In 2011 Northern Stage and Pilot Theatre collaborated to present a national event designed to be a conversation about collaboration, sharing and working in partnership in the arts. The 2011 edition was live streamed to a number of venues across the UK. The event proved so successful that the partners decided to do it again, this time at St Stephen’s church, home to Northern Stage during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

A lot has happened since the 2011 event. Quite a number of funded arts organisations have disappeared, others like my own (Cornerhouse, Manchester) have merged (with Library Theatre). All of us find it difficult to get the resources we need to do the work we want to do. It is unlikely the situation will improve as the economic situation continues to deteriorate – the outlook for arts organisations is difficult, and for many artists even worse. So revisiting the themes of the 2011 event is timely.

Stronger Together 2012 asked the question ‘Can collaboration change the game? And if it can, what game do we want to change?’ The format followed the very successful approach of the 2011 edition by starting the day with a series of short sharp provocations from Chris Thorpe (Forest Fringe), David Jubb (Battersea Arts Centre), Katherine Zeserson (Sing Up/ The Sage Gateshead), Kath Mainland (Edinburgh Festival Fringe) and Vicky Featherstone (National Theatre Scotland). These were followed by an Open Space session, and in parallel a couple of facilitated discussions and case studies.

Having arrived late – thanks Edinburgh for taking so long to finish your tram system – I landed in the middle of the provocations. St Stephens is a huge non-conformist church with a very imposing pulpit from which the provocations were delivered. Katherine Zeserson – who describes herself as a cultural activist – made a very forceful argument that collaboration is meaningless in the abstract, it is only meaningful when you do it.

Collaborate for the right reasons

Zeserson argued that having a purpose is vital – collaboration only works if the stuff is worth doing. She made the first of a number of references to the Olympics to illustrate her point: Usain Bolt competed in and won the 100m on his own, beating a couple of his teammates on the way. However, he was also part of a team that won the 4 x 100m relay and which included the teammates he had beaten earlier. Zeserson’s point was that sometimes we have to work alone as it is the only way to realise our vision, while on other occasions collaboration is vital for success.

Vicky Featherstone, in her provocation, made the point that all theatre is essentially collaboration. National Theatre Scotland (NTS) – which collaborated with Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art (GI) to produce The Making of Us during this year’s GI – doesn’t exist due to a group of people sitting in an office. What makes NTS come alive is the collaboration between a group of people.

The final provocation was from Chris Thorpe. He powerfully argued that everything has to count. Sometimes we kid ourselves that the act of collaboration makes a difference in itself, but collaboration is not a default – it has to result in something that counts. Thorpe’s amusing but insightful demolition of the Olympic Closing Ceremony as the hideous product of a collaboration underlined his point.

These themes went on to be at the core of the discussions I was part of. Some of the things I heard during the day were:

– Collaboration is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problems artists and arts organisations face;

– Collaboration will only bring benefits if there are shared objectives and outcomes;

– Some of the best collaborations involve argument – you don’t always have to agree to get the best out of a collaboration;

– Being prepared to lose control and trust in others’ judgement, is fundamental to collaborative leadership;

– Collaboration does not automatically save money;

– Large organisations collaborating with small organisations or individual artists need to understand that equality in collaboration may mean that the large organisation does more of the heavy lifting;

– Sometimes, it is better to do things on your own!

Is collaboration different in the visual arts? – Read Gillian Nicol’s report from the 2011 Stronger Together conference