Collaboration and Collective Creativity: the evolution of a process of theatre-making in 12 words

Collaboration and collective creativity

In 2019, I had the opportunity to explore the application of collaboration and collective creativity while directing a large-scale production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. The full record of The Amadeus Project, Schull, can be found at karenminihan.wordpress.com and the majority of the photos in this post come from that production, including this photo of the set.

When did I notice that I was interested in this idea of collaboration and collective creativity?

I’m not entirely sure. I know that when I applied to UCC in 2015 it was established as an idea, following a lifetime of involvement in productions as actor, street performer, director, teacher and facilitator. When I prepared my application for a post-graduate degree I was using this terminology and seeking to explore it further in an academic context.

What do I mean by the phrase: collaboration and collective creativity?  The dictionary definitions are:

 

    collaborate 1. work jointly, esp. in a literary or artistic  production. 

    collective  3. of or from several or many individuals
                 
    creative    1. inventive and imaginative
                2. creating or able to create

            The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th edn. 1990

     

The words

Before I give you the definition I use as it currently exists, I will explain further to you in 12 words.

1. Connection and  2. Freedom

I had done a few drama courses in the 90s, especially with the Drama League of Ireland, which involved much analysis of plays and systems of learning with the other participants in the evenings. A lot of the thinking came from that learning. Despite working in industrial-type school rooms of Gormonston College, Co Meath, with little style, comfort, set or costumes, we created moments of magic through the performances and embodiment of the actors as we worked through the week and learned of various techniques and exercises, now commonplace for actors.

From then on, whenever I directed, I took a note of what I wished to do and to achieve, whatever games and exercises I used. And what my aim for the session was. 

Aims photo, Amadeus Rehearsal Day 2

Increasingly,  a sense of bringing people together was part of that planning—how to focus on the individuals in front of me so as to create a joint energy that would seem to come if we could access the sub-conscious.

I aimed each time to reach a connection where a sense of freedom permeated the work, building a collective feeling, where creativity flourished and moments of magic happened. 

Because freedom is fundamental––freedom to play, to disregard judgment, the freedom to fail.

This expression, the freedom to fail requires a longer explanation. For now, I’ll explain it simply, I wish to give everyone participating the freedom to get it wrong, to feel no pressure to be right, so they (and I) can believe that they can explore and have no negative consequences.

It is tricky for people to accept (why, I wonder?) and I wonder too about the negativity within the message…I am open to finding a positive perspective on it!

3. Co-Creation   

It is a whole life process, in my view. I can’t separate my life from my work. Each learning in one area imbues the other with understanding. 

Part of the evolution has had to do with being around others with whom I talk about the things of life. It could be my friends or colleagues, strangers or artists. We could be discussing work or how our creativity expresses itself. I speak to friends who are counsellors, therapists, coaches, foodies, friends who are really good at parenting. 

All people who continuously explore their lives. 

And I speak to a lot of teachers, especially when I was working as a drama teacher. Plus, teachers abound in my family!

For about a year in 2017/18 I organised a casual group of people to talk ‘creativity’ for an hour on a Monday morning. There was no other agenda, whoever came came––writers, artists: full-time, part-time––the conversation started without an agenda and it always flowed. 

For example, I particularly loved the discussion on when ideas come to creatives. One woman had to sit instantly wherever she was to capture the words (once in the loo!) or they would be gone. Another just worked and worked, consistently, determinedly. 

Whenever I meet people to converse in this way, with one person or many, I always leave having exchanged links to sites, poetry, artists, music… Invariably, one creative idea borrows another, the atmosphere increases in excitement and my work has a new impetus. 

4. Equality

The common thread is that I am learning from those conversations and so when the time is right, they inspire me to act in a different way. 

So, there was the kindergarten teacher who meditated on his class every morning before beginning his day and I began to do this too.  

There was the midwife who spoke of learning to horseride in middle-age and spoke of using a system which applies a ratio of 51:49 to the relationship between rider and horse––as close to 50:50 as is possible. I endeavored to bring this 51/49 system to my teaching, my directing, to facilitating. I retain a ‘holding’ role, for safety and respect, but otherwise, the sharing––the learning––is equal between students/ participants and me as the leader. 

5. Courage and 6. Openness

While the ultimate aim is the work of the group, the collective, I believe that one begins with oneself…as an actor / student of acting…

The renowned theatre director, Peter Brook, commenting on the theory of Jerzy Grotowski says,

The actor has himself as his field of work…. His hand, his eye, his ear, and his heart are what he is studying and what he is studying with.  

