Dancing With Others

Exploring Critical Friendship as Creative Collaboration
Critical FriendsCollaborative Self-studySelf-study of Creative PracticeCreative Collaboration
Critical friendship is one of the key tenets of validity in self-study research. In this paper, we expand our understanding of critical friendship by exploring the intersection between collaboration, critical friendship, and our disciplinary expertise in creative processes. In the methodological discussion presented here, we map the links between our own understanding and experience of critical friendship, and the eleven criteria for creative collaboration developed in Tanya van der Walt’s earlier study (2018), exploring how creative collaboration and critical friendship overlap and intersect. We discuss critical friendship and creative collaboration comparatively, mapping the parallels, convergences, and points of overlap between them. By looking at our own critical friendship through the lens of creative collaboration, we articulate a space where criticality, friendship, and creativity intersect to drive the development of new meanings, drawing attention to the generative and catalysing power of critical friendship within self-study research. In so doing we are able to (re)imagine critical friendship as creative collaboration, a relationship that we term critical creative collaborative friendship.

Context of the Study

Critical friendship is one of the key tenets of validity in self-study research (Costa & Kallick, 1993; Samaras, 2011; Whitehead & McNiff, 2006). Self-study is usually imagined as a collaborative process between researcher and researched (Bodone et al., 2004; LaBoskey, 2004; Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009). In the paper, we expand our understanding of critical friendship by exploring the intersection between collaboration, critical friendship, and our disciplinary expertise in creative processes. We seek to understand the concept of critical friendship as an act of creative collaboration, using a theoretical understanding of creative collaboration (Bennis & Biederman, 1997; Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000; Sawyer, 2003, 2007; van der Walt, 2018) as the lens through which to explore our own process of self-study research. We interrogate how our critical friendship exhibits the specific qualities of creative collaboration (van der Walt, 2018), shaping both our research thinking and our creative work as theatre-makers and university teachers in Durban, South Africa.


This study poses the question: how and why does critical friendship work as a process of creative collaboration? The paper aims to map the links between our own understanding and experience of critical friendship, and the eleven criteria for creative collaboration developed in Tanya’s earlier study (van der Walt, 2018), exploring how creative collaboration and critical friendship overlap and intersect. The underlying dynamic within critical friendship relies upon a tacit and implicit relationship of creative collaboration between the individuals involved. Here, we make that relationship and its underpinnings explicit. In conceiving of critical friendship as a form of creative collaboration, we broaden the framework of how critical friendship acts as a generative, creative, supportive space for researchers to explore their wildest ideas, and their bravest wonderings.


Our methodological discussion here draws on our theoretical understanding of creative collaboration and our lived experience as creative, collaborative partners. We discuss critical friendship and creative collaboration comparatively, mapping the parallels, convergences, and points of overlap between them. By engaging in co-reflexive, reciprocal dialogue about our own critical friendship and then applying the lens of creative collaboration to the insights generated, we articulate a space where criticality, friendship, and creativity intersect to drive the development of new meanings. In so doing, we draw attention to the generative and catalysing power of critical friendship within self-study research.

Critical Friendship in Self-Study

Critical friends are “trusted colleagues who seek support and validation of their research to gain new perspectives in understanding and reframing of their interpretations” (Samaras, 2011, p. 5). Our own long critical friendship is an honest, open, and caring space of critique and thinking, benefitting both our research processes. This relationship involves the essential element of trust, which creates the space for the exchange of ideas and critique, in a “community. . . filled not just with critique but also with caring” (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009, p. 89). An ethics of care must underpin any critical friendship to enable divergent opinions without destroying the community spirit. Thus, the critical friend must combine the qualities of caring and emotional support with intellectual rigour and critical insight. There are often divergent opinions and disagreements within any collaborative relationship, but constructing a strong, supportive, and caring space mitigates these difficulties and acts as a generative phenomenon since, out of the different thinking, new and better understandings will emerge.

Critical friendship is rooted in dialogic interaction (van der Walt & Meskin, 2020); the characteristics of such dialogues include “community, respect, caring, strong voices/listening, . . . difference, commonality, inquiry, critique, reflection” (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009, p. 95). These resonate with our understanding of any collaborative process that requires the exchange of ideas, feelings, and conclusions. The dialogic process is significant both for creative collaboration and for critical friendship, not least because of the complexity of collaborative work (Samaras, 2011, p.8).

