Over the course of the last twenty years collaborative, devised theatre has gone mainstream and is now an accepted part of our cultural landscape. It has its roots in the 1960’s with figures such as Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood often recognised as contributing to its emergence as a legitimate way of making theatre. In the intervening years and through the work of companies such as Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, Australian Performing Group, People Show, Teatro Campesino, Théâtre de Complicité, Legs on the Wall, Forced Entertainment and Third Angel, to name but a few, collaborative theatre continued to thrive globally. Today, companies like Coney, Lundahl and Seitl, Ontroerend Goed and Look Left Look Right are creating new, immersive, collaborative work for a much wider audience, with Punchdrunk being the commercial daddy of them all.
For me, though, devising remains a way of truly learning the art of theatre making and it is not surprising that most theatre and drama examination courses have an assessable element to them that requires students to collaborate, devise and create new work. It allows student theatre makers to respond to what is of interest to them in whatever style and form they think most appropriate, and this is its power – the power of immediacy. In a recent article published in The Guardian, Nathan Curry and Kat Joyce from theatre company Tangled Feet talk about the strengths of devised work, their process and how it allows them to respond much more quickly to a subject than perhaps a more traditional playwright can. The full article is here, but is an extract:
Devising offers a swift way of responding to a turbulent political situation. We are currently in rehearsals and able to react immediately to new information emerging from research and conversations with healthcare professionals.
The devising process is a lot like doing a jigsaw with a blindfold on. Early on, there is a lot of playing, testing and failing and a huge amount of material left on the rehearsal room floor. The second half of the rehearsals have become about fitting everything together in a shape that is dramaturgically strong and creates a journey for the audience with well-crafted character arcs – often the biggest challenge for devised work. Our design team are in the room reacting to discoveries we are making and throwing new ideas at us to explore.
What is so rewarding is that a group of artists reacting to each other and riffing through new thoughts enables beautiful and surprising theatrical discoveries. With sound, design, choreography, aerial work and script all evolving alongside each other, it can often feel chaotic: but sometimes the most powerful moments come into focus through some sort of alchemy.
Just for interest, here is an example of Tangled Feet’s work. A piece called Push, which, to quote the company, is a funny, irreverent and insightful look at the relationships between new mothers and their offspring, and the expectations of society around them. Performed in the very outdoor spaces that parents inhabit, Push tells stories that everyone can recognise.
To finish with, I would like to share these this tips for collaborative devising by John Walton, artistic director of theatre company Fol Espoir, published in The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network.
Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration
Be passionate about your source material
It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.
If you don’t care, why should an audience?
Do your research
The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.
Get your material out there as soon as possible
Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.
Unite the whole company around a common purpose
Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.
Keep an open mind
Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.
The importance of story is relative
Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.
Always look for counterpoints
If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.
Everyone works differently
Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.
Don’t be precious
Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.
Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves
Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.
I think these might become my Ten Commandments for all collaborative work from now on. On a final note, John Walton writes a great blog, in which he details the rehearsals of all his new work in great and interesting detail which you can read here , and if you want a good wide read about the history of devised, collaborative work, Devising Performance, A Critical History by Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling is worth a go.