Remove Your Ego: 5 Steps to Mastering ‘The Art of Collaboration’ from Teresa Coleman Wash
Embarking on a new creative collaboration can make you feel more like a scientist than an artist. Creative work aside, a myriad of uncontrollable elements like work ethic, talent, temperaments, and conflicting visions can take your experiment from a brilliant chemical reaction to a frothy, papier-mâché-volcano mess. Ask Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s Executive Artistic Director and Founder, Teresa Coleman Wash, and she’ll tell you the perfect collaboration starts with shedding your self-importance.
“It’s pretty simple. All parties must have a genuine interest in the well-being of those being served. You have to remove yourself and your ego.”
Throughout BATC’s life cycle – from its founding to today – Wash has seen firsthand how working with others has benefitted her organization and creative process. For the inaugural feature in our ‘The Art of Collaboration’ series, a collection of stories designed to highlight the power of a perfect partnership and what makes them tick, we sat down with Wash to learn more about her passion for collaboration and how it propels her organization and its mission.
&: What was the genesis of Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s collaborative process?
TCW: We are an organization of color, a small theatre with limited resources, so we learned early that it was prudent for us to work with community partners that align with our mission. There is a cooperative benefit that allows each organization to take advantage of skills the others don’t have. We figured out early on that heterogenous groups made up of people from different backgrounds make for more effective decision-making.
&: So, you believe there’s some intangible power in collaboration?
TCW: Most definitely. The beauty of collaboration is it brings people with different strengths together. What our organization may lack, another could have plenty. I’m inspired by James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds. He writes that large groups of people are smarter than a few when it comes to problem-solving and decision-making. His teachings have helped me navigate what strong, functional partnerships should look like.
&: It can be relieving to know we don’t always need to have the solution ourselves.
TCW: Exactly. We don’t profess to have all the answers.
&: What do you think is poignant about collaboration in this unprecedented moment we’re all living in?
TCW: The wonderful thing about this moment is we’re dismantling lots of practices that have been put in place. We need to decolonize our minds to think more critically about the kind of world we want to live in and leave behind. I don’t believe in scarcity – there’s plenty to go around, but we first must remove our egos and realize it’s okay to disagree. We see disagreement as bad, but it should be the start of a conversation. I’ve been inspired in my thinking about learning and unlearning by reading Think Again by Adam Grant. Anyone who knows me well, knows I avoid “yes” people at all costs. I’d rather surround myself with people who have a genuine interest in my well-being and who will tell me the truth.
&: What are some recent collaborations that have worked particularly well for you and BATC?
TCW: Prior to the pandemic, we had two successful programs, Silver Stories and Patio Live, where we presented workshops and performances for adult learners. When COVID hit, we didn’t want to abandon that population, so we collaborated with Alex Herrera at Booker T. Washington School of Performing & Visual Arts to present Dancing into the Past, a virtual dance screening. Booker T. students interviewed seniors via Zoom to gather their stories, then they interpreted the older generation’s storytelling through dance. Both the students and the seniors were immensely impacted by the performance. These were fulfilling conversations that inspired creativity for the students and their art-making. And for the seniors, it was a meaningful opportunity to stay connected and share a bit about their lives with a new generation. I know we’ll see the benefits of this collaboration long after the pandemic is over.
&: Let’s talk about why some collaborations may work better than others. Is there a formula for a great creative collaboration?
TCW: It’s pretty simple, I think. All parties must have a genuine interest in the well-being of those being served. You have to remove yourself and your ego. In one sense, the surrounding community is a significant collaborator. The community knows when you genuinely care about issues that affect them. Our community has taken care of BATC, and I believe we’ve taken care of them.
&: This notion of the community being your collaborative partner is an interesting take. What makes you say that?
TCW: Here’s a perfect example of what I mean by that. Our building was donated to us in 2004, and although it was dilapidated, we could see the potential, so we raised $500,000 in private sector funding and we were able to get another $700,000 via a construction loan. The community did that for us. From that early dialog with our neighbors, we learned parents wanted a place for their children to perform. Artists wanted a home to hone their craft, and the neighborhood wanted a jazz series. So, listening is key here, and we were intentional about being active listeners when we moved to the neighborhood. From the community, we found board members, volunteers – real human capital that’s contributed to our success as a theatre. I believe this longstanding relationship has been transformative for BATC and for the community.
&: Do you have a playbook or rules for collaboration?
TCW: Yes. First, remove your ego. You must remove your ego as a collaborator. That means focusing on the mission and goals of the organization. When you do that, your ego is pushed aside, and good things happen. Your focus is aligned with what the community needs, and it’s hard to stray away from that. Second, bring something to the table. Partnerships work best when each party contributes their talents, life experiences, and resources. I don’t believe in scarcity. There is enough to go around for everybody especially when there is a sharing of resources. There’s an old assumption that if I help or contribute to one organization, I’m abandoning my own organization. That’s simply not true and counterproductive to any collaborative effort. Third, be an active listener. I’m thankful we took the time to listen to the community in 2008 when we were renovating our theatre. I didn’t realize it at that time but it was a pivotal training ground for what we’re been living through during the pandemic. Fourth, be willing to let go. Let go of old habits, opinions, and ways of thinking that no longer contribute to the greater good of the organization. Be willing to think in new ways and reimagine the possibilities. Last, surround yourself with people who challenge your thinking. It’s ok not to agree all the time. We need diversity of opinions and heterogeneous groups to challenge the way we think.
&: What lessons have you learned about collaboration during the pandemic?
TCW: We’ve collaborated with other theatres all over the country, in ways we never imagined. We’ve had Tony award-winning Broadway actors on our virtual stage during the pandemic. We’re currently partnering with Alter Theater in San Francisco on a riveting podcast play. And through these collaborations, we’re truly expanding our territory beyond Dallas to create more inclusive offerings that wouldn’t have happened without COVID-19 pushing us to think outside the box. I’ve learned so much in my time with BATC and over the past year. We haven’t been afraid to experiment, and we’ve learned it’s okay not to be right all the time. Theater gives us an opportunity to bring people together, to be a catalyst for something bigger, and to sometimes change our perspectives. I’m thankful to be part of that.