Features Published 12 May 2020

A Dialogue on Making Work Collectively

How can we support artists better? What forms can collaboration take? A group of artists and producers discuss the future of making work collectively.

Natasha Tripney

When it Breaks it Burns by coletivA ocupação, Battersea Arts Centre, (c) Mayra Azzi.


This conversation was sparked by Exeunt’s recent series of dialogues on European theatre. Here, a group of artists, producers, curators and critics dig into ideas of making work collectively, to open up debate about precarity, support and collaboration. A recent article by Battersea Arts Centre’s artistic director Tarek Iskander called for people to “work together like never before” to create a fairer theatre industry. The BAC’s previous AD David Jubb has also written a blog post on the need for us to “shift the balance in power”. With these calls in mind, we want to explore what making work collectively offers to artists, venues, and audiences.

Natasha Tripney: Can we begin by discussing the term ‘collective’? What it means to you and what it means to make work as part of a collective? What are the benefits and limitations?

Bertrand Lesca: I think being part of a ‘collective’ is really hard in the UK.

Nasi (Voutsas) and I graduated almost ten years ago, when things got really bad in terms of arts funding. We were both working with different companies that involved loads of people. This was very hard to sustain financially, especially if you’re touring. No one can pay for the work and you end up making really hard demands on people you are working with. A lot of artists I know eventually made a conscious decision of moving towards less people on stage, or going solo.

Looking back now, I realise how hard it’s been for Nasi and I to collaborate with other people. All the decisions we made needed to be super cost effective; always in view of what programmers would say or the spaces we would be going to. We imagined working with other people to begin with, but quickly realised we couldn’t pay them properly. We couldn’t even get a rehearsal room to begin with!

Now, we are just about able to pay ourselves for the work we do but it has taken us a long while. A lot of hassling too. I am really anxious about going back into further hardship. If the crisis is going to hit us hard, I am anxious about the decisions that will be taken for arts funding and how this will influence further individualism.

Xavier de Sousa: Bertrand is quite right about this being particularly hard in the UK. A focus on ‘leadership’ and individual – capitalistic – growth prevails throughout the arts sector. There’s also the impact of economic models of arts funding since Thatcher and reinforced by Blair in the 1990s, which have predominantly focused on funding management and economic growth rather than direct support for artists.

I am not trying to diminish their successes, but 20 or 30 years ago, it was easier to make work without having to be paid large amounts of money. The People Show, Forced Entertainment, and even producing groups like Artsadmin started as collectives. Today, that would be quite impossible unless you’ve had a middle class upbringing and have the potential to make your own investments into the projects, which most artists don’t – and most also finish uni with large amounts of debt, which didn’t happen in the 80s and 90s.

I think the COVID19 crisis has spotlighted inequalities in the industry like never before. I’ve had many artists looking at re-training as a direct consequence.

Perhaps following David Jubb’s call for a focus on funding artists is a good start to remedying this. That could mean elevating artists and artist-led companies to NPO status, and the democratisation of the funding-decision models. Let people from across the sector work on ACE policy and sit on panels. Remove all restrictions that stop minorities accessing funds. Raise Project Grant limits and please, for the love of everything that is sacred, demand that venues/festivals change their artistic leadership teams every 5 years, pay their artists appropriately and let them occupy the spaces so they can make work at their will, rather than work towards constant enforced deadlines.

Now to focus a bit on the ‘making’ aspect, I think if you are working collectively, I think it’s important to establish parameters at the start of the project or group, with everyone having the same level of commitment and responsibility in the room. The processes are very long, hard, frustrating and every group works differently. But to get anywhere with it, you kind of have to create a sense of familiarity and understanding between everyone involved, I think, so that there is trust, passion and a creative flow across the team.

I remember Tim Etchells talking about how Forced Entertainment’s creative process would probably be quite disappointing to others (or something to that effect) because they often spend a long time literally sat around talking about the work, rather than being on their feet rehearsing from the ‘get-go’. I think this stayed with me for many reasons, mostly because creative work comes with a lot of sitting around and discussion – obviously – but when it comes to collectives making work ‘from scratch’, and not necessarily following a script or an already established story, that takes even longer. That work becomes invisible to those outside of the rehearsal room and, in my opinion, plays into the notion that artists and collectives ‘work on their feet’ so a whole chunk of their process is disregarded.

