It takes a village, no man is an island, blah blah blah.
Trite and cliché as these sentiments may be, they are cliché for a reason: because there's truth in them.
Perhaps there are no better examples of this than in the arts world, because even the one-man-iest of one man shows has somebody working the light board or dropping the curtain at the end. Artists create, but they don't do so in a vacuum.
And to speak with pretty much any working artist in town -- whether it's Odeum's Whit Hanna, Heller's Julie Tattershall or Erin Scarberry, Theatre Tulsa's Sara Phoenix, or Shelby or Isaac Eicher of Mischievous Swing -- is to set yourself up for an avalanche of names. It's not name-dropping, though, it's just the nature of working in an artistic field. You can't do it by yourself.
"Theater is such a collaborative effort in nature," said Hanna, who serves as artistic director of Odeum Theatre Company. "It's got to be, with the director and actors and designers."
He went on to note the practical impossibility of undertaking an artistic endeavor alone.
"It can't be done. You have a stage manager, someone in the sound booth, you have somebody collaborating with you. It's the nature of the animal," he said. "Dance is the same way, and the symphony. You've got to work with people."
And as evidenced by a few recent developments in our arts community, collaboration can certainly make things easier and better for everyone involved -- especially the audiences.
You may remember that last year, Odeum Theatre Company joined forces with Theatre Tulsa to mount a joint production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Regular readers of UTW's arts pages will likely recall that the Odeum / Theatre Tulsa pairing double-cast the entire show, giving a little more than half of all the performances to the cast of adults, and the remaining shows to a teenaged cast.
This was much more than a gimmick, though, much nobler than an attempt to sell more tickets.
C O U R T E SY P H O T O O F M I S C H E I V O U S S W I N G
"With Hamlet last year, with two casts, with a project of that size, it just made more sense," said Heller Theater's Scarberry, whose official title of recreation coordinator really means "assistant director of the theater company." She was involved with the TT / Odeum production by way of being part of a couple that includes Odeum's Hanna.
Truth be told, though, Theatre Tulsa and Odeum both helped each other out. A lot, actually. And not just from a pooling-resources point of view, either.
"It's actually funny, because at the time, four-year-old Odeum had more money in the bank than 90-year-old Theatre Tulsa did," according to Phoenix, who was in the process of being installed as the Theatre Tulsa head honcho at the time. "Theatre Tulsa had a lot of production assets and a historic brand, but was suffering in a lot of other ways, too. So, the partnership was like putting two puzzle pieces together to make the most out of what we had at that particular point in time."
So TT was financially in straits, but Odeum needed a place to perform, since the company is, in Hanna's words, "basically homeless."
"We had worked with Sara on a show called Gruesome Playground Injuries a year before that, and then she became artistic director at Theatre Tulsa," he said. "We'd been talking about doing Hamlet, and then heard Theatre Tulsa was thinking about it, and thought, 'Hey, why don't we do that together?'"
"Neither Theatre Tulsa nor Odeum were in a position to take a huge risk on a show, so sharing the burden was important," Phoenix said. "It was less of a financial risk to mount a huge play like that if the companies partnered."
"Hamlet came along and we thought, 'Wow, what an opportunity,'" Hanna added. "We didn't have a space, and they had dates booked at the PAC already. It was a match made in heaven, and then with the two casts, that was an opportunity to do an educational thing. And those kids worked their butts off on that project. I was really proud of them."
--That ends up being yet another reason for the collaboration -- the ability to reach out to audience members and actors alike that companies might not otherwise reach.
That idea was echoed by Heller Theater's Julie Tattershall, whose company will, early next year, welcome Odeum into its Henthorne PAC facility for a collaboration on Christopher Durang's Durang! Durang! in January 2014.
A past association with Cassie Hollis, who is part of the Odeum company, had opened the door Heller.
"She was incredibly helpful," Tattershall said. "Her husband runs Mustard Seed Consignment and loaned us furniture for almost two years. You know how difficult [it is]to get furniture. They were incredibly helpful. And they've been a great partnership. So it started with that, and then we helped them once or twice with rehearsal space, and they've been really supportive of the Heller programs."
So when it came time for Odeum to realize they needed a space this coming season, Tattershall was open to the idea.
"They approached us because the PAC is kind of cost-prohibitive for some groups," Tattershall said. "So they said, 'Well, what about us directing, doing a project here? And then we could enter it into TATE and it could work for both groups.'"
