"The theatre is an extraordinarily democratic undertaking," said award-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant. "You all want to move the work forward and illuminate it."
"A play is just a bunch of stuff on a two-dimensional piece of paper," pondered Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally in defense of the necessities of collaboration in the theatre. Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee, however, felt that "anyone who goes around messing with Beckett will end up with something less than Beckett intended."
"The Alchemy of Theatre—The Divine Science: Essays on Theatre & the Art of Collaboration" enlists more than two-dozen theatrical professionals to share essays on their own real-world experiences. In the new book Tony winner McNally says, "I find it ironic when people win awards for being the best playwright or the best this or the best that. Because, really, every time someone gets an honor in the theatre everybody involved in the production should be up on the podium. Theatre is totally collaboration."
Others who lend their thoughts to the book include directors Susan Stroman and George C. Wolfe, stars Chita Rivera and Brian Stokes Mitchell, producer Rocco Landesman, musical director Paul Gemignani, theatre operator Gerald Schoenfeld and designers Robin Wagner, William Ivey Long, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The writings of late playwright Wendy Wasserstein and songwriter Cy Coleman are also featured in the book.
The majority of the discussion focused on how these Broadway talents have developed successful working habits with their collaborators. "What's the point of going into the theatre if you are predisposed against collaboration?" Hal Prince said. "I don't understand the 'do what you want' part of it all." In fact, in his essay in "The Alchemy of Theatre," Prince says that his collaborators "surprise me and take me places I never imagined." Other topics that were occasionally addressed included the financial challenges to produce a new Broadway play, whether Off-Broadway non-profit companies still support young playwrights, the relationship between the director and the playwright and the need for more creative producers.
One particularly interesting issue was whether the critic has a role in the food chain of theatre collaboration. Robert Viagas mentioned that he gave some thought to highlighting a theatre critic in his new book, but ultimately decided against it.
"I never thought of the critic as a collaborator," Lynn Ahrens said. "That thought paralyzes me. I don't know who these people are."
"There is no such thing as 'the critic,'" Albee said. "It's a whole bunch of different people. We don't admit it in public, but we like the critics who like our work. You need to understand what a critic stands for. Or, it's just a publicity blurb for or against the play."
Hal Prince ended this portion of the discussion with the thought, "I think every person on this panel has lived through 50 years of critics and we're still here."
Once the question-and-answer session was opened to the audience, a young female Columbia student asked the panelists for advice as to where she can receive artistic and financial support.
"Actors are the key," Terrence McNally said. "Get your work to them. Do shows in basements or lobbies. Start your own company. I believe every generation needs to start from scratch."
"There are more than 400-plus companies in New York with a [501c3], so there must really be like 700 out there," Kathleen Chalfant said. "Make these people read your plays."
Edward Albee also offered the following piece of advice for a novice playwright: "Don't read only good plays. Read stuff that doesn't work. It's actually very encouraging."
Robert Viagas' "The Alchemy of Theatre" provides a first-hand look at the entire collaborative process by focusing on "every theatrical field, from producing and writing to publicity and makeup." It is published by Playbill Books.
For more information about "The Alchemy of Theatre," click here.