“The Art of Collaboration”
Sabrina Hamilton, Artistic Director, Ko Festival of Performance
For Sabrina Hamilton, theater is the ultimate form of collaboration. She approaches it wearing a variety of hats and swaps tools and tasks with the dexterity of a juggler. As artistic director of the Ko Festival, hosted every summer at Amherst College and celebrating twenty years of existence, she has also mastered the organizational and financial side of artistic endeavors. Here she reflects on creativity and collaboration, offering artistic insight that extends far beyond the arts.
Your arts background is in a lot of things, but mostly lighting?
Well, I started out as a performer, but I discovered that I didn’t have the desperate need to perform that a lot of performers seem to have, and that what I liked better was the creating, and putting the puzzle together. So I ended up having a very hard time finding any kind of graduate program. I had kind of specialized in not specializing; I would pick the project that seemed the most interesting and from there figure out what I could do on it. I went back to school once I discovered teaching and got a double MFA in writing and directing. My training is extremely, extremely eclectic. I had originally thought I would be a medieval archeologist, so I have a lot of history and social sciences in the way that I think as well.
What drew you to lighting or directing, those particular angles?
I refuse to pick. I completely refuse to pick. That’s been my whole life, not picking. It’s about combining, and often doing both. In traditional theater, in the old days, it used to be that the producer would come in and say, rewrite the second act! Well now as the presenter, by being on the creative team, I have a show that’s coming in but by lighting it, by going through the process of lighting it, I can have a collaborative way of working with the other artists on a project rather than sort of being dictatorial, so it’s a different way to be creative. I also do scenic design and I do a lot of playwriting as well, and I do presenting and I work on festivals. It’s really much more about working in ensemble theater or devised theater. Ensembles are groups that work together on an ongoing basis, and it’s usually less hierarchical than a traditional theater set-up. Ensembles tend to develop their own projects, and there’s something very special that happens when people work together over a period of time. Devised theater is theater where the project is created by the group. There is no playwright, whereas in traditional theater there is often a playwright and the play is interpreted by the rest of the group.
When you work on devised theater, what are your favorite kinds of seeds or starting points?
I love working from historical and documentary materials, but one of the companies I work with, Mabou Mimes, was very influential for me; they see things as being in tracks. So there might be a visual track, a text track, a music track, a sound that isn’t music track. All those things come together so that whatever the narrative or the driving structural elements of the piece are can be passed through those things, almost like jazz, so it could be that the narrative is happening in the text, which is the most common form of theater, or it could be happening through the visual track and it could be that the narrative is almost like a musical drone or a counterpoint. Different audience members have different primary senses – eye people, ear people, language people – and it’s really wonderful to encode a show with those multiple tracks. Therefore it’s valuable to me in my background to be able to speak or use the tools of all these different senses and ways of processing.
What do you do when one of the seeds that you’ve chosen for a piece turns out not to be sprouting so much? What strategies do you have to cope with that?
One is: don’t lie; don’t pretend it’s working when it isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to throw it out or say this is a dead end. There are times when it’s valuable to push through it and there are times when it’s better to say this is not worth the energy, let’s not do this. It doesn’t work or it’s not right for this time. But given that, I think that the way some people are taught, especially people coming right out of certain training programs, there’s sort of one way to approach a problem, and I think that’s dangerous. Because either you say there is no problem, or you have only one way to attack it. So what I think is much more interesting is, I think of it almost as turning a prism. You keep turning and turning the prism until suddenly it clicks in and the light starts to shine through, the pattern is in place, the connections are made. Sometimes I do a simple repetitive task like painting a white wall white. And I know what I’m doing, it’s very clear, I’m painting a white wall white. And because I’m doing that, it frees my mind and I’m not trying to run around the problem. Another strategy is developing sort of imaginary beings who sit on your shoulder and whisper into your ear and give you good advice. So I have my own little advice team, and I can sort of channel them. So, for instance, if I get stuck, let’s say for a particular piece, I ask, “well, what would choreographer Pina Bausch do?” And it never comes out as being a copy because it’s always filtered through you. Very often I’ll take two people who are quite different, collide them against each other, and try somebody else on, channel somebody else, and something else will happen because I’ve expanded my little universe into something that’s larger than my own vocabulary.
