Thoughts on Collaboration


Thoughts on Collaboration

                Yesterday the performance of “In Sweet Surrender” was produced successfully at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond. Biopics of the performers in the photo are currently on the “In Sweet Surrender” site on Facebook.

Completion of any artistic endeavor is both satisfying and discouraging. Typically, one has sustained attention and is creatively engaged in the work over an extended period. Coming to the end brings mixed feelings of exhilaration, exhaustion, and surprise that it’s all suddenly over. One has rehearsed for weeks and now there’s no need to rehearse. In a way, the role that you have learned is like the ghost limb sensed by an amputee. You know it so well that it must be there.

Of course, when you began to learn the role or instrumental part, it was external–someone else’s bright idea. But over many rehearsals, it became your own. Perhaps you even defended your role or part  against the composer’s limitations. Some call this transformation “interpretation.” My teacher, Martin Berkofsky, gently scoffed at that notion. When he played one of Liszt’s etudes, he was not simply reading it off. He was the embodiment, maker, and creator of it. This is the performer’s secret. Without it, the composer’s work and the poet’s words stay on the page. It’s also the secret of a good audience, because they are also performers. Their performance is a matter of habit, attention, and inner recitation. Without them, the work dies.

So, whenever I complete a production like “In Sweet Surrender,” I think about all of the kinds of collaboration involved in making it happen: performers and composer,  professionals and amateurs, funders and givers, technicians and intuitives, church and community, music and words, art and service, creation and creation care. A good collaboration is a little perfect community of clear communication, commitment, and communion with a common vision. I  wrote about it in the closing words of “The People’s Voice,” an opera about ethnic cleansing, which was produced in 2001:

“When voices blend, each bending to the other, freedom comes . . .”

Three months after these words were sung in an Alexandria church, a plane flew over the same building and burst  the walls of the Pentagon. The little bubble of collaboration vanishes so quickly after a production ends. The world comes back. We return to our fragmented lives, habits, and habitats–our separate selves.

We exist in relationship but conduct our lives autonomously. The results can be humorous and distressing. A distracted driver doesn’t know how the old man got onto his hood. A coastal community is amazed when the sea reclaims the beach.

Albert Einstein once said that humans’ great delusion is the belief that they are separate from each other. Perhaps it is a necessary delusion. We need distance from the refugees, wastelands, endangered species and misbegotten organizations of our fragmented inner and outer environments. The island of the ego is attractive compared to the daily news.

Nonetheless, there are bits of all of us in each of us. Our work and daily existence compel us to work together, and we are often disturbed by the misbegotten organizations we have created. Gifted as we are as builders, makers, and organizers, the result of our work is often an unjust, disrespectful, and inflexible structure which brings neither peace nor reconciliation,.

Respect for ourselves, other species, and our shared world is the beginning of understanding our existence in a more artful relationship. We exist in our relationships. As performers generously take on and embody a composer’s way of thinking and feeling, they model the community’s deference to individuals; as composers and other makers accept criticism and change to present their work to best advantage, they model the individual’s respect for collaborators.

Rabbi David Wolpe, wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

“We all know, deep down, that most of what we have is a product of good fortune. No matter how hard we work, we did not earn our functioning brain or the families into which we were born. We live in cities others created for us, organized by a government and protected by a military shaped by our predecessors. Yet we still point to our accomplishments and proudly proclaim, ‘I did this!’ The well-off salve their consciences by assuring themselves that it is hard work and merit that brought them success, which also leads them to conclude that it is a lack of merit that keeps others from succeeding.”

As performers in the daily rehearsals of life we can choose to see ourselves as collaborators and look for ways to extend the sustained attention and creative engagement of artistic effort into the care we give to each other and our planet.

Shantih. La Paix. Shalom. Salaam. Peace.