Collaboration with a critical friend helps “practitioners to see beyond their own ‘world views’ and to broaden their perspective on situations in meaningful ways” (Loughran, 2004, p. 158). In creative collaboration, we move beyond the singular world view to explore a multitude of shared possibilities. Positioning critical friendship as an act of creative collaboration allows us to occupy a liminal space, where we are not only creators or receivers of knowledge, but something beyond either of these constructions.

Creative Collaboration – an Overview

Collaboration does not simply mean working with someone else on a project or task of some kind. Rather, we see collaboration as

people working together - sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Sometimes we collaborate to jump-start creativity; other times the focus is simply on getting things done. In each case, people in a good collaboration accomplish more than the group’s most talented members could achieve on their own. (Tharp, 2009, p. 4)

By extension, the defining characteristic of ‘creative collaboration’ is that it is creative; it engages a pair or a group of people in a task that requires that they solve a problem in a new and innovative way. Creativity itself is “a complex, abstract, ‘fuzzy’ concept” (Isaksen & Murdock, 2008, p.1), which links “together two or more ideas so as to produce something new and useful, or something new and beautiful, or both” (Farrell, 2001, p. 114-115). Thus, the difference between collaboration in general, and creative collaboration, is this drive to create something new.

Building on these ideas, in her earlier study, Tanya (van der Walt, 2018) synthesised the following definition of creative collaboration:

Creative collaboration is based on mutual, interdependent friendships or close relationships. . . .[It] depends on a shared vision, which encompasses both a shared goal, and a shared view of the domain and field in which that goal is to be achieved. Through the process of shared thinking, creative collaboration involves the co-construction of meaning. . . [It] involves learning from each other, through a process of mutual appropriation. . . . Creative collaboration attracts people who are divergent and non-conformist thinkers. . . . [and] involves both problem-finding and problem-solving, in a complex, ongoing, and iterative process. In creative collaboration, the process is the product, and is the central focus of research. Creative collaboration is generative, and emergent, as it is concerned with the making of something that is new, practical, and unpredictable. Creative collaboration involves ‘flow’, which is an optimal, autotelic activity. Because of the different ways that men and women are socialised, creative collaboration is often gendered, with marked differences between the ways in which men and women collaborate creatively. (pp. 215-216)

Understanding Critical Friendship Through the 11 Tenets of Creative Collaboration

The definition above elucidates eleven key tenets of creative collaboration. We have used these as a structuring device, mapping the ways in which critical friendship can be considered a creative collaboration.

1. Creative Collaboration is Often Based on Friendship or Some Other Close Relationship

Collaboration is based on relationships between people; thus, relationships are vital to the process of creative collaboration (Bennis & Biederman, 1997; Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000). Even if they begin casually, these relationships grow to have enormous significance in the lives of the participants, since “the dynamics of the group transform the work of the members. . .[and] working together, very ordinary people make extraordinary advances in their field” (Farrell, 2001, p. 2). Members of such creative, collaborative groups, over time, deepen their sense of commitment to each other and their shared work, building a sense of trust, and emotional connection. Out of this arises “instrumental intimacy” (Farrell, 2001, p. 151), where members of a group come to trust the others enough to share their “most current, least finished work” (Farrell, 2001, p. 151). This emotional connection allows creative collaborators to feel that they are equals in the relationship and equal owners of the process and product of the creative collaboration (Bennis & Biederman, 1997; Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000), since, “In a true creative collaboration, almost everyone emerges with a sense of ownership” (Bennis & Biderman, 1997, p. 28).

Our own collaborative relationship began as a casual work acquaintanceship but evolved and matured alongside our growing friendship. We have shared many hours and many cups of tea and glasses of wine, talking, laughing, and working together, developing a creative partnership that has endured for almost 20 years. The most important factor underlying this longevity is our friendship and the multi-layered support we derive from it. We have written about the centrality of our friendship to our work, and being “interested, invested partner[s]” (Meskin & van der Walt, 2014, p. 9). We see our friendship as a “safe space, protecting us as we grapple with the most challenging aspects of our work” (van der Walt & Meskin, 2020, p. 348).