Sammy Metcalfe: Yes, absolutely, it’s important to emphasise that collaborative processes can take many different forms, and these forms tend to be invisible from the outside. In Sleepwalk Collective’s current work, we’re careful to avoid fetishising a definition of collaboration that means everybody has to have equal power, equal responsibility, equal say in the decision making process, etc. As much as we might aspire towards that, I think it’s important to be realistic and to adapt into the kinds of relationships that a particular process feels like it’s asking for. Our collaborative process tends to be kind of fluid (and often flawed), and shifts around from project to project. We do tend to have a single person who’s an outside eye, somebody who’s responsible for kind of holding the whole show in their head and making the final decisions, as this frees everybody else up to make and do and propose whatever they like without having to worry too much about what it is and why they’re doing it and if it’s actually any good… We also try to allow collaborators to find their own space within the process, and there’s an element of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (although that’s a kind of fetishisation in itself as well, of course…).

To return to the beginning though, I think the issue I have with the whole idea of “director-led” and/or “writer-led” theatre is not so much that I disagree with it, but that I’m not convinced that such an approach actually exists. Theatre is always made collectively to some extent or other, by directors, performers, lighting designers, choreographers… And while I do appreciate that conversations around “director-led” and “writer-led” theatre can be hugely valuable, I feel like the pervasiveness of this debate (in the UK especially) reinforces a way of thinking about and understanding theatre-making that can be both creatively limiting and actually kind of harmful. I’ve definitely been in rehearsal rooms (and classrooms…) with guys who seem to understand the work of lighting designers, for example, or scenographers, as essentially decorative…which is not just weird and disrespectful but also…kind of boring, as a way to approach the (infinite!) possibilities offered by the artform? So…yeah, I guess my main point is not to argue that there are right and wrong ways to work, and more like…it’s good to acknowledge (and exploit! and revel in!) all the ways in which theatre (like so many artforms) is already innately (and joyously!) collaborative.

Lowri Evans: I work with Brazilian performance collective coletiva ocupação as their international producer and I played a part in bringing When It Breaks It Burns to the UK in 2019 and 2020. Here’s a bit of context on the company, and on my experience of collectives in Brazil.

Coletiva ocupaçã is a collective of 15 performers that works with a variety of collaborators and the director Martha Kiss Perrone in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They met Martha whilst she was documenting the extraordinary High School Movement that spread across Brazil in response to government cuts to education in 2015.protests. She offered theatre workshops to anyone who wanted them. It was an incredible moment, cathartic, emotional, joyous. So they kept meeting up. And they wanted to tell their story. At first they made a short performance, and then went on to make a full-length show and at some point, formed a collective.

Initially, they had no money to make a show, but what was fundamental was that they had a free space to use – Casa do Povo in the centre of Sao Paulo, which is home to various collectives and artists. Now it’s begun to tour internationally, coletiva ocupação shares box office or artist fees. Everyone receives the same amount of money. Everyone makes the decisions. Jobs are divided and different people do different things within the collective. It’s always evolving, improving, adapting. They often don’t have money for the bus fare or lunch to get to rehearsal without the help of a small pot of money the company has raised. Most of them live in the periphery of the city – some of the most deprived and furthest out places in Sao Paulo, with precarious financial situations. A lot of them are full time students at university and live with their families.

The situation in Brazil has gone from bad to worse in recent years; a recession, a coup, a fascist president in power. In 2019 the ministry of culture was dissolved. There is a massive problem with censorship from the government in a war against art. So coletiva ocupação are an anomaly, they have toured nationally and internationally in the last couple of years. They stand for everything that the current government is against.

When It Breaks It Burns is expensive to tour; flights, accommodation, fees, per diems and other costs for nearly 20 people. It is not up for debate whether they travel as a reduced company. It is all or nothing. And the show is good and was believed in and backed by a community of people who it mattered to personally and passionately. What is difficult, as Bertrand said, is that a collective is hard to sustain financially. Who can afford to make art in a collective? Coletiva ocupação can’t afford to. So maybe the question is can you afford not to make art in a collective?

Sometimes it seems simple. In the 15 years that I’ve been an artist, I’ve seen cuts to the arts, but I’ve also seen more sharing of resources and partnering up between places and people, which can’t be a bad thing. Thinking creativity and not competitively. Competition is inherent when you apply for funding or an ‘opportunity’ and I hate that, I think it is a very damaging culture. In some way, choosing to work outside of the systems or institutions does free you from a sense of lack. The power is in your hands (even if the money isn’t). And I know we need money. How do we make this happen? Can we put the power and the money in artists’ hands?

Bertrand Lesca: This question of giving the money to the artists is a very interesting one and it’s the sort of progressive reform that needs to be considered over here too (I really appreciated David Jubb’s contribution). I would fully support that.

