I am not a natural or obvious collaborator. I’m really, really not. These days, I spend a lot of time around a lot of people, but (like a lot of writers, I’m sure), left to my own devices I am a natural loner.
And it’s not just a confidence thing. A certain amount of social awkwardness when facing the awfulness of, say, a room full of people in front of whom I must try and appear cool, funny, ‘nice’, or anything else that I really, honestly, unashamedly know I’m NOT, has possibly been a factor in forming this self-sufficient creative-control-freak who groans not-so-inwardly at any mention of enforced ‘group work’. Asked to produce anything artistic, even with a group of talented and thoroughly pleasant people (God help me if it’s other writers), I have two options: 1. Take charge, like the bossy girl at school, and nod politely at everyone’s suggestions whilst writing down whatever I want that has nothing to do with them, or 2. Seize up entirely and say absolutely nothing. I do not have a ‘middle ground’ that allows me to be both creatively inspired and productive, whilst also managing any kind of acceptable social interaction.
So, I’m not a natural collaborator. But, to look at some of the ways I’ve chosen to work on creative projects recently, you wouldn’t necessarily know that. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards processes that involve working closely with other artists, which draw me out of my ‘garrett’ and into the rehearsal room, or to huddle nervously around a piano, or just to gather excitedly in the pub. I spent last summer – one of the most thrilling seasons of my life – working as the writer on the first devised theatre show to be featured in the wonderful 24:7 Theatre Festival. We started with a title, a vague notion of what sort of show we did and didn’t want to make, and absolutely no script at all. Over the space of a couple of months, I worked intensively with a team of 10 very talented people to produce a show that I could never in a lifetime have made by myself. (You can watch our video rehearsal diaries about how we made the show here.)
Actors: the good ones don’t just contribute their own creative skills and ideas (the perilous ‘Wouldn’t it be better if she did this?’), but they also reveal elements of writer’s work that you didn’t know existed. The story I always tell is about the first time I met (and auditioned) my friend Laura. We were casting for my play, Apparition, and she was auditioning for the character of Ruth, who was supposed to be 14. When Laura walked into the room, older and fairer and significantly smilier than I’d pictured the character in my head, I was skeptical. But as she started to play with what was on the page, I realised she had a great deal to teach me about the character I thought I’d finished creating. I thought I’d written this evil, manipulative little bitch, in my oh-so-seriously-dark play – but I was wrong. She was funny.
We cast her, of course, and Ruth grew into a character sillier, more interesting, more complex, and more real than anything I’d ever have managed on my own. It was all there, on paper, but I would never have teased out that particular interpretation in that way. And the play would have been so much poorer for it. Turns out, two heads really ARE better than one. Who knew?
Laura and I are now working on a very special collaborative project with my theatre company, Faro Productions, for later this year. Watch this space.
Of course, that’s theatre, dahling, and everybody knows that a play isn’t really finished until a whole host of other artists (and don’t forget the audience) have got their grubby mitts all over it. But I don’t believe that it’s only playwrights who can benefit from giving their work over to other artists. Many of you already know the value of these sort of creative encounters. A few months ago, I worked on a collaborative ballad for First Draft with some lovely musicians, and discovered a new form for telling stories that I already want to use again and again. And over the last year or so, I’ve been benefiting from the extensive wisdom of five other fiction writers with whom I’m part of a critiquing group, which is a bit like a coven, but more beneficial, and for aspiring novelists. Many of you will have your own success stories about teaming up; we’ve seen some of them on the First Draft stage.
When you do find a compatible collaborator, try to remember how privileged you are. Never will you find a reader or an audience who will give your work as much care and attention as someone who is going to have to perform it in public. That they care enough to argue with you over syntax, or push you to explain the faults you hoped no one else would notice, is the greatest compliment.
So, I suppose this is a bit of a rallying cry, really. To all of you brilliant creatives out there – but especially to writers. Buddy up. Pick a partner and put yourself in their hands. (Literally, if you like. We never get enough good erotic dance acts at First Draft.) Find a partner who can bring something to your work that you couldn’t possibly do yourself. Look at your work from a different angle, have a giggle over your own mistakes, maybe make a new friend. If you are very, very lucky, then watch on, awestruck, as they reveal you to yourself.
Sign up to take the stage with a partner for our 2nd Birthday event: Two’s Company