“What a Great Idea”: Collaboration and Partnerships in Theatre

C. Austin Hill

This week, the Abbey Theatre—Ireland’s National Theatre—announced the successor to Fiach MacConghail.  MacConghail had led the Abbey for 12 years and, though the theatre has come under some fire in the past year for the relative quality of their productions, the organization has weathered one of the worst economic collapses in Irish history.  MacConghail is a producer—and a politician—but not necessarily an artist—he does not direct, design, or act.  He has a wonderful strategic mind, and has run a respectable ship.  When he announced that he was stepping down, a call went out internationally for leadership that could keep the Abbey fiscally afloat while pushing the artistry to the level expected of a nationally funded theatre.  And into MacConghail’s role, the Abbey has hired a team of consummate theatre professionals—Neil Murray and Graham McLaren.

Murray and McLaren come directly from the National Theatre of Scotland, and thus they fit the profile of leaders for a national theatre with an international reputation.  But more importantly, Murray and McLaren each come with a set of complementary skills.  That is to say, Murray is a strategic, business-minded, executive director type (like MacConghail), and McLaren is a designer and a director—bringing the artistic leadership that the Abbey has clearly lacked.

The real takeaway from this hire, for me anyway, is a defense of collaboration.  We all have things that we are good at…and things we are not.  I am a director, an educator, a sound designer, and a dramaturg.  I have strong strategic skills in terms of audience analysis and artistic programming.  I know how to pick a season to speak to my audience and to fit my company (while hopefully bringing new faces into our fold).  I am NOT great at costume design.  I’m not my favorite playwright.  And while I absolutely understand how to make, follow, and balance a budget, I have limited experience in fundraising.  In short, I work best with others.  In fact, we all do.

Theatre—at its best—is a collaborative art form.  Playwrights need directors and actors.  Actors need lighting designers and (contrary to what the American Theatre Wing seems to think) sound designers.  And we ALL need stage managers.  A theatre company needs money to operate—if only to have a place to perform and the ability to pay royalties, so I suppose the most brilliant artist needs someone to balance those books.  So my suggestion—as radical as it sounds—is that we all work together.  Let us all seek out those whose skills complement our own, and put each other to work.

Sometimes these collaborative partnerships happen between individual artists—my friend TJ Gerkens is a brilliant lighting designer who works repeatedly with playwright Mary Zimmerman. When I ran Solstice Theatre Company, my Business Manager Joe Dallacqua’s job was to tell me “no,” or to force me to find the money for my ideas.  My wife (thankfully) fluently speaks my artistic and aesthetic language, and is a constant collaborator—sometimes without program credit.  I have worked with some outstanding stage managers, and much of the time (especially with student SMs) I encourage them to share their artistic input in addition to their procedural—that is, I WANT to hear their opinions and ideas. 

Sometimes, too, great collaborations can happen between companies, and—I think—this is the future of “small theatre.”  One of my favorite examples of these types of partnerships comes from an arrangement between my Solstice Theatre Company and Whistling In The Dark Theatre Company in Columbus.  I knew the founders of WITD from graduate school.  They had a storefront space in a shopping center near OSUs campus, and they needed some help to fill it up.  My company started working with them—first by providing content and talent for a staged reading series, and then by entering into a standing agreement to share space and resources.  Neither company had to sacrifice our artistic vision; nobody confused our work (though WITD’s managing director and I did look similar, and frequently were confused for one another).  Instead, we both had more together than we ever had alone.  After WITD shut down (their leaders moved away to pursue other opportunities), Solstice continued partnerships with other companies. 

Sometimes it takes a visionary arts administrator to reach out and form alliances—to recognize that there is no such thing as competition in the theatre.  In Columbus, Steven Anderson, the artistic director of CATCO, taught me that if theatre companies work together—joint productions, shared resources, shared talent, strategic discussions—everyone gets stronger.  Rather than dilute audience pools, partnerships and alliances expand audiences and opportunities.

So, in the immortal words of Haley Mills in Parent Trap—“let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah!”