On Collaboration, PACT Keynote

delivered by David Harradine, Artistic Director of Fevered Sleep, at PACT 2012

We’re sitting in a room at the Young Vic Theatre in London, eating together. Me. Fevered Sleep’s associate artistic director, Sam Butler,and seven people who have come to talk with us about ageing. There’s an 86-year-old woman in a wheelchair who wants to tell us about the importance of parties. There’s a 23 year old man who realises this is the first time he’s thought about growing old. There’s a 67-year-old woman who wants to talk about mirrors. We eat, we talk, we listen, we record, we write.

I’m on the phone to a scientist: Professor Tom Kirkwood from the Newcastle University Research Centre on Ageing. He’s explaining his theories on the biological and evolutionary basis of why we age, talking about accumulation of genetic damage. I’m asking questions, feeling a little stupid, looking for connections.

I’m in a rehearsal room with an experimental film-maker, a composer, a dramaturg, and a lighting designer. We have recordings of those conversations, images on the walls, and hundreds of objects we’ve accumulated. In the room also are seven children aged between 7 and 13 who are the performers in this piece. It’s 2010 and we’re devising our show On Ageing, a theatre piece for adults about the many and complex aspects of getting older.

I’m standing in a park in the middle of the city, watching 3 dancers improvise. Beneath a grey sky, they spin in circles, orbiting each other, marking patterns on the grass. I’m watching a group of children – 3 and 4 year olds – watching the dancers, trying to see how the children feel, where they focus, what they’re interested in.

I’m sitting in a café at the Science Museum, talking with a particle physicist, trying to find a way to ask questions about something I don’t understand. He’s trying to find a language to give me the answers he thinks I want. We talk about strings and filaments, spheres, orbits, patterns.

I’m sitting at my desk, exchanging emails with an astronomer, asking about spheres, orbits, patterns. It’s 2012, and we’re taking the first steps toward making an outdoor piece for children, Little Universe.

I’m drinking coffee, and looking at a series of printouts spilling over the table and onto the floor, sample spreads from a book we’re making. I’m talking with the designers; they’re keen to include material from my
notebooks that I hadn’t thought to include. They want to cut something I’ve written; they think it isn’t relevant. I’m feeling defensive but trying to be open; trusting their expertise but wanting things my way. We sit and look and talk and drink coffee. We sit and talk.

I’m talking with a dramaturg, who’s writing elements of the book with me, trying to work out what it is we want to say, who it’s for, what it’s for. It’s 2009 and we’re making Invisible Things, a book about devising.

This is a talk about collaboration.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to decide on a form for talking with you today: a form for sharing some thoughts and for fleshing out some ideas, which have come up through my work, and through various
previous conversations, including conversations with some of you.

Like many people, whenever I find myself unsure how to start, I make a list. Not necessarily a list that moves in a straight line, from this to this to this, but an attempt to give order to the messy business of thinking and of making.

Rather than write a narrative that leads to a clever conclusion, I really wanted this to be an opportunity to lay some ideas on the table, in the spirit of collaboration; bringing some stuff that we can talk about
together later.

On Talking With Each Other
For Fevered Sleep, the process of making new projects has a dual focus. The first is to give us a context for research, to enable us, as a group of artists, to explore the ideas that we dream about when we’re alone; or to discover the things we care about together, and to explore these things, deeply, from every available point of view. The second, and maybe the more important focus, is simply to create, for audiences, the best work we possibly can.

I believe that both these things – the aspiration for a deep and inquisitive process, and the ambition to do our best work – are immeasurably enriched when the work is made through collaboration. There’s something selfish about collaboration – I want my work to be developed, challenged and inspired; and there’s a generosity to it – I want to give something to others that enables all of us to make work that’s better than it would be if we did it alone.

Whether a collaboration is the coming together of a group of artists to riff around an idea; whether it involves talking with expert thinkers such as scientists or academics; or whether it comes to our efforts to
develop ideas with our audiences, the first step in collaborating is finding a way to talk together.

Each project demands the invention of its own language. We find metaphors and phrases and images that allow us to share our ideas on something. It’s 2008 and we’re making a show about natural light. The language we use in devising is a language full of weather, referencing landscape, drawing terminology from poetry. We use this language because it has a practical application: it gives us a way to understand and talk about the work.

Sometimes talking is literally talking. If I’m talking with a scientist, someone whose knowledge of something exceeds mine, I simply want to talk. I don’t worry if I don’t fully understand. I ask questions. I listen to answers. I seek out connections. I ask myself, “what is this idea in the world in which I work, a world made of bodies and voices and music and space and sound and light?” … “how does this idea translate into an image?”… “how does what you’re saying connect with, or challenge, what I’ve been thinking”… “does this move me closer to the thing I think I’m looking for, or is it taking me away?”… “is it OK to be taken away?”

To read more, download the PDF.

Delivered by David Harradine as the Opening Keynote Address of the 2012 Conference of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT)
May, 10, 2012. Huron Country Playhouse – Grand Bend, Ontario
Published with permission of PACT.

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