Radical Collaboration: An Interview with artist Sam Schanwald

Creating Collective Heat in the Room

Sam Schanwald, working at Gakko. Photograph: Michael Taylor

Interviewed by David Bernabo

Multidisciplinary artist Sam Schanwald is interested in collaboration, and from the generous nature of this interview — where my own artistic process is examined in great depth — Schanwald’s being radiates an excitement for shared experiences, learning and creating together, and as they put it, “[creating] work that builds collective heat in the room.”

Working in the theater as a director, writer, and performer has given Schanwald opportunities to test their theories on collaboration. This summer, Schanwald is working with Gakko — “an organization seeking to recontextualize education via temporary camps for exceptional high schoolers” — and is traveling as a mentor through Bali, Indonesia and Danube Delta, Romania.

Speaking from different corners of the world, Pittsburgher-turned-Brooklynite Schanwald and I discuss collaboration and our working via a shared Google Drive document.

To supplement your reading, check out Schanwald’s website and Instagram or read their recently published piece, I Love Dicks on Walls.

Photographs from the Boychik participatory coloring and storytelling event. Photograph: Baxter Pitt

David Bernabo: You are traveling a bit this summer — France, Bali, Romania? On your blog, you write, “I’m looking forward to investing my whole self in the collaboration across disciplines with my fellow curriculum devisers.” How do you prepare for total immersion into collaboration?

Sam Schanwald: I think in some instances, and this is certainly the case with the workshops I’m making for Gakko, there is no way to fully brace oneself for what a collaboration will be. If I’m thinking too much about what the collaboration is going to look like, or what I want the product to be specifically, then I’m actually not prepared. The preparation for collaboration looks like expelling the ego, cleansing myself of preconceived notions of what the work might look like, and bringing myself to a place of generosity and listening.

When I’m wearing my director hat, the easy thing for me to do is to blueprint an entire performance. I can spend hours devising every bit of choreography, sketching how every costume will be designed, and blocking out every moment on paper. But then, who needs collaborators? That’s not a generous way of working. To prepare for a collaboration, which must always come from a place of giving, the most necessary step is to put all my fleshed-out ideas under the bed, and then walk into the collaboration room with nothing in my hands. The mind will store what it needs to store and will resurrect the right thing at the right time.

The key step is putting it all away. That way, I’m not caught up in my own vision, but I have prepared myself spiritually and intellectually to engage in an active way with my collaborators. Some of the stuff you shove under the bed will come back organically, and that’s cool. There might be an organic moment to introduce a piece of my prep work. Or things will seep in from our individual prep work that I didn’t expect to. But, I refuse to force-feed my prep work to my collaborators. Instead, let’s go for a family style meal.

The strokes on the canvas are our collective responsibility. But, in order for that first stroke on the canvas to be meaningful, we must have all individually bought the colors of paint we like, thought about the types of paintbrushes we prefer, and deep-dived into our own separate visions for the painting.

After the preparation, we must walk into the room together, empty-handed, and lend ourselves to each other.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately are the inherent political dynamics present in different styles of collaboration. Do you find that how a particular artist collaborates is representative of how they think about community in a sociopolitical sense?

DB: That’s a complex question! From my own perspective, my thoughts about community and a political structure that would enable that sense of community sometimes overlap with my approach to artistic collaboration, but it really depends on the context for the collaboration. The last few rock bands I was in read more like a dictatorship than a thriving collaborative community. Oddly, Host Skull, the band that I started with musician Will Dyar, was conceived partially as an experiment to open-source our work (or at least the name) and share ownership of anything presented under the name Host Skull. The idea worked in discussion (and in one interactive art exhibit), but the amount of work needed to seed the idea immediately unbalanced the workload and the concept caved.

But switching to more improvised musics — those settings provide more opportunity for give and take of ideas and definitely rely on that sense of gratitude and sharing that you mentioned.

My friend Maree ReMalia is a dancer and choreographer and I would say that her working methods when choreographing (from group improvisations, games, conversations, research) dance works with a group do more closely mirror how she and often the participating group approach their definition of community and the possibilities for how a community could function. Everyone feels included and respected, and the end result is always greater than the efforts of one person.

I’m wondering if the medium alters the ways that collaboration can occur. Dance and Theatre require a range of skills and roles — collaboration is a necessity to pull off a performance. Rock bands can coast on one person’s vision/ego.

SS: Your idea that collaboration style is based on medium is an interesting one. I don’t think I totally subscribe to the idea that the medium or discipline must inevitably dictate the process. Instead, what we might be noticing is a result of how differently the industries of theatre and dance operate in contrast to the music industry.

