Ten Collaborative Commandments

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.

443ee612-5993-4fe3-ab4a-328dcb2f5a1b-680x1020For 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 GuardianNathan 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.

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To finish with, I would like to share these this tips for collaborative devising by John Walton, artistic director of theatre company Fol Espoirpublished 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.

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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.

TEDx Rated Stages

TEDx-1024x1024I’ve got a great mixed bag of talks to share today from various TED× events around the world and all of them worth a listen when you have a spare ten minutes or so. Most people are familiar with TED talks, but theatre makers are rarely given a platform. However, the independently, locally organised TED× events often have theatre professionals exploring their craft for a wider audience.

The first comes from TED× Stormont, in Northern Ireland where Tom Bowtell, from interactive theatre makers Coney, discusses the powerful potential of offering theatre audiences opportunity to have a say over how the story ends, by inviting them to participate in the creation of the theatrical experience. Entitled Can Theatre Actually Change Anything? it is a super little presentation.

The next two come from TED× events held in Sydney, Australia in 2011 and 2014. In What is theatre capable of? theatre director Simon Stone deconstructs some of the common visual and audio tricks of modern theatre while in Know More About Theatre, You Uncultured Oafs theatre ensemble post attempt to answer, amongst other questions, What is theatre? and What makes good theatre? Very entertaining!

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In the next one, The Architecture of Acting, actor Stephen Lang talks to a TED× audience at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania about how he created his one man play, Beyond Glory.

In The Essence of Acting, actor Mirjana Joković talks beautifully about what lies at the heart of the craft.

I have quite a few others to share, but I am going to finish with a wonderfully insightful talk from theatre director John Wright, one of the co-founders of Trestle. Entitled Rediscovering playfulness in acting and given at TED× Square Mile (London), Wright talks about how we love our (dead) gurus in actor training, the constraints they place upon us and why play should be at the centre of our creative processes.

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Need A Stage Coach?

Today I want to share a series of articles about playwriting that I have recently stumbled across. They are published under creative commons on the website The Conversationwhich sources its writing from the academic and research communities in the US, Australia and the UK, and is a real find in itself.

Across a number of articles, collectively called On Playwriting Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, writes about the history of the play, what makes a play ‘work’ and how playwriting has evolved. Meyrick is writing for the Australian edition of The Conversation so the articles have an antipodean leaning, but are relevent where ever you are reading this. I am sharing the first one here with links to the subsequent ones at the end.  Definitely worth a read.

Need a stage coach? Why some plays work and others don’t

We all know whether a given play, film or TV drama “works” or not, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint why. This is the first of four articles in which I will try and cast playwriting in a broader light than is usually the case.

Ordinarily playwriting is a matter for “tips” or for critical review – best-practice advice from the producers’ perspective or final judgement from the consumers’.

This kind of talk is useful. But it rarely penetrates to the core of the subject or articulates the significant values it embodies. It often lacks a historical dimension and/ or is insufficient in its technical grasp.

Playwriting is a technology. Just as electric lighting or computer projection are technologies, so is the use of the written word as a means of shaping dramatic “moments”.

In the first millennium BCE the ancient Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, Levantine linear, itself taken from Iron Age Proto-Canaanite. They introduced vowel signs and reversed the flow of inscription, running their sentences – like the one you’re reading now – from left to right.

This reformed approach became the basis for all subsequent European alphabets. The term for the act of writing – γραμμός(in Latin scribio) – expanded to refer to its correlate products. The word “script” retains shades of this complex history, even in the digital era. As if letters had a mysterious agency, like the inventors of runes believed, containing within them the charge of our disruptive imaginations.

Sydney, April 17, 2002. (lt-rt) Amanda Muggleton and William Zappa in a scene from the new David Williamson play 'Soulmates' at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 'Soulmates' takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) NO ARCHIVING

David Williamson’s play ‘Soulmates’ which takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation

Socrates thought γραμμός dangerous and argued for its suppression. But by the 5th century BCE writing was a ubiquitous part of Mediterranean life, handy for all sorts of religious, commercial and philosophical purposes (we know Socrates’ opinions because his pupil, Plato, wrote them down).

