“Over to You, Pal”: Jeff Hatcher on Collaboration

posted by Molly MacLagan, Literary Management and Dramaturgy Intern

One of the most brilliant aspects of Louder Faster, the world premiere commission that opens on Friday at City Theatre, is that it’s a play written in collaboration about a playwright who nearly always wrote collaborations (George S. Kaufman). Playwrights Eric Simonson and Jeffrey Hatcher latched onto that concept for their new comedy about Kaufman.  Below are some of Hatcher’s thoughts on the satisfactions and challenges of collaborating, taking ownership of good ideas, and the “65% rule” for judging audience laughter in a comedy.

Jeffrey Hatcher

 How did we pick G.S.K.?
We weren’t looking for a playwright who would fit an idea for a play.  Eric noticed that Kaufman was known as the “great collaborator” and the word “collaborator” had a negative political connotation as well as its positive artistic one.  So the idea for the play and the idea to use George Kaufman were one in the same.  One of the nice things about a collaboration is that an instinct one might have even when working on one’s own individual play – the instinct to bat around ideas with someone else–is allowed and encouraged.  There are times when I’m writing a play all by myself, and I’ll talk to my wife or perhaps a friend about something that’s bothering me or something I’m not sure of, but that’s rare.  I guess I’m afraid that by talking about the script, some of the creative energy will be diluted.  Of course, I’m also afraid that the ideas I float will be shot down as being unbelievable, ridiculous, pedantic, overused.  I should also add that this is a common resistance writers have to opening up the floor for discussion, to saying “I’m not sure about this, what do you think should happen?” We fear we’ve handed over an amount of authorial control and ownership.  But frankly, if you’ve written a play and you consult a director, a dramaturg, or the actors hired for a workshop or rehearsals and someone makes a good suggestion and you say to yourself, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” you shouldn’t reject the idea because it didn’t come from you.  To reject the perfect solution or the perfect joke would be nuts.  But how do you own something that someone else has suggested?  In some way you have to own it; otherwise you feel like you’re stealing.  Your play, even if it’s in process, is the seedbed, the root, for whatever discussion emerges.  So if someone has a terrific idea about how to solve a problem, take it, because the odds are that person hasn’t been making the same suggestion at every play he’s been involved in; it’s organic to the play you’re writing.  A collaboration makes all those questions go away: discomfort, ownership, all these anxieties naturally fall by the wayside because the very nature of a collaboration is to employ the other writer in a way that will benefit you both.
Hatcher (left) and Simonson watch and make notes during the November 2010 workshop of Louder Faster. Click to enlarge.

Picking Up the Slack
There are times when one’s imagination flags, one’s inventiveness eludes.  Sometimes you just get tired.  So you turn to your collaborator and say, “Over to you, pal,” and 9 times out of 10, your collaborator will say, “Sure.”  His energies are available to you, just as, if the circumstances were reversed, your energies would be available to him.  The upside of a collaboration is obvious.  If two creative minds are working together, the odds favor an increased creativity.  However, it is possible, and it’s happened to us, when a storyline worked out by one of us doesn’t inspire the other.  It’s like when one fellow starts to mine for gold in a certain mountain, then he leaves and you go in and you stare at that dark hole that he’s dug, and he’s already found some gold, and you don’t see it.  You dig and you dig, and there’s no gold there.  You may be tempted to say, “You take over.”  You found a little bit of gold, so you finish, find a lot of gold.  Or you might say, “You know that little bit of gold you found at the beginning?  That’s all there was.  It’s a dead end.  Let’s retrace our steps, fill up the hole and go look for a better vein.” 
Also, when you’re dealing with comedy, one writer is always going to look askance of some of the other’s jokes, so the tendency to cut something almost always increases your material and decreases your partner’s.  It’s an instinctive protection of one’s own material and a wariness of foreign material.  When I say “foreign” what I mean is “material that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the show.”  I think most collaborators recognize each other’s good jokes, but there are occasions when a joke doesn’t seem funny, doesn’t seem organic, or doesn’t seem stylistically cohesive.  That’s when they appear foreign.  They appear foreign to the person who didn’t write them, but they don’t appear foreign to the person who did.  The proving ground is the preview performances.  If you’ve got five previews, like we do at City Theatre, you’ve got three chances at making something work.  You should really see material three times before making a decision on whether or not to keep it.  Naturally, there are jokes that are solid from day one, as well as jokes that you can probably cut sooner than the three performance rule.  But there are often a lot of jokes in the middle range that you’re not sure of.  You think Joke A is funny, but the audience doesn’t laugh at Joke A or they give it a soft response, a 40% laugh.  You start to wonder, “Is there something about the staging?  Is it the actor?  Is it the line?  Is it the setup?”  But if after three tries, the joke is still not landing the way you want it to, cut the joke.  I believe in the 65% rule.  65% of the audience seems to be pleased by any joke.  It doesn’t mean you’ve got 65% of them slapping their thighs and howling with laughter, but you’ve got to know that 65% of the audience gave an aural assent to the joke.  If you’ve got that much of the house on your side, chances are there’s another 10 – 15% who don’t react outwardly but still find it funny.  What must be avoided is the one tendency to say, “Well, I heard a couple laughs out there…”  A smattering of laughs at a so-so joke causes the audience to lose confidence in the show’s ability to entertain them.  Once an audience has lost faith in you, it’s hard to win it back.  It’s like you’ve dug yourself a little hole with that so-so joke, and the next time a solid joke emerges, you’re going to have to crawl out of that hole before you find yourself on firm footing.

Hatcher (center) and Simonson (right) discuss Louder Faster with director Tracy Brigden. Click to enlarge.

Do I prefer collaborating to working alone?
I like working alone.  In the long run, I prefer it, but only in the abstract.  I’m naturally suspicious of collaborators with whom I’m unfamiliar, and so the idea of sharing artistic responsibility always seems fraught with danger.  It’s only with someone like Eric, whom I know well and can work with and like, that those worries fall away (and even then not totally.)   What causes a writer to agree to a collaboration is based on subject matter, compatibility, world-view, and (frankly) schedule.  I can’t imagine a writer saying yes to every collaboration he’s offered.  There must be circumstances though, when two writers have embarked on a collaboration, thinking it was going to work out, only to find it come asunder.  Sometimes you don’t know this until opening night or even long after, but sometimes you know it almost immediately, yet for whatever reason – weakness, sloth, insecurity – you stick with the collaboration. 

Louder Faster is currently in previews, and runs through May 29.  Open captioning for D/deaf and hearing impaired audiences, and audio description for blind and visually impaired audiences, will be held on May 29.  For more information or to reserve tickets, call 412-431-CITY (2489) or click here to go to City Theatre’s website.

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