And of course, in ensemble theater, what we always do is turn it back to the group. Even if it’s not a particular specialty of a person. I think if you set up a project so everyone’s working on the whole project at some basic level rather than their little category, you’ll get a better result and a higher personal investment in the project as a whole.
So sometimes I’ve had a sound designer come up with really the scripted image end of a show – the end of the show was not working, and I turned it back to everyone in the room, and it was the sound designer. Now the sound design happened to be okay, not brilliant for that show, but my god he was worth his weight in gold because he solved the whole end of the show. And so if you have a team of people who are savvy about the whole field and the project as a whole, you can widen those specialized categories and get the richest wisdom in the room. You can’t hold on too strongly to your idea when you’re working in a functional group; you have to know when to let it go. I think it’s really interesting to do projects where you get all the ideas out on the table and then people are not possessive of them.
How do you foster an environment in which that group ownership is possible, where the ideas don’t have to feel so personal?
I think part of it is the way the invitation to come and work on a project works, or the decision to come and work on a project. I think it’s important that people agree to really invest in it, to explain really carefully what the whole project is about, what the idea is, and sometimes it’s better to have people who have more investment in that idea than people who have a greater resume, who might have more experience but not care so much. I usually would opt for the caring more, because they’ll put more of themselves into it.
What are the major qualities that you have as an artist and collaborator that you’ve found translate really well into running the festival?
It’s having an idea of what all the parts are that go into making the whole picture. There isn’t much that happens at the festival that I couldn’t, in a pinch, do myself, so that when something needs to change or something comes up, I understand its implications financially, in terms of time and personnel and artistic things, it’s like learning to see down the road. The ability to run “what if” scenarios is really important. I use that as a tool constantly, both in making work, but also in running the festival. Again, having people whose personal investments are high. Sometimes the best ideas come from the interns. It’s not age, or experience. At Ko we don’t start with what do we know how to do or what have we done before, we start with what’s the fantasy? Some people self-limit way too early and you never get to the best ideas in the room. So if we start with “what’s the fantasy?” and see how close we can get to it, then we don’t end up just rigid. I try to stay off automatic, even though it’s hard because I like having structure! When I’m interviewing interns, I warn them that there are many right ways to do it. Turning around and changing directions very quickly is a very valued skill.
Does fundraising fall to you?
It’s not really my thing, but it does fall to me.
What are your biggest arguments and strategies when you’re seeking funding?
About why art is important?
– Yeah, how to keep it alive in this moment, financially.
There is a lot of language out there about the value to the arts and we use it ourselves sometimes. We are one of the few things that happens in Amherst in the summer and we actually bring people to town. Amherst is very valuable to us because you don’t need a car here so people can come to town and not rent a car. It’s the perfect size and kind of community. So we talk about that and how people who come to the shows also may go out to dinner, and things like that. But I think there’s a trap in that for a lot of arts organizations, because you start to devalue the art. And I do all those advocacy things – I write to my senator and congressman all the time, and yes I do say those things. But there is something about art, not just for art’s sake, but maybe for another sake. Art, particularly theater, is where we imagine “what if”. What if the world were like this, or what if this happened, or what if I were a person in these shoes. And it’s a way of helping a person understand, what would it be like to walk in another person’s shoes, or to think about a world or imagine a world as it might be. America has long been known for its creativity, and I think we are entering into a period in which that is very much in decline, where the creativity is actually coming in from other countries and other cultures right now. I think part of that is our educational system, but that creative thinking, that teamwork, is not something that we have been particularly good at, except sports teams, but even those are very fractured — it’s very much a culture of me and mine. So ways to solve problems and ways to imagine ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, that whole empathetic thinking, I think we are not so great at. I think that theater in particular has a huge value in a liberal arts setting because people can actually be at the heart of discourse, because people actually try on what it is to have the world be a certain way or to be in a certain person’s shoes, or to engage with a certain problem, creatively. And then those things can be used to figure out what to do in the real world.