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Devised Theatre: The End of the World Gets Personal

04.13.11 | 2 Comments


CATEGORIES collaboration, devised work, ideas, new plays, partnerships, technical work, the process, theatrical ecosystem

Week 6: This is the first week where there was homework. For the last two months, we’ve been talking about Apocalypse on the grand scale. Lots of great thoughts circling vast concepts of evolution and society. I thought it might be useful to start thinking on the micro scale. Throughout the process, we have briefly touched on the idea of personal destruction stories—moments that were apocalyptic (physically, emotionally, spiritually) to a single life.  And by apocalyptic, I don’t necessarily mean violent. I mean that something changed. Something was destroyed, and something else grew out of the ashes.

That was the totally noncompulsory homework: think about apocalypse on a personal level and see what you come up with.

Some of the stories are deceptively simple: one actress speaks about an apple tree in her parent’s backyard that acted as a guidepost for her childhood and a miscommunication with a landscaper that resulted in it being torn down.

Others seem tragically common: family deaths, divorce, loved ones brains being hijacked by Alzheimer’s.

The late, great Paul Danaceau once remarked that he enjoyed coming to our workshops because it was like therapy. And if therapy is talking about things important to you that you don’t feel comfortable telling anyone else, than Paul had a point. We create a safe, creative place to talk about unsafe things. There is also sometimes crying.

And while everyone’s stories are unique, there is a distinct throughline: the death of childhood. The vanishing of touchstones—people, places, things—that once marked the boundaries of our lives. The sense that what seemed so solid in our youth will eventually fade. You can’t go home again, because the home you knew doesn’t exist anymore.

Seems kind of obvious when put down in 12-point Cambria.

Or maybe not so obvious. Maybe that’s something we don’t like to think about. That a story about an apple tree can be shorthand for the fact that life is an engine that turns the joys of today into the memories of tomorrow. That potential turns into present turns into past.

Another topic of discussion is Death with a capital “D”. Someone notes that we are surprisingly shut off from the reality of death. For the first time in human history, we can go from cradle to grave without ever being up-close and personal with a dead human body. One actress talks about how, as a child, she did not want to be in the room when a family member passed away. She did not want to be there when something as powerful as a human life disappeared.

“And if I don’t see the body, then they’re still out there somewhere,” she says.

A director speaks about the first show he directed as an undergrad. During the opening night, one of his lead actors died on stage. For several moments, the audience didn’t know whether the calls for an ambulance were a part of the show or not.

And our resident composer talks about thanatology—the study of death and how to ease people into it—and incorporating music into the process. He also tells a story of a four-day camping trip in northern Minnesota with his now-wife and an acquaintence that took them out onto a frozen lake. When their feet began to plunge through the ice, he realized that he could be a few steps away from a very cold death. That night, they camped a few miles from the highway—and well off the ice—and there is no evidence of any humanity. It was desolate and beautiful.

Loss, death, the passing of childhood. Of course, it’s not like I was expecting an exploration of destruction myths to generate stories about flowers and puppy kisses. And if the discussion is trending in a certain direction, I like to step on the accelerator.

Next week’s homework: planning your own funeral.

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  • Sarah Anne Austin

    I’ve been following your posts because as a dancer, almost all of the work I do is original, devised and collaborative. I guess because that’s the nature of the work I never second-guessed how I went about creating it. Your posts allow me to examine my own working and collaborating styles.

    Your homework reminded me of my first assignment in journalism class: write your own obituary. Obit writing is a common first job for a journalist in order for a paper to make sure a writer can fact-check and construct a decent sentence. It wasn’t exactly being face-to-face with death, but it was still heavy for a 15-year-old.

  • Rebecca Noon

    As a fellow deviser I am following your posts with a voyeuristic sense of mystery. Peering into someone else’s devising process reminds me how different it is each time a new group approaches the task of “building a play from scratch.” My company has recently entered into a new process — we are one week into our first phase and it includes spare discussion, and mostly throwing physically-built images at the space. We talk only when something we create has taught us something we need to articulate. And in another week we’ll have a public showing of whatever it is we’ve made so far. Then we have a few months digestion, and in August we’ll go back into the studio.

    With pure curiosity I wonder if this term “devising” is still too broad to use — over time will groups split off into even more diverse categories based on how the creation goes? When I do scripted plays, no matter who with, I basically know the process. But entering a room with a new group of devisers typically means arriving at a process together, as well as an outcome.

    So, thank you for sharing your process, if only to show how one group devises.


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