dysfunctional collaboration

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The Journey was a cross arts collaborative project I was involved in back in May. Seems like a very long time ago now, but I suppose it wasn’t really, it’s just that a lot has happened. The Journey took a group of unsuspecting travellers on a minibus ride to a mystery location. Driven by a lovely 70 year old sculptor named Jon Volger from Roundhay, and assisted by the neurotic Hostess Mackerron, the travellers discovered that all would not proceed as planned. From safety demos in three different languages to mastering the ‘protect yourself position’, no traveller was allowed to sit back and simply relax. Their participation was expected from the get go.

As the minibus meandered its unlikely route around the back streets and alleys of Chapeltown, a host of unscheduled wee-stops, wrong turnings and suchlike, led the travellers deeper into this nonsensical world, where a diverse range of characters were intercepted at intervals. From the modern folk troubadour and an embedded recorder-playing folk singer, to a pair of scowling cowgirls at the end of the world. Of course, no journey would be complete without a blessing of the bus, dishes of rebalancing served by an Elfin creature straight out of Lord of The Rings, and a call to arms, issued by King Sven of The House of Svenson – a Swedish Knight in dire need of an army.

Unfortunately, the diversity of stuff going on in The Journey was the result of a really rough journey for us as collaborators. Nobody likes to dwell on negative happenings, which is probably why I never published this way back when it all occurred. It was too stressful. Just thinking about the experience made me feel tense. Now I feel like enough time has passed to publish what I wrote about it all those months ago, in a fit of disbelief and incomprehension. As I am constantly reminding myself, every ‘problem’ is an opportunity for learning! Looking back, it seems obvious that a collaborative line-up of such strong characters would cause issues. Perhaps my positivity prior to beginning the process had blinded me a little to reality…

This is how it went down…

3rd June 2014

How is it possible that you can work with various people in a variety of contexts and have no problem whatsoever, yet when you all try to work together collaboratively it escalates into the dance artist’s version of a WWF smackdown?! We’re all capable of being vicious given certain circumstances. Put so many bossy britches together in one group and you’re asking for trouble. Such situations can bring out the worst in us, as we will take no prisoners when we believe that our idea (or field in our case – this being a piece about ‘the journey’ that ends with a singalong in a field), is ‘the best’. All usual social conventions fly out of the studio window, and it’s just a later-in-life version of the schoolyard chant ‘my [insert item here] is better than your [insert item here]’.

What we are left with then is seven stubborn individuals, who previously called themselves friends. Although the styles of conflict are different in each person, the effect is the same. Not one person in the group can rise above the collective dysfunction. Each of us behaves in ways we would never normally behave. Frankly, the experience of working with this group has been nothing short of an absolutely awful nightmare. In smaller groups, it’s fine. Collectively, we’re a microcosm of all that’s wrong with human relations. Conflict reigns supreme and it’s person against person, ego against ego, idea against idea.

The whole thing has really been that bad – it’s been unsavoury, from top to bottom. We stopped short of physical violence, but I’ll admit that I visualised high kicking one or more of my collaborators in the face, and that the hours of endless discussion around the table felt pretty embittered most of the time. As we sat around the table staring at each other, it felt like broken down peace talks between warring nation states. There seemed to be little regard for what started the particular debate in the first place. It had devolved into protectionism; each person simply protecting their own little piece of power at all costs.

I now understand how friendships can be broken by such scenarios. This is when the worst sides of human nature rear their ugly heads. I can recognise the absolute frustration of trying to communicate with people in a situation where communication repeatedly breaks down in a series of negative cycles. The project (or relationship, or whatever! this is a transferrable scenario) is just set up to be a very difficult one. Maybe it’s all about specificity. Some people can work together, in certain situations, at certain times. Other times it’s always going to be a struggle. Change any variable and you might potentially have problems. It’s all even more delicate than I realised.

As the weeks wore on, my shoulders tightened, my teeth clenched, and I couldn’t get to sleep at night. It was extremely difficult to relax and let go of the stresses of this scenario. I love all of the people in the group, but we really drove each other crazy. The combination just didn’t make for a pleasant process. Personally, I made a conscious decision to voice my views and opinions, rather than gritting my teeth and keeping shtum for the sake of keeping the peace. If I felt something was unreasonable, I said so. I tried to retain my integrity without being too inflexible, but I did lose my rag a couple of times out of sheer frustration.

In the end, we pulled through and created something decent, albeit slightly schizophrenic. This process did teach me some valuable lessons though. Perhaps the most important part of collaboration is choosing a realistic group of collaborators?! Then again, you don’t always get to choose who you work with and you can’t always foresee the potential pitfalls, which makes it instead a case of learning to handle these situations more effectively. I don’t deal particularly well with conflict and prefer to avoid it where possible, but it is a part of life like everything else. Sometimes it’s unavoidable.

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT FOR NEXT TIME

What matters more – the piece of work or the human beings in it? On one hand I instinctively say the people, but on the other it must be the piece of work. If the people work together, the work will benefit, but you can’t force people to work well together! Making the best of a difficult situation and learning from it is sometimes enough.

Look for more patience and more tolerance (there is always more tolerance possible inside you if you look hard enough). Nevertheless, don’t tolerate crap. It’s not about being steamrollered.

And, everybody, PLEASE!! Retain your perspective! Do some deep breathing or something. Like Jonathan Burrows says … it’s only a stupid dance, after all.

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