This is the sort of model you get in countries like France, Belgium or Germany (although this is constantly put into questions in those places too!). Paying artists properly and making sure they get regular pay even in periods of ‘unemployment’ / between projects is a really fundamental idea to arts making in general. It is much more realistic about the realities of an artist. It doesn’t compel us to lie (“yes, I am super busy at the moment”) or to feel the need to be making stuff all the time (“I have another project for Edinburgh”).

I believe it would give a lot more agency to the artists to ‘waste time’ and to be creative in the rehearsal room like Xavier described.
As artists, we are often asked to apply a method, and to cut corners on what costs money and is considered to be a ‘waste of time’. It is very insidious and I think this happens all across the board.

That is why arts and culture doesn’t marry well together. The arts are only interested in creativity while the cultural sector is interested in numbers and results. I think this debate going on right now about ‘giving more space and money to the artists’ is really interesting because it starts drawing a distinction between the cultural sector and the artistic field.

Sammy Metcalfe: I’m thinking about how there’s maybe a certain resilience that comes from collaborative practices – it can feel less lonely (creatively and personally), plus whenever you’re having an off day you can let somebody else carry the work for a little. And this feels particularly acute right now, perhaps? We’re actually supposed to be in the middle of a residency in London at the moment and instead we’re trying to take that whole R’n’D process online, working via Zoom (inevitably), email, phone, etc, with collaborators across Spain as well as in the UK and the Czech Republic. It’s complex and scary (and weirdly exhausting at times) but it feels like we’re making progress, and like the work’s going in some new and expected directions, and it’s only viable because we’re allowing the collaborators to find their own individual routes through the work.

Whether or not the industry is actually able to accommodate and support collaborative practices is a whole other question though; our work with larger teams is only viable now (14 years into our career) because we’re able to build a kind of patchwork of funding from both the UK and Spain – which takes time. We’re also reliant on a handful of key venues prepared to take a risk on our work, to offer us space to work in, to begin conversations about programming sometimes years in advance, and so on. It’s working for us at the moment but it’s not necessarily a sustainable model, or really a model at all – it’s more like something we’ve lucked into that could fall apart at any moment.

I’m thinking now about how some of the only models that can really accommodate us – our work and the way we work – are artist-led organisations like Forest Fringe, which are not always “collaborative” in a conventional, creative sense but are certainly collaborative in more subtle ways. Communal, maybe, is the right word. And it’s really important that these organisations – these communities – exist, but I also think sometimes (and this is maybe kind of petulant) that it shouldn’t really be the artists’ responsibility to figure this stuff out?

Outsourcing the work (of distributing funds) to artist-led organisations isn’t necessarily a fair or sustainable system. I do feel like I’m opening a can of worms by saying that compared to the funding system in Spain, the Arts Council is actually…pretty good…? Like at least it’s (more or less) depoliticised…? And yes I know that Grantium is kind of user-unfriendly but seriously, try uploading a proposal with a Certificado Digital onto a system which’ll only seem to run properly on, like, Windows 98.

To return to talking about the creative part of the work, I want to add a quick note just to highlight something which has already been hinted at, which is the way collaborative processes – at their best – can bring a plurality to the work. I’m often conscious of the fact that I’m generally always working from a specific perspective, and collaborating with a group of people who are different from me challenges that, adds complexity and nuance, and allows the process to navigate territories that I might not feel able to enter by myself. I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on this; whether this feels like an innate quality of collaborative processes, or if it’s something aditional that can (and should?) be sought out, or even if that sounds kind of naive, wishful thinking?

Xavier de Sousa: I am not sure you can have theatre without plurality and, touching on Sammy’s comments on director-led and writer-led theatre, if you were to frame it as a work that is coming from one individual, then that is simply a marketing tactic (even if unintentionally). You can be the originator of the initial vision, or story, or what have you. But you constantly sweat and debate and enter conflict and interactions with others along the way, ones that will shape the outcome of what you are doing, and how you see yourself within the work and its process.

Thinking from personal experiences on collective work in different practices, for instance, the final outcome is very different from the original idea, thankfully. For instance, REGNANT, the work that I was supposed to open in June (thanks COVID-19!…) was being developed in a hyperlocal way. We wanted to work with folk who had direct experiences on the subject matter: local power structures. We quickly found that the work would have to take a slightly different form in each place that it was presented, to accommodate everyone’s voice and experiences, and perspectives. What I found most exciting is that collaboration between everyone: those who live locally and have had no experience of performing before, and those who do. It really challenged us to expand our horizons as creators.

From another angle, over the past three years, myself and the beautiful people who run Marlborough Theatre have curated and produced an artist development project called New Queers on the Block, where we have worked with artists of all disciplines in locations across the UK to create their first art work or to tour to places with little to no queer representation for the first time.