Tattershall, who has won a Tulsa Award for Theatre Excellence (TATE) herself, thought it was a good idea if for no other reason than having had a good collaboration experience already.
"We've done partnerships before with Theatre Tulsa a few years back, and we've been a springboard for several theater companies in the past and for a lot of improv groups," she said.
Tattershall and Heller (and Hanna and Odeum, for that matter) feel that their jobs in the theatrical world involve spreading the gospel of theater to actors and audiences alike, so she felt there were plenty of reasons to combine efforts.
"We would like to do a partnership a year, and right now, it looks like Odeum is the best fit," Tattershall said. "They approached us, and we thought it was a really good way of sharing resources.
"The council had already picked the plays. We looked at what we had available and asked, 'what would be a good one that they could have input on?' And we chose the Durang, because it's short scenes, and it can involve a lot of people."
As it stands, the January production of the Durang title is set to be a fully cooperative effort.
"For act one, George Romero is our director, and they'll supply the act two director," she said. "The big thing is that this is a pretty big theater family, so when we can work with other groups, we try to."
There are any number of reasons other groups need assistance, and Odeum feels a lot of those needs, Scarberry said.
"Most of the members of Odeum are having babies," she said. "They want to continue to produce work, but there's a lot going on behind the scenes and in personal lives.""
Combining forces would certainly help alleviate the pregnancy-induced shortages in available man-hours, but Scarberry also pointed to the same kind of theatrical proselytizing that Heller and Odeum feel they should be doing.
"We were hoping to continue to expand the number of volunteers that we have and thought that was a good way to do it, and also exposing ourselves to two different audiences," she said. "Heller's audience tends to run about age 50, and Odeum takes a little younger audience, so we could mix those up some. There are members of Odeum who are participating in Theatre Tulsa and Heller shows, and it just starts to make sense."
"And we do similar shows, so it's not like they're going in a completely new direction, and it's not like we are, either," Tattershall added. "If the partnership goes well, they'll probably have a little more input on what the project would be next year. I'm assuming it's going to go great."
With all the excitement and good vibes born of the critical and commercial success of Hamlet, as well as the anticipation surrounding Durang! Durang!, it's easy to think that it might be all good times when two groups get together to do a show. And there are good parts of it -- otherwise, why keep going?
"The best part is the energy a bunch of people from different backgrounds and theatres coming together to create and support each other. It's beautiful," Phoenix said. "We did that again later in the year with 8. We partnered with Odeum and Theatre Pops and it was just magic. No one was taking sides. Everyone was on the same team. People who haven't worked together, or hadn't in a long time, got to share the spotlight."
But there are tough parts -- challenges, issues, plain-and-simple problems.
"The challenges in collaborating with another theatre company are in working with a lot of very strong-minded artists. For me, I work a lot on the administrative and organizational side in addition to being an artistic and creative person," Phoenix said. "I see all sides. But, not everyone is looking at it from all sides and you have to learn to mediate what everyone wants and how they work. You have to think about what is the best for the business, finance, and marketing of both theatres, in addition to supporting work of the highest artistic merit. What I think is most important isn't necessarily what someone else sees as most important."
Scarberry voiced similar sentiments.
"Really, the number one thing is being really clear on leadership and who's making decisions when it comes down to it," she said of minimizing any possible friction throughout the collaborative process. When there's one theater, there's one set of people to go thro-__ when you need a decision made or a budgetary cut made. But with two groups, there are two different avenues in order to get those things approved."
That doesn't seem like much of a downside. And that's a good thing, since collaborations have been so fruitful for those involved -- so much so that companies like Theatre Tulsa are seeking out more of them for the future.
"We are still looking at possible theatrical partnerships later in the season, but we plan to reach different audiences and different pockets of our community by working with many different organizations," Phoenix said. "In these situations, each organization's role in the collaboration can be more easily defined, because we do different things. We each have our expertise, our own network, and our specific field experiences to bring to the table. There is less overlap, so it can be simpler but at the same time reach a wider range of people."
And these partnerships she's talking about are with non-theatrical groups -- one such pairing is with Turn Tulsa Pink invovling TT's upcoming production of Legally Blonde: The Musical, another with Philbrook Museum for an art project to go along with The Importance of Being Earnest.
"When you begin to explore all possibilities of collaboration, the sky is the limit," Phoenix said. "We are experimenting a lot and pushing boundaries this season to see how far we can go. Last year, we took a few steps in this direction, but this year we are ready to dive in."
