Up here at York University we are exploring undiscovered territory.

In a truly daring and innovative experiment, all of the various departments in our Fine Arts Faculty are collaborating on a production of a theatre piece written three centuries ago – a work so important, so controversial, so wildly popular that it toppled the London theatre giants of the time, bringing the musical genius Georg Frederic Handel to his knees financially and artistically.

The work is John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and it is going to be a wild and wacky show.

Our Beggar’s Opera production culminates in a week long run at the end of January 2014. It will be a first-time interdisciplinary venture between the departments of theatre, music, dance, digital media – all the diverse tangents of our York Fine Arts Faculty.

Here’s the website for the show:


Producing a complex piece like this, with leadership from all of our departments, involving scores of students and staff, is a prototypic lesson in managing a large, collaborative project. Fortunately, I am working alongside many wonderful colleagues, including Gwen Dobie and Catherine Robbin who share my love for this period repertoire. Our students who are acting, singing, dancing and playing instruments are simply awesome. Every one of them is stepping a bit outside their comfort zone, learning something new about the other side of their artistic practice.

How do you cook up a successful collaboration? My recipe would combine equal portions of the following ingredients:

1) Communication

No single person holds all of the information. Sharing and exchanging ideas is essential. The major players must talk together frequently, so that all the little pieces of the puzzle can eventually come together, and important decisions can be made to mutual satisfaction. Use lots of diverse forms of communication. Go ahead and send hundreds of daily emails, but also speak face to face. Even better if you can talk whilst sharing food and drink. You can solve problems faster, and your creative ideas can take flight.

2) Time

As you read in my previous blog “Time,” I worship this magical element, which solves all problems. A successful collaboration can’t be turned around over night. Give your colleagues room to percolate ideas, to change their minds several times, to get a bit crazy, to land on the right note. You must take time to think things through, to listen, and to respond thoughtfully, and also get a bit crazy.

3) Passion

Is this a cliché? I hope not because if you don’t have real zeal for the subject, a true love of the material you are engaged with, you should walk away at the outset. The project needs your whole heart, as well as your whole head – and also your feet – and stomach.

4) Commitment

Beyond your passion for the material, you need steadfast commitment. When the going gets tough, and your passion wanes, you need endurance to get you through all the various pains you will have to endure.

“Thousands will fall beside you, yet it will not come nigh thee.”

Have you ever worked in a collaborative environment that worked or failed? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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2 Responses to Recipe for collaboration

  1. Andrew says:


    It’s absolutely essential for our students to be involved in cross-disciplinary arts projects like this – too often we become insular in our outlook and consider music or fine art purely from within our own discipline.

    It is only by opening the minds and hearts of those we mentor to the limitless possibilities opened up to them by just peeking outside our little box from time to time, let alone stepping boldly from it, that we will truly be able to produce the well-rounded individuals we need to keep society sane (or return it to some form of sanity that it seems often to have lost).

    In terms of creativity and how best to achieve it, John Cleese in his amazing 1991 lecture on creativity talks about moving from the closed mode (every day life, but necessary to execute decisions) to the open mode (with 5 factors required to allow creativity to take place – two of which are time and humour).

    The particular extract of the lecture on YouTube is here: http://youtu.be/ijtQP9nwrQA and it’s well worth the 13 minutes. I think this really speaks to the level of collaboration you and your colleagues are undertaking in this Beggar’s Opera project.

    I really look forward to seeing the fruits of your combined work and talents!

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Thanks for the John Cleese Youtube clip! He is brilliant and his advice about devoting specific space and time to creative pursuits is spot on. He’s got it right when he says “It’s easier to do trivial things which are urgent than address important things which are not. It’s easier to do little things we know we can do, than big things we’re not so sure about.”

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