyricist with lyricist Charles Hart. You do have to be careful of copy write infringement – the new lyrics must be truly new lyrics, but it is possible to separate your work. It also means you, or your collaborator(s) can be fired. In the play I’m currently co writing – the production team could, in theory (though this gets into tricky legal water as well since a playwright does have the option to withdraw their contribution and keep a show from opening if they don’t like the way a production is going) if I am causing major problems, ban me from rehearsal – but they couldn’t ever fire me. If, however, someone has only contributed in one area, it is possible to replace them (within legal parameters.)
But, on the whole, the same rules apply as in the section on co authorship. The not needing to be friends, I think, applies even more here, since you are all doing different jobs. I have several composers who I collaborate with often. I like them all very much. But I will decide who to approach on a new project based on how right I think their style is for the show, not on who I most want to hang out with. Sometimes that may mean working with somebody completely new. But it’s about the work first. And I always go through both checklists listed above.
3.) Ensemble Collaboration
This refers to all other types of collaboration: designers and directors, actors and actors, actors and directors, writers and directors, basically everything that goes on in a rehearsal process.
Actors and designers are in a unique position in that, most often they are being hired, as opposed to being part of a mutual decision to form an equal collaboration. But no matter in what capacity you’re going to be working with someone, this is one of the most important pieces of advice I can give. And it most especially relates to writers deciding to work with a director (since they will literally be handing their “baby” over to this director, and have them interpret their work.)
If you decide to collaborate with someone – you must give them your full trust. If you do not fully trust them – DON’T WORK WITH THEM!
We’ve all seen it. Writers who are completely uncompromising in the rehearsal room, not listening to feedback, treating each word as solid gold. Actors who argue about a scene’s interpretation, directors who constantly criticize actors, etc. This can stem from a lot of things but, I think, it boils down to trust. Someone doesn’t trust someone else to do their job. Either this is coming from naïveté and insecurity, or it’s because the person in question really DOESN’T know how to do their job. Only you can decide which it is. If it’s incompetence, you shouldn’t be working with them. If they in fact are doing a good job, then you need to start acting like a collaborator.
In the best circumstances, everyone in a rehearsal room should be treated as an equal collaborator. Here are some suggestions to help that happen:
1.) Treat everyone as equal. Treat everyone as collaborators. This means that you are not the most important person in the room. Likewise, your opinions are just as important as everyone else’s. Stick to your area of focus (i.e. don’t start giving inappropriate suggestions for things that don’t concern you) but, when it is appropriate, feel free to be a part of the conversation. And if you are the director, if you really treat everyone as a collaborator you will do worlds for the quality of the show, and morale. Be a benevolent leader. Not a dictator.
2.) Know when it’s appropriate to say your piece. My general advice is this: Once you’re in the rehearsal room, the director is the captain of the ship. Unless something they say confuses you to the degree that you will not be able to do what is being asked (in which case ask for clarification), just get on with it. However, make time before rehearsal to make sure you get to share anything you think is important. When I am the writer, I always sit down with a director well before rehearsals begin and share everything I could ever want to say about my work. We talk about it. Then I know that the director has all the information I have, and can trust that it will be utilized when necessary while working on the show. The same as an actor. Usually you’ll have time during table work, but when I’m acting I will have a discussion with the director where we can get on the same page, and I can ask questions before blocking starts. If you’re directing – you should make sure you’re getting together with the writer, actors, musical director, etc. before rehearsal. If something comes up in rehearsal that you disagree with, especially as the writer, I highly suggest asking if you can have a chance to discuss it after rehearsal – AWAY FROM THE REST OF THE COMPANY. Again, all collaboration is in some ways like a marriage. Keep disagreements private.
3.) Be a giving collaborator, not a taking collaborator. How can you most effectively help your collaborators do THEIR job to the best of their ability? Go out of your way to make their job as easy as possible. If they need something, be happy and eager to do it.
4.) Know how to ask for what you need. If you need more time to work on something, ask for it. If you need time to discuss an issue, ask for it. If you need extra help, ask for it. If you need to hear your harmony again, ask. A professional is someone who knows what they need, and asks. Do your job efficiently, but know what will best help you to do it. Unless you’re asking for things constantly, no one will begrudge giving you what you need. Hey, helping you be your best means making the whole show better. And it’s so much nicer then just having to guess that someone needs something. It’ll be more of a problem if you never speak up. Then nothing will ever get accomplished. It’ll eventually come out during tech when there’s no time to do anything about it. Then everyone will just be frustrated.
5.) Be willing to try anything once. Unless you feel unsafe, or do not feel that the suggestion is coming from any sort of trustworthy place (in which case, see “don’t work with someone untrustworthy,”) try anything once. Try that new line. Try the new objective. Try adjusting that scene. The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, and you go back to what you were doing before. Be brave.
6.) Stand up for your work, when truly appropriate. AFTER the “try everything once” rule – if you REALLY feel strongly about something, say so. The more giving, and generous you are, the more you’re apt to be respected when you do (nicely) give a strong opinion about something. Then it’s everyone else’s turn to exercise the “try everything once” rule. It’s only fair.
7.) Listen to the feedback you’re getting. This is especially for writers. You don’t have to listen to HOW people are telling you to fix something, but if multiple people are consistently telling you to fix something, you need to listen. Try to get down to the essence of WHAT is not clear. Sometimes that means asking questions and translating a comment into vocabulary that’s helpful for you. Then it’s your job to fix it however you think is best. But if there’s an issue, don’t ignore it. And whatever you do, don’t try to justify it by blaming it on the acting, directing, line reading, or anything else. Your work should be actor/director proof. Then having great actors/directors will only make it better. Remember, your theme – your reason for doing the show won’t change. But there are a thousand ways to express it. I like to think of it like doing a crossword puzzle: the clue won’t change, but there are many, many words that could work as the answer. You just have to find the one that fits in the allotted space. But the clue never changes. Same with theme – and that’s why you started working on the show in the first place.
8.) Be humble. Seriously. Make humble your default setting.
9.) Be confident. But remember, humility still comes first. Be humbly confidant.
10.) Learn from everyone.
11.) The show is the most important thing. The show is more important then you, or anyone else. Everything must be in service of the show.
The rules above become somewhat of a mute point when you are NOT working with capable, trustworthy artists. In those instances focus on #8, 9 and 11. But do what needs to be done to protect the show. But always make it a learning experience. WHY did you find yourself in this situation? How can you try to prevent it from happening again?
Collaboration, like any meaningful relationship, can be challenging, but hugely rewarding. Be the kind of collaborator you want to have, and above all remember that this is a business relationship. Treat it as such.
And I leave you with this:
“The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.”