Making Decisions Together

Oct 18, 2018

My close friends who are jazz aficionados usually are surprised and puzzled by my aversion to a great deal of contemporary jazz. They assume that I would love all jazz because of my affinity for music and because I am so intensely interested in group creation and improvisation. They point to my fascination with the origins of American cultural history, noting that jazz is acknowledged as the first true North American art form. But the fact is that I cringe while listening to what I consider noodle-y jazz. I find myself annoyed at what feels to be chaotic and unstructured noise.

I do enjoy jazz from earlier periods, including New Orleans jazz from the first part of the last century, dance music from the 1930s including swing, Kansas City and Gypsy Jazz. I like bebop from the 1940s. But I duck out around the “cool jazz” of the late 1940s and especially into the 50s. I am lost when it comes to modal jazz, fusion jazz and smooth jazz.  

I like early jazz probably because I can recognize the patterns. 

In a bar in Louisville, Kentucky I was dismayed to find myself in close proximity to a jazz trio playing what felt like noodle-y unstructured music. I complained to my friend, the brilliant sound designer Darron West, who was sitting next to me.“Try to follow the bass line,” he suggested. So I shifted my attention and brought all of my focus to the bass player and consequently found the music a little more bearable. But still …

My dislike for contemporary jazz is puzzling because, theoretically, I appreciate how jazz musicians listen to one another in the midst of performance. In order to improvise successfully, I appreciate how they must listen intently, with their entire bodies, and then swiftly and intuitively act upon what they have received from one another. Working together, the musicians must be ceaselessly inventive, absorbing an array of input, processing it, and instantaneously making decisions. Improvised collective music is the sound of negotiation and improvisation is probably the basis of human conversation.

I believe that listening with one’s entire body is the physical manifestation of deep respect and the key to collective decision making.

The theater is, at its heart, a collaborative art form. Everything we do requires cooperation and shared decision making, beginning with the playwright handing her play over and asking us to read it. In a rehearsal everyone is directing a different part of the production. The actors are directing their own roles in relation to other actors and to the audience. The lighting and scenic designers are directing the attention to space. The sound designer is directing the auditory experience. The director is orchestrating how all of the elements intertwine and speak to one another.

Teamwork and collaboration are two terms used frequently in the theater and are often considered to mean the same thing. In fact, although both words are similar in nature and refer to achieving a common objective, the process of each one is quite dissimilar. The key difference between teamwork and collaboration is that in teamwork a group of people performs their individual roles in order to contribute to the achievement of a common goal, whereas in collaboration, all individuals are partners that share work, ideas and insights to achieve a common objective. Teamwork is about the efficiency of a group working under one leader. The process requires each individual to bring her own expertise into harmony under the auspices of a communal goal. Collaboration is about respect for others, for their opinions and their proposals. Teamwork, unlike collaboration, is more about the control of single leader. In a collaborative environment, flexibility is key. The group not only must function effectively as a team, but it is essential that they are able to think together. The best collaborators are not only creative, but they are flexible. They know when to allow others to take the lead. The end product of both collaboration and teamwork are similar but the means to that end are quite different.

Enter any rehearsal hall and you can immediately sense whether the environment is one in which choices are being made collectively or if a single person is making all of the decisions. There exists the model of theater making where the actor essentially waits for the director to give instructions. But for me, the most exciting working environments are the ones in which individuals in a group, much like jazz musicians in performance, are making myriad decisions together, moment-by-moment. They are improvising together in the heat of a rehearsal in order to discover the most effective and expressive staging. Everyone is sharing in the search for vital, rich moments of theater. The group is collectively creating on their feet while posing questions about order, chaos, structure and chance.

But collaboration is not only about agreement. The best group decision-making encourages diverse points of view and creative disagreement. Successful collaboration in the theater consists of both horizontal and vertical systems. The vertical system embodies the intention, the vision, the shared goal and an understanding about what the group is trying to accomplish together. The horizontal system is the manner of communication amongst the group. It is on the horizontal plane that creative disagreement is both necessary and desired.

Part of my job as director is to make sure from the beginning that everyone is on the same page. To function productively, to create the right conditions for collective decision-making, everyone must speak the same language and agree upon a goal. This is the vertical plane. In order to insure lively action on the horizontal plane, I must consistently recognize each individual’s input so that they feel seen and heard while encouraging diverse points of view and giving space so that each person can convey their particular perspective. I must be open enough to try out other perspectives. I cultivate enthusiasm but also temper it with restraint. I try to develop the right attitude towards any criticism by welcoming it as generous input.

I feel that my initial job as a director is to set down the parameters for our rehearsal process and then propose a strategy. Next, everyone dives into the improvisations and assemblages that can lead to creating the world and setting the staging. To collaborate, to improvise and make decisions together requires acute listening, respect and the capacity to be ceaselessly inventive amidst group negotiation. Listening is embodied respect and is the first step in any successful collaboration.

As the director, I initiate the action in the rehearsal hall, I pay close attention to what is being created and then I bring my own taste and point of view into the process. In the midst of rehearsal I constantly scan the myriad decisions that the individuals in the collective are making, and then I try to make the kind of choices that will help the audience to see, to hear and to experience the event clearly. Together we attempt to craft a procession of suspenseful events that will communicate successfully to an audience.

To create in concert with others requires skills of improvisation in the heat of the moment. An actor who waits for me to tell her what to do is not useful to this initial phase of rehearsal. Each moment within the improvisation that is a rehearsal involves a set of potentialities and every person involved must make micro-decisions constantly. Each person listens to the forms that arise and notes the emerging structures and the rhythmic cycles that carry fundamental signals, one to the other. To make decisions together, everyone must be able to read and to write effectively; to read the room, read each other’s faces, read body language and read the myriad changes taking place in every moment.  To write, an actor must make effective and legible choices in the moment, based upon what is read. To read and write fluently requires an understanding of the grammar of the stage and the syntax of movement. The group is looking at the situation together and making small tests. There is careful deliberation, even in the most euphoric moments.

Ultimately the audience is the final collaborator and has a creative role to play in live performance. I believe that audiences have a huge effect upon the event of each performance, either giving the performers permission to complete their creative work, or not. In directing a production, I try to provide enough space for the audience to join us in the collective decision-making. How much audience members decide to “show up” on any evening is key to the success of the joint enterprise. I look for ways for them to become part of the overall event, including the creation of the fiction and the timing of the performance. 

Within the culture of SITI Company, our shared assumptions about collaboration and making decisions together form the basis of our work together. When I direct opera, these assumptions are not generally in place. The rehearsal process in opera does demand teamwork but generally not so much collaboration or joint decision-making. And yet, despite the short amount of rehearsal time and the expectation by most of the assembled that the director will be a dictator, I try to create an environment where the singers and everyone involved feels that their ideas and impulses matter and that their input can make our work much better than anything that I would have prepared in advance. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, making decisions together is the core value to which I always return.

In addition to my difficulty with contemporary jazz, I also find it challenging to understand and appreciate certain Indian religious art and a number of abstract expressionist paintings, including those of Jackson Pollack, which, like noodle-y jazz, also feel too overwhelming and disorienting. Like jazz, these canvases seem to keep changing their central tonality. I appreciate the way that they all seem defiant and ceaselessly inventive, but still, I wrestle with them. Perhaps I struggle with these artistic expressions because nothing ever feels the same and I do not understand their language, grammar, syntax and tropes. 

While writing this blog, I decided to listen to some jazz in order to challenge my assumptions and intolerance. I started by listening to Miles Davis’s version of Sketches of Spain. The beauty of the music became overwhelming and I have had the piece on repeat ever since.