Collaborative communication and action: working languages

excerpt from the old Honours thesis, this time some musing on collaborative practice and its uses of, and relationships to, language. I'm interested in this one because there's some good, if simplistic, propositions about how groups develop working languages and performative shorthand. Another trip down memory lane, indulged in to (partly) fill the six hour return train journey to Newcastle today...

Shared agreement

Linguistic theory posits that language does not possess any intrinsic meaning in itself, but is an arbitrary pairing of signifier and signified (see for example Saussure 1974). Language then only becomes meaningful through the collective consent of a group or society, by agreement between the users (or arbiters) of that language. What emerges is a ‘shared definition’, a process by which all parties using the language agree that a particular linguistic unit represents a particular object, subject or concept. These shared definitions are constantly in a state of negotiation. This is the case within a collaborative performance-making scenario. Idiosyncratic ‘working languages’ emerge when artists from different disciplinary backgrounds collaborate on a project, or when a range of performative discourses are drawn upon to inform the production of performance work.

On the floor in the rehearsal room or the theatre, problems of shared definition are resolved through the creation of a shared ensemble language. Groups evolve highly complex and specialised languages over long periods of working together. In allowing my entry as an observer into the rehearsal room of Tristan (1999), co-director Nigel Kellaway warned that in all likelihood I would not understand all of what was occurring, due to the company’s development during years working together of “secret hand-shakes” that allowed the group to “short-cut certain structural and performative decisions” (Kellaway 1999:1) in the making of performance work. The working language provides the context in which action takes place, and is unique to the specific group of collaborators. A specific working language is developed within a collaborative process, and is not easily transportable to another working process. When working with a different group of collaborators working languages require renegotiation.

Creating working languages
These idiosyncratic working languages do not arise fully formed from a vacuum. They emerge through repeated encounters between the specific individuals that comprise the group in question, from and within a unique working context. The conditions for this interaction are influenced by wider social and political concerns, and also by the relationships between the art practices of the group members and the discourses of these practices. In other words, conditions outside the rehearsal room fundamentally impact upon the operation of the collaborative. The larger social and political influences are beyond the scope of this study, so this section concentrates on potential lines of influence through outside art practice that may affect work on the floor.

The following is a discussion of some art-practice related influences upon these working languages that have emerged through my research and practice. These headings contain a small number of the elements that shape the development of collaborative languages. In gesturing towards a theory of collaborative practice, the following issues around language and communication need to be considered:

Cultural specificity
All language usage is culturally specific. It has regional variants, and accents both metaphorical and actual. Specifically referring to the use of language in performance discourse, as most Australian work is performed in a single city only, and for a short duration, the local in terms of performance discourse can be extremely small indeed. My personal understanding of performance practice in Melbourne, for instance, is incomplete because of my unfamiliarity with the performative discourses that have shaped the environment in which it is produced. The nuances, the recognisable traces the tiny details that I find significant in much performance work in Sydney I find often incomprehensible in work from other parts of Australia. This is inherent to performance, which is by definition ephemeral. (There can be a global culture of cinema, for example, because of the ease of the re-presentation of the cinematic product. A videocassette or a couple of cans of film are far more easily portable than a live performance.) Terminology used in discussions around and within performative practice tends to have acquired local connotations and implications over time. Local histories of performance have shaped the ways in which particular language is used and what meanings are assigned to, or cluster around, specific terminology. Local cultures of performance make certain things speakable, and others unspeakable.

Cross-artform slippage
Different artform practices often assign differing meanings to terminology. Usually this difference is a matter of emphasis - different artform practices (and indeed differing schools of thinking and practice within disciplines) prioritise different aesthetic qualities, and have different histories of usage. Slippage potentially occurs when a cross-artform dialogue is entered into to. From my own experience working one-on-one with a mature dancer (Wendy McPhee in Woman in Wig Man in Fishbowl, Hobart 1998), artists from different disciplines talk about similar performative elements in different terms, and attempts to bridge this gap by attempting to adopt a terminology not one’s own can confuse matters even further. This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation, but also possibly to new understanding and insight. The surmounting and understanding of these differences of emphasis allows other possibilities for practice beyond the bounds of a single artform. In a collaborative practice a working language establishes functional definitions to allow the performance work to develop through these cross-artform slippages.

Idiosyncratic use of terminology emergent through practice.
Artists often ascribe non-standard meanings to existent language, and can create completely new terminology with which to describe their practice. If this non-standard usage of language is influential, it can lead to the local adoption of that particular non-standard usage. Language usage within performance practice is constantly evolving in this way. Idiosyncratic language use describes aptly a ‘working language’ used by a collaborative ensemble. These idiosyncrasies may be entered into from a need to find a common language in which to discuss the performance product under development, ie. a working language.

