Hello, and welcome to another installment of the Animal Fire Blog. As I write this we’re in our 5th week of Hamlet rehearsals with just another 2 weeks until we open. I hope you’re all getting excited about our up-coming show, I know I am. The cast is doing a lot of terrific work, and I can’t wait until you all get to see their accomplishments. How about sometime around July 19th?
Okay, enough shameless plugging. Time to get down to business. Today I want to talk to you about getting angry.
Let’s face it, making art is tricky stuff. Art is ephemeral, complicated, and usually fairly indescribable. Creating good art usually means having to open yourself up and letting your emotions run close to the surface. Creating art is also very personal, and usually the people who make it are very passionate and opinionated about the process. Now, all of this would be good if impassioned-indescribable-emotional artists were isolated in special rooms, with thick walls, and told to not come out until they’ve got all of the art out of their systems. Except that’s not how it works. Art wants to collaborate, and the art of theater doubly so. So how do we collaborate in volatile situations? How do we throw ourselves into something with full force, but still have enough presence of mind to stay calm and controlled? How, in short, do we collaborate in an emotional environment without getting overly emotional?
Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers. If I did I would be a master of zen, or possibly a master of Prozac. I’ve been fortunate this year to have a wonderfully collaborative group in the cast of Hamlet, a rare group where everyone is respectful and keeps a level head. However, I also think that a little friction in collaboration is a good thing. If someone is advocating for an idea it means they care, and if they care, then they are invested in the work. I want to work with invested artists. I want to work with people who are passionate about what they do, but I also want to be able to work with them without forming a toxic environment. I’ve been in plays where emotions have become over-heated, and I would very much like to avoid plays like that. I think pretty much everyone would, and I want to look at a few ways that can help avoid those kinds of plays.
One of the foremost things I often need to remind myself of is to not take artistic disagreements personally. When collaboration happens often times two artists will have differing options about an artistic choice that has to be made. This is fine and is part of collaboration. The job of the artist is to argue their point and explain why they feel that moving in a particular direction is the best decision. This is exactly what rehearsals are all about. However, I think it’s good to keep in mind that when someone disagrees with your idea that is all they’re actually doing. They’re not attacking you, they’re just trying to make the best possible show they can. Separating your ideas from yourself can be very difficult. It is something I often struggle with it. However, getting upset about it is pointless. You’ll be angry, unfocused, and probably closed off to new ideas for the rest of the day. You also might miss the point where the other person explains their idea in a way that finally drives it home for you, and consequently create something that is less than what it had the potential to be. I think it helps to remember that the other person ideally has the same goal as you: to make the show better. We all want to do the best work we can, right?
Another thing to keep in mind is that an argument should only be about one point at a time. Dragging up bad feelings about past disagreements doesn’t do any good for anybody. You are collaborating and you are going to have disagreements. This is part of the process, but you can’t hold grudges if you want to collaborate for any extended period of time. Now, collaboration can be very trying. It can feel like you have to defend every single idea you have, and it can sometimes make you tired, flustered, and edgy. And if one person disagrees with you multiple times in rapid succession it can be all too easy to just dismiss them as argumentative. But in doing so you might miss out on an opportunity to make something greater than it is. As soon as you dismiss someone without hearing their ideas you’ve taken away a whole person’s worth of potential away from it. You’ve set yourself up to make a worse show. Even if someone has a hundred bad ideas, and badgers you for ten minutes about each one of them, their one-hundred and first idea could be a gem. It could be the spark that propels the show to greatness. By cutting them off you have only hurt yourself. As difficult as it is, I believe that you have to be able to wipe the slate clean with people after every argument. Let’s assume you skipped my earlier paragraphs and it does get personal and hurtful, if you don’t always give someone the benefit of the doubt then you are not actually collaborating. Collaboration is the heart of theatre.
Now, I should take a moment and clarify something. What I’m talking about avoiding is a type of communication breakdown that happens when collaborative artists become too impassioned about what they’re working on. I think that if people are willing to make concessions and not hold grudges, most problems can be worked out in a professional manner. However, some people are just toxic. Occasionally you will have to work with someone that is just a mean, spiteful asshole. It’s a big world, and it happens. But if you want any success around this type of person you have got to take the higher road. Fighting with them will accomplish nothing but more fighting, and they will hold a grudge.
I’d like to conclude by saying that this is something I have to constantly work at, and it’s hard. But I think that it can bear wonderful fruit in the rehearsal room. If I can help foster a space where no one is afraid to speak their ideas, then the show will always be working with the best ideas in the room. Personally I don’t want to work on a show that does anything less.