There are no apps for finding artistic collaborators. No Tinder, Bumble, or swiping right will ensure the perfect match for an artistic endeavor. A wrong choice can tank a project, the right can elevate both artists to a new sense of artistic quality and achievement. As an artist, how do you choose your closest collaborators? What qualifications do you need before you enter a creative process? In the past decade working as an actor, writer, producer, and director I have come up with a list of 10 qualities I look for in any collaborator. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Is this a person who is going to sink the ship or raise the bar?
During a creative process, tensions will rise and people will inevitably be under pressure. You want to have the right people that continue to push a project forward and higher. Not people who dwell on blame for unexpected problems or deadlines that arrive too quickly. It is my daily practice to leave the working room better than I found it—this should be a shared goal. Where we left the bar yesterday is the starting point for today.
2. Can I establish a room with this person where every choice is explored, valued, and quick fixes have an expiration date until the right choice is discovered?
“Good enough” is a lazy person’s motto. A healthy working room feels like an operating room: Everyone is focused, analytical, and surgical with their decisions. A quick idea is put through the same tests and scrutiny as an idea developed over years. The only remaining choices are what is best suited for the project. The “right” choice is the one we can all stand behind and celebrate for its value, precision, placement, and purpose.
3. Is this a person I can have open communication with around criticism?
I believe criticism is the most valuable tool in uncovering the core of a piece of art. Criticism does not mean negativity or judgement, but rather a clear description of observation and experience. In plainest terms: “This is what I saw. This is how it made me feel.” There are a million ways to adjust the answers to these two questions. If you cannot answer them truthfully, you do not have an honest collaboration.
4. Is this a person I can say no to without worrying about the ramifications?
“No” is as valuable as “Yes—it does not mean “bad” but rather something might be better. A room full of empty “Yes” responses is as damaging as a bad review.
5. Do I value this person as an artist—do they value me?
This is deceptively simple, but actually requires a lot of thought. Do I hold this artist’s process in regard in the same way that I value my own? Do they see my process as valuable, even if it greatly differs from theirs? On a bad creative day, do we share the blame, or will I inevitably blame them for holding me back? Will they blame me for holding them back? Can I see our shared artistic vision with their eyes as much as I can through my own? This is the longest part of my decision making process.
6. Will I still want to create with this person even on my worst creative day?
Does this person pick me up when I’m lost? Do I pick them up when they are struggling? It takes a lot more patience to have an argument on a bad day than when you’re feeling great. A creative process is a sustained argument fighting for what is best for a project—are you able to hold up your end of the conversation even when you feel like you’ve run out of words? As collaborative partners, you should perpetually inspire one another even if the only inspiration is to just keep going.
7. Are surprises welcomed and celebrated?
The best moments can arrive with the least amount of expectation. Are you able to recognize and celebrate these rare gifts, or does it lead to further disagreements? I always ask the question, “Can I play Jazz with this collaborator, or do they prefer a finished classical score?” Some projects require a little bit of both—planning and improv—in order to survive. I strive to make sure the team reflects the needs of the project.
8. Do they bring to the table skills I don’t have, and are they willing to share with me?
I always want to surround myself with people who push my boundaries of expression and understanding as an artist. This requires a sense of trust and generosity with my collaborators. I must feel comfortable enough to say, “I don’t understand that, can you teach me?” and they have to be generous enough to trust that I can learn. This transactional teach-learn, learn-teach cycle has always yielded the richest projects and deepest connections during the process.
9. Do we share the same definition of excellence?
Define what “excellence” means for the whole room and allow it to change during a process in response to a project’s needs. Never begin a project assuming you already have a shared vocabulary. Each new artistic project will build its own lexicon of terms and definitions. Celebrate the individuality of each room, and always seek to expand your own sense of what excellence can mean.
10. Is this a person that will be equally as committed throughout our entire artistic expedition?
Every artistic endeavor is like setting out to climb Everest. There will be a moment you look at the top from the bottom with fresh determination. Then, you reach Camp 1 and have your first assessment. Then, you realize there are endless camps and reassessments along the way. Sometimes you will lose sight of the peak, but with the right team you will never lose belief that it is there. It is always easier to look down from the top and see how far you’ve come, but it takes a different amount of courage to keep after the peak when you’re exhausted. As one of my favorite collaborators, Jessica Huang, writes in her play about climbing a mountain, “A fall from this height is so close to infinity, it might as well be called flight.” You will always reach the inevitable peak of every project, and hopefully you didn’t lose any people along the way.