Devised Theatre: Maybe There’s No Such Thing

08.15.11 | 2 Comments

CATEGORIES collaboration, conversation starter, devised work, the process

Rachel Chavkin, founding artistic director of the TEAM, a devising ensemble, wrote an article on TCG’s blog that asks the question, “What if devised theatre moved from the margins to the mainstream of theatre making?” She makes the case that the slower, cooperative methods involved in a lot of devised work could make for a richer process and a richer end product. At the very least, it would make practitioners realize that there are ways to create other than the traditional 6-week rehearsal process.

I read this about an hour ago. She was the preacher, I was the choir. Hallelujah.

She also talked about the differences between “mainstream” work and devised work, as she sees it. She mentioned how devised work generally does not have a strong central action; design elements carry equal weight with performers; and story sometimes takes a backseat to pure experience.

If you’ve followed my off-and-on blogging of Bright Alchemy Theatre’s current project, you know that our process doesn’t really fit that description. It’s very story-driven; there is a playwright working on crafting most of the text; and we’re always searching for strong central actions, though we don’t always stick to just one.

Because we have a playwright who is (at least so far) only a playwright, and because we have a specific director for each show, does that mean we’re not making devised work?

I’m guessing a few purists would answer, “Yes, that’s exactly what it means.” But most of you would answer, “No, don’t be silly. It’s just a different devising process.”

However, I think my answer would be this: “There’s no such thing as devised work.”

Let me explain, and let me use an odd analogy to do so. Maybe the process of creating a new work is like autism (told you it was odd.). I’ve been thinking a lot about autism recently. I just finished the first draft of a play where one of the two characters has Aspergers. Aspergers is characterized by significant problems socializing, along with repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. These are the same symptoms seen in autistic children, but are much milder. Aspergers was first described in 1944, but it wasn’t standardized as a diagnosis until 50 years later.

What happened in that interim is that physicians realized that autism exists on a spectrum. On one end were the children that most people think of when they hear the word “autistic”—children with severe problems communicating and interacting with the world around them. And on the other end were people with Aspergers, whom some physicians describe as “high-functioning autistic.”

Because these two diagnoses looked so different, nobody thought they existed on a single spectrum until science had better mapped the pathophysiology of the syndrome.

What if new play creation exists on a spectrum? On one end, you have the lone playwright locking her/himself in a room, pounding out a script, and handing it to a theatre that spends 6 weeks rehearsing before opening night. And, on the other, you have ensemble companies like TEAM or the Rude Mechs.

Elsewhere on that spectrum are more playwright-heavy processes like Bright Alchemy’s; interview-style theatre like Laramie Project; and the highly free form work of Charles Mee.

Even near the “traditional” end of the spectrum there are significant differences. There are playwrights who are meticulous in their first drafts and who eschew readings and workshops. And there are playwrights who speed through drafts to get them in the hands of dramaturgs and actors who they use as sounding boards to improve the play.

Just like there are some people pushing for the medical community to do away with the term Aspergers, maybe there should be a similar push to do away with the term “devised.” Maybe thinking of things in terms of “devised” and “traditional”—as if these are two separate, unconnected ideas—actually impedes the conversation about new work creation. And perhaps the goal shouldn’t be simply to get mainstream theatre and audiences to embrace devised work, but to better map the spectrum of the new work creation process. And by doing so demonstrate to everyone that there are not just two ways to make new theatre, but as many processes as there are artists actively creating it.

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  • Totally agree. The title “devised theatre” always bothered me anyway. All work is devised, though the possible means and methods are vast.

    Everyone knows that there are different types of TV: documentary, scripted drama, reality, news, sitcom. All these programs are created differently, on what may be the spectrum for the medium.

    Theatre is a general term. I don’t see why we have to limit certain practices by defining them.

  • miamifella

    The term “devised theater” has only really been used in the U.S. for about a decade (though it was around longer in the U.K.). Before then we used more individual descriptions: company-created work, interview-based script, workshop process, etc. “Devised” seems to throw so many different types of plays into one pot.

    Devised theater (if anyone wants to use that term) has been in the mainstream for awhile. Devised work has been seen in the commercial theater for years (Oh What a Lovely War, Chorus Line, Laramie Project, Gone Missing, etc.) But there are devised works that is not mainstream just like there are scripted plays that are not.

    When we start ascribing particular qualities to such elastic genres the genre names become meaningless. I think maybe it is good for artists NOT to describe their work with any of these labels, lest we start thinking there are qualities we have to insert in the work.