What we found quite quickly was that we were being quite presumptuous by coming in to these places – such as Bradford, Blackpool, Hastings – with the idea that ‘we will be doing queer work here’. Quite quickly we understood that there was already plenty of queer artists and audiences in each place, and that what was needed was investment in them and to create spaces where collectively, we could shape the project to be more representative of what people wanted to do.

All of a sudden, we had artists who have always done solo work, like Malik Nashad Sharpe, wanting to work collectively and opening their practice for others to feed into, expanding narrative possibilities and aesthetic visions. Or Subira Joy, whose twin joined them in creating a new theatre piece and as a result together they started to develop theatrical methodologies that challenged what each of them understood was possible before.

We invited people into the curatorial process, with local residents, artists and venues all collaborating, and it opened up a world of possibilities, identities and practices.

But I also wanted to touch on what Sammy said about being told to ‘find your voice’ or ‘having a voice’, which I find so frustrating precisely because it suggests that you are only an individual, and that your work is ‘of a specific aesthetic only’, which is so wrong.I once had a chat with the lovely Rachael from Third Angel about this and felt that these impositions come mainly from a funding and marketing perspective, rather than from the artists or the work itself. On another hand, I do think that we do live in a context that is incredibly unequal and representation is needed, so initiatives to support minorities having a presence and, dare I say it, a voice, is still very much necessary within the systems we operate in.

Personally, I have been working more in collective settings, both as an artist and as a programmer/curator, because it challenges me, and it takes me out of my comfort zone. My first solo show, POST, I ended up inviting audience members to sit with me at the dinner table and finish the narrative together over dinner. That was because my collaborators, Deborah Pearson and Ira Brand, really challenged me about how the form of the show should explore what the show itself is trying to convey: a feeling of relatability and the creation of communal spaces. And from then, we were able to let go of an initial need to ‘have my voice’ in it so much and have a more collaborative narrative and form being built with others on stage. Basically I clearly hated doing solo work so wanted others to do it with me so I wouldn’t feel so alone (just joking, but hope the meaning comes across).

Sammy Metcalfe: I totally agree that a collaborative process can and should include a plurality of voices, and I’d love to think of that as a kind of inescapable precondition of performance-making.

As Xavier’s said, there’s an incredible urgency right now (and always) to foster and sustain a greater plurality of voices in the culture in general, and in that context I feel like allowing other voices into a specific creative process (like ours) is really just doing the bare minimum (plus also the motive is at least partly selfish – it makes our work better, stronger, more complex). There’s an interesting question here for me about whether in this work you’re looking for what’s shared, universal – a unified voice – or whether you want to allow the work and the voices to be more fractured and contradictory? Both of course are equally valid and interesting…

Natasha Tripney: I’d like to turn the conversation to art – and life – after Co-Vid 19. As Lowri said, the last few years have seen an increase in the sharing of resources and co-operation between organisations, and presumably that’s only going to intensify now if the sector is to survive. It’s both unlikely (and to some extent undesirable) that things revert to the way they were. What are your thoughts about the future and the role that collectives can play in that future?

Sammy Metcalfe: It’s a strange and difficult time to think and talk about the future, because there’s a whole future (everything we thought we’d be doing over these weeks and months) that’s effectively vanished. I completely agree with Natasha that a return to pre-crisis normality would be undesirable – and counter-intuitive, and actually kind of bizarre – but I’m also wary: I think our collective memory tends to be alarmingly short, and I can easily imagine us all a few months or years from now just kind of…moving on, sinking back into whatever feels most comfortable. Plus there’s the depressing (but predictable…) fact that a number of theatres have already come out and basically said “our programming is going to be much more conservative after this crisis”. Choosing irrelevance, choosing nostalgia, choosing isolation and self-preservation as a survival strategy… that’s pretty wild.

I would like to be optimistic though. As I mentioned somewhere above, we’re currently in the middle of a first attempt to engage with and adapt to these new circumstances – as we try to continue to develop a new project 100% online – and as strange and fraught and uncertain as the process is, one thing that’s absolutely tangible is that the only way we can get through this is together. The fact that as a group of people we can respond to each other, inspire each other, and make space for each other makes the work feel more manageable, and more alive. It’s also significant that this approach allows us to have off-days, and if there’s a day when somebody isn’t feeling creative or productive that’s ok, because they know that the work is still going on elsewhere. Somebody else is carrying the weight. I don’t want to forget any of that. And recognising the difficulty of the moment is also important.

