Cooperation, Collaboration, and Friendship
in Theatre, Games, Higher Education and Beyond

Posted on 06 November 2015

The world is facing some far-reaching problems: problems to do with the environment and the rich-poor divide. These are not necessarily insurmountable. However, their resolution requires a high level of both cooperation and collaboration.

Given the sheer volume of people who are affected by climate change, poverty, and injustice, you would think more people would be joining forces to create change. Where is the spirit of the 1960s where thousands of people marched for civil rights, the end of the Vietnam war, environmental causes, and more? Our culture has been doing a good job of divide and conquer when it comes to public action.

The Arts and Collaboration

In the arts we have numerous creative disciplines that require sustained collaborative efforts in order to achieve an aesthetic result: theatre, dance performance, cinema, orchestra, computer game design, etc. A number of universities are still teaching these as hierarchical endeavours.

When I was studying various theatrical disciplines to help with my playwriting, those students in the directorial course were treated like a special breed. I was something of an outsider, since playwriting was taught in the English department. The directing students often annoyed me, because they were frequently not as insightful as the English majors and knew little about working with people. Too many of them simply wanted glory and power. And the department seemed to be playing along with this.

Fast forward to my years teaching storytelling for computer game design and I am carefully instructing my students in collaborative skills. We were in the era of the start-up, where clusters of bright, skilled, young people were establishing their own businesses and had to know how to work together. I was also teaching in the Professional Writing and Editing department.

Programmers are currently powerful enough in our society that they don’t always put up with business hierarchies. Or rather, they don’t put up with being near the bottom of hierarchies. So, if you have a tech based business, you usually have to flatten the hierarchy. However, when their work intersects with creative industries, some programmers are happy shoving the creatives to the bottom of the hierarchy. So teaching my students how to project manage, I felt, was critical to their survival in the real world.

If you are one person planting a tree to save the world, you can easily be disheartened and feel pathetic. A whole lot of people planting their trees individually can still achieve a significant amount of change to the environment, but they will face difficulties sustaining their efforts. We have to learn how to work together. When we are cooperating it is indeed true that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, if for no other reason than we now have a special focus and energy from our esprit de corps. We need schools and universities teaching these skills not only to their arts students, but to everyone.

Education and Collaboration

Blocking efforts in cooperative and collaborative learning is the competitive structure of education. Students in secondary/high schools are less inclined to help one another when their academic standing is the difference between going to a respected university or a poorly funded TAFE/community college (if anything). The process starts all over when grades at university mean the difference between getting a highly paid job or struggling to get by.

I refused to use “the curve” when grading. Curve grading is when you assume that grades will naturally fall into a distribution that can be graphically represented using a bell-shaped curve…so, you assign grades to fit a bell shaped curve. That means only a few students achieve top grades, lots of people achieve middle grades, and a few will fail. So many things are wrong with this methodology. The easiest flaw to spot is its self-fulfilling nature. What blew my mind about it is how many university lecturers are using this system. Surely given the university entry process, if a bell curve exists then it must be skewed in a university environment. After all, students are culled from schools as the top academically performing young people. Hardly any of them should be failing, and a great many of them should deserve top grades.

The rule in my course was: you do the work, you get the grade. I then made sure to carefully outline what was expected of my students for every assignment, and gave a point value totalling to one hundred of what precisely I was looking for. Anything that might involve a taste call (this was a creative class after all), I did not grade but I did make comments. One of the administrative assistants for the department took my course, for which I am deeply grateful. When the head of the department called into question the number of “A” grades I was giving, the assistant asked him whether he had taken my class. She then explained how hard my students worked and the success they had in the real world afterward. It’s so nice getting a little validation now and again (and keeping my job).

Bell curve grading helps to justify the concept of hierarchy. The message is: “You are a biological machine and your place in the social hierarchy is pre-determined.”

Despite many groups trying to say that competition brings people together, it may bring a select group of embattled individuals together—ultimately it drives people apart. Richmond Tigers football team members and supporters may work together and learn how to cooperate, but ultimately the whole point is to defeat the Collingwood Magpies. The two teams may be cooperating enough to join in a game at a stadium and follow the rules, but the more intense the competition, the more the peoples related to each team are driven apart. This is when you start to see people resorting to fisticuffs on the field and in the stands. To resolve global issues we need everyone cooperating.

Business, Government, and Cooperation

Another block to cooperating and collaborating, and perhaps the most insidious, is the culture of convenience.

Theatre and cinema are prone to a high percentage of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People with this disorder are highly manipulative, but also vulnerable to certain sorts of manipulation. Our capitalistic culture likes to nurture this sort of co-dependency in order to sell product. People with this disorder can seem very warm and supportive, they can feel like a loving and supportive parent. The problem is this behaviour is in aid of getting you dependent upon them, so that you will feed their emotional needs and become an extension of their personality. We have plenty of social media that is structured to work in much the same way. The site gives you lots of warm-fuzzies, then makes you dependent upon it for access to your friends. Now they can manipulate you to buy.

Whenever you get into a situation where someone else is trying to take the “burden” of thinking, interacting, and decision making away from you, not only are they removing responsibilities from you, they are also taking away your power.

Whenever an advertisement makes you afraid that you are going to offend your friends through some social faux pas for which they can help, that ad has created a wedge between people that often did not exist before. They have given you a substitute for your personal self assurance, you are dependent upon them to feel good about yourself. You could have asked your friends, “is this a problem?” If they said “not really”, then you could have freed yourself from both the fear and the expense. Of course if they said “yes it is”, you have a number of options: you can decide this person may not be that good of a friend, they are a good friend but I don’t agree with their assessment, they are a good friend and I should probably listen to what they have said, and I do want to deal with this issue but I choose how I will resolve it not the advertising company. All of these entail a certain amount of discomfort, but ultimately you are the one in control. We have to get over being discomfort averse. Some discomfort is useful and inevitable. Avoiding it can lead to overwhelming problems over which you will have little to no control.

Friends Institute

Joining with others to change the world for the better will not cause you to lose your identity or your individuality. This is hard to believe when so much codependency, such as that arising from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, exists in the world. Fewer people know how to even form the bonds of friendship in our current economic climate.

I am in the midst of putting together a university whose main purpose is to help people learn how to cooperate, collaborate, and form friendships. With these skills they can better form democratic theatre groups, computer game design companies, environmental action groups, refugee support organisations, and more. The cooperative business, education, and political model is the way forward. Our capacity to hold a hand out in friendship to other people and all living beings will save the world. If you are interested in Friends Institute, I would love to hear from you. If you are starting your own cooperative, I would very much love to hear from you and how you are doing!

In peace and friendship,


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