Peter Brook, “The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate”, 1996, p.59.

An actor will continue to explore themselves on many levels right through their performing life and presumably in their personal life also.  The success of any rehearsal process will depend on the openness of the actors and where they are in the personal development of their talents. 

It takes courage to open oneself on this emotional level. It takes self-belief and a willingness to be vulnerable.

Speaking of vulnerability, I couldn’t explain to you what the feeling is like post-performance or post-reading my own work. I don’t have the words to describe it. It is tortuous really. Personally I act through receiving the responses and there is no point in getting a critique at that time. I will only hear the negative feedback and hardly take on the positive. 

Yet, there is nothing else like the experience of being on stage performing or creating those experiences as a director––the exchange of energy with an audience, the constant searching for that one moment where that audience and you are in perfect symbiosis and the audience is in your outstretched palm.

7. Sensitivity   

Many of the exercises I choose when preparing group workshops involve the actor becoming more sensitive to themselves, searching for a greater degree of quietness and stillness within; the aim being to bring an added awareness to their training and exploration. 

Through the exercises, I spend time concentrating on making the actors more aware of others around them and how we humans interact with each other; bringing attention to the subtle means by which we interrelate, the subtleties that make performances credible. 

The aim is to make the participants more comfortable with each other. It often involves an acute mental focus or physical contact, which develops in intensity as the weeks of work move on. 

Planning how this progresses will depend on the particular group I am facing, their temperaments and stages of learning. Consideration of this plan is fundamental to any work. The choice of exercises and the intention for any class is an instinctive response to those involved and requires a consideration––a meditation––on the group. The exercises I employ, exploring the relationships with other actors as they work together, are very familiar to drama students.

8 Embodiment  

…we are aware that he is not really making the music, it is making him – if he is relaxed, open and attuned, then the invisible will take possession of him; through him, it will reach us.

Peter Brook, “The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate”, 1996, p.42.

As theatre-makers, we are obviously always considering movement and the body in performance. Practices such as yoga, pilates, dance or other fitness regimes are essential elements of that work. Increasingly, I am becoming attuned to embodiment in a deeper way, through self-awareness that comes with yoga over many years and other practices such as Somatic Movement or Feldencrais. 

The mind / body / energy axis brings a different awareness to me, makes me more at ease. And in a group, the more at ease each of the participants is, the greater the opportunity for collective creativity to emerge. 

9. Space and 10. Spaciousness

I have become fascinated with these words and the various layers of understanding and meaning that comes with investigating them.

This idea of space and spaciousness requires a consideration (in a future post) of how to unpack our experiences and understanding of these concepts that includes considering music, stillness, quietness and connection between actors, and between them and an audience. Even the amount of space I allow between paragraphs in this post!

From a theatrical point of view, what I also need to consider and allow is sufficient space––here I mean time––for our learning to settle and be absorbed by the participants; for the learning to take place with gentle energy in the execution of the actions requested in any rehearsal process. 

An acute awareness of the physical space that actors inhabit is also an intrinsic quality for me. When actors find their place in the setting, explore it for themselves and for the characters they are playing, this knowledge is enlightening and useful for the play development. 

This is linked too to an awareness of an artistic and architectural space in terms of the design of the set and the overall production, which should complement and be part of any process of exploration of the play in rehearsal.

11. Fun

I couldn’t find the place for the word ‘fun’ before now. But that shouldn’t belie its importance. Fun is intrinsic to my nature and essential to the way I work. It’s like an overarching principle of working for me. 

With the strong desire I have to work in a communal way, encouraging communication between participants through fun and laughter can bring a sharing that can break down barriers immediately. Finding a way to be playful is an essential key to the work. 

In fact, I have found that in writing for my own performances, though I like to consider poignant and difficult topics, my work is most effective when it is balanced equally with humour. 

  …theatre should be happiness, it should help us learn about ourselves and our times.

Augusto Boal, GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS, 1992, p.16.

12. Synergy

The ultimate intention with this process of collaboration and collective creativity, is to create room––a space––where all of the foregoing elements brought together result in creating a synergy of creativity and connection that is encouraged to bloom and grow.

The Definition

So, to the definition of collaboration and collective creativity that I have eventually adopted: 

It is a quality of cooperation in a creative context that I mean by collaboration and collective creativity.  This process creates a working environment of close connection between people and that results in the minds and bodies of those involved to be free to play and create. It often happens in improvisation and can even happen in simple conversation, where parties are so open and aware that the sharing becomes a symbiotic flow of ideas and inspiration, one to the other. And a space is made where a synergy of co-creation occurs.

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