I've been a designer for theatre for over 20 years. In high school and college, I dabbled in directing and stage management, but settled into costume design soon after college and have been there ever since. So when I think holistically about collaboration, I am coming from the designer's perspective.
The theatrical designer comes to each collaboration holding two truths simultaneously - in one hand, the confidence in their skill and abilities to shape a production from their design area; in the other hand, the awareness that every design decision and idea will be vetted by the director. Designers are usually hired after directors, and often on a director's recommendation, so we have not been the ones to start the artistic ball rolling.
I think this position is one of the reasons why there has been relatively little writing on the designer's role in a collaboration. It can be difficult for a designer to define what collaboration looks like for them, when they are often waiting to get in each room to see what that particular collaboration will look like. I spoke to the sound designer Lindsay Jones about this once, and he told me that the definition of collaboration for him changes every day, depending on which director and team he is working with.
This puts directors most often in the driver's seat - setting the tone and direction of collaboration, establishing the modes of working, defining priorities. I've worked with directors who wanted to speak with each designer separately to start the process; I've worked with directors who wanted to focus on just one design area first before integrating others; and I've worked with directors who want all design voices in the room from the beginning. I won't always know which type of process I'm walking into until well into the first meeting, and as a designer, I'm expected to adjust smoothly to whichever mode is handed to me.
So when and how does a designer establish the way in which they prefer to work? Yes, we need to be flexible and adaptable to the director or producer; but how can we be both flexible in our process and clear in our needs?
I don't have a universal answer to this question - I think it's a balance that each person finds themselves as they embark on their professional life. But I am curious as to how other people, in any kind of collaboration, have navigated this. Please share your thoughts in the comments!