Like most people, I think, we absolutely reject this idea that the lockdown is “free time to be productive in!”, etc; and it’s really important to note that the only reason why we’ve been able to continue working is that our project partners – Battersea Arts Centre and La Abadía in Madrid, especially – have been great, and have essentially just asked us “what do you feel able to do right now, and how can we continue to support that?”. It would be good to see more of this kind of open-ended invitation, that goes beyond “here is a small fee to make digital content for us”, etc.

As a final note, we’re also thinking a lot at the moment of course about how as artists we can and should respond to the moment, and while we very much don’t want to make A Show About Covid-19, the whole experience is inevitably shaping and informing the creative process we’re currently engaged in. We’ve been talking a lot over the last few weeks about all the things we’ve lost during this period – intimacy, particularly – and about how we might make be able to make work to recover some of that (or recall it, evoke it, simulate it…). We have more questions than answers, still. For now…art isn’t going to save us, of course it isn’t, but it might help us to find a way through things, somehow, together.

Bertrand Lesca: I have definitely noticed a slight change since the start of the pandemic. People have been much more responsive when I have emailed them about needing a chat, or wanting to share some work we were doing during the pandemic. There seemed to be a sense of camaraderie that I have never quite experienced in the same way before.

I have had the same feeling on social media. Audiences and artists alike seemed very keen to support each other’s work and support the attempt we have all made to carry on working digitally – though it may feel very counterintuitive to begin with.

Everyone up until now had taken such pride in working with ‘liveness’ (what is right there in front of you) that this switch to digital can sometimes feel like a bit of a revolution for everyone.

Producers are also very keen to take part in this experiment. They seem a little less scared of it actually failing. We have had some really wonderful conversations with Kate Craddock, the director of GIFT Festival, where she essentially told us that yes it might all crumble, but she was also very keen to give us carte blanche over our digital offerings for the festival.

Everyone is so in the dark right now about the potential of this kind of work, and means they are very keen to try things out and see where this leads. Things I would have said aren’t for me a couple of months ago (hosting a zoom party with a two hour long DJ set for example) have now become the new ‘normal’.

This is why I would say that venues and festivals need to hold on a little before they make any quick decisions about how they are going to work with artists from now on. We need to be given the time to experiment with those new forms, and to see where they might go and how the context will affect ways we might be able to present work eventually. From watching the reactions that have been taking place throughout this weekend with GIFT, I think people are quite keen to take part in those experiments.

The true sense of communality right now will rise from everyone in the creative industry to hold off from judging things a bit too quickly. Critics, producers, ADs, funders, venues and festivals need to leave that ‘voice’ to develop a little before they make any quick assumptions about what works and what doesn’t work. We are all working with a completely new tool here. We are dealing with new limitations but also new possibilities that will take time for us to figure out. Give us time ‘to try again’ and ‘to fail better’.

Xavier de Sousa: Totally agree with Bertrand and Sammy. It’s been very inspiring to see festivals like GIFT and FuseBox really work with their artists to find new ways of making, adapting and/or showing previously recorded work. Watching Bertrand and Nasi’s show ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ at GIFT was glorious and left me feeling a wreck because even though one assumes that the show wasn’t conceived to be screened, the content, form and themes quite strongly resonate with what is happening right now.

That has given me some hope, if still slightly bittersweetly so. I’m a sucker for collective imagination and physical proximity, so currently it is quite hard to be find interest in making work that is collectively minded when we are all so distant.

On another note, one of the things that has made me hopeful for the near future is talking with people from other countries who are much better equipped to deal with this than us in the UK (due to government inadequacy) – you can start to understand how we might navigate what the future holds.

For instance, in Taiwan, the artist Tang Fu Kuen talks about the ways that theatres have responded to the issue, with many even remaining open with extensive health and safety measures set up to make audiences feel safe. Last week I was chatting with the wonderful Nan who used to run IETM and she was talking about how this might be a good time for smaller companies and groups to propose work to bigger venues, as it could provide a cost-effective way to show work to reduced audiences. My friend Bek Berger talks about how in Germany theatres and artists are starting to think in hyper-local ways. Travel restrictions will be in place for a long time, even within regions of the same country (for example, districts and constituencies are closed from each other in Portugal currently).

So maybe, as well as exploring the digital, this could also be a good time to start to look at our neighbourhoods, our local communities and our local colleagues to ways in which we can operate and collaborate locally too. That will be our most immediate and vibrant community that is available to us and for me, it is an incredibly exciting opportunity.

For more on making work differently, read Exeunt’s dialogue series on European Theatre. Or for more on power imbalances within the arts, read Lauren Mooney’s article on why touring theatre is weighted against freelance artists

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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