Collaboration: A Parable

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Collaboration is the cornerstone to any creative pursuit. This is especially true in musical theatre, which is an amalgam of so many different art forms: sound and lighting design, costume and makeup design, orchestration and vocal arrangements, just to name a few.

And yet, collaboration seems to be the one skill that is often not directly taught to musical theatre performers. While young artists may gain certain collaborative skills through productions and class assignments, rarely during their training do they receive specific instruction on how to collaborate with fellow artists and, more importantly, how to overcome challenges when collaboration doesn’t seem possible.

David Sisco & Laura Josepher

This chapter is dedicated to learning how to collaborate with the creative team during a new works process. We’d like to first outline why collaboration is so essential through a personal experience we had several years ago.

We were developing a musical that needed dramaturgical work. In addition to putting up an entire production in three weeks, significant changes needed to be made to the book which, of course, also impacted the score. We hired a smart and kind cast, many of whom were very familiar with the new works process. Most everyone made the rehearsal experience enjoyable, despite the lingering stress that comes with daily changes.

Our male lead, however, turned out to be trouble with a capital T. Beset with some sincerely unfortunate circumstances (including a fire in his apartment building, which temporarily impacted his health), he worked at a disadvantage at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Unfortunately, this did not gain him sustained sympathy because he consistently acted with entitlement, making it clear to everyone he was the most important person in the room. Furthermore, he had many thoughts about how the show could be rewritten. Some of the ideas were decent, but others did not serve the show because they came only from his character’s vantage point. Unfortunately, once our lead gained the ear of our initially open playwright, chaos ensued. Significant time and energy was spent trying to clear the kitchen of too many cooks, especially when the playwright understandably began to feel as if everyone wanted to rewrite the show their way. 

A week before opening, our lead, when he was actually at rehearsal (which was happening less frequently), was still marking every day despite recovering his health. When he wasn’t there, our assistant director, a young college student enamored with the theatre but without any professional stage experience, stood in for him. While supremely interested in maintaining the lead’s vocal health, David recommended the recovered actor begin singing full voice at least on the final run-throughs of scenes in order to avoid his voice not being fully present for opening night. This request was ignored. The actor insisted he knew better and kept on marking in his singing and performance. The cast slowly turned on the lead and the rehearsal room became a less generous space. 

Fast forward to the final dress rehearsal the morning of our opening night. The theater’s air conditioning was broken and the stage was sweltering. We all put our heads down and did our work the best we could. As David foretold, the lead did not have the vocal stamina to get through the entire show. Halfway through Act I, he stopped the dress rehearsal and refused to continue because of the heat. He requested to go to the hospital because he felt the heat was making him ill. We took the request seriously. So off he went, leaving us without a lead only a couple hours before we were to open the doors to a sold-out audience, which included a New York Times reviewer. 

After approximately 15 minutes of utter disbelief, we shook ourselves out of our stupor and came up with a game plan. Initially, we decided David would sing the role backstage while conducting the band and the neophyte assistant director would read the part, script in hand. And then something amazing happened… 

It turned out that college student without any professional stage experience knew the lead’s role better than we thought. He had stood in enough for him in rehearsal that, not only did he know most of the staging, he knew all his songs, his harmonies, and even huge chunks of his dialogue from memory! The rest of the cast – both out of relief that the oppressive lead was gone and in a sincere desire to see the assistant director succeed – rushed to our new lead’s aid, gently guiding him in the right direction onstage and off. The costume was refitted, we did a speed-through of the entire show, said a prayer to the theatre Gods and, after Laura announced from the stage the last-minute change in casting, the lights dimmed and the band started the overture. 

We still don’t quite know how it happened, but opening night was a smashing success. Everyone pulled together to the benefit of the show and the spirit of generosity around the lead and, in fact, the entire production was palpable. We even got a decent nod in the New York Times. Oh, and the air conditioning got fixed, too. 

The next morning, we phone our former lead in the hospital. Despite multiple attempts and voicemails, he did not answer. The following day, he called us. He seemed to be doing just fine. In spite of expressing concern for him, he didn’t ask how opening night went, but did tell us he might be willing to take the stage on the final performance. We kindly rebuffed his offer. Our new lead ended up being an even better fit for the role, and he had the entire show memorized in time for the final show.

A bad collaboration can literally destroy a production. When it’s good, though, it can make miracles happen. We can’t think of a better illustration of that than this story, which we still enjoy telling, even several years later.

We’re not sure what has become of our former lead. We can tell you this, though: there are now approximately 60 New York theatre professionals – including actors, a stage manager, lighting and costume designers, general managers, and a casting director – who would not work with him again. When you consider how small our industry is, this is a devastating blow. 

Learning how to collaborate, knowing when and when not to say something, and creating space for others, is a great way to gain job security. While we will never work with he-who-shall-not-be-named again, we have continued to collaborate with everyone else from that production on numerous projects. Our shared experiences make our collaborations richer and deeper.

These are the kinds of relationships you want to build in your career. And when you do, they will bring you some of the most fulfilling work you will ever do. You may even get a great story or two out of it as well. 

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3 thoughts on “Collaboration: A Parable

  1. What a story! As I am sure you know, that former lead’s attitude is all too common – but usually not to such (nearly) devastating effect. Thank you for sharing this story.

    I work with a local seniors production company called “New Wrinkles” in Fresno, California. Many of our cast members have very little stage/performance experience. I began writing “New Wrinkles Journal” a while back to try to introduce some basic concepts. If you have a moment and care to take a look, I’d love to know what you think.

    The journal starts here: https://trivialmusicsilliness.wordpress.com/2019/11/08/new-wrinkles-journal-1/

    Thank you!

  2. What a story. What a truth. I’m thinking about collaboration in probably every instance where two or moire human beings are committed to something that requires them to be and to work together to fashion something beyond what they would be able top do alone.
    I’m thinking we could benefit from a chance to collaborate.
    When it works its heaven. When it doesn’t, the air conditioner is permanently broken

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