Misrecognition, misunderstanding, or misquoting.
This could be either accidental or deliberate, but these occurrences lead to new definitions, new usages of terminology and fundamentally influence the working language of collaborative ensembles. A notable example of this phenomenon is the repeated misunderstanding of traditional Asian performing disciplines by European observers. Both Brecht’s mis-recognition of Mei Lang Fang’s performance intentions (giving rise to Brecht’s influential notion of the ‘alienation’ effect) and Artaud’s of Balinese dance (contributing to his ideas of the Theatre of Cruelty) have impacted on performance discourse and practice. Melrose states:

"Brecht, Artaud and Barthes, we can now recognise, have imagined Asian theatre, making of it the scene for the imaginary playing-out of their own desires for the theatre with which they were familiar." (Melrose 1994:150, emphasis in original)

Etchells, rather than seeing mis-recognition as a negative exercise of power reinscribing the desired meaning over the ‘true’ meaning, places this misunderstanding at the very core of collaborative theatre practice, proposing a model of collaboration as:

"Collaboration then not as a kind of a perfect understanding of the other bloke, but a mis-seeing, a mis-hearing, a deliberate lack of unity. And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t quite belong, fragments that mis-see an mis-hear each other. " (Etchells 1999:56)

Personalities involved.
The final item in this list is the most obvious: the specific individuals involved in the group at a specific moment of time. As I have stated several times throughout this study, in collaborative performance practice the interests, skills and obsessions of the group members drive the production of the work. The members of the group control the development of a working language fundamentally through the simple acts of deciding what they will talk about in the first place, the uses to which the language will be put, and the sort of work that the language will be used to make. Each of these decisions is driven totally by the personalities of the group members and the manner in which these group members interact with each other and with the work. The wants and needs, obsessions, interests and desires of the individual members comprising any working group can never be identical, in the same way that no two people are identical in every detail. Thus any working language adopted by the group is a product of the personalities of that group.

Powerful personalities
ARIANE MNOUCHKINE:…"in order for the arts or the artists of each art to be able to commune, they must not look to impose hegemony or even superiority; the arrogance of arts and artist has to disappear, one must yield. […]
BEATRICE PICON-VALLIN: Yield to help each other?
M: Yes, to help one other, one must yield. If not, one is in a power struggle."
(Picon-Vallin 1999:207-8, full names added)

As stated above, the performance is a manifestation of the combined interests, skills and obsessions of the members of that specific group. The manner in which decisions are made as to the direction the piece takes, the choices made, and the specific material selected and rejected within the rehearsal room, is dependent on the personalities of the individual artists within that group, their relationship to one another, and the logistical structures which frame the performance-making process. Alison Oddey, speaking of the decision-making process of The People Show, aptly sums up a collaborative decision-making process that possesses the dual concerns of expressing individual voices and serving the work:

"Artistic decisions are made out of a constant re-assessment by company members of the work, and a ruthless determination to preserve both individual interests and the development of the product." (Oddey 1997:44)

Every group has its own personal politics, and evolves structures by which to mediate these politics and focus attention on the making of the performance itself. Transparent decision-making processes with no hidden agendas, and strategies to enable conflict resolution, are necessary for generating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, the basis of any collaborative project. Whatever these strategies are, be it an extended period of group discussion at the end of each session or an impassioned argument over a beer in the pub after a rehearsal, they need to address directly the concerns and desires of the group members. To do so in a critical and constructive manner an appropriate forum for disagreement, debate and argument needs to be found that is mutually acceptable for the group members.

A trusting environment
An environment must be established based on listening to and respecting the opinions of all of the group members, and the ability to subsume personal tastes and choose the most appropriate direction for the work to take rather than the idea one likes the best is essential. Without shared trust, nothing can be created, despite the best of intentions. Often this trust takes a long period of time to develop, but it is also possible in some circumstances to develop a trusting atmosphere rapidly or even instantly. Again, this is dependent completely on the participants, and a unique combination of their wants, needs and obsessions of the given moment..

An example of this shared trust mediating personal politics in practice, this time from my observations of The opera Project’s Tristan (1999):

"The performers are very familiar with each other. Communication of ideas and performative concepts is never complicated. There is a sense of trust and familiarity between the bodies. The performers are very comfortable with manipulating, and moving closely around the other bodies. […] The performers are highly aware of their own performance, and are able to direct themselves. Each of them knows what ‘feels right’ or ‘not right’, and is able to take responsibility for correcting the ‘problem’. The performers contribute solutions, or better options to ‘gaps’ in the performance. A given sequence is reworked until it feels satisfactory." (D. A. Williams 1999:5)

Here, it is the familiarity of relationships built through performance over a long period of time that generates this shared quality of trust, and facilitates a critical yet productive creative environment that allows the voices of the participants to contribute in a mutually satisfying manner. The precise conditions necessary to generate this quality are totally specific to the group in question. It is this quality of shared trust that provides a space in which the personal politics of the group members can be focused responsibly and productively on the work.

There are no rules
There is no single manner in which a working language can be made, just as there is no single way in which individual artists can successfully collaborate. There is no single path to make performance work through collaboration. Effectively, there are no rules. Every group must discover their own rules. Particular strategies have been used successfully by different groups (there are a number of examples in Oddey 1997 of work in the UK, and Savran 1986 is a detailed study of the evolving process of The Wooster Group over a ten year period), but this in itself is no guarantee of these strategies working a second time with a different group, in a different context. These ways of working, these ‘working languages’ are not portable. They are dependent on the particular combination of individual artists choosing to work together at a particular moment in time in a particular place. If any of these factors change, everything else changes also.

The ‘rules’ of collaboration boil down in the end to whatever works, a pure pragmatics of performance. Groups adopt particular strategies and tactics because they enable the production of performance, or in other words they are adopted because they work. A working language must be rooted in the work otherwise it is meaningless. In the same way a collaborative process only exists in action, on the floor. The work is a way of discovering how to make the work, ie. the work and the process of making this work are inseparable. The work is the reason for action, the grounds for collaboration. The work may be driven by the interaction of the powerful personalities of powerful performers, but the focus is on the work and the process of making it. Whatever facilitates the production of the work is therefore used, and continues to be used until it is no longer effective. Then the ‘rules’ evolve once again.

Images: David Williams, Danielle Antaki, and Stephen Klinder in the creative development for version 1.0's CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). Photos by pvi collective.


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