Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Of Camels and Collaboration

Collaborative performances and ensemble-created theatrical works can be thrilling and exciting experiences, but at the same time they can often produce mixed results on the whole. I am intimately familiar with this rollercoaster ride after having produced more than a few ensemble-created works through my theatre company.

Perhaps one of my favorite satires on the idea of creating by committee is the little seen film The Pentagon Wars starring Kelsey Grammar and Carey Elwes. It is based on interesting book of the same title and the plot revolves around the Army's attempt to build what eventually became the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Even with military experience under my belt, the jaw-dropping examples of beauracratic ineptitude dramatized in the film shocked me into laughter.

Of course, after many Generals started lobbying for their own modifications, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle ended up being nothing like what the original concept was supposed to be. About midway through the film the Pentagon Brass are being briefed on how the project is coming along, and the officers in charge state the following:

"In summation what you have is a troop transport that can't carry troops, a reconaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do recoinassance and a quasi-tank that has less army than a snow blower, but carries enough ammunition to take out half of DC. THIS is what we're building?"

I would point to a couple of recent articles about collaborative creative efforts that are really instructive about how things work in these artistic environments:

The Good: This little article about the way the popular Sci Fi show Battlestar Galactica is put together:

Moore tosses out the idea of doing an episode told from the point of view of two of the killer androids. Then, the whole group tries to figure out the Cylons' deeper motivations via a rapid-fire series of metaphors. The Cylons are Nazis, hell-bent on solving the Human Question. The Cylons are Jews, trying to defend Israel. The Cylons are U.S. troops in Iraq, caught off guard by an uprising. Building in all that symbolism turns out to be complicated—who's representing what changes...I once heard a media-studies professor claim that the best, most adult television shows embrace cognitive dissonance as a storytelling tool.

This story about collaboration by five women playwrights in England:

Shaping the play and rejecting work that wasn't right proved remarkably easy. "We were bizarrely democratic," says Gupta. "As a writer, you're on the receiving end of criticism from script editors or literary managers, and quite often they're really bad at it. So you learn how not to do it yourself." Discussing the play, says Feehily, "was like working in a really good improvisation team. Even if you had an outlandish idea, someone would say, 'Yes - now what if I ... ?'"

The Bad: This contrarian piece about the ensemble creations of Christopher Guest and Company:

Mockumentaries are no more "real" than any other form of movie comedy. For one thing, if what Guest is doing is spontaneous, it's a highly stage-managed form of spontaneity: Guest sifted through 55 hours of footage to come up with the 80 minutes that make up Waiting for Guffman. Second, what's most important about comedy is whether or not it's funny, and I would argue that Guest's method
often begets a kind of dullness. He's content with his actors "jamming," when tireless preparation—the tedious writing and rewriting of scenes and gag lines—would have served him better.

Then, there is the Ugly: The Dresden Dolls are involved creating a a show for the ART called The Onion Cellar to be directed by Marcus Stern. The Boston Globe a brutally honest article about the construction of the piece:

While the Dresden Dolls were on the road, Palmer says, she, Stern, and Jones, who is based in New York, did ‘‘creative battle’’ via conference calls that sometimes lasted for four hours. At various points each took control of the script for a few days or a week, tried to whip it into shape, and returned it to the table only to be rejected by the others. The volleys came faster, the questions mounted and deepened, writers came and went, and the show’s prospects grew more convoluted.

On Nov. 7, when the actors arrived for the first day of rehearsals, they were told that the show was without a script. Palmer and Stern both marvel at the cast’s flexibility and good humor throughout the often grueling process.

The piece in the Globe intrigues me from a P.R. standpoint. It hovers between an homage to tempermental brilliance and veiled apology for what seems to be a disaster. It fluctuates between a pull-the-curtain-back, nuts and bolts expose of how experiemental works are put together and a come-and-see-the-car-crash carnival barker pitch.

By the way, the articles above are categorized by experience in the process, not by the artistic merit of the finished result. For instance, The Onion Cellar could well be far more beautiful than Battlestar Galactica. (And from the Globe article I think could possibly see some Cylons onstage during The Onion Cellar.)

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