The Art of Collaboration

I recently spent sixteen days holed up in a lovely repurposed church on 44th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Many writers will recognize that as the location of New Dramatists. I was selected to take part in their annual Composer-Librettist Studio, run in collaboration with Nautilus Music-Theater, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. The assignment: write five new musical-theater songs with five different writers utilizing the gifts of five performers in various configurations from solos to ensembles. Oh, and we had about 36 hours to complete each assignment.

Yes, that’s technically what happened, but it’s a gross over-simplification. To say it was the most insane creative experience of my life is totally accurate. But to call it invigorating and deeply inspiring also hits a bullseye.

For while we discussed finding a musical-theater piece’s natural dramatic arc and craft in the lyric and music, the focus of the workshop was on seven collaborative principals, shared over the five assignments. Outlined by Nautilus Music-Theater Artistic Director, Ben Krywosz, they are:

  • Develop trust and respect: creating a space where collaborators can speak openly about what’s important to them and encourage each other to take risks. Learning how to listen and consider each other’s point of view.
  • Come to a common understanding of the challenge: asking a collaborator their understanding of a particular challenge, how it might be solved and how to measure the solution’s success.
  • Create a shared space: developing a space that reflects the work collaborators are trying to accomplish and makes room for both to be heard.
  • Be clear about intention, roles and agendas: discussing what values and approaches work best for each collaborator and what goals they may have individually and in partnership with regard to the project.
  • Expand your capacity for making decisions: outlining how decisions are made, individually and as a team, and learning how and when to express disagreements when there is not a consensus.
  • Generate and manipulate models: learning how to synthesize the collaborators’ sometimes differing ideas into one unified approach through experimentation and a sense of play.
  • Use outside resources and strategies: soliciting outside assistance when necessary, recognizing we each have a broad network of people with various skill sets at our disposal.

The high volume of output during the studio only underscores the need for the above collaborative principals. With so little time available, it would have been tempting to haphazardly strike out on our own, hoping for the best. Rather, we were encouraged to ask each other what we wanted to accomplish with each collaboration and what kinds of writing practices worked best for us. This often helped minimize road blocks and gave us more clarity when surprises showed up.

In my experience, its a rare thing to finish the same song you set out to write. No matter how well you’ve mapped it out, inevitably a realization about the character unveils itself in the lyric writing process, forcing the writer(s) to rethink the road map. This can be a wonderful thing, of course, so long as you’re willing to rebuild your dream house of cards. Navigating those conversations is very important. It’s here most disagreements can rear their heads (especially under a deadline). It was helpful to be daily reminded of these principals and how they served (and even protected) us as we wrote together.

My first collaboration with librettist Kate Cortesi brought a great opportunity to practice some of these principals. I had a moment of frustration when Kate made a comment about my music that felt disparaging (by the way, I have her permission to share this!). I said, “I’m so over this song,” not recognizing I had completely shut down the lines of communication. Thankfully, I came to my senses about two minutes later and apologized for my comment, addressing the musical issue at hand. We had a wonderful, honest conversation about the situation and our collaborative efforts paid off in the song. Plus, my respect for Kate as an artist and person continues to go through the roof.

Is it just me or is this level of transparency and emotional vulnerability rare in any kind of relationship? I marvel that so many of us in the studio were able to “go there” in such a short amount of time. This to the credit of our wonderful consortium of composers, writers and performers, the studio directors Ben Krywosz, Roger Ames and New Dramatists.

As you would expect, every one of the five collaborations was completely different. In some, I felt as if I was the dominant one, with strong opinions about our character’s dramatic-emotional arc in a song. In others, I was an equal partner and in still another I let the librettist take the reigns. It was a rich smorgasbord of collaborations, which required me to adjust my behavior to make room for the other.

A footnote here. Before the workshop started, each composer, writer and performer was asked to fill out a survey about their perceived level of collaboration. I admit to rating myself pretty high across the board. And while I certainly learned a lot in the last two-plus weeks, I found it was a deepening of experiences I’ve had with my two longtime collaborators, Tom Gualtieri and Laura Josepher, who have taught me so much about the art of collaboration. I look forward to sharing with them my experiences at New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio as we go deeper in our work.

These seven collaborative principals can easily be applied to all different kinds of relationships. I hope you’ll ponder them as you seek to build strong, fruitful partnerships!

If you’d like more information about the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio or would like to be added to the e-mail roster for next year’s submission process, please contact John Steber, Director of the Playwrights’ Lab:

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