To your rock band example, wouldn’t you agree that, in an ideal world, music is created collaboratively? Or, at the very least, every band member has at least some sort of stake in the tunes they make? I remember seeing Dirty Projectors in Pittsburgh. This was when Amber was still in the band, and they all sang one of their Bjork collaborations: Beautiful Mother. It was so apparent during that song that every artist onstage felt so genuinely invested in what they make. I realized that band acts have the potential to be surprising, inviting, electric, and generous in a sublime theatrical sense. It’s real-time collaboration that is no different from theatre or dance.

From my experience illustrating for and performing with musicians, it’s the music industry and business practices that prevent them from collaborating radically. There’s trouble with contracts. Drummers won’t willingly stand up and do a dance in the middle of a song. Back up singers won’t move crates during a song for staging purposes if it’s not in their contract.

In contrast, the general feeling in theatre is that if you’re signed on as a performer, you take anything that comes your way and you spin it into gold. No matter what. Theatre workers are the most disciplined, passionate, generous people in the world.

Photographs from the Boychik participatory coloring and storytelling event. Photograph: Baxter Pitt

SS: So for me, it comes down to business practices and how the culture of process is dictated by the attitudes of the industry. Have you ever felt stifled by precedented practices in your fields?

DB: I definitely feel that business practices can inhibit art and collaboration, and by extension, the demands of capitalism and markets — profit, exploitation, and expansion — place creativity in an awkward position. That said, making work in Pittsburgh, I’ve rarely felt stifled, because the market expectation is often non-existent in the fields in which I work. Granted, audience expectation or my perception of audience expectation has often led me to choose a risk-averse path, especially in freely improvised settings. And I suppose audience expectation and knowledge circles back to business practices and how convention funnels into education and builds more power for convention…So, yes, I’ve definitely felt stifled by precedented practices. ;)

My favorite experiences have been the most collaborative projects where everyone plays a part and has input into the pursuit, but I’m hesitant to rate collaborative projects as my favorite works of art. This may be partly due to being raised in a culture that praises the auteur. Robert Wilson. Kubrick. Maya Deren. Godard. Fellini. Leni Riefenstahl. (I grew up loving cinema.) Collaboration surely lurks behind these people’s works, but I’m drawn, right or wrong, to people with singular visions.

I might be making a line that doesn’t need to exist where collaboration takes a different path if a group is working to make a singular person’s vision the best it can be vs. a collaboratively developed performance or experience. I’m also surely biased since much of my creative output is often a solo effort due to lack of funding and wanting to minimize the amount of time that I ask people to work/collaborate for free.

Working as a director, have you found different limits on how much collaboration can occur? Do different parties have more influence — the playwright, the director — and how do you avoid stifling collaboration with varying power dynamics?

SS: Your point about film is really interesting. In my experience, film is not conducive to collaboration in a super extreme way. I also love Robert Wilson, but I do think that there is at least a small collaborative aspect to what he’s doing because the live medium, by nature, requires it. In film you can get away with being an auteur in every sense of the word, but I really disagree with trying to transfer that over to theatre. It should belong to the people, and by people I mean both the audience and the creatives.

I will say that in an educational environment, it’s really easy to collaborate as wholly as possible. Because there’s a pervasive understanding of the need to personally invest in the community of the conservatory or department, my teammates are generally on board to collaborate with their whole selves. It’s what we’re all there to do: expand ourselves and throw ourselves into different processes and approaches. That kind of collaboration feels especially free when working on the text of a dead or ancient playwright. They’re not in the room or even alive to judge the approach. We can be as free and risky as possible. We can awaken the text in our own way. We can be daring in our ideas, in dragging a dead thing to the door and thrusting it into a very alive room.

I also love working with text from writers who give challenging propositions. A proposition can be something that’s totally puzzling in a theatrical setting (“scene 12: an ice skating rink,” “golden flowers grow,” or even just “birds”). It’s something we get to solve theatrically. That’s the heat of collaboration for me.

Beyond educational institutions, I’m very much proactively navigating what collaboration can be. In New York, it’s difficult to create an “ideal” team for a production because of space availability, stipulations from artists’ unions, lack of funds, and the stickiness of gauging audience interest. That’s all difficult to get around. The thing that has to tie my collaborators and I together is a continuous falling in love with each other’s work. There has to be a reason to be in the room together. We make each other feel alive, feel inspired, et cetera. Otherwise, no one has a reason to be doing the work because we aren’t going to make any money. At least right now.

Regarding power dynamics between playwrights and directors: recently I’ve been my own writer or I’ve been using found text. I have developed new plays on multiple occasions, and my voice ends up being in them no matter what because I’m also a writer. That’s the kind of collaboration that’s interesting to me, though. So, we’re similar in our relying on ourselves to do as much as possible.

When do you realize you’re in too deep, or that you’re wearing too many hats on a given project?

Illustrations by Sam Schanwald.