2. Creative Collaboration Depends on a Shared Vision

Central to creative collaboration is the notion of a shared vision, which encompasses the participants’ ways of seeing their discipline, and the world in general (Farrell, 2001, p. 11). Shared vision, then, lies at the heart of creative collaboration; as Bennis and Biederman (1997) assert: “The dream is the engine that drives the group. . . [it] is a kind of contract, a mutual understanding that the process itself, will be worth the effort to create it” (p. 19-20). Our collaboration is premised on such shared vision, which is rooted in our sense of closeness, trust, and friendship, but also in a shared sensibility.

Overarching our work together is a sense of a common understanding of theatre, of what we think theatre is for, and of how it should work. This shared ontological position in relation to the theatre serves as a meta-structural intention (Colin & Sachsenmaier, 2016) that underpins everything that we do. In our experience, having a shared vision – whether it be for making a theatre piece, writing a paper, or co-teaching – is liberating, as it frees us from the burden of being solely responsible for absolutely everything about the work from start to finish.

3. Creative Collaboration Involves the Co-construction of Meaning

In creative collaboration, success lies in the use of “joint thinking” (John-Steiner, 2000, p. 3). Implicit in this is the co-construction of meaning. If two (or more) minds are working together creatively, their ideas and insights are constructed through dialogue and mutual meaning-making. This collective sensemaking facilitates a “thought community” (John-Steiner, 2000, p. 196), which “enable[s] participants to engage in the co-construction of knowledge as interdependent intellectual and emotional processes” (p. 196).

For us, co-constructing meaning is a familiar habit since in theatre, any production requires a collaborative effort. We have transferred a similar process to our research and our writing (see Meskin & van der Walt, 2014, 2022). Through dialogue and wrestling with each other’s ideas, we co-construct the meanings embedded in our work. These emerge out of and are constructed by our dialogic thinking, and the entanglement of our respective subjective thought processes. In this way, we engage “connected knowing” (John-Steiner, 2000, p. 101); we call this our 'dual consciousness', which functions to improve and enrich the work, as with the dialogic relationship between critical friends.

4. Creative Collaboration Involves Learning From Each Other

Along with shared thinking and co-construction of meaning, creative collaborators engage in a process of “mutual appropriation” (John-Steiner, 2000) where we “learn from each other by teaching what we know” (p. 192). Our creative collaboration clearly reflects this. Despite our similar socialisation into our discipline, we have very different, and in some ways, discrete skills. Tamar’s training as an actor, dancer, and singer, musical knowledge, and many years of directing experience have given her a particular skills set. By contrast, Tanya’s very different skills set emerges from her background as a stage manager, her knowledge of the technical aspects of theatre, and her experience in Drama Education. Because of these different skills, we work in quite different ways, and have evolved different roles within our collaborative creative practice, as we bring our respective skills and knowings to bear upon the work. Thus, we make space for the plurality of our voices in the work. Because we are not doing the same things in our process, or looking at the work from the same perspective, we each find our own way to make the work ‘speak’ for us. In doing so, we are enacting a dynamic relationship between the self and other that results in synergistic practice and ongoing learning from each other.

5. Creative Collaboration Attracts People Who Are Divergent and Non-conformist Thinkers

Creative collaboration is seen as a divergent, non-conformist act, resisting “the powerful belief in a separate, independent self and in the glory of individual achievement. . . . The very effort to work together. . . is a creative act” (John-Steiner, 2000, p. 204). Farrell (2001) suggests creative collaborators are often “marginalised in their fields” (p. 19), and argues that this makes them “more likely to be a source of new ideas than are people at the center” (p. 268). Because they occupy the periphery, creative collaborators often work to counter the prevailing tradition or status quo of their discipline. Working together with other like-minded rebels, allows creative collaborators to ‘think outside the box’ of the received wisdom of their discipline. This is a position that resonates strongly with self-study.

We both view ourselves as divergent, and not ‘on the fast track’. We feel comfortable working on the margin in terms of our world views, our methods, and our approaches. Our creative collaboration engenders “a space for work that is slightly off the mean” (van der Walt, 2018, p. 239). We seek to challenge the conventional constructions of a single directorial vision in a theatre work, or a single voice in academic writing, and as outsiders, have found in each other a community of practice to support those pursuits.

