On Collaboration

My Experiences With The Perks And Pitfalls of Collaboration

Theater, film-making, and television are different in a multitude of ways, but they all depend intensely on collaboration. Like most contemplations on collaboration, I will begin with a quote by tennis great Andre Agassi:

“If I didn’t play at the same time Pete Sampras was, I’d have won a lot more championships, but I also wouldn’t have been nearly as good a tennis player.”

To me, that’s a fascinating insight. It speaks to core values: do you want to “win” (which, in the arts, is at best a nebulous concept), or do you want to maximize your potential? Of course, the line between collaboration and competition often blurs, but I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. To quote someone who I’m willing to bet was not a very good tennis player at all:

“It was a good competition. Paul would bring something really good, and so that would kick me into trying to come up with something good, too, which would then do the same for him.” – John Lennon

John and Paul helped each other out far more often than has until recently been generally perceived (who would’ve thought it was Lennon who suggested the lovely horns in the decidedly McCartney-ish song, “Mother Nature’s Son,” or that it was Paul who helped John with some of the surrealist imagery in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Newspaper taxis arrive on the shore/Waiting to take you away” was Paul’s). Not to mention it was an uncredited George Harrison who came up with “Ah, look at all the lonely people” for “Eleanor Rigby.”

Anyway, my point is, I think collaboration is often a wonderful thing. In TV and film writing, it’s a given that there will be dozens and dozens of fingerprints all over your script. That’s why they pay you a relatively large sum of money: to stop you grumbling about it.

You Never Give Me Your Money (Seeing As I’m Now In a Beatles Frame Of Mind)

In theater, however, large payouts are rare, to put it mildly. What theater does afford as a compensation, however, is TOTAL CONTROL OF YOUR TEXT. Not a word, not a comma, can be changed without your explicit imprimatur. Does that feel good? Dear God, yes. Is it something I tend to invoke a lot during the rehearsal process? Very seldom.

Why? Because, if I feel I’m working with gifted and intelligent professionals, it seems an act of self-defeating arrogance to not listen to the input of others. This doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my writing. It reflects a faith in my collaborators (and if you don’t have that, well, the production’s probably not going ever gel anyway).

Any semi-smart playwright will tell you that you learn an immense amount about your play when you hear it aloud. For many – certainly for me – I often realize that I’ve over-explained and/or over-written. These are not necessarily the same thing. Over-explaining is the reiteration of a point I’ve already established (often something I’m guilty of). Over-writing is taking a little too much pleasure in the sound of your voice (something I consider myself guilty of until proven innocent).

You Must Kill, Or At Least Temporarily Brutally Imprison, Your Darlings

I think we’re all familiar with that axiom, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb. But who’s more likely to arrive at an emotional attachment to your words – you, or your director/actors/crew? Sadly, it’s almost inevitably they who’ve the clearer eye with such things. But it’s a fine line, right? Hemingway said to write your story, then take all of the good lines out. Then you have your story. Certainly a good warning to not fall in love too much with your own voice.

But what if Fitzgerald had taken all the good lines out of The Great Gatsby? What a tragic loss that would’ve been. One of the most important things the two legendary authors had in common was a brilliant collaborator, the editor Maxwell Perkins, whom they both trusted to simultaneously respect their individual voices and yet maintain a sharp critical eye. What a gift to have someone like that in your corner.

I don’t think I’m diminishing the genius of either Arthur Miller nor Tennessee Williams when I observe that in the span of three years Elia Kazan directed, in succession, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. Both Williams and Miller were on the top of their game, but so, clearly, was Kazan.

I Try To Be Very Forgiving Of My Flaws When I Write, But At Least Equally As Merciless With Myself When I Edit. Also, When I Have A Say With Whom I Work.

I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of people with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate. People who’ve unquestionably elevated the quality of my writing. But because I consider a good collaborator to be so essential, I choose them carefully and make my best efforts to show how much faith I have in them. This isn’t to say I’ve always agreed or acquiesced. In one play of mine, I make a joke about Leni Riefenstahl. You know, like you do. Both the director and actor pleaded with me with increasing desperation to cut the joke. “People won’t get it,” I was told. “Many people won’t,” I’d always respond, “but enough will.”

The first preview, I sat next to the director, and when joke landed beautifully, I looked over with a no doubt unbearable smugness on my face which, to his everlasting credit, he didn’t punch.

Having said that, if an actor is telling you a line doesn’t feel right, either in their mouths or for their characters, you’d better listen carefully. After all, it’s their character now, too.

I’d mentioned in the intro about the “pitfalls” of collaboration, and to be sure, they can exist. Working with people whose vision of things doesn’t jibe with yours. People who demonstrably don’t like your work, not just have an issue with a particular part of it. People who – and they’re usually pretty quick to spot – are in it just for themselves. And sometimes, despite them being good, kind people, collaborators whose work, if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t hold in high regard. Those are all dealbreakers to me. Collaboration is so important, is such a valuable thing, that you have to be as scrupulous as possible when picking your partners (on those rare chances you have control over that).

Hey Gang, We Can Do The Show Right Here!

And after all, collaboration, to me, is one of the joys of playwriting. It affords me the perfect ratio of solitude and company. I got into to the theater to be with people I trusted and who generally saw the world the same I did. That’s why I still do it. I’d list all the collaborators who’ve added qualitatively to my plays, but the list would be too long, and inevitably I’d forget someone. Moreover, there are people who’ve done so whom I’m sure I’m not even aware of. Playwrights can be pretty self-involved during rehearsals (and all other waking hours).

I don’t feel especially qualified to advise anyone on what to do. About anything. Even picking heads or tails. All I can tell you is the two things that have helped me the most by far: Read and write as constantly and relentlessly as you can. And then, judiciously but consciously, when you find an artist you trust, finagle a way to get them as involved with your work as possible. Theater is a team sport. Find the smartest, kindest, most open-hearted people you can and keep them close. Probably good advice off-stage, too.

In both cases, boy, have I lucked out. I wish you the same!

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: