When the pandemic hit and sheltering in place orders happened, how many things did you find yourself simply deciding to put on hold? With public venues gone and social distancing in place, you may have thought to yourself, “well, doing that collaborative project seems impossible right now. . . I guess I’ll pick it up later.” And over these last few months, you may have given yourself a (no doubt) long deserved break or found yourself cleaning out your closet, planting a garden, taking up new hobbies or solo creative endeavors.
And now, as the pandemic stretches on, and we aren’t seeing a return to “normal” anytime soon. . . you may be wondering,
What about those creative things I wanted to do? Are they paused indefinitely? Will I ever get to create in collaboration again?
Recently I directed a piece with twenty dancers living separately all over the West Coast, most of whom had never met each other, some of whom I had never even met, in a dance collaboration. What started as a response to sheltering in place orders ended up as a film that speaks and reflects the times and movements we’re living - it’s a timepiece and it turned out even better than I imagined.
. . . And it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t asked the right questions.
Instead of asking, "will I ever create?" I asked,
“How can I create?”
Here’s the thing, we don’t know when - if ever - we’ll return to “normal” or what that new normal will even look like. We don’t know if the pandemic ends, what’s to follow, what world events we’re going to encounter next.
But, we can find new ways of working together when we ask the right questions.
And so, in addition to sharing the film above that resulted from this recent collaboration I also wanted to share some of the things I came to know through the process of creating it.
Here are some of the questions that I found key to successfully working together while apart.
Four Important Keys
and Questions to Ask When Working Together And Apart
1. MAINTAIN MOMENTUM
Ask Yourself: In what ways can I keep the momentum going and keep people engaged?
I think one of the biggest challenges to address when working apart is keeping the momentum and enthusiasm going. When people aren’t seeing each other in person it can be all too easy to detach, tune out the email reminders, and fall off the radar - because it feels slightly less personal to work remotely and folks tend to feel less accountable.
How I handled it:
At the very onset each person had to sign out a simple Google Form to let me know they wanted to do be a part of the project. I created a private FB group with all these dancers where everyone was encouraged to share ideas and inspiration. Then I had a kick off meeting. We had about 50% attendance on this so I made sure to record it and re-post it and make it available and easy to reference for everyone.
Another big thing was I made sure dancers had a very short time in which to add to the project and turn in their dance video contribution. They had only 2 days and I let it be known that they had to either commit to that or let me know they needed to “pass” and I would come back to them later. This served two purposes: there could be no extreme amounts of procrastination or getting blocked by perfectionism. They had to go with their gut, get out to a location, try a few things and get it done. This made the project feel finite. As soon as I assigned the project to the next dancer, I announced it in the group. Every few dancers, I would post the latest version of the video. In this way, the entire group could see that the project was moving forward, the film was getting made and get excited about the result.
You have to remember that working apart is like having a long-distance relationship. You have to keep the romance alive!
2. ENCOURAGE SELF-DIRECTION
Ask Yourself: How do I direct people to direct themselves and also support them from afar?
If people aren’t in the room together when they’re collaborating then that means you have to find ways to empower them to make their own aesthetic decisions. You have to communicate the vision clearly enough that it's easy to follow, with room to interpret and play and allow for some personal authority over the result. You also have to prepare people mentally for creating alone.
Filming yourself dancing in public is a little embarrassing no matter how many times you do it. You always have to remind yourself that you’re doing something meaningful even though you feel like onlookers are probably thinking you’re just some egomaniac with an iPhone. Also choreography that looks good in your living room doesn’t necessarily work the way you think once on site. You also may find that the only good light is available at 6:30am meaning that you have to move your body, in public, in an artistic way at a very non-optimal time of day. There are countless challenges when trying to create something out in the world by yourself - one of the main ones being mentally prepared and maintaining your self-esteem.
How I handled it:
I gave people very clear specifications on what I was asking for. They knew how to film their dance, from the position of the camera, to the length, to the logistics of getting it to me afterwards. As a group we discussed lighting, locations, costumes and looked at inspiring videos together. They got this information in meetings, and then again in posts, and then another time in a text message when I was handing off the project and I always let them know I was available any time they were in the middle of shooting and needed a second eye.
All with the idea in mind that I was prepping them for that inevitable moment when they would feel a little lonely out on their own. I was instilling confidence in them to direct themselves. A couple of times I received calls or a timid text with a video, “do you think this is ok?” In almost every instance, they were totally on the right track but I think just knowing someone else was seconding their opinion helped them to feel supported.
Build bridges between the artists and their original inspiration for creating so they feel supported when no one else is there.
3. THINK A FEW STEPS AHEAD
Ask Yourself: Where could this go wrong and what can I provide or how can I prevent that from happening?
Working apart means there is less time or opportunity for the back and forth that happens during in-person collaboration, so you have to be ready to streamline processes, be clear about action steps, communicate clearly and think a few steps ahead about areas where there could be misunderstandings or scenarios that wouldn’t work.
Editing together a project that integrated 20 different videos from 20 different dancers meant there was room for a lot of variation: different cameras, different aesthetics, different ways of working. I knew that, on the one hand, the variety of styles and voices was what would make this piece strong and interesting, and yet at the same time, could also be its downfall.
How I handled it:
I knew I had to be very organized. As soon as I had the process for how we were going to pass the project along, I documented it and then communicated it in several different ways (FB group, meetings, person to person) at several different points. There were clear tech specs on camera angle, type of camera, length of shot etc.
Also, about halfway through the project, I noticed that not everyone was easily able to perfectly replicate the ending pose of the person before them so I started sending screenshots of the final pose and articulating it in a way they could replicate without thinking too long (ie. “you will need to begin with your right arm up and your left arm down, your body is flat to the camera, your chin is turned over your right shoulder. . . “ etc.) Things like this gave each dancer the best shot at getting it right and making editing later easy and the film to have a seamless feeling.
You want to set people up for success. Give your collaborators the information that they need to know so they can fulfill their role like a rockstar and still have room to feel creative and in control of their part.
4. EXPAND THROUGH THE LIMITATIONS
Ask Yourself: How can I not only work in this new way or with these new restrictions, but actually make the most of this new way/format?
When forced to adapt quickly to working apart it can feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you and the tendency is to focus on the pain of working in this new environment or bemoan the way things used to be. But there can be many rich opportunities for innovation when you choose to focus on what you’re gaining in a new medium or mode of working as opposed to what you’re losing.
Anyone can dwell on what’s no longer available, but to be truly remarkable and a game-changer you must forget about what was and focus on what is becoming.
When the shelter in place orders first started happening and comedians were forced out of comedy clubs and public venues, they started setting up online Zoom comedy shows instead. Almost immediately, groans and complaints could be heard throughout the comedy community about this new medium: the audience’s laughter either wasn’t heard (they were muted) or it was too loud and distracting (if they weren’t); the comics complained that this wasn’t “real” stand up. Many of them simply stopped performing.
How I handled it:
While I admit that Zoom comedy isn’t the same as the stand up shows we are used to doing, I immediately started looking for ways to make it work: asking audience members to comment in the chat, spotlighting the comics video but unmuting the audience, asking comics to make sure they have a good connection, a decent microphone and an uncluttered background. And what I found is that there are things that you can do in Zoom comedy that you actually can’t do in regular stand up: you can share your screen and include short videos or powerpoint presentations as part of your act, you can greet every audience member by name, you can use wild virtual backgrounds. And I noticed facial expressions were now more visible onscreen than on stage, so I began to make use of that by allowing myself to be more subtle, or taking moments to look directly into the camera lens.
I decided to treat a Zoom comedy show like interactive TV and started taking inspiration from comedy shows like SNL, Late Night, and other formats to inform what would and wouldn’t work.
And with the Dancing Together Apart project I began to notice that not only did it work really well to collaborate remotely, it was actually easier in some ways. Normally a dance company would have to rent studio time, rehearse together, make schedules together, invest more time and money just to be able to work together. We were all busy women with families and/or careers so being able to choose when we created and doing it in our own space was not only workable but turned out to be a luxurious experience.
The entire world became our dance studio and artistic playground: murals, beaches, forests, tunnels, places we used to just walk through now we saw with new eyes. The world around us - ugly, beautiful, turbulent and peaceful - all of it became a rich storehouse for our imaginations.
In a time when we could have all felt stuck, hopeless, lonely or ineffective, we were instead feeling connected, creative and proactive. We were finding new inspiration inside our limitations.
As the world was waking up to the terrifying spaces between us in regards to race and the Black Lives Matter, we were finding ways to mend our own. We were creating closeness inside the separation and recognizing the need and desire in every human to be able to create together and also apart.
Perhaps in the process of reading this, it sparked some insights into those things that you too have been learning about new ways of working yourself! I’d love to hear about them! Please share your thoughts with me in the Performers & Creators Lab Facebook group or connect with me on Instagram: @hollyshawspritely.
In the meantime, happy creating, happy re-inventing, and happy working together while apart.