Perhaps a more obvious collaborative effort is a band of musicians, where each band member is responsible for a part being played, and without the other instruments, that part often won't stand on its own. After all, not many people go to hear a solo bass player plucking repeated eighth notes for an entire set. Put him with a guitarist and a drummer, though, and you've got something.
Take an act like Mischievous Swing, the acoustic jazz band made up of fiddler Shelby Eicher, sons Isaac on the mandolin and Nathan on bass, and guitarist Ivan Peña. The quartet plays exquisitely well together, and the tightness of the ensemble can only be achieved by accomplished musicians knowing their own parts, but also paying close attention to -- and reacting to -- the parts the others are playing.
And with Mischievous Swing, Shelby Eicher appreciates the equanimity of the group's dynamic.
"When I have the Tulsa Playboys and there are 11 of us, I'll call a tune, I count it off, I tell people to take their solos, and I'm definitely the leader," he said. "But with this, I wanted everyone to have an equal voice about how each tune went."
But when asked about the family aspect of the band and whether that had any direct impact on the nature of the collaboration of the musicians, both Shelby and Isaac had differing responses, and those responses do sort of reflect each man's position in life in general.
"Working with my kids, it's a higher level of pride," Shelby said. "When Nathan is soloing, my buttons are busting off my shirt. They enjoy being with me and I enjoy being with them. We enjoy eating together and watching South Park. We like the same kind of food and the same kind of music. I don't have the sense that, 'I'm dad, now get over here and have fun.' I'm happy to hang out with them and have fun with them."
Isaac, however, spoke a little more specifically about the nature of playing together, which makes sense, as he doesn't have kids and doesn't fully grasp the idea of being a proud parent yet.
"I really know my dad's playing and Nathan's playing really well," he said. I think that makes us a tighter-sounding group, or more of a united sound -- maybe 'homogenous' would be an appropriate word -- that we're all going for the same sound."
COURTESY ODEUM THEATRE
And while Isaac didn't talk about playing with the Texas Playboys, he did speak of different types of collaboration, sometimes involving a big star player.
"I think about if you go see somebody who's a star and they have a band backing them up, I think the collaboration that happens in that instance is that everybody's following the star," he said. "But in our group, I think it's pretty equal distribution -- the collaboration that takes place is constantly changing who follows whom, because that's the way we want our band to be."
What Mischievous Swing does, rather than back a star player, is basically take turns being the star.
"Somebody -- like the violin -- takes the melody at the beginning," he explained. "So everybody else wants to make my dad sound good on the violin. We all understand that, so whoever is playing lead, we want to play something to support what they're doing. And then whatever happens next, maybe we'll play a different style behind that new instrument. The common purpose, the common goal is to make our band sound good."
At the beginning of the interview with Isaac, he discounted the idea of family ties having any real impact on what the band did on a gig-to-gig basis.
"I don't know what being family adds to the dynamic or to the collaborative element," he said. "But I think in general, we all respect each other's musicianship, and that's why we collaborate, because we want to work together for the same end product, which is the music we make."
But he reconsidered -- or at least amended his position -- as the interview progressed.
"You're making me think of things in a way I haven't thought of them before," he said. "But it definitely helps when you're playing -- there's a communication of not only what do I think is going to happen here, but you can look at somebody and get a signal or a look, and you know what that means because you've seen that face so many times. And it works both ways -- sometimes you see a look and think, 'Oh, I shouldn't have done that.' But you can tell from everybody's expression if you did something good."
Whether it's theater or music or ballet or opera, it's a group effort, and anyone who's done it can attest to that fact.
"It's the same thing every time -- pooling resources," Odeum's Hanna said. "I think that we've always felt like we want to be an active member of the community. We want to see the community thrive and do well, but be successful and artistically challenge themselves. I think sometimes people get lost in this he-said-she-said, 'I'm king of the mountain' world."
And that's not a world he feels gets things done well. Nor do any of the others who spoke for this piece.
"Collaboration is crucial for non-profit organizations," Phoenix of Theatre Tulsa said. "It opens new doors and creates new opportunities, especially in a community like Tulsa, where everyone is so generous and supportive."
Isaac Eicher pointed to the satisfaction of a collaboration well done, including the value of compatibility.
"If you're not getting along, you don't play well together," he said. "It's hard to play when you're at odds with somebody. There's a tension there, but you can feel it when you're on, and you're all playing together, and you're all liking it. When everybody playing is liking it and is feeling it, it's exponentially more fun."
And isn't that the point of it all, anyway?
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