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Devised Theatre: What’s A Playwright To Do?

03.31.11 | 1 Comment


CATEGORIES collaboration, devised work, ideas, playwrights, technical work, theatrical ecosystem

On the last day of the new play convening held at Arena Stage this past January, participants (and livestream satellite observers) were asked to come up with goals for the coming year. What could we do to further the state of new play development in our town/city/shire?

One of my resolutions for the coming year was to figure out how to reconcile my work as a devised theatre artist with the fact that I’m a playwright with a pretty strong artistic vision who enjoys creating plays in the traditional manner. Or whether these parts of my creative life need to be reconciled at all.

The question arose in my mind when the panel on devised theatre sparked some pretty heated responses from playwrights in the Twitterverse. A few wondered if devised theatre was a hot topic because it was “sexier than regular playwriting.” There were a lot of very defensive posts from playwrights concerned that their role in the playmaking process was being threatened by artists trumpeting devising processes that did not necessarily require a central author.

There seemed to be a belief that, if people do devised work, then they must believe the other methods are flawed or inferior or outdated. Which isn’t true, at least from my perspective, since I do both.

Yes, all of my posts on 2amt have been on devised theatre, but it really makes up a minority of my work. During the initial stage of idea generating, which Bright Alchemy happens to be in now, it only takes up about 10 hours a month. Most of my days are spent writing plays generated solely out of my own noggin, or in rehearsals. It’s a process I enjoy and a life I like. At least until tech rolls around and I don’t get home until 1:30 a.m. Then I might have second thoughts, but rarely third ones.

So, why do I, as a playwright, do devised theatre?

You see, I have a box. It’s made up of my experience, my preconceived notions, my talent, my skill. It’s made up of my limits. I work in it, I live in it, I think in it. A few years ago, I began to make a concerted effort to expand my box. For my MFA thesis, I wrote a play that included music, dancing, a drag show, and a slew of Erik Ehn-inspired impossible stage directions–all things that I loved seeing on stage, but had never attempted to put there myself. Afterwards, my box was a lot roomier. But like a goldfish, my ambitions grew to fill their environment.

When I began working on my first devised piece, I discovered that everyone works in a box. But those boxes never exist in the same place; they don’t consist of the same experiences, or skills, or point of view. And those boxes can be porous. They can stack and lock together. A group of theatre artists who are comfortable working together, who communicate well and have the requisite artistic openness, can crawl into each other’s heads and play around and see things through the lens of entirely new realms of experience.

And that process can allow me to write a play I never would have if left in my own box. Could I have written an adaptation of Gilgamesh? Sure. Could I have written a play about a star-obsessed girl trying to recreate herself from the confines of her room? Absolutely.

Would they have been half as surprising or unique as what I helped create as part of a group? No. Never. Nein. Nyet. I had so many people tell me that A Cre@tion Story for Naomi was unlike any play they had ever seen. And that’s because, while I was responsible for the most of the text, the story, structure, and thematic/dramatic engine at its core were hand-built in some metaphysical cardboard box fort of artistic vision and talent.

So, would I ever give up writing plays on my own to do devised work full time? Probably not. I have too many stories to tell, and our devising process is a slow burn. But because of working in that process, my box is constantly expanding and the stories I tell are the richer for it.

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  • Pamela Sterling

    How do you negotiate copyright and royalties for devised pieces that may go on to have a future life? I am a director who is also a playwright.  I have structured and directed several devised pieces with a playwright collaborator. Much of the research and structure of the piece is mine or co-authored, yet I am not the primary playwright. I am curious as to how to proceed now that one devised piece is generating interest for future productions.


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