6. Creative Collaboration Involves Both Problem-Finding and Problem-Solving

The purpose of most collaborations is to solve specific problems, often posed by the context within which the group works. Creative collaboration, however, can also be a way to find new problems. Sawyer (2003) asserts that “the creative process is a constant balance between finding a problem and solving that problem, and then finding a new problem during the solving of the last one” (loc. 2557). Thus, creative collaboration can involve both problem-finding and problem-solving, as different phases of the same creative process.

When devising a play, for example, we usually begin with a shared goal, but without specific plans for attaining that goal; these emerge through the process in a constant cycle, where each solution generates the new ‘problem’ or possibility. A similar process emerges in our collaborative research, finding the questions, and discovering answers which themselves generate more questions in the iterative cycle that is characteristic of the self-study method. Thus, our creative collaboration operates as a generative practice, as we bring the processes of problem-finding and problem-solving to bear in the creation of something new.

7. Creative Collaboration Is Process-Focused

Traditionally, research into the arts has focused on the products of a creative process; the object of study has been the painting, the sculpture, or the play text. However, this perspective is changing, as researchers begin to understand that, “the process is the product” (Sawyer, 2003, loc. 255). Foregrounding process-focused thinking offers unique potential to explore the how of practice, feeding into such emergent methods as Self-Study of Creative Practice (Meskin & van der Walt, 2022).

The creative experience, thus, is to be found in the making of the work; creativity is key not to the final play or the paper but in how we get there. We experience a sense of equal ownership of both the processes and the products of our creative collaboration; neither of us ‘owns’ specific parts of the work that we do. When we look back at our work, we do not differentiate who ‘created’ what, and it is this organic melding of our ideas that allows us to speak with a shared ‘voice’ through our work.

8. Creative Collaboration Is Generative

Creative collaboration is generative since it generates, innovates, and produces a new product. This can be an object, a new style of doing things, or a new idea. Thus, in creative collaboration “a collective product emerges that could not even in theory be created by an individual” (Sawyer, 2007, loc. 1061).

We have written about our critical friendship as generative (van der Walt & Meskin, 2020), noting our shared experiences as crucial to that process. The forces of creative collaboration propel us into different directions that we might otherwise not have discovered. Important for us is the delight that comes from seeing things from another’s perspective and the opening up of our individual horizons through each other’s input. The expanded possibilities that emerge from this sharing transcend individual contribution and generate new thinking, new meanings, and new understandings.

9. Creative Collaboration Is Emergent

Emergence is a slippery concept. To us, the concept of emergence has to do with the bringing into being of something new, which arises as a natural consequence of action. Thus, creativity and emergence are interrelated processes. Sawyer (2003) characterises creative collaboration as emergent, observing that it “is ephemeral, changes with each utterance, and emerges from collective interaction” (loc. 2677). Our understanding of the word also includes the notion that something that is emergent is in a continuous state of becoming; it is never completed, but always coming into being.

In our creative collaboration, we are always aware of the unfixedness of knowing. As directors, even after the last performance, we might imagine new ways of staging a particular scene or an actor’s characterisation. This is the function of theatre’s liveness; it is ephemeral and never static. Similarly, in our research, every discovery leads to new questions and so, this knowledge too is always in a state of flux. Even our collaborative relationship is not static but constantly evolving and emerging. It is the very unfixedness of our understanding that allows always for an iterative cycle of re-visioning and re-imagining ourselves and our practice.

10. Creative Collaboration Involves ‘Flow’

One of the most important concepts emerging from the study of creativity is Csikszentmihalyi’s (2014) notion of ‘flow’, which he defines as autotelic, and describes as a state of complete absorption in, and enjoyment of a specific task. Building on this notion, Sawyer (2003) introduces the concept of ‘group flow’ which he says creates “a magical kind of high” (loc. 1169).

We often experience group flow in our creative collaborations. In this state, we are in tune with the energy of the creative relationship. It is playful and pleasurable and facilitates the sparking of ideas, seeming to work almost instinctively and seamlessly, whether in devising theatre or free writing. In our theatre-making practice, for example, problem-finding and problem-solving are happening simultaneously, and we simply ‘make it up as we go along’. In this heightened working state, we have access to our individual and shared imaginative skills and theatrical knowledge, allowing us to make conceptual leaps from one idea to the next, as we grapple with more and more challenging and complex ideas. Our ability to foresee what each will think or do, allows us to work together without even articulating what we think into words. This is based on years of experience, and on a deep emotional and intellectual connection that results from our friendship.