DB: I really like your point about how collaboration can thrive in the educational environment. I never saw it personally — my Finance degree was focused on sending students to Wall Street — but I was jealous of that 100% self dedication that I saw with my friends in the music, theater, and art departments — the freedom to explore and build something together.

Regarding being in too deep, I don’t think I’ve actually hit that point when I’m in the thick of the creation process. I’d say that I often overextend myself, but only on a few occasions have I missed the mark because of it. That said, a few months after I have premiered a film or released a record — definitely after watching footage of this recent evening-length dance piece — it’s at that point that I realize more collaboration would have been nice, that I needed an extra set of hands, more peer review, a consult with a set designer, or a collaboration with a dramaturge.

I wouldn’t consider myself lazy in any sense, but I have sacrificed bits of my artistic output because I only wanted to make three trips from the car to the stage and not five. I love the creation process and tend to rush the final steps — the distribution, the press release, the pre-show food, the invitations, the thank-you notes. I could certainly use help on the administrative side.

When I work on other people’s projects, they are generally more professional. A stage manager was hired. A theater is producing the show and because of it, someone is taking tickets at the door and the sound system has already been tested. It’s a great feeling, but for my own work, I like to work at a fast pace and that attitude generally leaves collaborators behind. I also feel a (probably irrational) guilt when people help me achieve my vision for a work, even if they are gung-ho to help.

Does that guilt ever creep into your process?

SS: I am cautious of that feeling of guilt. I’m definitely aware of the shame surrounding being selfish. And, I feel as though I have an extremely sensitive gauge about when something is becoming too much about me. But, I can’t live inside that headspace for too long. Instead, I need to busy myself thinking about the climate of the collaboration. I need to be curating the atmosphere of whatever space we happen to be working in. And if the feeling among collaborators is grounded in really honest communication, discipline, and imagination, everything should fall into place.

In the end, everything we make is for others, right? And I mean that in the sense that the product is for others (spectators, participants, what have you), but also in the sense that art is for those involved with the process, too. Without togetherness, what is the work for? Sure, we get to call something our own. The brilliant drawing is attributed to me. Or, I take ownership for staging. But if, along the way, the evolution of the work wasn’t meant for the collaborators just as much as the audience, it’s worthless. I also think artists can see, in retrospect, if they’ve failed to commune in some way. The work isn’t reading, or doesn’t cozen properly. The audience can definitely feel that, too. Distancing is useful as a convention sometimes, but if the work is inaccessible, the audience gives up. We don’t care when people don’t care about us. We can smell it from miles away.

A lot of artists claim to not think or care about the audience at all, painting that self-absorption as an act of heroic authenticity to themselves. I so disagree with that sentiment. The ultimate act of generosity is to think about how the audience will encounter the work in a practical way. Give them points of access. Let them in first, shake the room last. It’s all about collaborators and the audience. Balancing the integrity of the work with generosity to those two parties is the ultimate goal.

How much does thinking about your audience factor into your work?

DB: Thinking about audience was a bigger concern when I was younger. In certain projects, there was this drive to one-up our friends or a group doing similar work. It was a fun, healthy, and hopefully harmless sense of competition. Our peers were part of the audience, and we made a portion of our decisions based on that idea that we can be weirder or louder or more surprising than these folks.

I suppose it’s not that I don’t think about audience now, but I think about audience in a different way. It’s less about showing competence or cleverness or technical skill and more about sharing work. Some projects I make out of a genuine interest in the form or the concept — just finished two volumes of audio collages that surely have a very limited audience. But other works, especially the dance work, is meant to be seen and fed by the audience. So, there’s a more fluid path between the performance and the audience.

Have you come to any realizations with your work this summer?

SS: “Sharing” and a more “fluid path” really resonate, both in my life and in the work I’ve been making this summer. I’m finishing off my summer in Bali, and so much about my passion for communing over art has been reinforced in France, Romania, and now Indonesia.

Regarding “sharing,” the living need to commune transcends cultural difference. That proposal might seem trite. But, the truth is my bones have begun to learn a language of experience-making that engages us beyond politics, beyond social stature, and beyond wealth. In Ubud, I see the Balinese Hindus create three offerings a day. They are these beautiful palm pockets of flowers and herbs and sometimes a stray cigarette or incense stick or cracker. These small offerings, expensive and impractical to make, are left to the ground or wind. They are for no one and for everyone. They are devotional. I want to know more about them. I see them everywhere here and think: how can everything I make be some kind of offering? How can I devote not only myself, but also the work toward a greater whole?

At the end of the day, we come to a piece of work (whether story or abstract experience) to commune. We come to feel horizontally part of the whole, engaged with one another through threads that pull our innards out of ourselves and into the circle. The ways in which we commune don’t need to merely be a direct path between artist and spectator. The artist is a facilitator. We can get closer to that fluidity between people, that melding, by thinking about art as an experience. And, even better, an experience that devotes us to each other.