Designing Collaboration: In Search of a Taxonomy of Collaborative Methods

Designers encounter different collaboration methods all the time across theatres, directors, and colleagues, and we are expected to easily adapt into any situation we find ourselves in. But these stories from my experience epitomize some challenges that many designers and directors run up against. We walk into any new design collaboration (whether with a single unfamiliar colleague or a whole room of them) with figurative blindfolds on, having to spend valuable time and energy feeling everyone out. When we encounter a collaboration method that doesn’t work for us as artists, it’s tempting artists to label that in a negative way—as old-fashioned, naive, or unrealistic. We don’t have collective language to describe these different approaches to collaboration without ascribing value, and we don’t acknowledge the preference and agency that individual designers have over their own collaboration methods. Many designers focus on the need to attune themselves to everyone else’s needs (especially the director’s), without feeling empowered to name their own.

Looking through recently published articles and textbooks, I see clearly that the theater community loves to write about collaboration. Theater is a collaborative art form by nature; A single production can require dozens of different collaborative relationships to be established. A search on HowlRound for “collaboration” in May 2022 (including video, audio, and written content) had over 2700 results, and searching for “theatre collaboration” in Routledge’s database of textbooks currently yields over 950 publications. Even within a small range of publishers, that is a treasure trove of resources.

We don’t have collective language to describe these different approaches to collaboration without ascribing value, and we don’t acknowledge the preference and agency that individual designers have over their own collaboration methods.

The HowlRound content covers collaboration between directors and ensembles, between dramaturgs and playwrights, between directors and playwrights, between playwrights and ensembles. But in the first ten pages of results, only five essays focused on design collaboration—and two of those were from a single series on women in design. Of the hundreds of Routledge textbooks featuring collaboration, the majority are geared towards actors and directors. Seventeen discuss specific design disciplines, six focus on visual elements of theatrical design, and only two are specifically addressed the question of how directors and designers cooperate together. A recently published book called Production Collaboration in the Theater: Guiding Principles—written by coauthors Rufus Bonds, Maria Cominis, and Mark Ramont—takes a particularly wide view, pulling together views of collaboration from all aspects of theatermaking. Across all of these sources, collaboration is addressed for specific design disciplines or by writing about individual designers’ processes; collaboration is addressed for directors, who lead many of the collaborative relationships in theatermaking; and it is addressed for entire productions. So what is missing?

I see a gap hovering right over the table where the director and designers first gather to talk about the play. The particular set of collaborative relationships established at those design meetings are unique and deserve specific attention. How do designers take their individual collaborative methods and fit them into a design team? How do directors give and receive ideas from multiple artistic voices with very different technical needs and deadlines? How does the design team as a whole work to translate the play from written words into visual art on stage? How do those collaborations change and shift in different parts of the production process, from before casting to well into the run of a show? And how are collaboration methods in design specifically affected by questions of budget, scale, theater type, location, or audience? These are questions unique to the collaboration between director(s) and designers.

Skipping from individual artists to entire productions in our discussions about collaboration is doing this very important process a great disservice. Designers can access training and resources to feed our individual process, but very little information on how to navigate the challenges of combining our work with the work and processes of other artists is available. For directors, there are few resources on how to shift from the kind of authority they need to exercise in a rehearsal room to the various ways they could navigate working with multiple designers at once.

I’ve spoken to many designer and director colleagues in the last year about these questions and this gap, and one obstacle consistently emerges in these conversations: we can’t have a collective conversation about director-designer collaboration because every collaboration is so different. We have this perception of collaborations as unique; There are so many distinct personalities and variables involved in every production that it is overwhelming to think about finding commonalities between them. One sound designer told me that his message to design students is, “The definition of collaboration for you is going to change every day.” Many designers see our worth as a collaborator in being adaptable to any type of process, so there is a reluctance to tie ourselves to any particular way of working.

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