11. Creative Collaboration Is Often Gendered

Scholars of creative collaboration point to qualitative differences in how men and women collaborate creatively, arguing that women’s socialisation makes them better able to embrace a state of interdependence and mutuality (Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000). John-Steiner (2000) highlights gender differences in socialisation in Western contexts, where males “experience a powerful push toward independence, competition and autonomy” (p. 122), while women are “responsible for maintaining the social fabric” (p. 122) and are “more at ease with interdependent modes of work” (p. 100). Thus, it may feel more natural and easier for women who work together to experience the relational, mutual, and interdependent nature of the creative relationship.

Our collaborative relationship allows a shared burden, and the creation of a nurturing, supportive relationship in pursuit of shared ideals. Part of our working method is to ‘divide and conquer’, allowing one person to fulfill everyday responsibilities while the other works on the project itself, and vice versa. Because we are women, we have greater insight into each other’s lives and responsibilities, and so we are able to offer each other greater support. This is paralleled in the critical friend relationship in self-study, which also offers an ethos and a community of supportive scholarship.

Creative Collaboration Meets Critical Friendship

Having explored how our creative collaboration intersects with our critical friendship, we can see both of these constructs as fundamentally collaborative acts. It is clear that friendship, trust, caring, and dialogic thinking are key components of both practices. Similarly, both embrace the possibilities of divergent thinking and privilege the co-construction of meaning. Like creative collaboration, critical friendship functions because the members of the group share a vision or goal and because they choose to learn something from each other. Both processes are employed to generate something, be it a research article or a creative product, that is improved through a collective process rooted in open communication, honesty, and support. In such an environment, a cycle of problem-solving and problem-finding is facilitated, which frames emergent meanings and understandings allowing for ongoing inquiry and invention. Both relationships are thus generative in literal and metaphorical ways – generating material, but also an ever-deepening experience of “connected knowing[s]” (John-Steiner, 2000, p. 101). Sharing these experiences makes possible the feeling of group flow.

Critical Friendship As Creative Collaboration

What makes critical friendship creative? It is creative because when we work with a critical friend, we do so in the context of a quest for new knowledge, new understanding, new awareness, and new thinking. Using a critical friend ensures one’s self-study does not become the self speaking alone, but rather the self in dialogue. It is used to test methods or findings, to deepen ideas, to source data, to formulate responses, and so on; but, it can also be, itself, at the centre of the process. Through engaging with one’s critical friends, the process and results of research are changed, and so the relationship becomes a change agent too. If the defining characteristic of creativity is that it should make something “new and useful, or something new and beautiful, or both” (Farrell, 2001, p. 114-115), then critical friendship certainly belongs in the creative sphere.

What makes critical friendship collaborative? It is collaborative because it functions on the basis of shared goals and mutual benefit. If “Self-study requires critical collaborative inquiry. . . personal and interpersonal with learning, thinking, and knowing arising through collaboration and the appropriating of feedback from others” (Samaras, 2011, p. 10), then critical friendship is one of the key aspects of collaboration. It is the key to self-study practitioners accomplishing more together “than the group’s most talented members could achieve on their own” (Tharp, 2009, p. 4).

Along with creativity and collaboration, we must not forget the vital critical component of critical friendship. Certainly, critique can be destructive if mishandled, but rendered constructively within a relationship of creative collaboration, it is a positive, generative factor because the act of criticism itself is what generates new thinking and deepens one’s understandings.

The critical friend relationship is best imagined as a dialogic interaction between people who are not afraid to embrace their own vulnerability as researchers or to engage in honest and forthright debates as research commentators. To us, this is best accomplished through (re)imagining critical friendship as creative collaboration. Perhaps we might even coin a new phrase to encompass this phenomenon: ‘critical creative collaborative friendship’. Both creative collaboration and critical friendship liberate one “from the prison of the self. . . Genius is rare, and the chance to exercise it in a dance with others is rarer still” (Bennis & Biederman, 1997, p. 29). This sense of ‘dancing with others’ lies at the heart of critical creative collaborative friendship, and is its greatest reward.


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Tanya van der Walt

Durban University of Technology

Tamar Meskin

Durban University of Technology

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