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Shifting Collaborative Gears



6 years ago, my husband and I bought a car. We ended up buying a Honda Fit with a manual transmission - my husband knew how to drive stick, but I did not. So at 43, I learned how to drive a stick shift. This was veeeeeery awkward - I feel very sorry for that first clutch (it has since been replaced), and for all the people who had to wait behind me as I frantically restarted the car after stalling out on Lake Shore Drive. I had spent so long driving cars that didn't require me to do the shifting - it took some time to learn how to become aware of the need to shift myself.


Last year, at the American Theatrical Costuming Association (ATCA) virtual conference, Sandra Goldmark gave the keynote presentation - she is a set designer who is doing a lot of work on climate change, and was discussing how the theatrical design process can prepare us for other kinds of work and activism. One of her points was regarding the types of working systems that happen during a theatrical design process - that a production team has a unique ability to shift between an open and adaptive working system and a fixed hierarchical model at different times during the process.


I think this idea would be really interesting to unpack - what does this describe, and what might it teach other types of collaborative teams?


First, let's break the collaborative process down into a few distinct parts - in my experience, the process of designing a play (or musical or opera, etc etc) has 3 basic sections: Design, Production, Tech/Performance. I'll define some aspects of each of these as I see them most often in my work:

  • Design - focused primarily on idea generation, sharing visual references, finding the key anchor points that the production will focus on, getting everyone on the same page

  • Production - focused primarily on practical needs of each design area, technical execution of elements, problem-solving as issues arise

  • Tech/Performance - focused primarily on putting elements together that have been executed separately, bringing in the factors of actors in space and time, testing ideas in real time, solving problems very quickly with imminent deadlines


In simplistic discussions of "collaboration" as a concept, the assumption often is that a collaboration works one way the whole time - how your team works together is based on the project or the location or the industry, but those are constants. For directors & designers in theatre, the collaboration may work very differently in each of these 3 phases.


Usually the Design phase is where the most flexibility exists. Some directors will come into a design process with the entire show already defined in their head, but more often there are at least some questions that the designers will help illuminate. And sometimes, everything but the play's title is up for grabs. That means that this section of the collaborative process is most likely to be open and adaptive - everyone is bringing in input and reacting to the work of their colleagues around the table, and while the director will be making the final calls, this is the closest the process will likely get to a consensus model of decision-making, and even then the understanding is that discoveries may be made over the next several weeks of rehearsals and production work that could shift things.


In the Production phase, meetings focus on the smaller hierarchies that spiderweb out from the central design team - the director and stage manager report on developments from rehearsals, the designers report on progress in their shops. Problem-solving and decision-making is taking place in timelines of a few days or a week, and technical or budgetary needs are balanced against the artistic conception that came out of the Design phase.


In the Tech/Performance phase, a lot more people enter the process - you have actors, technicians, crew, designers, artistic staff and others all working in the same space to bring the performance together. When problems arise, input has to be given by director, designers, stage management, and anyone else affected right away, and a decision has to be reached quickly, with the director (or sometimes stage manager) as the top of the pyramid. Safety and practical execution become priorities in addition to artistic conception or budget.


This shifting of gears as the process goes along is second nature to many theatre artists, but I think it's worth naming specifically. It's one of the special qualities of theatrical design collaboration that other types of teams can learn from. Whether your phases are Design/Production/Tech, or Conception/Execution/Presentation, your mode of collaborating may have to shift depending on what phase you are in. You may notice a lot at first - you may stall out occasionally - but eventually the process becomes more automatic.

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