In Athens it was used to record the work of victors in annual play competitions, that their achievements might be remembered and there would be no dispute about who had won.

Play it again

At what point did the Greeks realise what had been performed once could be performed again? That the technology of playwriting allowed the past to return in sensory immediacy? No doubt there was some sort of proto-drama before this but writing supercharged the art-form with the force of an emergent literary expertise.

Has this innovation ever been surpassed?

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Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King c. 1896.

When we pick up a copy of Medea or Oedipus The King we engage in an act of a time travel that shoots us back to thoughts and feelings first faced 2,500 years ago. Many things about ancient Greece are unknown to us or unintelligible. But when an actor cries out αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, δύστανος ἐγώ (“woe, woe is me, whither am I born?”) history collapses in an ardent transmigration of souls.

The introduction of written language into live performance was more than an addition to its existing skillset of dance, music and the choral ode. It was a radical escalation of its presence and power, forging a new representation of human experience. Theatre became dramatic, even as the written word took on viral life, via the acting conventions that sprang up around the technology of playwriting.

This was not really a shift from an oral to a written culture, since the spoken word was still the focus of the poet’s craft. It was a new balance between elements such that language could be harnessed as a capital resource.

Every time a drama is presented we engage in the same miraculous inter-temporal act.

What was dead lives again, and will continue to live long after we are dead. Every play contains an infinity of response, freed simply by the desire of artists and audiences to engage with it.

The basics

In all developed countries today drama is a major mode of expression. On stage and screen, it irradiates our lives with its tropes and techniques. The Greeks infused playwriting with basic parameters. These may not be universal but they are certainly robust.

Not every drama has “a story” in the way Aristotle insisted was needed. All display qualities of narrative tension. Not every drama has “characters” in the classical sense or “dialogue” in a conventional one. All contain points of emotional accrual and communicate using language-like means, be this visual image, acoustic vibration or choreographic gesture.

The technology of playwriting changes not only the formal possibilities of theatre but also its social function.

Theatre goes from “being something”, a social ritual, to “saying something”, a creative act. It becomes an intervention, a source of critical knowledge.

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Kill The Messenger

It also becomes a threat. After Euripides wrote The Trojan Women, with its implied criticism of Athenian warmongering, he was exiled to Salamis.

The history of playwriting is punctuated with repression, punishment and overt control by political authorities looking at it with baleful eyes. It is good to remember that stage censorship in Australia stopped only in the 1970s and the laws pertaining to it have never been officially revoked.

In my next article I will look at Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), an American play. After this, I will examine Duncan Graham’s Cut, an Australian play written in 2011. An old play and a new one.

My perspective will be dramaturgical rather than literary. I will look at what makes these plays “work”; or under what circumstances they will “work”.

In my final article, I will take the insights of this comparative exercise into a historical overview of Australian stage drama.

Why do this?

First, because it is always interesting to know how things tick, and plays are more like car engines than one might imagine.

It’s a craft. You learn it. You do it. You learn it some more. Given talent and application, eventually you do it well. But writing drama is a hard road. Even the best playwrights have produced very few masterpieces.

Second, because Australia is a country that has under-achieved in this art form.

Given our wealth, diversity and level of education, we have not produced the substantial body of dramatic work one might expect. Our film industry is sporadic. Our television drama is forever collapsing into soap. Our memorable stage plays are few.

In 1968, the editor of Oz Magazine, Richard Walsh wrote:

If, as we are continually being told, the Muses are currently undergoing a Renaissance in Australia, Drama appears at this stage to be the last of the famous nontuplets to be delivered and with the lowest birthweight.

Despite the achievements of Australian film, television and theatre since the 1960s, Walsh’s words still ring uncomfortably true.

