Designers, Directors ‘Collaborate’ for Keynote Panel

By the time NeoCon’s second keynote event, “The True Art of Collaboration: Learning from the Theatre,” began Tuesday morning at ten minutes past eight, it was evident that the audience was already witnessing a tremendous act of collaboration. “It’s unusual to see theatre people at this hour,” one participant at the rear of the ballroom grumbled, cup of coffee in hand.

But four noted Chicago theater veterans—Robert Falls, creative director of the Goodman Theatre; stage designer Linda Buchanan; costumer Virgil Johnson; and lighting designer Michael Philippi—managed to tough out the early hour, engaging in a lively discussion moderated by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy. As its title promised, the conversation focused on techniques that designers can use, taking cues from the theatre.

Although Falls dominated the discussion, he was quick to praise the work of the others, declaring, “I do not believe in auteur-ship in the theatre.” He described his director’s role as the caster of designers, a facilitator, and a filter of his team’s best ideas.

The panel participants have been working together on and off for almost thirty years; that familiarity has clear advantages, according to Falls. “When you have trust, there’s a shorthand [process] at work,” he said.

Falls spoke about how any theatrical work starts with the text. But he noted that a clear beginning point doesn’t ensure that a project succeeds. Take Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” for example, which is open to various Freudian, Jungian, and Marxist interpretations. Without communication between all involved in the production, chaos would ensue. “The key is to make sure that everybody is telling the same story,” Falls said. Szenasy universalized the lesson, noting that everything from interior design to product development could be seen as a story.

“I think the clever director is the one who’s interested in what everybody is bringing to the table,” said Johnson, the costumer. But while there are parallels between the theatre and other creative disciplines, such as architecture, lighting designer Philippi noted that there are also differences. “[In theatre], we have much more control of the program,” he said.

Theatrical design is driven by a particular process and way of doing things. The physical designers—costume and scenic—are generally hired a year before the opening of a show; they, like architects, produce drawings and models for review long before the rehearsals begin. The lighting designer is often the last member to join the team. However, his impact is not slight: Falls claimed many lighting designs are “so psychological as to be intangible.”

Ultimately, the final days of rehearsal are the most stress-packed, with literally thousands of individual decisions involving all the designers being made in an extraordinarily short period of time.

According to panel members, it is important to know not only how to collaborate, but also when not to do so. “I know when not to take a job based on the team,” said Buchanan, the stage designer. Philippi agreed, mentioning if he “doesn’t trust” his potential co-workers, he’ll walk away from a project.

Despite the early hour and their usual behind-the-scenes place, the designers were hard to hold back once they took this stage. The 60 minutes passed quickly—too quickly, in fact, for all the panelists were marvelous storytellers with obvious affection for each other and their work. Szenasy summed up the session with a list of attributes, drawn from the conversation, necessary for successful collaboration: “leadership, generosity, loyalty, respect, trust, enormous fun, and hard work.” All professionals can learn from that.

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