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Devised Theatre: WTF?

02.28.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES conversation starter, devised work, ideas, non-profit theatre, playwrights, producers, rabble rousing, storefront theatre, technical work, the process, theatrical ecosystem

What the F@#k is Devised Theatre (Or How I Accidently Helped Start a Theatre Company)

One of the great conversations that has arisen from Arena Stage’s New Play Convening is this discussion about devised theatre: what is it; who does it; why do they bother? As people started trying to answer these questions, there were a lot of passionate responses—some of them knee-jerk, some of them well-reasoned.

“Devised theatre is sexier than regular playwriting and that’s why it’s so in right now.”

“The product that comes out of devised theatre is usually inferior.”

“Devised theatre does not result in ‘plays’.”

“There’s always a random dance number.”

There was an especially large number of reactions from playwrights. Many were genuinely curious. Others reacted viscerally, defensively. The idea of devised theatre—the creation of a play where the text (words or otherwise) is not solely in the playwright’s hands—makes a lot of writers cringe.

I am a playwright. I understand this reaction. I empathize with this reaction. We don’t just tell stories, we create structure. We craft; we shape; we help make sure everything on stage is there with a purpose. This is a bitch to do by committee. If there’s not someone specific in this role, it can result in a lot of muddy, unfocused theatre. And random dance numbers.

As a playwright with a very strong artistic vision, I understand the cringing. But I also understand there are a host of devised theatre companies producing one strong, solid, sharp piece of theatre after another. You know who they are. And if you’ve been lucky enough to see their work, you know that devised theatre can result in wonderful plays.

So, how do they do it?

The problem with trying to describe a devised theatre process is that no two are ever alike. No two companies work alike; and frequently no two projects created by the same company come about in the same manner. So, how do you describe what devised theatre is in a way that is actually informative and useful?

The segue: A few years ago, I helped start a devised theatre company. It was an accident.

I was in the middle of getting my MFA from Catholic University when Ryan Whinnem, an MFA directing student and now-good friend, announced he was interested in creating a theatrical adaptation of the epic of Gilgamesh. He extended an open invitation to actors, directors, writers, and designers to meet weekly and create the adaptation together.

I had no interest in Gilgamesh, but I was working on another project involving Middle Eastern mythology, so I went to the first meeting. I did not plan to go to the second. Which proves I should not try to plan things.

Three months later, Ryan, myself, and a collection of 15 or so actors and designers had our first draft of Gilgamesh, who saw the deep. I’ve written more extensively about its creation at www.brightalchemy.com, but for the sake of this post, all you need to know is that we produced Gilgamesh at the Capital Fringe in 2008. Audiences loved it; reviewers loved it; and we loved doing it.

That fall, we started working on our next project, which would eventually become the play, A Cre@tion Story for Naomi. We spent the next two and a half years on it. Ensemble members came, ensemble members went, and somewhere during the process, Ryan said something like, “We should really give ourselves a name.”

Somebody mentioned the word “Alchemy.” I suggested adding “Bright.” Voila.

Total fucking accident.

And this past January, we produced A Cre@tion Story for Naomi at the DC Arts Center. Again, audiences loved it; reviewers loved it; and we loved doing it.

So we’re doing it again.

We do not have a dedicated space. We do not have non-profit status. We don’t even have a mission statement yet. But we have a collection of passionate theatre-makers and a process that’s worked for us twice before. And I’ve put out an open call to everyone we’ve ever worked with or has ever expressed interesting in working with us to meet and discuss our next project.

And I’m going to blog our process here at 2amtheatre. I’m going to do it for three reasons. One: it will allow artists who may not be able to make all of our workshops to follow along. Two: it will allow our audience to follow along. As I’ll explain later, or you can read about at www.brightalchemy.com, we are very much into audience inclusion. Three: it will provide a detailed, concrete example of one company’s devising process, for which I’m hoping there’s interest.

And so next time someone asks, “What the f@#ck is devised theatre?”, I’ll have an answer.

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