As a dramaturge and director I have been working with playwrights for more than 30 years. I have commissioned and developed drama for both small companies and large, have advised agencies on their support for new plays, and worked with writers of very different stylistic hue.

I add to this a knowledge of past Australian drama drawn from my job as a theatre historian, from examining the plays others artists have chosen to stage.

John McCallum in his wonderful book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century says plays are “the bones and stones of our theatre”. Whether as historical trace, repertoire choice, adaptation object, or aspirational project, the written play is a major component in stage, screen and television drama. I call it “the device that turns information into experience”.

Contemporary Australia needs a better grasp of playwriting so that playwriting can better represent contemporary Australia. Over the next few weeks I hope to show both how this can be done, and why it is so important.

Here you can read Part 2, We can’t get those two hours back – drama works as time unfoldsPart 3,  Playwriting doesn’t get better or worse – but it does evolve and Part 4,  Australian plays: how to persuade a nation to question its own soul? 

Theatre In A Box

jp-one-popupAs someone who (happily) tends to experience visits to the theatre with anything between 30 and 140 others in tow, the subject of today’s post has a certain appeal. Currently in-situ in Times Square, New York, the Theatre For One is open for business. Brainchild of set designer Christine Jones, Theatre For One is a mobile space, big enough for just one performer and one audience member. The website says:

Theatre for One commissions new work created specifically for this venue’s one-to-one relationship. Embracing serendipity and spontaneity, Theatre for One is presented in public spaces in which audience members are invited to engage in an intimate theatrical exchange and enter the theatre space not knowing what to expect. Actor and audience member encounter each other as strangers in this suspended space and through the course of the performance allow the divisions and distinctions that separate us to dissolve.

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Now all of that appears a little pretentious, but a couple of articles and reviews, one from The New York Times and another from Exeunt, do make Theatre For One sound like something worth experiencing. In a programme for NPR, Neva Grant explores the growing trend for Intimate Theatre around the world:

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about some of that. The taxi ride in Melbourne appeals though, as does the idea of a performance that lasts just 3 minutes.

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The Korean Way

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Courtesy of my friend Paul Mór who teaches at Branksome Hall School in Jeju, South Korea,  is my second quick share for today. Theatre in Korea is a publication from the Korean Arts Management Service which explores recent theatre history as well as contemporary playwrights and directors from the country. An unusual find in English, it is a great resource for any world theatre student. Korea has a rich performance history and has really embraced, integrated, made its own and adapted western theatre traditions to create a very distinct theatre landscape. Click the link above for a PDF download of Theatre in Korea. Enjoy.

The Overcoat

For one month only. A superb offering from theatre company Gecko who have put on-line, for the month of May, the full recording of their acclaimed production The Overcoat. Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol and described as an exceptional and spellbinding work of art on its first outing 6 years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, it has played across the world.

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In addition to the production video, Gecko have also released a 20 minute video of extracts from the performance with a commentary from the company and show director Amit Lahav.

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This release of this material is a gift for anyone interested in collaborative theatre practice, but especially so for IB Theatre Arts students and the Collaborative Project. As a company Gecko willingly share their creative processes and there is an outline of their working practice here in their Student Resource Pack. In addition there are a further series of useful short interviews with Lahav about various aspects of the company’s work on their YouTube Channel.

By way of a post script, Gecko’s latest show Missing was in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre in London when it was badly damaged by fire in early March, destroying the whole show – props, sets, lights, costume – totally. Undeterred, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, together with a performance of an ‘unplugged’ version of the show to raise funds to replace all that was lost. Gecko’s popularity is such that their fund-raising target was reached in a matter of days and the show will shortly be off on tour around the world including dates in Mexico, Brazil and Hong Kong later in the year.

