Monday, April 15, 2013

How to Work With a Partner or Collaborator

Continuing our little theme this month, a "Won't Get Fooled Again" Guide to How to Work With a Partner or Collaborator.

What do I know about this subject?

I've had my successes:
Photo by Jason Kamimura
I've been married to this wonderful woman for 20 years this August. In addition to marital bliss, we are constantly working on stuff together.

Photo by Jason Kamimura
Phillip and I have been working together in this capacity for five years (I've known him a little longer than that.) We write together, and have been known to produce theater together as well.

I've also had my painful, bitter failures.  (Names omitted pursuant to Thumper's Rule.)


1. MAKE SURE YOU'RE ON THE SAME PAGE.  I cannot emphasize this enough. You could ignore all the rest of this advice and still find incredible success if you just make sure at the outset that you and your potential collaborators are on the same page. Before Pamela and I start a new project, we spend hours talking it over, conducting visual research, sketching ideas, listening to music, etc. Before we start the project, we have a pretty good idea what we're going in on.

Likewise, Phillip and I throw ideas off each other, mull things around, argue a bit, and ultimately come out with an alloyed idea that is stronger than what either one of us could have generated alone. When Phillip and I first embarked upon The Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue, we went back and forth describing our "sensory and emotional responses" to the idea of the show.  We actually broke it down on a visceral level: What does the show feel like, in a tactile sense? What does it smell like? It helped us forge the finished show conceptually, before the first bad joke was written.

The biggest partnership failures I've had occurred because we weren't all on the same page.  I wanted to zig, they wanted to zag. I had everything worked out in my head, but I didn't take the time to explain -- or, as is more often the case, my ego balked at the notion of "explaining myself." Which brings me to the next point:

"The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps." 
- Marsellus Wallace
I have been cursed of late with the ability to see myself doing or saying stupid shit as I do or say it. I know when my ego has gotten the better of me. I'm not bragging about some mutant ability here, I'm just saying I'm a dick, and I know it.

The trick is to suck it up and admit you're wrong. Or -- and this is perhaps the most difficult thing of all -- admit your partner is right and you're wrong. My advice is to recognize that, if you are all on the same page, you all have the same goal. In the end, it doesn't really matter if you took a right turn or a left turn, so long as you got to your destination on time. Don't be so married to your own ideas that you miss out on a shortcut.

And it's okay to be unhappy about being wrong. Only channel that unhappiness away from your partner, and towards something more constructive, like punching a wall.

3. WASTE IDEAS. This is a good piece of creative advice in general, but it is so very important in a partnership. It gets to the heart of brainstorming, and it will help alleviate the ego sting mentioned above.

In short, an idea is nothing. We are in the idea business, so reeling off a bunch of different possibilities should come easy. If not, it's a muscle you should exercise. Ideas are not precious, and once you make your peace with that, your ability to work with others will increase by an order of magnitude.

4. "YES, AND" NOT "NO, BUT". When you're in brainstorming mode, cut the brake line and head for the highest hill. Keep notes. Sort the wheat from the chaff after you've harvested everything. If you're truly on the same page, not married to your precious ideas, and willing to get over your bad self, separating the wheat from the chaff should be relatively quick and painless, once you get to that stage.

The last thing you want to do is clamp down on a free flow of ideas in the moment. You ever notice that "moment" and "momentum" have the same root? Kill the moment, and you kill the momentum.

5. DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO TO YOU. Yes, the Golden Rule. I like to extend it to also mean, "cut your partner the same breaks you hope they would cut for you."

A partnership is give and take, and I'm not really aware of any reliable way to determine when to give and when to take, other than following the Golden Rule. Granted, it can be a bit of a "grind it 'til you find it" proposition. The important thing is to go into a collaboration knowing it will be a give and take, and honoring that part of the relationship.

6. COMPARTMENTALIZE. This may come as a surprise to you, but I've had arguments with Pamela and Phillip. More often with Phillip than with Pamela, but she's way cuter than he is.

You have to let the argument, the project, etc. exist in its own space, and continue to tend the relationship. Oftentimes, the parts of the partnership that are working will overwhelm and choke out the part that's not working, but you must first focus your energies on the positive.

A corollary to this is a little something I learned from Penn & Teller:

Petty disagreements between artistic partners should never get so out of hand that they threaten your mutual output or potential income. When all else fails, just be professional.

IN CONCLUSION. Not every partnership is going to pan out, no matter how noble your intentions are when you first go in on it. Sometimes people just don't mesh. Sometimes you may be doing everything right, but the other person is incapable of getting past their own ego, getting on the same page with you, wasting ideas, etc. As mentioned in the last installment in this series, there's no shame in cutting bait and walking away.

Next time, we'll take a closer look at partnerships that don't work.

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