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Bending Light

fe1c42e4531891ca7abef4377b0834bbI have a few things to share today. Firstly, a couple of super things to watch for pure enjoyment and inspiration. I came across the first one on The Creators Project. Written by Jordan Backhus, the article looks at a digital solo performance, Hakanaïcreated by Adrien M / Claire B which combines live video projection mapping, CGI, and sensors which respond to the movements of the performer.  Backhus’ article also contains an interesting interview with the creators about the meeting of art and technology. Take a look at their incredible work below:

The second is from Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, a Montreal based mulit-disciplinary company that also works heavily with technology and projection. One of their latest works is Icarus, which, not surprisingly, is a contemporary take on the ancient myth and explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons.

Lemieux Pilon have a Vimeo channel with many more videos of their extraordinary work.

More Frantic Moves

A week or so ago I shared the video Frantic Assembly Masterclass: Building Blocks for DevisingToday, here is the second one from the company, Learning to Flythis time led by artistic director Scott Graham. Again, an excellent resource which presents a series of exercises and techniques used to create spectacular lifts.

Incidentally, DV8 Physical Theatre have launched a media portal as part of their online offering.  It includes excerpts of their productions as well as what are called instructional videos about the making and rehearsal of their work. There is a charge (by way of becoming a paying DV8 Member) for viewing the majority of the material, which seems a bit of shame given the generosity of other companies when sharing their working process and methodology.

The Road To Nowhere?

Article Lead - narrow67219148141p4kimage.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-300x0Finally for today, a play on tour with a difference. Performances of Origin-Transit-Destination (O-T-Dhas literally taken to the streets of Sydney. Created by Australian Performance Exchange (APE) O-T-D takes its audiences, by bus, on a tour around the city and examines the issues of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia. Variously called an immersive, verbatim or documentary piece (depending on what you read), it has been in development for a number of years and draws upon a wide range of interviews. The process of O-T-D’s creation is fascinating and you can see and read about it here.

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Immigration, asylum and the plight of refugees are hot political issues in Australia, especially under the current right-wing government, which has taken a particularly hard-line in determining who can enter the country. O-T-D even has as one of its stops, the infamous Villawood Immigration Detention Centre which has become a symbol for the harsh, and some say inhuman, treatment meted out to those seeking asylum in the country. One theatre reviewer, Den Doherty for Guardian Australia, had this to say about that particular element of the performance:

At the gates of [the] detention centre, a guard approaches the group and tells them they are not allowed to film or take pictures. He says the asylum seekers held inside “have it better than people outside, they don’t pay tax”. A few take umbrage, and debate his position. He is not part of the performance, but it will be a key memory for some of the audience.

Doherty’s full review, Strangers on a bus: Sydney show gives a seat and voice to asylum seekersmakes for interesting reading, as does Michael Koziol’s piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Origin-Transit-Destination puts Sydney in the shoes of asylum seekers.

Article Lead - wide67219148141p3timage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-620x349On board the buses, which transport the audience around Sydney, refugees share their own stories of persecution, escape, stolen documents and people smugglers.  Of the seven performers (who have all fled either Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran) only two have acting training.

Origin-Transit-Destination is clearly a very sobering evening of theatre.

A Human Earthquake

7e0981b0-3b29-4d4f-851f-5dd61a7bbc32-2060x1236In celebration of his 90th birthday, theatre critic Michael Billington has written Still centre stage at 90: Peter Brook, human earthquake of modern theatre for The Guardian. A super article that looks back at a career that has spanned 70 years, and shows no sign of slowing down.

The record books insist that Peter Brook will be 90 on Saturday. Personally, I find it hard to believe. I last bumped into Brook about 18 months ago at a new play about Kashmir at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I casually asked if he was staying in London for long. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve got to be back in Paris to rehearse tomorrow morning.”

There was something in the urgency of his tone that confirmed Brook is a director who lives totally in the present and who regards all theatre as a work-in-progress.

Brook himself hates looking back over his career: not so long ago he told me with horror of a letter he had received from a West End producer asking him to restage his famous white-box 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience.

But, even if Brook is immersed in the here-and-now, the rest of us are entitled to put his 70-year-long career in perspective….(continue reading)

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